A passage from Provence

Here’s a toast to wine-loving popes and the ancient Roman trade route along the Rhone.

The wedding-cake pastel waterfront of Lyon.
The wedding-cake pastel waterfront of Lyon.

As the sun sets, I’m watching the Rhone from the balcony of my cosy, well-appointed stateroom on the Viking Longship Delling. In the course of an hour, the river turns from green to dull gold as it laps an ancient stone pier metres away from the medieval ramparts of France’s Provencal city of Avignon, the City of Popes.

Cyclists pass by, bodybuilders work on outdoor exercise bars and a unicyclist does lazy loops ahead of one of the world’s biggest cultural festivals. Drums sound from inside the city’s fortified walls, built in the first century by the Romans to repel marauders for centuries thereafter. Tourist take selfies at the nearby ruins of the Pont d’Avignon, the 12th-century bridge immortalised in a children’s folk song. It is a warm evening, the first of my eight-day voyage with Viking River Cruises.

We will journey on this convivial river ship, with its sleek, Scandinavian lines and welcome lack of bling, along the Rhone from Avignon, docking at a string of riverside towns — Tarascon, Arles, Viviers, Tournon, Vienne — on our way to Lyon. We will explore medieval abbeys and terraced vineyards, monasteries and lavender fields. We will skirt country that includes the wild Ardeche Plateau, the wetlands, black bulls, pink flamingos and wild horses of the Camargue, the Roman ruins of Vienne and Arles. I’ll be introduced to the mysteries of locks, watch spellbound as Viking Delling deftly threads the needle through the 12 on our journey. I’ll learn about pudding stones and pink granite soils, papal politics and the economics of truffles, meet an old Swiss cattle dog worth his weight in black diamonds.

Palais des Papes, Avignon, the biggest gothic church in Europe. Picture: Alamy
Palais des Papes, Avignon, the biggest gothic church in Europe. Picture: Alamy

On board, I’ll come across Tutu, the tone-deaf ship’s accordionist, a gnarled Kansas farmer, a Ukrainian folk dancer, a hard-drinking Polish immigrant from Adelaide, a glam Melania Trump lookalike, and a scrawny Scotsman who will risk not just melanoma but decapitation as he bastes on the ship’s sundeck in his tiny Speedos, happily oblivious to umpteen low bridges.

And as the only solo traveller among 190 passengers, I’ll be adopted by a lovely Florida couple, Steve and Cindy. They’ll introduce me to a lively tribe of their fellow Americans. There’s Coral, a kaftan-wearing federal judge from Hawaii; Ginger, a Texan mother of eight; Pittsburgh dental hygienist Mary and her ex-Navy husband Jess. Washington DC lawyer Julie, who worked on the Boston bombers case, will show me her real passion — designing beautiful jewellery. Long Island obstetrician Hema will spar with me on Obamacare, and retired aerospace engineer Dick and his wife Ann will debate American class politics after spotting my copy of Hillbilly Elegy — a book I donate later to Zach and Jack, a young gay married couple from the Midwest.

I’m glad for their company. One night, an elderly Tennessean, looking askance at my notebook, will ask me bluntly what I’m doing alone on this cruise. When I say I’m writing a travel story, he’ll look relieved and turn to his wife, and say, with perfect sincerity, “We thought you were a spy, didn’t we, Mary?”

I wake to a dawn streaked with pink. Overnight, we have silently moved upriver towards Tarascon. I watch the sun come up as our boat passes under massive arched stone bridges, witnessed only by a lone fisherman on the far bank. He waves and I wave back. We glide by small towns winking like lanterns in the dawn gloom, enclosed by vineyards that date back to the ancient Romans who planted vines as they expanded northward. Today, winemaking is the lifeblood of this region, defining its social life, culture and local economy with more than 35,000 student pickers descending on the Beaujolais region alone over 20 days for the September harvest.

The cruise includes a tour of the vineyards of the Beaujolais region.
The cruise includes a tour of the vineyards of the Beaujolais region.

But the Rhone, too, is a powerful influence, an ancient Roman trade corridor still connecting the small towns along its length culturally and economically, shaping the rhythms of daily life and social rituals. A guide demonstrates to me how it has even helped codify the act of kissing (three pecks versus two depending on where you are on the river). But its influence is not solely benign. In every town, we see faded flood markers up to 2m high chalked on walls. There is something meditative about watching the river, to know it started life as an outflow of the Rhone Glacier in the Swiss Alps, its once wild whirlpools tamed by a series of canals and locks.

This morning, we dock and board a bus to the medieval city of Arles. This is Van Gogh country, of course — the artist came here in 1888, inspired by the vivid colours and hard, clear light. Everywhere, you see life imitating art — the features of the landscape that inspired the more than 350 paintings, including Le Cafe de Nuit and The Starry Night, he produced in the 15 months before his death in Auvers-sur-Oise; the olive trees; azure sky; fields of sunflowers; the rows of cypresses planted to buttress farms from the famous mistral.

Overnight, we backtrack downriver to Avignon. It’s the eve of the Avignon Festival, and we play our own version of thread the needle down narrow lanes packed with tourists, jugglers, unicyclists and drummers on our way to the massive church-fortress of Palais des Papes, the biggest gothic church in Europe and home to no fewer than seven 14th-century popes. There’s time afterwards for Avignon’s glorious covered market, where we salivate over creamy cheeses, rainbow macarons, gnarled oysters, plump green snails and shiny mussels from Madagascar, before Mia, our cheery program director, appears with a tray of olives and tapenades.

In the afternoon, I get my first taste of wine country on a tour to Chateauneuf-du-Pape and its famous vineyards. At Maison Bouachon, we get a masterclass in winemaking from the mysteries of terroir to detecting the subtlest hints of honey, beeswax and pepper in our glasses. I buy the most perfect red I’ve had in my life in a little hole-in-the wall shop for a bargain €15 ($22.50) in the gorgeous town itself, bristling with vintners and home to the grape festival Fete de la Veraison, celebrated in the streets by magicians, jugglers and tumblers.

Viking Longship Delling has 95 outside staterooms.
Viking Longship Delling has 95 outside staterooms.

At the pretty medieval river town of Viviers, we claw our way up a hill to the 12th-century St Vincent Cathedral, past pastel homes in Provence’s ice cream shades, jeux de boule players and a local priest doing a baptism. From Tournon, we board a little metre-gauge steam train through the wilds of the Doux Valley, past waving kayakers and campers, wild trout-filled rivers, junipers and chestnut trees, before docking at Vienne at dusk. Here, at the beautiful ancient gateway to the Lyon countryside, I ditch Viking’s organised tour and make my escape with a bunch of my American friends, getting hopelessly lost before stumbling on the old church of Saint Pierre and its weirdly fascinating lapidary museum of antiquities.

Day six, and I open my curtains to the elegant, wedding-cake pastel waterfront of Lyon. It’s our final stop on the river and I feel a pang as we dock. This ancient city, founded by one of Caesar’s lieutenants in 43BC as Lugdunum, floats, Venice-style, at the confluence of the Rhone, the master in local parlance, and its smaller tributary, La Saone, known as its lady.

At the Chateau de Pierreclos, we sample a spectacular Pouilly-Fuisse under the cold eye of a stuffed wild boar before a trip to a truffle farm. Here, we tuck into Burgundy truffle-flecked bread and butter while owner Olivier, a former Swiss biochemist, talks us through the mysteries of truffle growing, an exercise in patience from inoculating oak trees with truffle spores to harvest years later. We head to the fields with his ancient Swiss cattle dog Chinook. Within minutes, he’s proudly standing over a truffle. It’s a wizened little specimen, as we’re months away from the start of the season, but we all clap, OlivIer smiles like a proud dad, and Chinook wags his tail as if to say, see, I’m still worth my weight in gold.

Day seven dawns with a tour of the vineyards of the Beaujolais region. We drive past fat, sleek white Charolais cows that our guide Marin, a Lyonnaise local with a fabulous Inspector Clouseau accent, proclaims as “delicieuse!” while practically licking the bus windows. Later, she proudly supplies us with her secret recipe for beef bourguignon. Marinate Charolais beef with a spoonful of blackcurrant liqueur, she says solemnly. And don’t forget two squares of the best French dark chocolate.

Sunset views from the terrace of Viking Longship Delling.
Sunset views from the terrace of Viking Longship Delling.

Under the shadow of Moulin-a-Vent, we sample the appellation’s famous, soft reds — arguably the most noteworthy of the 10 Beaujolais crus — while our guide delivers a masterclass in everything from green harvests to gobelet pruning. Age-old traditions governing everything from planting to harvesting are now under siege due to climate change, she says. Local farmers here are worried about increasingly hot and dry summers triggering earlier harvests and wild weather patterns that defy ancient farming almanacs.

Back in Lyon, we explore the city’s traboules, or secret passageways, and its fairytale Old Town where we shop for Guignol puppets and Lyonnaise silk, tuck into free samples of rum babas and macarons at the fabulous confiserie Comptoir de Mathilde, eye off the andouilletes and saucisson chaud at the packed bistros before a farewell lunch at a cheerful riverside restaurant where Nancy, a passionate foodie from New Jersey, joins me in a toast to Lyon. France’s capital of gastronomy, with no fewer than 22 Michelin-starred restaurants, is a fitting place to end a voyage that has been an exercise in unremitting gluttony and that evening we meet for the last time on Viking Belling’s top deck; over this week, it’s become a kind of social hub cum confessional. Here, we’ve chewed the fat over bottles of good red, sharing all manner of intimacies. It is as if river cruising has oiled the social wheels, loosened our tongues.

We push tables together, open bottles of Pouilly-Fuisse and Chateauneuf-Du-Pape and raise our glasses to the first stormy, lightning-cracked sky of our journey. Ginger leads us in a farewell toast to us, to wine-loving popes, to the river.

A veranda stateroom offers views of the passing countryside.
A veranda stateroom offers views of the passing countryside.


Viking River Cruises operates the 95-stateroom Viking Longship Delling on eight-day journeys between Avignon and Lyon and 12 or 15-day itineraries between Paris and Avignon. Eight days from an average of $4295 a person twin-share, including Wi-Fi access, seven guided tours, onboard meals (decadent lunch buffets and four-course dinners) and selected beverages at multiple venues overseen by Hungarian executive chef Daniel Juhasz. Expect the likes of cocktail nights, cooking demonstrations, French conversation lessons and wine and cheese tastings. The first 2018 departure, from Lyon, is on April 18.

More: 138 747; vikingrivercruises.com.au.

Sharon Verghis was a guest of Viking River Cruises.

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