Soak up cul­ture on a slow boat Plenty of time to eat, drink and ex­plore this re­gion of his­toric build­ings and in­no­va­tive food

Life & Style Weekend - - ESCAPE - BY Shan­non New­ley

IHAD seen France. Or so I thought. I had flown over snow-capped moun­tains. I had walked the cob­bled streets of tiny vil­lages and me­an­dered through the many al­leys of Paris. I had caught trains through the coun­try­side. I had driven around the green hills. I had swum the wa­ters of Nice and cy­cled through the vine­yards of Bordeaux.

So I thought I had seen France. But the view from the River Rhone makes me re­flect. Maybe there is more than I thought to this coun­try of his­tor­i­cal, gas­tro­nom­i­cal and cul­tural delights.

My travel buddy De­vii and I find our Rhone River ride, the Vik­ing Cruises long­ship Heim­dal, docked in Lyon in cen­tral-east France, about 420km from Paris.

Here we will start our eight-day cruise to­wards Avi­gnon in the south.

Be­ing docked for three days in the gas­tro­nom­i­cal cap­i­tal of France means there is a chance to ex­plore a foodie scene with a dif­fer­ence, which is per­fect be­cause De­vii is a chef in Europe.

She tells me chefs are avoid­ing the ex­pense of op­er­at­ing in Paris and creat­ing a new wave of mod­ern French fu­sion bistros through­out Lyon.

You’ll still get the typ­i­cally French menu du jour (menu of the day) which will give you an en­tree, main and dessert for a set price (13–40 euros). But the dishes steer away from the tra­di­tional cui­sine we as­so­ciate with French bistro eat­ing. There’s not a coq au vin or boeuf bour­guignon in sight.

We stum­ble upon Po­tager des Halles (Veg­etable Gar­den of the Halls) which bucks the trend a lit­tle with some great tapas-style small plates to share. We eat our din­ner of grilled sar­dines on skew­ers, a whole grilled octopus ten­ta­cle and tiny ravi­oli in a truf­fle sauce, with a view of La Fresque De Ly­on­nais (Fresco of the Peo­ple of Lyon), one of the many painted houses in the city.

These houses are fa­mous in Lyon and the in­cred­i­ble art­work of this one par­tic­u­larly brings the peo­ple of Lyon to life. From the chef stand­ing in front of his bistro to the pilot and author

An­toine de Saint-Ex­u­pery and his char­ac­ter The Lit­tle Prince star­ing off a third-floor bal­cony and even a real res­i­dent of the build­ing tak­ing pho­tos of pass­ing tourists, it will give you an in­sight into the his­tory of France’s third largest city.

You can take in more of Lyon’s long his­tory in the cob­bled streets of its old town. Res­i­dents even open up the court­yards of their re­fur­bished build­ings to tourists. You can weave the maze of streets through the tra­boules, unique hid­den pas­sage­ways made for busy mer­chants in medieval days and used through the Sec­ond World War to mount a re­sis­tance against the Nazis.

The charm of the old town with its stun­ning silk shops, tra­di­tional French bistros, choco­late shops and from-ageries, is a must. But cross­ing the river to the newer part of town tells a story of a city em­brac­ing a style of din­ing we are look­ing for.

Bars and cafes with sim­ple or colour­ful crate fur­ni­ture are pop­ping up among the mostly drab, in­dus­trial build­ings.

This in­cludes the kind of place chefs want to eat. The unas­sum­ing Le Kitchen of­fers up the stand­out meal of the trip with its fresh herb salad and cured beef, pick­led radish, per­fectly cooked lamb and nectarine with a fluffy ball of meringue to fin­ish. It is a must visit.

This fresh fu­sion style of din­ing is a foodie’s dream, but for those look­ing for a quin­tes­sen­tial French ex­pe­ri­ence, you’ll need just a short drive in to the moun­tains.

For­tu­nately Vik­ing has plenty of in­cluded and op­tional shore ex­cur­sions. Take your pick of a num­ber of tours through the Beau­jo­lais re­gion.

At Oliver’s farm in the moun­tains we taste truf­fle but­ter be­fore a seated lunch. Then head out with truf­fle dogs Shenook or Maistro to hunt for the elu­sive fungi in a pri­vate for­est.

Re­stored chateaus are dot­ted through vine­yards that line the hills of the Beau­jo­lais. The views are stun­ning though the wine leaves a lit­tle bit to be de­sired.

After wind­ing our way fur­ther through the moun­tains to­wards Bur­gundy, we meet a herd of cheeky goats and taste a num­ber of cheeses and, of course, there is more wine.

After three days of eat­ing and drink­ing our way through Lyon and sur­rounds, we are ready to set sail aboard the Vik­ing Heim­dal.

Sit­ting on our state­room bal­cony as we sail down the Rhone River, we see the medieval fortresses and im­pos­ing moun­tains

in a dif­fer­ent light. It dawns on me that this style of travel means I get to see dif­fer­ent places with­out hav­ing to pack and leave my ac­com­mo­da­tion. For a life­long back­packer, it is a rev­e­la­tion.

And life aboard the long­boat is dif­fer­ent from the huge ocean lin­ers I as­so­ciate with cruises. We are a small group of only 180 pas­sen­gers. There is still plenty in the way of nightly en­ter­tain­ment in the form of din­ners, quizzes, French the­atrics, demon­stra­tions and gen­eral min­gling with other guests, but it is cer­tainly a cruise for grown-ups.

The boat it­self of­fers plenty of lux­ury be­tween its restau­rant, lounges and ter­race din­ing but I get the feel­ing it is more about the des­ti­na­tions along the river than the life aboard. And only a cou­ple of hours after leav­ing Lyon, we reach our next stop, Vi­enne.

Vi­enne may not be a town you would think to stop in but the Ro­man his­tory and the sprawl­ing city mar­ket make it worth­while. Tours of both are in­cluded in the cruise’s shore ex­cur­sion pro­gram.

Vi­enne’s first-cen­tury Tem­ple of Au­gus­tus and Livia, 500-year-old Gothic Cathe­dral of St Mau­rice and Ro­man am­phithe­atre will put you in touch with France’s his­tory, all among in­cred­i­ble mar­kets.

I have been to many French mar­kets but the one in Vi­enne ri­vals them all. Ev­ery street and al­ley in the cen­tre of town gives way to ta­bles of fresh pro­duce, meats, ro­tis­series cook­ing chick­ens over pomme de terre (whole baby pota­toes) and more kinds of cheese than I knew ex­isted. White, yel­low, blue, or­ange, hard, soft, gooey, stinky and fruity cheeses.

As this is where peo­ple from across the re­gion do their shop­ping, there is also the stan­dard ar­ray of beau­ti­ful flow­ers, cloth­ing, knick-knacks and uten­sils. What­ever you need for the rest of your trip, you’ll find here.

But you will not need much be­cause life aboard the Vik­ing Heim­dal is taken care of for you.

By the time we leave Vi­enne for an af­ter­noon of sail­ing, the ship staff knows us by name and drink, which makes for a re­lax­ing af­ter­noon sun­ning our­selves on the ter­race as we me­an­der to­wards Tournon.

From river re­flec­tions to wild moun­tain ranges – we leave the ship on an­other in­cluded ex­cur­sion to ex­plore the L’Ardeche.

Hol­i­day­mak­ers be­low pad­dle through clear wa­ter trick­ling over stony creek beds. The area is in­ac­ces­si­ble by road so apart from our ride, an open steam train, it is tran­quil with only the sounds of na­ture and happy campers.

One of the treats of trav­el­ling on the Vik­ing Heim­dal is the var­ied sail­ing sched­ule, from early starts to af­ter­noons on the move. And as we leave Tournon we get to see the Rhone by night­fall be­fore ar­riv­ing late in the evening at the barely-there vil­lage of Viviers.

There’s a night-time ex­cur­sion to ex­plore this tiny stop and the chance to have a drink at a small pop-up bar that only ex­ists dur­ing tourist sea­son. But we don’t stay long as the ship de­parts at 2am for a his­tor­i­cal epi­cen­tre of South­ern France.

Shel­tered by medieval walls, Avi­gnon’s maze of nar­row streets is filled with churches, mu­se­ums and palaces trac­ing the his­tory of this an­cient, vi­brant city.

Shore ex­cur­sions at this, our fi­nal stop, in­clude a visit to the Palais des Papes or Palace of the Popes.

This UNESCO World Her­itage Site was built in the 13th cen­tury and be­came the res­i­dence of the popes in the 14th cen­tury.

A tour of­fers the his­tory of one of the largest and most im­por­tant medieval Gothic build­ings in Europe. It has been spec­tac­u­larly re­stored and main­tained and re­gard­less of how many cas­tles you have seen in your trav­els, it’s a must-do.

Avi­gnon is also the per­fect launch pad to see Provence, fa­mous for fields of pur­ple. Choose be­tween op­tional ex­cur­sions to laven­der fields or, if you haven’t yet tested enough re­gional wines aboard the boat, visit vine­yards in the hills as a part of op­tional shore ex­cur­sions hosted by Vik­ing.

There’s also a chance to cook pro­vin­cial cui­sine in a Flavours of Provence op­tional ex­cur­sion or visit the stun­ning Pont du

Gard aqueduct built by the Ro­mans 2000 years ago.

But it’s time to leave the boat. It again dawns on me how dif­fer­ent this style of travel is. To see a city or town for the first time by slowly ap­proach­ing it from the wa­ter al­lows you to see it all. No busy air­ports to nav­i­gate, no bustling train sta­tion plat­forms to push through and no tight one-way streets to drive down. France looks dif­fer­ent from the wa­ter and it’s a view worth see­ing.

By the time we leave Vi­enne for an af­ter­noon of sail­ing, the ship staff knows us by name and drink, which makes for a re­lax­ing af­ter­noon sun­ning our­selves on the ter­race...

PHO­TOS: SHAN­NON NEW­LEY AND CON­TRIB­UTED

Af­ter­noon sail­ing of­fers up stun­ning views of the Rhone and the towns that line its banks. RIGHT: The Vik­ing long­boat sails past ter­race houses of Lyon, with La Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere in the back­ground.

Vi­enne’s first cen­tury Tem­ple of Au­gus­tus and Livia. TOP RIGHT: The hills of the Beau­jo­lais re­gion. BOT­TOM RIGHT: Shops in Lyon’s old town are lined with ev­ery­thing from choco­late to spir­its.

PHO­TOS: SHAN­NON NEW­LEY

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