SLOW FLOAT IN FRANCE
Garry Marchant spends an idyllic week cruising the Rhone River
ALL visitors ashore, please.’’ That classic call marks the start of long-distance voyages and grand cruises. The crew casts off the lines and the boat slowly eases away from the dock. Except we are aboard the Princess de Provence on the Rhone River, leaving for a week’s leisurely meander up and down the French countryside.
River cruising resembles the ocean version, only better in some ways. It has its advantages — no need to change hotels every night, look for a new restaurant or struggle with luggage or a foreign language — but the boat is never out of sight of land so there is always something to see and shore excursions are more frequent. And, as I soon learn, riverboats maintain cruise ship traditions such as the captain’s dinner and the gala farewell evening, five meals a day (including afternoon tea and midnight snack), bingo and cabaret-style entertainment.
But that is all to come. Now, we are drifting through old Lyon, past church spires rising above ancient buildings, solid old houses with wrought-iron balconies and red-tiled roofs, and the imposing cathedral on the hill.
As the Princess de Provence floats under a series of bridges, some so low we involuntarily duck our heads, several passengers play chess on the giant board on the upper deck while others laze in the sun. Ramblers wave from shore, other cruise boats and working barges pass us and city slowly gives way to countryside. When we leave the Rhone and turn up the Saone, away from the highways and railways, it is as pastoral as an impressionist landscape.
Soon, we slip into our first lock, a glovetight fit so close that I can reach out and touch the lock wall. It is covered with weed and slimy gunk.
The first afternoon, we gather in the lounge for a briefing on the week’s events. Every day, the tour director arranges outings to monasteries and cathedrals, wineries, villages or nature areas, on buses and jeeps or by foot. Riverboats dock conveniently in the centre of historic towns and at each one a photocopied description and a local map are placed on the reception desk, so it is easy enough to explore on one’s own. And because the Princess de Provence is small, the towns absorb its 170 passengers with no sense of being swamped.
As on the better cruise ships, the food is excellent, and even fresher than on an oceangoing vessel, for obvious reasons. Meals begin with thick, creamy pepper, potato, garden herb or wine cream soups, followed by green salad with mustard vinaigrette, raspberry or other dressings, asparagus with melted butter and smoked ham.
Main courses include pork with a gorgonzola sauce, veal steak in puff pastry with duchesse potatoes, roast lamb with garlicmashed potatoes, veal strips in tarragon- mustard sauce or fried perch with a dill sauce. For dessert we have such delectable choices as stracciatelli ice cream, cassis or orange-basil sherbet, tarts, crepes or rich German pastries. Over the seven days, no dish is repeated.
Here in the heart of France, the wine list is extensive, and the names — Burgundy, Macon, Rhone, Chateauneuf — match places we pass during the week. After dinner, the accordion player performs easily identifiable French cabaret numbers: LaVieenRose , Sur le Pont d’Avignon .
On our first morning we wake up in Tournus to the sound of dogs barking. This is authentic rural France, off the beaten freeway. I open the curtains to see a white swan drifting by, so close I feel I could reach out and touch its orange beak.
Skipping the tours, I walk beside the river into town, enjoying competing fragrances from the bakery on one side of the street, the florist on the other. As I sit in the square on this Sunday morning, cathedral bells peal, calling a few worshippers.
As we sail on, gliding past the great towers of the church, the accordionist performs a few nautical tunes on deck, then leaves us in peace. The only sound is the wind blowing through the trees as the boat’s motor pushes us silently along the river.
‘‘ It is so peaceful here,’’ enthuses one passenger, evidently an escapee from big-city madness. ‘‘ We are drifting along just like the swans.’’
At Chalon-sur-Saone, while many passen- gers take a four-hour bus tour to the town of Beaune, I walk to the old town, and wander aimlessly. One of the joys of this cruise is the chance to visit so many out-of-the-way places.
Joseph Nicephore Niepce, who invented photography in 1827, came from this area and his statue overlooks the river. The photography museum next door is closed for repairs so I wander the old town, with its ancient buildings, a cathedral and some half-timbered houses that look as if they have been transplanted from Tudor England.
In the ancient walled city of Trevoux next afternoon, I walk up a steep, cobbled street, past bulky stone flower boxes spilling over with bright blossoms, to the hilltop castle. When I finally reach the 14th-century fortification, I have it all to myself, with a magnificent view of the valley and the surrounding hills. Returning down steep, rue Casse-Cou (Break Neck Street) with its smooth, slippery stones, I resist the temptations of the Derby Bar sidewalk cafe, but pause to watch some locals playing boules.
One morning as we sit over breakfast, the boat enters a lock. It slowly rises, moving up along the cement wall until a rural scene of trees, grass, vineyards and red-roofed houses appears. In the town of Tournon, the inventor of the wire-cable suspension bridge, Marc Seguin, a local, built the first lock in France across the river here in 1825 (it was removed in 1965). His uncles, the Montgolfier brothers, who invented the hot-air balloon in 1783, were also from these parts.
Near Tournon, we board the Vivarais Railway, an ancient little steam engine hauling a dozen cars in various styles and states of repair through the Ardeche countryside. The American passengers sing ChattanoogaChooChoo as the train clickety-clacks along at an unhurried 30km/h, the steam whistle blowing. It is a slow but exhilarating ride through some of the wildest scenery I have seen in Europe, along deep gorges and past old stone buildings, arched aqueducts, fields of red poppies and grazing goats.
One of the passengers jokes to the walrusmustachioed conductor, ‘‘ Is this the TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse)? He’s heard it before, and quickly replies, ‘‘ Oui, Train a Grande Vibration.’’
After a rattling hour, we stop at Boucieu-leRoi village, where vendors display local produce such as sausages and mushrooms, and give us tasty little mini-pizzas and white wine with a splash of cassis.
The captain’s gala farewell dinner, with more dressing up (at least for those passengers who brought ties or fancy dress) is typically the most formal night on any cruise. Towards the end of the dinner, the waiters disappear, the lights suddenly dim, the accordion plays, and from the entrance they all appear bearing a bombe surprise. With sparklers blazing, the staff parade around the room before serving the dessert.
In Arles, Provence, I join the bus tour to the Camargue delta, a lonely windswept land of salt flats and marshes, where the Rhone meets the Mediterranean. It is a rugged tract of black bulls, small white horses and pink flamingoes. But farmers are now planting paddy fields to grow rice here, slowly encroaching on the wild Camargue.
The capital of the area, Saintes-Maries-dela-Mer, is a small, touristy town with ceramics and souvenir shops selling bright Provencal tablecloths and dresses, bars of locally made soap, the red local rice and bull sausages.
Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh stayed in Arles during one of his most prolific periods, between 1888 and 1889. The town has a van Gogh theme walk, but I follow my own itinerary, passing the coliseum (which he painted), continuing to the Place du Forum, site of the cafe that was the subject of two of his most famous works. The bar is still there, run-down and rough with unpolished wooden floors, chipped and worn walls, doors and stairway, and huge ceiling beams painted a rough blue against the green ceiling. The place is not shabby chic, just delightfully shabby, but with great character.
I linger too long and hurry back to the riverfront, arriving as the deckhands are untying the boat. But they lower the gangplank and I board, sheepishly. Missing the boat is one tradition that I do not want to experience.
That night, the waiters and waitresses are dressed in straw boaters and Provencal shirts, and in the lounge a flamboyant old chanteuse in a red dress sings Edith Piaf classics, with much handclapping and mournful sighs. When I return to my cabin, a pile of envelopes sits on the pillow, with an accompanying sheet suggesting generous tips for the crew. It is the final cruise tradition. Garry Marchant was a guest of Deilmann Cruises.
Departure and arrival times are arranged so that passengers can commute from Paris, by train, without staying overnight in Lyon. However, the city is worth a few days’ visit. When booking, get the company to write down the address of the landing site to show a taxi driver. If you arrive by train, and do not have much luggage, it is easy to take the tram from the station; get off at Quai Claude Bernard. Deilmann Cruises is expanding the nosmoking restrictions on its European river fleet to include all areas inside the vessels, starting March 2008. Deilmann Cruises operates a fleet of nine river vessels.
Bed and board: Chess on the spacious upper deck and a constantly changing landscape are among the attractions of a Rhone River cruise aboard the Princess de Provence