SLOW FLOAT IN FRANCE

Garry Marchant spends an idyllic week cruis­ing the Rhone River

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

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.

Check­list

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.

www.deil­mann-cruises.com

Pic­tures: Garry Marchant

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

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