FRANCE: RHONE RICHES

Ken­dall Hill

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE -

Road signs flash by like de­signer la­bels. Nice. Cannes. An­tibes. St Tropez.

The glam­orous re­sorts of the French Riviera are all very well but it is Ar­les, our des­ti­na­tion on this coach ride from Monte Carlo, that re­ally stirs my imag­i­na­tion.

Not just for the trea­sury of its an­cient ru­ins, said to be sec­ond only to Rome; ev­ery mon­u­ment I visit is world her­itage listed. Or for the wild won­ders of the Ca­mar­gue Delta — the white horses, the black bulls and pink flamin­goes. I love it mostly for the art, which is to be found every­where.

Ar­les’s sum­mer fes­ti­val, a cel­e­bra­tion of all things artis­tic that en­riches this city of 52,000 from July un­til Septem­ber, is in full swing. The pro­gram of 35 ex­hi­bi­tions and 250 artists — in­clud­ing Martin Parr, Matthieu Che­did and John Malkovich — fills a 68-page guide, but the city’s ded­i­ca­tion to cul­ture ex­tends far be­yond a brochure. As mayor Herve Schi­avetti says: “Cul­ture is a source of eman­ci­pa­tion for ev­ery­one.”

Hence the bold street paint­ings and pho­tog­ra­phy that brighten its me­dieval walls. The art gal­leries and mu­se­ums colonis­ing ev­ery cor­ner. And the en­dur­ing fas­ci­na­tion with Vin­cent van Gogh, whose pres­ence is surely more no­tice­able to­day than when he lived here 127 years ago.

The artist fol­lows me around Ar­les, or per­haps I am fol­low­ing him. In the Jardin d’Ete where fam­i­lies sprawl in the shade on a swel­ter­ing Sun­day, his an­guished face stares out from a bronze bust em­bed­ded in a pil­lar of stone. At Les Alyscamps, the early Chris­tian burial ground where stone sar­cophagi line an av­enue of planes and pines, he is there in a re­pro­duc­tion of his L’Allee des Alyscamps and an ex­cerpt from a let­ter to his brother, Theo.

“I think that you would love the fall of the leaves that I have done,” he wrote in Novem­ber, 1888. “To the right and left are aligned the old Ro­man tombs. The sun is cov­ered, like a car­pet, by a thick layer of orange leaves and yel­low fallen ones. Like snowflakes, they keep fall­ing.”

Van Gogh com­pleted more than 300 paint­ings when he stayed in Ar­les and the nearby Saint-Paul asy­lum be­tween 1888 and 1889. It was the zenith of his ca­reer; his in­deli­ble scenes clut­ter the city.

The set­ting of Cafe Ter­race on the Place du Fo­rum ( also known as Cafe Ter­race at Night) is still very much here, and very much pho­tographed by tourist pil­grims. The flower-filled and foun­tained court­yard of the Ho­tel Dieu hospi­tal, where van Gogh rested af­ter hack­ing off his ear, seems al­most un­changed.

Even from the sun deck of my river­boat I can gaze up the Rhone and pic­ture the old King’s Chan­nel, busy with work­ing boats and wash­er­women, just as he painted it.

Re­trac­ing the foot­steps of a great artist like van Gogh would be the high­light of any French trip for me, but on Avalon Wa­ter­ways’ Provence-Bur­gundy river cruise it is just one of many spe­cial mo­ments.

Over the next week we will visit the high­est aqueduct in the world, Europe’s largest Gothic ed­i­fice, mooch around Proven­cal food mar­kets, ex­plore Ro­man ru­ins and in­tact me­dieval vil­lages, and ac­quaint our­selves with some of France’s most ex­cep­tional wine re­gions.

Ac­com­mo­da­tion and trans­port is on Avalon Po­etry II, a 2014 edi­tion “suite ship’’ of 64 cab­ins and con­tem­po­rary in­te­ri­ors that wouldn’t look out of place in a smart bou­tique ho­tel.

State­rooms fea­ture mar­ble-tiled bath­rooms with walk-in show­ers, very com­fort­able beds an­gled to best ap­pre­ci­ate river scenery, and a wall of glass that slides open to cre­ate an in­stant bal­cony so pas­sen­gers can hear, smell and feel Provence from the com­fort of their cab­ins.

Not that I spend much time in my cabin. With ex­cel­lent tours and solo ex­plo­rations, I only stay aboard for meals and sleep. There’s so much to see and do.

The main restau­rant is abuzz with peo­ple talk­ing ex­cit­edly about their first day in Provence. It is the gala wel­come din­ner tonight — vichysoisse shoot­ers, goat’s cheese on toast, a very good rack of lamb with po­lenta — and the lo­cal wines are flow­ing freely as we cruise north to­wards Avi­gnon.

I am just fin­ish­ing the lamb when we en­ter the first of 15 locks Avalon Po­etry II must nav­i­gate be­tween here and Chalon-sur-Saone, its fi­nal port. We can rise more than 20m in some so it’s quite dra­matic but, to be hon­est, even­tu­ally they start to feel like very slow boat el­e­va­tors.

We emerge from the lock at twi­light, the river mid­night blue, silky and shim­mer­ing. Many of us are on the top deck, drinks in hand, as we cruise up­river to the fa­mous Pont d’Avi­gnon, thought­fully il­lu­mi­nated for our view­ing plea­sure, be­fore dou­bling back to moor be­side a fun­fair and fer­ris wheel un­der a fat moon. It’s a mag­i­cal in­tro­duc­tion to Avi­gnon.

I love the con­ve­nience of river cruis­ing. It’s like hav­ing a ho­tel parked in the heart of each city, usu­ally only min­utes from the main square. So on a morn­ing run I can ac­quaint my­self with the Gothic mag­nif­i­cence (and faint menace) of the Pa­pal Palace, the City Hall and Main Square and ex­plore char­ac­ter-filled allees and pas­sages be­fore Avi­gnon even wakes.

The dawn re­con­nais­sance frees me to join guide Philippe on a coach tour through Rhone Val­ley vine­yards to the Pont du Gard. The sight of the high­est aqueduct in

the world, its tiered lime­stone arches towering 50m above the River Gardon and shin­ing golden in the morn­ing light, is truly un­for­get­table.

Next stop Uzes, a beau­ti­fully pre­served vil­lage — set­ting for the film Cyrano de Berg­erac (the one with Mon­sieur Depardieu) — that’s home to a thriv­ing artists’ com­mu­nity and a duke, who lives part-time in a 12th cen­tury cas­tle in the town cen­tre.

Back aboard, ex­ec­u­tive chef Gonçalo Pe­gado is host­ing a bar­be­cue on the sun deck, a thought­ful ges­ture given most of the cruis­ers are from Aus­tralia and New Zealand and this is la canicule — the dog days of sum­mer — when the mercury nudges 40C and ci­cadas are the con­stant tin­ni­tus of our ex­is­tence. Ideal for a bar­bie.

For some the high­light of Avi­gnon might be the ru­ins of the 12th-cen­tury bridge or the over­wrought pa­pal palace; for me it is the farmer’s mar­ket lo­cated con­ve­niently along­side our moor­ing.

The ven­dors are charm­ing and their pro­duce, plucked fresh from the Proven­cal earth, is so fra­grant and flavour­some I have an at­tack of nos­tal­gia for the days when toma­toes tasted of sun­shine and a juicy peach was a child­hood joy. I stock up on both and sup­ple­ment my on­board diet with the pure flavours of Provence for the rest of the cruise.

There’s a spe­cial din­ner that night in the Panorama Bistro, a de­gus­ta­tion of 15 cour­ses that fluc­tu­ate be­tween haute cui­sine and cater­ing cui­sine.

I chat with Cal­i­for­nian cou­ple Jorge and Ann Gar­cia. They have done “many, many trips” with Avalon. “I am one of those peo­ple who sticks with some­thing if it works,” Ann ex­plains when I ask why she never tries the other river cruise lines.

Jorge re­as­sures me I was right to skip that day’s ex­cur­sion to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. “I bought a bot­tle there last time and it was the most in­sipid wine!” he says.

But a cou­ple of days later I make my own tour of Tain L’Her­mitage when we dock at Tournon, and buy my­self a bot­tle of the sto­ried wine from Her­mitage Hill. It is not in the slight­est bit in­sipid.

In the tiny cathe­dral at Viviers, Avalon puts on a reed or­gan recital by mae­stro Valery Im­ber­non, a med­ley of tunes rang­ing from Pi­rates of the Caribbean to a south­ern gospel ar­range­ment of Amaz­ing Grace. In the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal gem of Vi­enne, guide Mar­ion trans­ports us back 2000 years to the birth of the Ro­man em­pire.

The cruise con­tin­ues to lu­mi­nous Lyon and the vine­yards of Bur­gundy and then, by coach, to Di­jon and Paris.

Each day show­cases the very best of French cul­ture and savoir vivre. As river cruises go, this itin­er­ary has some­thing for ev­ery­one. And all of it for me.

Ken­dall Hill was a guest of Cathay Pa­cific and Avalon Wa­ter­ways.

Avi­gnon, above; Her­mitage Hill and its vine­yards, left; a nar­row, wind­ing street in Uzes, be­low

The cafe Vin­cent van Gogh painted in Ar­les, top left; Ho­tel Dieu hospi­tal, where the artist rested af­ter hack­ing off his ear, top right, Avalon Po­etry II, above

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