FRANCE: RHONE RICHES
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