A pas­sage from Provence

The joys of a river voy­age be­tween Avi­gnon and Lyon

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - SHARON VERGHIS

As the sun sets, I’m watch­ing the Rhone from the bal­cony of my cosy, well-ap­pointed state­room on the Vik­ing Long­ship Delling. In the course of an hour, the river turns from green to dull gold as it laps an an­cient stone pier me­tres away from the me­dieval ram­parts of France’s Proven­cal city of Avi­gnon, the City of Popes.

Cy­clists pass by, body­builders work on out­door ex­er­cise bars and a uni­cy­clist does lazy loops ahead of one of the world’s big­gest cul­tural fes­ti­vals. Drums sound from in­side the city’s for­ti­fied walls, built in the first cen­tury by the Ro­mans to re­pel ma­raud­ers for cen­turies there­after. Tourist take self­ies at the nearby ru­ins of the Pont d’Avi­gnon, the 12th-cen­tury bridge im­mor­talised in a chil­dren’s folk song. It is a warm evening, the first of my eight­day voy­age with Vik­ing River Cruises.

We will jour­ney on this con­vivial river ship, with its sleek, Scan­di­na­vian lines and wel­come lack of bling, along the Rhone from Avi­gnon, dock­ing at a string of river­side towns — Taras­con, Ar­les, Viviers, Tournon, Vi­enne — on our way to Lyon. We will ex­plore me­dieval abbeys and ter­raced vine­yards, monas­ter­ies and laven­der fields. We will skirt coun­try that in­cludes the wild Ardeche Plateau, the wet­lands, black bulls, pink flamin­gos and wild horses of the Ca­mar­gue, the Ro­man ru­ins of Vi­enne and Ar­les. I’ll be in­tro­duced to the mys­ter­ies of locks, watch spell­bound as Vik­ing Delling deftly threads the nee­dle through the 12 on our jour­ney. I’ll learn about pud­ding stones and pink gran­ite soils, pa­pal pol­i­tics and the eco­nom­ics of truf­fles, meet an old Swiss cat­tle dog worth his weight in black di­a­monds.

On board, I’ll come across Tutu, the tone-deaf ship’s ac­cor­dion­ist, a gnarled Kansas farmer, a Ukrainian folk dancer, a hard-drink­ing Pol­ish im­mi­grant from Ade­laide, a glam Me­la­nia Trump looka­like, and a scrawny Scots­man who will risk not just melanoma but de­cap­i­ta­tion as he bastes on the ship’s sun­deck in his tiny Speedos, hap­pily obliv­i­ous to umpteen low bridges.

And as the only solo trav­eller among 190 pas­sen­gers, I’ll be adopted by a lovely Florida cou­ple, Steve and Cindy. They’ll in­tro­duce me to a lively tribe of their fel­low Amer­i­cans. There’s Coral, a kaf­tan-wear­ing fed­eral judge from Hawaii; Gin­ger, a Texan mother of eight; Pitts­burgh den­tal hy­gien­ist Mary and her ex-Navy hus­band Jess. Wash­ing­ton DC lawyer Julie, who worked on the Bos­ton bombers case, will show me her real pas­sion — de­sign­ing beau­ti­ful jew­ellery. Long Is­land ob­ste­tri­cian Hema will spar with me on Oba­macare, and re­tired aero­space engi­neer Dick and his wife Ann will de­bate Amer­i­can class pol­i­tics af­ter spot­ting my copy of Hill­billy El­egy — a book I do­nate later to Zach and Jack, a young gay mar­ried cou­ple from the Midwest.

I’m glad for their com­pany. One night, an elderly Tennessean, look­ing askance at my notebook, will ask me bluntly what I’m do­ing alone on this cruise. When I say I’m writ­ing a travel story, he’ll look re­lieved and turn to his wife, and say, with per­fect sin­cer­ity, “We thought you were a spy, didn’t we, Mary?”

I wake to a dawn streaked with pink. Overnight, we have silently moved up­river to­wards Taras­con. I watch the sun come up as our boat passes un­der mas­sive arched stone bridges, wit­nessed only by a lone fish­er­man on the far bank. He waves and I wave back. We glide by small towns wink­ing like lan­terns in the dawn gloom, en­closed by vine­yards that date back to the an­cient Ro­mans who planted vines as they ex­panded north­ward. To­day, wine­mak­ing is the lifeblood of this re­gion, defin­ing its so­cial life, cul­ture and lo­cal econ­omy with more than 35,000 stu­dent pick­ers de­scend­ing on the Beau­jo­lais re­gion alone over 20 days for the Septem­ber har­vest.

But the Rhone, too, is a pow­er­ful in­flu­ence, an an­cient Ro­man trade corridor still con­nect­ing the small towns along its length cul­tur­ally and eco­nom­i­cally, shap­ing the rhythms of daily life and so­cial ri­tu­als. A guide demon­strates to me how it has even helped cod­ify the act of kiss­ing (three pecks ver­sus two de­pend­ing on where you are on the river). But its in­flu­ence is not solely be­nign. In every town, we see faded flood mark­ers up to 2m high chalked on walls. There is some­thing med­i­ta­tive about watch­ing the river, to know it started life as an out­flow of the Rhone Glacier in the Swiss Alps, its once wild whirlpools tamed by a se­ries of canals and locks.

This morn­ing, we dock and board a bus to the me­dieval city of Ar­les. This is Van Gogh coun­try, of course — the artist came here in 1888, in­spired by the vivid colours and hard, clear light. Ev­ery­where, you see life im­i­tat­ing art — the fea­tures of the land­scape that in­spired the more than 350 paint­ings, in­clud­ing Le Cafe de Nuit and The Starry Night, he pro­duced in the 15 months be­fore his death in Au­vers-sur-Oise; the olive trees; azure sky; fields of sun­flow­ers; the rows of cy­presses planted to but­tress farms from the fa­mous mis­tral.

Overnight, we back­track down­river to Avi­gnon. It’s the eve of the Avi­gnon Fes­ti­val, and we play our own ver­sion of thread the nee­dle down nar­row lanes packed with tourists, jug­glers, uni­cy­clists and drum­mers on our way to the mas­sive church-fortress of Palais des Papes, the big­gest gothic church in Europe and home to no fewer than seven 14th-cen­tury popes. There’s time af­ter­wards for Avi­gnon’s glo­ri­ous cov­ered mar­ket, where we sali­vate over creamy cheeses, rain­bow mac­arons, gnarled oys­ters, plump green snails and shiny mus­sels from Mada­gas­car, be­fore Mia, our cheery pro­gram direc­tor, ap­pears with a tray of olives and tape­nades.

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