A passage from Provence
The joys of a river voyage between Avignon and Lyon
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.