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The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT -

In the af­ter­noon, I get my first taste of wine coun­try on a tour to Chateauneuf-du-Pape and its fa­mous vine­yards. At Mai­son Boua­chon, we get a mas­ter­class in wine­mak­ing from the mys­ter­ies of ter­roir to de­tect­ing the sub­tlest hints of honey, beeswax and pep­per in our glasses. I buy the most per­fect red I’ve had in my life in a lit­tle hole-in-the wall shop for a bargain 15 ($22.50) in the gor­geous town it­self, bristling with vint­ners and home to the grape fes­ti­val Fete de la Verai­son, cel­e­brated in the streets by ma­gi­cians, jug­glers and tum­blers.

At the pretty me­dieval river town of Viviers, we claw our way up a hill to the 12th-cen­tury St Vin­cent Cathe­dral, past pas­tel homes in Provence’s ice cream shades, jeux de boule play­ers and a lo­cal pri­est do­ing a bap­tism. From Tournon, we board a lit­tle me­tre-gauge steam train through the wilds of the Doux Val­ley, past wav­ing kayak­ers and campers, wild trout-filled rivers, ju­nipers and chest­nut trees, be­fore dock­ing at Vi­enne at dusk. Here, at the beau­ti­ful an­cient gate­way to the Lyon coun­try­side, I ditch Vik­ing’s or­gan­ised tour and make my es­cape with a bunch of my Amer­i­can friends, get­ting hope­lessly lost be­fore stum­bling on the old church of Saint Pierre and its weirdly fas­ci­nat­ing lap­idary mu­seum of an­tiq­ui­ties.

Day six, and I open my cur­tains to the el­e­gant, wed­ding-cake pas­tel water­front of Lyon. It’s our fi­nal stop on the river and I feel a pang as we dock. This an­cient city, founded by one of Cae­sar’s lieu­tenants in 43BC as Lug­dunum, floats, Venice-style, at the con­flu­ence of the Vik­ing River Cruises op­er­ates the 95-state­room Vik­ing Long­ship Delling on eight-day jour­neys be­tween Avi­gnon and Lyon and 12 or 15-day itin­er­ar­ies be­tween Paris and Avi­gnon. Eight days from an av­er­age of $4295 a per­son twin-share, in­clud­ing Wi-Fi ac­cess, seven guided tours, on­board meals (deca­dent lunch buf­fets and four-course din­ners) and se­lected bev­er­ages at mul­ti­ple venues over­seen by Hun­gar­ian ex­ec­u­tive chef Daniel Juhasz. Ex­pect the likes of cock­tail nights, cook­ing demon­stra­tions, French con­ver­sa­tion lessons and wine and cheese tast­ings. The first 2018 depar­ture, from Lyon, is on April 18. More: 138 747; vikingriver­cruises.com.au. Rhone, the mas­ter in lo­cal par­lance, and trib­u­tary, La Saone, known as its lady.

At the Chateau de Pier­rec­los, we sam­ple a spec­tac­u­lar Pouilly-Fuisse un­der the cold eye of a stuffed wild boar be­fore a trip to a truf­fle farm. Here, we tuck into Bur­gundy truf­fle-flecked bread and but­ter while owner Olivier, a for­mer Swiss bio­chemist, talks us through the mys­ter­ies of truf­fle grow­ing, an ex­er­cise in pa­tience from in­oc­u­lat­ing oak trees with truf­fle spores to har­vest years later. We head to the fields with his an­cient Swiss cat­tle dog Chi­nook. Within min­utes, he’s proudly stand­ing over a truf­fle. It’s a wiz­ened lit­tle spec­i­men, as we’re months away from the start of the sea­son, but we all clap, OlivIer smiles like a proud dad, and Chi­nook wags his tail as if to say, see, I’m still worth my weight in gold.

Day seven dawns with a tour of the vine­yards of the Beau­jo­lais re­gion. We drive past fat, sleek white Charo­lais cows that our guide Marin, a Ly­on­naise lo­cal with a fabulous In­spec­tor Clouseau ac­cent, pro­claims as “deli­cieuse!” while prac­ti­cally lick­ing the bus win­dows. Later, she proudly sup­plies us with her se­cret recipe for beef bour­guignon. Mar­i­nate Charo­lais beef with a spoon­ful of black­cur­rant liqueur, she says solemnly. And don’t for­get two squares of the best French dark choco­late.

Un­der the shadow of Moulin-a-Vent, we sam­ple the ap­pel­la­tion’s fa­mous, soft reds — ar­guably the most note­wor­thy of the 10 Beau­jo­lais crus — while our guide de­liv­ers a mas­ter­class in ev­ery­thing from green har­vests to go­b­elet prun­ing. Age-old tra­di­tions gov­ern­ing every- its smaller thing from plant­ing to har­vest­ing are now un­der siege due to cli­mate change, she says. Lo­cal farm­ers here are wor­ried about in­creas­ingly hot and dry sum­mers trig­ger­ing ear­lier har­vests and wild weather pat­terns that defy an­cient farm­ing al­manacs.

Back in Lyon, we ex­plore the city’s tra­boules, or se­cret pas­sage­ways, and its fairy­tale Old Town where we shop for Guig­nol pup­pets and Ly­on­naise silk, tuck into free sam­ples of rum babas and mac­arons at the fabulous con­fis­erie Comp­toir de Mathilde, eye off the an­douil­letes and saucis­son chaud at the packed bistros be­fore a farewell lunch at a cheer­ful river­side restau­rant where Nancy, a pas­sion­ate foodie from New Jersey, joins me in a toast to Lyon. France’s cap­i­tal of gas­tron­omy, with no fewer than 22 Miche­lin-starred restau­rants, is a fit­ting place to end a voy­age that has been an ex­er­cise in un­remit­ting glut­tony and that evening we meet for the last time on Vik­ing Belling’s top deck; over this week, it’s be­come a kind of so­cial hub cum con­fes­sional. Here, we’ve chewed the fat over bot­tles of good red, shar­ing all man­ner of in­ti­ma­cies. It is as if river cruis­ing has oiled the so­cial wheels, loos­ened our tongues.

We push ta­bles to­gether, open bot­tles of Pouilly-Fuisse and Chateauneuf-Du-Pape and raise our glasses to the first stormy, light­ning-cracked sky of our jour­ney. Gin­ger leads us in a farewell toast to us, to wine-lov­ing popes, to the river.

Sharon Verghis was a guest of Vik­ing River Cruises.

Vine­yard over­looks Saint Julien in the Beau­jo­lais re­gion, above; sun­deck on Vik­ing Delling, far left; a Ve­randa State­room, left

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