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