Provence

World Travel Magazine - - Contents - BY ANNA SELBY

The most leisurely way to see sunkissed Provence is on board the Napoleon as it drifts down the River Rhone.

“PROVENCAL MANOIRS ARE PAINTED IN PAS­TELS AND HAVE A SIM­PLE, TIME­LESS EL­E­GANCE.”

“WITH JUST 12 PAS­SEN­GERS, THE NAPOLEON CAN MA­NOEU­VRE INTO MOOR­ING SPOTS THAT OTHER BIG­GER BOATS CAN’T REACH. WE HAD VIL­LAGE MARKETS ALL TO OUR­SELVES.”

Ever since the pub­li­ca­tion in 1989 of

Peter Mayle’s run­away best­seller A Year in Provence, this south­ern­most re­gion of France, its won­der­ful food and wine and its re­laxed way of life have ex­erted a mag­netic pull. By river boat, you can travel through it at the best – the slow­est – of paces. Drift past me­dieval towns and vil­lages, sun­flower and laven­der fields, truf­fle and olive groves, vine­yards and foodie markets and you’ll be­gin to un­der­stand the magic. I didn’t have a year but at least I had a week in Provence.

Com­pared to ocean-go­ing ships, Afloat in France’s Napoléon feels like a toy boat with just three decks and six cab­ins for a max­i­mum of 12 pas­sen­gers. There are six crew, too – talk about per­sonal ser­vice! This is most def­i­nitely the lux­ury end of river cruis­ing – hardly sur­pris­ing when you learn that Afloat in France is in the same group as the Ori­ent Ex­press.

We are jour­ney­ing down a river that gave its name to one of France’s most fa­mous wines – Cote de Rhone – and wine is quite a fea­ture on this trip. Our first stop is a tast­ing at the Fer­ra­ton vine­yard in Her­mitage and sev­eral more fol­low, with many of the choic­est bot­tles end­ing up on the ta­ble at din­ner!

It was ac­tu­ally the Ro­mans who planted the first vines, and they also brought laven­der to scent their bath houses. Nowa­days, you can buy it here fresh from the fields as an aro­mather­apy oil or per­fumed pil­low. And you can still see it ground be­tween the same enor­mous mill­stones the Ro­mans would have used. Its heady fra­grance fills the air for miles around.

The Ro­mans brought water, too, from moun­tain springs to their new cities via aque­ducts. The great­est must be the

Pont du Gard, a UNESCO world her­itage site close to

Avignon and part of a 50km stretch of a mas­sive three­storey struc­ture. It’s quite a view from the top.

There’s an even bet­ter one from Les Baux. A short drive from our moor­ing at Ar­les took us up – and up

– to a spec­tac­u­lar moun­tain eyrie and one of the most pic­turesque vil­lages in France with breath­tak­ing views of Ar­les and the Ca­mar­gue be­low. The orig­i­nal lords of Baux claimed to be de­scended from one of the Magi, the three wise men, who vis­ited Beth­le­hem for the birth of Je­sus and they put the Star of Beth­le­hem on their coat of arms to let every­one know. Nowa­days, the ti­tle be­longs to the rulers of Monaco, the Grimaldi fam­ily, and Princess Caro­line of Monaco is the Mar­quise des Baux.

It was in Ar­les that Van Gogh painted dozens of his most fa­mous pic­tures. His dreamy, lu­mi­nous por­tray­als of the city in­clude the night-time pave­ment café on the

Place du Fo­rum bathed in a golden glow. It still looks ex­actly the same to­day – a good place to stop for a cold

drink. Or take an even­ing stroll to the spot where the artist painted ‘Starry Night over the Rhône’.

Avignon is just a few miles by boat from Ar­les and we dock in front of the fa­mous bridge, Pont Saint-bénezet, im­mor­talised in song as Le Pont d’avignon – to dis­cover it’s only half a bridge. Fre­quently washed away by the Rhône, the lo­cals de­cided it just wasn’t worth the con­stant re­pairs, so it now arches grace­fully – but only half­way across. It’s a city full of sur­prises. There are beau­ti­ful an­cient walls, nar­row cob­bled streets and bright blue shut­ters at the win­dows. Ex­pan­sive gar­dens sweep down to the river and the Palais des Papes. But if all this sounds his­tor­i­cal and just a bit quiet – don’t be fooled.

For all its Ro­man and me­dieval roots, this univer­sity city buzzes with life. In July and early Au­gust, it also has one of France’s most fa­mous sum­mer fes­ti­vals when ev­ery café, the­atre and even the Palace of the Popes is a venue for mu­sic, com­edy, the­atre and art. There are street en­ter­tain­ers in ev­ery square and in front of ev­ery pave­ment café. And it’s not a bad place to go shop­ping ei­ther. You’ll find ev­ery­thing from fash­ion to cop­per pans and pretty Provencal kitchen­ware.

Back on­board, the Napoléon cer­tainly lives up to its name. We lived pretty much like em­per­ors. Ev­ery day fresh food from the lo­cal markets was trans­formed into su­perb meals. Salmon and wild boar, del­i­cate shell­fish and sun-kissed fruits, rus­tic breads and cheeses to die for. Some of our ex­cur­sions were se­ri­ously foodie, too. At Le Grand Ser­van, we dis­cov­ered how the best olive oil is tra­di­tion­ally made and later vis­ited a truf­fle farm where the ‘black di­a­monds’ were dug up not by pigs, but by Labrador dogs!

It was an ac­tion-packed week that cov­ered a lot of ground – or water. But it was also very re­lax­ing. The top deck of the Napoléon is open with a Jacuzzi, exercise bikes and plenty of loungers. As you drift down the

Rhône at a max­i­mum speed of 15 kilo­me­tres an hour, you can feel your­self un­wind un­der the hot Provencal sun as the olive groves and vine­yards, fields of laven­der and sun­flow­ers drift slowly past. Ducks dab­ble up­side down, drag­on­flies land on the rails and shim­mer in the heat.

Then one of the crew comes up on deck. ‘May I offer you a glass of cham­pagne?’

Well, what can you say?

A six-night jour­ney on board Bel­mond Napoleon starts from 4804 Eu­ros per per­son based on two adults shar­ing a dou­ble cabin. This in­cludes 1st class TGV trans­fer from Paris to the boat, all meals and drinks on board and all shore ac­tiv­i­ties out­lined in the itin­er­ary. bel­mond.com

“THE MOST LEISURELY WAY TO SEE SUN-KISSED PROVENCE IS ON BOARD THE NAPOLEON AS IT DRIFTS DOWN THE RIVER RHONE”

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