A visit to France usually suggests a road trip. But, as Stephen Oryszczuk discovered, it’s far better by river…
It is magical waking up to a world floating past you at 12 knots.
Underneath you, there is your syrupy river carpet, and beyond the balcony railings, there is life, the shore, mountains and – in this case – southern France.
The magic emerges slowly, as you peel open your eyes and see trees taking a dip, storks looking for breakfast, and castles keeping watch. It’s a wondrous, joyous way to greet the day – but beware the manner of your reception…
In particular, beware the morning after a night of free champagne in the August heat when, at some point in the early hours, duvets were discarded and the remaining sheets twisted around your legs, leaving certain bits aerated.
As the peaks and caves of Provence come gradually into focus, as you check that the lady lay next to you is your wife, be careful not to show the Rhone a bit too much ‘Gallic.’ This being France, a bit of Renaissance splendour is all very well, but not at that hour in the morning.
A week’s worth of such learning experiences were had by my lovely wife (Mrs O) and I recently, courtesy of a little-known luxury tour company called Tauck, which is based in the U.S but which has a U.K office, and which counts river cruises among its worldwide offerings.
They started us off in Paris, with a tour of the Marais district, the traditional Jewish quarter known as ‘the Pletzl.’
This is no Jewish ghetto as per Venice, but an area rich in architecture and culture, chosen by the aristocracy for their palatial mansions. It would be worth seeing even if you weren’t into your Jewish heritage.
Today, there is much talk about a French Jewish ‘exodus’ – indeed, several thousand left last year – but there are well over half a million Jews still there, and the vast majority will stay put, so a vibrant community remains.
Synagogues dot the boulevards, amid the parks and statues, and Rue des Rosiers is still the hub, with its kosher patisseries and Judaica shops located down little side streets, although there are far fewer now than there once were, and since the terrorist attacks in January, there is a new and marked military presence, which puts you on edge.
The sight of soldiers with sub-machine guns guarding the gates of Jewish primary schools is as sad as it sounds. Who’d have thought it just a few years ago?
The next day, we drift down to Lyon on 200mph trains and board the MS Swiss Emerald, along with about 100 other (mainly American) guests, to greet the captain and his 50 or so staff.
Tauck caps its guest intake at just over 100 people per cruise, giving a more intimate, club-like atmosphere, whereas others cram the same size boats with up to 200. Fewer people means more space, which is just as well, because Americans don’t ‘do’ small.
Sumptuous suites end up as big as many a five-star land-based equivalent, with walk-in wardrobes, full-size baths, king-size beds, sofas, writing bureaux and French windows through which to watch to (inadvertently) show off your bits.
The world goes by in extreme comfort, too. Our Atlantic cousins take customer service seriously, stuffing their ships with four cruise directors (as opposed to the usual one) and offering all-inclusive pricing, which covers tips, unlimited on-board drinks (even champagne), airport transfers and all shore excursions. The latter are a highlight: the commentary offered by young local experts is fun, factual and never dull.
We set sail from Lyon after a tour of the city, learning about – and walking through – Les Traboules, the secret passageways bisecting a series of buildings and courtyards through which Jews and others ran to escape deportation.
Over the next few days, stop-offs include Arles, Viviers, Avignon, Valence, Tournon and Rousillon. The names alone weaken the knees, but face-to-face, they’re even sexier. Each has its own charm.
Tournon offers its aptly-named ‘Garden of Eden.’ Rousillon flaunts its stunning red and yellow ochre pigments, which dye the dusty mountains the colour of flames.
Valence sits clean and bleached, a fading classic, while Arles simmers in the sun, life buzzing around its 2,000-year old amphitheatre. Viviers, meanwhile, simply saunters up to noon, before deciding whether to reopen its Roman walls after a three-hour lunch.
My personal favourite was Avignon, a town I’d wanted to see since childhood. Once home to popes, it still has a regal feel to it, and within its walls, buildings around the castle stand tall and towering.
At night, a jaw-dropping ‘luminescence show’ lights up the courtyard with stunning images telling the city’s thousand-year history (note: this was not on Tauck’s itinerary, but should definitely be on yours).
Avignon will wow you into silence, and the several cafés in the square let you sit, sip something and take it all in, as couples take selfies, kids catch bubbles and entertainers show off their moves or vocal chords.
Wander off the beaten track and you’ll find a labyrinth of cobbled side-streets to explore. It is a special place. You can see why the popes liked it.
As the boat makes its way down – then up – the river, there are several interesting amusements along the way, from cookery demonstrations by a three-star Michelin chef, where Mrs O accidentally sprayed everyone in tomato foam, to wine-tasting at family-owned vineyards in Beaujolais and the world-famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape, summer house of the popes.
There was even a chocolate tour and a game of Pétanque, a favourite Provencal game at which (I’m pleased to report) the Brits beat the Yanks with ease.
All in all, it was a fabulous holiday, made better by the exceptional standard of food onboard, and the superb level of customer service.
The ship’s staff had clearly mastered the balance between professional and personal, as they were always attentive and never overbearing, and nothing was ever too much bother.
Even a particularly nasty red wine stain on Mrs O’s favourite straw hat – don’t ask me how she got wine on her hat – was merely an obstacle to be overcome.
They really were great.
This is an expensive river cruise, no doubt about it, and there are several operators charting the same course, but if you can afford it, and if you’re fascinated by that heady Provencal mix of beauty, culture and history, then this is the one to go for. Just be careful how you greet the day.
River boat Facts
Tauck is a familiy-owned company offering a selection of award-winning land-based and river boat cruises.
Their European offerings include the Rhine, the Rhône, the Danube and the Seine. Stephen’s French Waterways cruise costs from £2,895 per person for a ten-day trip, with two nighs in Paris and seven nights afloat. The price includes all food and drink, excursions and gratuities.
For more information visit www.tauck.co.uk or call 0800 810 8020