France with Stephen

Agent Name: Stephen
Date: September – October 2009
Trip Location: France

Places Visited: Paris, Bailly-Romainvilliers, Arles, Avignon, Viviers, Tournon, Tain l’Hermitage, Lyon, Chalon-sur-Saone, Beaune, Lille

Overall Impression: We were fortunate to take our fourth river cruise, this time through the heart of Provence and Burgundy on Uniworld’s luxurious ship, River Royale. Originally ordered by another company and bought half completed at significant savings, River Royale is one of the most expensive and technologically advanced river vessels ever built. The extra cost shows in the luxuriousness of the materials and furnishings inside, with expensive wood, marble, leather, fabrics, glass and brass evident at every turn. It’s obvious Uniworld spared no expense in the fitting out of this ship and the result is that it’s interiors are uncommonly luxurious.

Upon embarkation in Arles, we were greeted with wall to wall smiles from the attentive crew. Seeing as the ship was completely sold out, the crew did a magnificent job and their eagerness to please continued throughout the week.

Dining was open seating, buffets for breakfast and lunch with an excellent variety of choices. Dinner was open seating served tableside by the ever smiling crew. The cuisine is classic French, with first-rate ingredients and preparation. The ship receives local provisions every two or three days, ensuring that ingredients are always fresh and the best available. With five chefs for 132 passengers, the attention to detail was amazing.

Cabin service is not available, but there is always 24 hour coffee, tea, hot chocolate, iced tea and water in the Patio Lounge. There are also trays of delicious pastries in the Patio Lounge from early morning until night for anyone wanting a snack. The Patio Lounge is also where you will find the ship’s two computers as well. Internet is free and you can also use the WiFi throughout the ship.

Off the Patio Lounge there is also a small shop with sundries, logo items and a variety of local specialties including brightly coloured fabrics, dried lavender and the renowned Valrohna chocolates. The shop is open for a few hours each day, prices are reasonable and the stock is surprisingly varied given it’s small size.

Standard cabins with either windows or portholes are 154 square feet, French balcony cabins are slightly smaller at 141 square feet. There is also one suite of 215 square feet. All contain the same furnishings – a queen-size bed that can be separated into twins, two nightstands, two chairs and a cocktail table, vanity/desk with stool, a large hanging wardrobe with shelves, and a fairly large bathroom with shower and toilet. The linens are all monogrammed Egyptian cotton. Toiletries are L’Occitane. All cabins have flat-screened televisions with English-speaking channels and two movie channels.  In every port there was a walking tour included , only in Lyon did we use a bus for part of the itinerary. The walks were usually in the morning, leaving us free time in the afternoons to explore on our own.

In some of the ports where the afternoon was free, an optional excursion was offered. They were well organized and at around €50.00 were very reasonably priced. All the local guides were very knowledgeable, experienced and spoke fluent English. They use the Quiet Vox system, where the guide wears a microphone and each participant is equipped with a receiver and earpiece. This makes it easy to hear everything the guide says without having to stay close all the time or to constantly ask the guide to repeat things.  

On the cruise we visited the following towns and cities:

Arles sits on a low hill where the Rhône River branches in two parts to the sea. The town dates back to the 7th century BC and is best known for its amazingly well-preserved Roman arena, Les Arènes (which is still used and can seat 20,000) in the heart of the city, but there are also many other interesting Roman and medieval ruins. The sites are unique in that they are integrated into the houses and buildings of Arles, rather than sitting apart as they do in other towns. The palatial 17th century Hotel de Ville, on Arles’ central Place de la Republique, was inspired by Versailles. Also worth visiting is the Cathédrale St-Trophime, across the Place de la République, whose doorway is one of the most magnificent examples of 12th century Provencal stone carving in existence. The centre of Arles is truly medieval in character, with its narrow streets winding between the ancient buildings.

Van Gogh spent a year in Arles in 1888 and produced almost 200 paintings of the town and surrounding area during one of his most prolific periods. Arles is otherwise a rather sedate town, with little to offer in the way of modern attractions and is in need of an infusion of civic pride to spruce up the crumbling buildings. On our way to Les Baux, we visited an authentic, privately owned olive oil mill. We were greeted by the Master Miller and his family, and taken on a stroll through their groves where we were warned to look out for the wild boars – it was hunting season! We learned about the tradition of growing, pruning, harvesting and pressing the olives and then were treated to samples of olives, oils and tapenades. It was amazing how different and delicious they were,  compared with those that we get at home. It’s all in the freshness. On board the ship we were able to look forward to these fresh offerings everyday.

Les Baux de Provence
The medieval village of Les Baux de Provence is perched high on a prominent rock in les Alpilles mountains giving a magnificent view over the countryside down to the Mediterranean. The fortress was erected by the Knights Templar and lords of Les Baux, descendents of Balthazar, one of The Three Wise Men, and family line of the Grimaldi Prince of Monaco. The village of narrow winding streets is now home to  many art galleries, colourful shops and café terraces.

Avignon was once the residence of seven Popes in the 14th century and now is the chief town of the department of Vaucluse. The Palace of the Popes and the Cathedral sit on a 190ft high limestone hill overlooking the city and the valley. Avignon is famous for its history, architecture and the annual international theatre festival. Under the Romans, it was a thriving provincial town. At the decline of the empire, it fell into the hands of the Burgundians and the Franks. In the 13th-century, Provence became part of the county of the Duke Charles d’Anjou, and after many wars was annexed to the territory of France. In the history of the Roman Catholic Church, the Avignon Papacy was the period from 1309 to 1377, during which seven Popes, all French, resided in Avignon. In 1378 Gregory XI moved the papal residence back to Rome. This was the beginning of the period of difficulty from 1378 to 1417 when parties within the Catholic churches were divided in their allegiances among various claimants to the office of pope in both Rome and Avignon. The Council of Constance in 1417 finally resolved the controversy. During this period Avignon became a flourishing centre of the arts, under the influence of the Italian masters. The town remained in the hands of the Popes until they were reunited with France after the French revolution. Avignon is ancient, full of history, life, youth, art music and activity. Just to see the town itself, you could wander the narrow streets inside the fortified walls for days without tiring of them. Or you can relax in the Place de l’Horloge, a long square in front of the Hotel de Ville, with vibrant terrace cafes along both sides and the Belle Epoque carrousel at the top end.

Founded in the 5th-century and located in a sheltered canyon, Viviers retains much of its ancient charm. There is an extensive warren of narrow streets, with buildings that are very carefully renovated, and others very derelict looking. All are interesting to explore and reflect a combination of Roman, Christian and medieval influences.. The Cathedral of Saint Vincent dominates the centre of the old town. Dating from the 12th century, it has many interesting features including its bell tower and campanile, and the vaulted ceiling and tapestries inside. From a vantage spot just behind the cathedral there is an expansive view across the red tiled roofs of the town, the surrounding hills, distant mountains and the Rhone valley. A walk down Sycamore Alley, a long street flanked both sides by trees planted by Napoleon, to and from the river, shows houses that bear the watermarks of floods over the decades.

Tournon/Tain L’Hermitage
Nestled among the famous vineyards, the twin cities of Tournon and Taim l’Hermitage sit on the Rhone facing each other with records dating back to the middle ages. Tain l’Hermitage sits on the left bank at the bottom of the Hermitage Hills. Tournon sits on the right bank clustered around its massive feudal castle dating back to the 10th-century. Both are renowned for their world famous wines. Other gastronomical features of the regions include chocolate, fruit, goat cheese and black truffles. The Valrhona chocolate factory in Tain l’Hermitage is a renowned supplier to the most famous chefs in the world. Tournon lays claim to the oldest high school in France dating back to the 16th century. The two towns are connected by the beautifully flower-decorated Marc Sequin Suspension Footbridge. Built in 1849, the engineer, Sequin, used the revolutionary technique of twisted cables still used all over the world today.

Located at the confluence of the Rhone and its main tributary, the Saone, Lyon is the second largest industrial and commercial city in France. The city has long been the principal centre of the French textile industry, particularly the production of silk. Julius Caesar founded the city in 43BC, and a wealth of Roman antiquities have been preserved here. World class museums and theatres, a wealth of Renaissance architecture, renowned cuisine, and a large student community make this city vibrant and sophisticated.

Chalon-sur-Saone was historically an important port for transporting timber, wine, and other goods. It gained notoriety as  the inventor of photography, Joseph Nicephore Niepce, once lived here. His statue and Museum stand in a square facing the river. The city centre has a number of delightful shops and cafes around Place St .Vincent, dominated by the 19th century Neoclassical alabaster façade of St.Vincent Cathedral. A lively street market is held here, and in the neighboring streets, three times a week. There are fine half-timbered houses overlooking the square and the nearby streets are worth visiting to see the 14th and 17th century facades.

Nestled within its 15th century ramparts, Beaune was the seat of the Dukes of Burgundy until the 16th century. It offers a wealth of history, culture and magnificent architecture, most notably the world famous Hospices, with its incredible tiled roof. The Hotel-Dieu or Hospices de Beaune is one of the jewels of France. The charitable institution was founded in 1443 by the Chancellor of Beaune and remains a working hospital for the poor, with modern facilities standing alongside the Hotel-Dieu. Every November, the largest charity sale in the world, a wine auction, is held to support the Hospices. Beaune is the centre of the Burgundy wine region. We were fortunate to be there on market day. The town square and all the radiating streets were packed with colourful stalls selling everything from cheeses, fruit, vegetables, chickens roasted in portable rotisseries, and much much more. It was wonderful to feel the sense of community in this comfortable little town.

From Baune we went on a drive through picturesque hamlets and expansive vineyards to the village of Rully where we visited the Chateau de Rully. The owner, The Countess Madame de Ternay escorted us inside the rustic castle where her family has been living for eleven generations. The somewhat eccentric Countess related the history of her family and their efforts to preserve their heritage, and on this occasion was apparently much more exuberant as her son and daughter-in-law had just given her a new grandchild. We then headed to the neighboring village of Mercurey where we met Monsieur Devillard, the owner of Chateau de Chamirey  This was an elegant chateau ,inspired by Italian architecture and built in the 18th century. For five generations, the family has been growing wine on their 95 acre vineyard, part of which we were able to admire from the chateau’s terrace. In their cellar, we were treated to a wine tasting of some of their top selling wines.

Before our cruise, we stayed in Bailly-Romainvilliers, 40km east of Paris, at Marriott’s impressive Village d’Ile-de-France. The complex is designed to resemble a French village and is built around a golf course., each unit is a 2 or 3 bedroom townhouse on two floors with full kitchen and dining facilities. We were most impressed with the villa and its furnishings – we would like to have lived there! The front desk staff couldn’t have been more helpful and accommodating. All were English-speaking, as were the staff in the small convenience store and bar. The hotel operated a shuttle, for a fee, every half hour during the day, to the railway station at Marne-la-Vallee for connections to Paris on the inter-urban RER trains and also with the high-speed long-distance TGV’s. Outside of their hours, the local bus service was more than adequate to get around on locally. There is a very large shopping mall at Val d’Europe about 5km away which incorporates a high-end outlet mall. Access is also very easy using the local bus. We were so taken by the Marriott that after our stay in Paris at the end of the cruise, we went back there for a few nights. It is only 11 minutes on the TGV from Marne-la-Vallee to Charles de Gaulle Airport – very convenient. Marne-la-Vallee is also the station for Disneyland Paris. We did venture there one day, but it wasn’t the same without our daughter.

In the three years since we were last in Paris, we found that prices in restaurants in the residential areas were now the same as those in the tourist spots and overall, prices in shops were about the same as at home. Wine was still a bargain and selection was very extensive even in small neighbourhood shops and supermarkets.

Getting around Paris and its region is very easy using public transport and is best managed by using a Paris Visite Card. This a special travel pass that entitles you to unlimited travel on the metro, buses, tramway, RER express regional trains, and suburban Transilien SNCF trains. You can choose a 1 to 3 zone pass or a 1 to 6 zone pass which is valid for airport links and travel to Disneyland and Versailles. The pass is valid for 1, 2, 3 or 5 consecutive days travel starting on any day of the week.