French blissing: cruising the Rhone
Sarkozy didn't stand a chance. A teetotaller who stopped cheese being served at state dinners. French state dinners. Is it any wonder the former French president's opponents in the lead-up to the recent elections sniffed: "He drinks no wine. He eats no cheese. Can he really be a Frenchman?"
This is, remember, where Charles de Gaulle once famously complained: "How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?" In 2012 however, the question surely became: how could anyone want to govern a nation with 246 different kinds of cheese and not want to eat any of them?
In France, of course, you're never far from a slice of cheese, a glass of wine or a loaf of the perfect bread. Indeed, Laurent Penaud, our cruise manager on this eight-day idyll along the Rhone onboard Uniworld's River Royale, states as fact that a Frenchman just can't live more than five minutes' away from a bakery.
More than once, however, Laurent refers to the French as being "unhappy Italians". "We're always miserable," he says, his face doing its best to project an air of Gallic discontent. But how can this be? This is a country where the best food and wine are part of their cultural fabric, their fibre, their being. Can they really take all that for granted? I know I can't.
In the town of Tournon I pop into a convenience store to buy toothpaste and am immediately overwhelmed by the aroma of freshly baked bread. The stand next to the shop counter is weighed down with cans of foie gras, not chips and chocolate. The next day in Lyon, at the gorgeous Les Halles Paul Bocuse food market, the doors swoosh open and I'm engulfed by a stinky cheese fug. This is not a bad thing. Here cheeses are displayed like the most beautiful cakes while the cakes further along are on show like jewels in Tiffany's.
At Avignon's Les Halles indoor market I find La Cabanne d'Oleron, a little oyster bar with a handful of tables tucked into the furthest reaches of the market. I initially walk past, not intending to stop, but notice the look of serene contentment on the face of the sole diner there as he slides an oyster into his mouth and follows it with a sip of wine. In minutes I'm following suit: half a dozen freshly shucked oysters, a couple of wedges of lemon, two slices of perfect bread, a pat of unsalted butter and a glass of Muscadet. This little taste of heaven sets me back just 8.7 euro.
Our cruise starts in Arles, an hour's drive by coach from Marseilles. The drive is an instant unwind from the gnawing tiredness brought on by long-haul flights and the morning's madness of navigating Charles de Gaulle airport as we pass the olive groves, gnarled old vines, cypress pines, sandstone hills and fields of yellow rapeseed so redolent of Provence. Arles was a town beloved of Roman emperors, Vincent van Gogh and followers of the corrida - the 2000-year-old arena in the heart of the town is one of the world's most important bull-fighting rings. It is also where we unpack our suitcases for the one and only time all week and get to grips with the routine of a river cruise.
Each day goes something like this: 6.30am-7.30am: coffees and pastries for the early risers; 7.30am to 9.30am: buffet breakfast; rest of morning, do a walking tour, rest or find another way to work off breakfast and the night before's five-course meal (with wine, of course) and make room for lunch. Noon to 1.30pm: lunch buffet (with wine, cheese and desserts, naturally); do a walking tour or excursion or lounge about and rest; 4pm, afternoon tea (the sandwiches are perfection), 7pm: dinner.
The lounge bar is open till the early hours but honestly, after that much food, wine, fresh air, intellectual stimulation (the tours are fascinating) and yes, exercise, who has the energy for late-night drinking? And, besides, the beds and linen are of the highest, crispest, freshest, comfiest order so an early night is still a pretty pleasurable experience in itself. This is a week that proves to be one of the most enriching and relaxing of my life.
Every lunch and every dinner onboard features a selection of different cheeses; blue, white, yellow, orange, soft, hard, goat, sheep, cow, the familiar and the less so, like St Marcelin, Reblochon, Banon, Morbier.
The bread - whether wholemeal, rye, sourdough, garlic, focaccia - is always delivered warm from the oven and is just always, always better than any bread I've eaten anywhere else. We feast on escargot ("Why do the French eat snails?" the joke goes, more than once. "Because they don't like fast food."), duck, steak, sole, lamb, veal, foie gras, venison, prawns and nearly always manage to find room for dessert: gateaux, tartes, pastries and homemade icecreams.
For those not taken with what's on offer from the usual choice of three appetisers and four mains - I don't know how this could be but it does happen - the kitchen will happily deliver free-range chicken breast, American sirloin steak or Norwegian salmon. As good as the food is the service; a perfect balance of professionalism and warm, easy humour. By cruise end, we're trying to find ways to bring our regular waiter Todor home with us.
The wines served are usually those grown from the areas we pass through: Chateauneuf du Pape, Hermitage, burgundy. At dinner one night, over a glass of said velvety rich burgundy, I tell Laurent that New Zealand makes some lovely pinot noir. Laurent's usual manner is that of a kindly and worldly uncle - he can use "voila" to suit about a dozen different purposes - but his response to this is the witheringly pitying look he usually saves for any discussion of Belgians.
After a morning exploring the beautiful walled city of Avignon, once the home of popes and still home to the famous Pont d'Avignon, we pile into a bus to head first to the 2000-year-old, three-tiered aqueduct Pont du Gard. Competing for my attention at the site of this architectural and engineering marvel that once helped deliver water more than 50km from Uzes to Nimes is a 1000-year-old olive tree, gnarled but not wizened by time.
Next stop is Chateauneuf du Pape, sitting inland from the Rhone on sweeping, largely flat vineyards. The vines, much shorter and stumpier than what we see in New Zealand, are warmed by stones from the riverbed and receive no irrigation - they are purely dependent on Mother Nature. This area has been famous for its wines since the 1300s, when the pope of the time decided to build his summer residence here. The palace has long been a ruin but the wines remain world famous.
From Avignon we head to Viviers, an ancient town topped by a beautiful cathedral. The streets and lanes wind around the houses, some bearing little plaques on their doors noting their history. There are more cats in the streets than people; Viviers has an air of a ghost town. The afternoon and evening are a meander onwards to Tain L'Hermitage, an eight-hour journey through locks, past vineyards and forests, and where every old castle and ruin seems more lovely than the one before. The one blight is a nuclear power plant. Its owners, somewhat cynically, have decorated one of the chimneys with a three-storey high painting of a child playing on a beach.
Tain L'Hermitage and its equally charming sister town Tournon facing it across the river, are famous for the suspension bridge connecting them and for their Hermitage and St Joseph wines; above Tain, the hills are so steep the vineyards appear scraped down the slopes. The area is also famous for chestnuts, truffles and chocolate - specifically Valhrona, whose factory shop is happily just a minute or two's walk from our ship. Resistance is futile.
The next morning we awake in Lyon and here I leave behind the organised guided walking groups for a day on my own to take in the boutique-like culinary temple Les Halles Paul Bocuse, named for the Lyonnaise chef who helped put the city on the gastronomy world map and who still regularly shops there; the Part Dieu shopping mall for a 21st century retail fix (I find they're particularly big on children's clothing stores and homewares and once you take the exchange rate into account, you're better off shopping at home); the exquisite Musee des Tissus, and the town's old city, itself named a Unesco Humanities World Heritage Site in 1998.
Lyon has long been the centre of France's textile and silk industry - its citizens have included the inventor of the sewing machine and the textile loom - so it's fitting that back onboard the River Royale, a woman from one of the local silk manufacturers is giving lessons in that French art of how to tie a silk scarf. It is nearly worth coming this far just to learn this.
On our cruise we have followed in the footsteps of popes, artists, kings and queens, writers and soldiers. But one of the most fascinating lives I discover is that of Nicolas Rolin, a chancellor of Burgundy during the 15th century. As he grew older, Rolin feared his lifetime of less than saintly deeds would result in an afterlife in hell rather than heaven so he used his fortune to build a charity hospital. The original Hospice de Beaune in the hills of Burgundy was founded in 1443 and until as recently as the 1960s, cared for the sick, poor and needy of the town. Newer clinics adjacent to the original building still provide free medical care to locals, as long as they were born in Beaune. Since 1851, the hospice has also been at the heart of Les Trois Glorieuses, a festival devoted to the food and wine of Burgundy and the famous charity wine auction held at that time.
With its beautiful tiled roof, vaulted ceilings and largely original condition - it has never been damaged by fire or war - Hospice de Beaune is now one of the finest examples of 15th century French architecture but without its story it just wouldn't be the same. Whether or not you believe in an afterlife, there's only one word to use for Rolin and his life turned around by a fear of God. That word is "Sante!".
Angela Walker travelled to France courtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises and Etihad.
Uniworld's eight-day Burgundy and Provence itinerary is priced from $3830 per person twin share, with additional pay-in-full savings from $500 and early booking savings of $250 available for 2013 bookings prior to June 30, 2012. Departure dates are available until November 2012 and between March and November 2013.
Highlights include Burgundy and Rhone Valley wine tastings as well as the art, cuisine, scenery and history of Arles, Avignon, Beaune, Chalon-sur-Saone and Lyon. Uniworld's epicurean options encompass shopping at open-air food markets in Arles or Beaune; Cotes du Rhone wine tasting in Tain l'Hermitage; crepes suzette - making demonstration and tasting as well as a special wine and food pairing dinner.
Uniworld on sale: Uniworld Boutique River Cruises is offering a selection of its 2013 luxury river cruises at 2012 prices for new bookings prior to June 30, 2012 with savings up to $3000 per couple available. Each Uniworld cruise includes: stateroom accommodation; all meals onboard with complimentary fine wines, choice of beer and soft drinks served during lunch and dinner; Europe company- owned ships; included excursions; signature lectures and entertainment onboard; and complimentary transfers on arrival and departure days. For more information ask your travel agent or visit uniworldcruises.co.nz
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