Regal passage up the Rhone

PAM WADE
Last updated 13:00 17/07/2013
Rhone river cruising
Pam Wade

ENDURING SPAN: Both beautiful and a seriously impressive piece of engineering, the Pont du Gard has withstood two millennia of floods.

Rhone river cruising
'ALLO 'ALLO: The tour director, left, chats with a Tournon local.
Rhone river cruising
CHARMANT: The narrow lanes of hilltop village Les Baux.

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"Cleopatra proceeded in state along the Nile."

For Nile, read Rhone; for state, read stateroom; for Cleopatra, read me and you’ve got it.

All that was missing were the slaves sweating over their oars, but though I wouldn’t dream of using that term for the cheerful, friendly and efficient staff on Uniworld’s River Royale, there was no doubt that whenever there was a whim, there was instant pandering.

The queen of Egypt was on to a good thing back then, and increasingly the modern world is discovering the real delights of river cruising. On the great rivers of Europe there is now a constant procession of long, skinny boats carrying around 130 guests each, their uniform size dictated by the length and width of locks and the height of bridges. Uniworld’s fleet pushes the limits where possible: I was fascinated to watch the wheelhouse on the River Royale telescope down into its collar like a tortoise’s head for the lowest bridges, while my stateroom was a prime example of fitting a quart into a pint pot.

Not that I was there much, super-cushioned bed and marble bathroom notwithstanding: There was too much going on elsewhere. Though I had floor-to-ceiling ranchsliders in my stateroom, the view was necessarily one-sided, so most of my time on the water was spent in the comfortable lounge or up on deck.

The joy of a river cruise is that there’s always something to look at and on this eight-day journey up the Rhone from Arles to Lyon and then into the Saone, the scenery of Provence and Burgundy was far too picturesque to waste.

First came Arles, with its Roman amphitheatre and inviting little lanes between rows of houses with lavender-painted shutters.

A lot of that paint was genteelly peeling, and the town had a charmingly scruffy, lived-in feel – 2,000 years of occupation will do that to a place. It didn’t put off Van Gogh who, we learned from a talk on board, lived here for his most productive year, madly painting (literally) scenes around the town still there to see today.

At a nearby olive mill, after 10 generations the Sourdon family has entered the 21st Century and the business is for the first time under the control of daughters, whose passion for the green-gold oil is impressive and catching. This was part of one of the regular optional outings by coach, which also included the beautiful hill-top village of Les Baux, its castle seeming to grow organically out of the rock.

Up the river at Avignon, we saw the truncated but lovely bridge followed by  a tour of the city and then a trip to a wine cellar at Chateauneuf-du-Pape with some serious swirling and slurping, and some non-professional swallowing too.

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Well, this stony terroir is famous the world over for its wines: Spitting felt like sacrilege.

Some of the guests had instead spent the afternoon in a friendly French ‘‘Masterchef’’ scenario, buying fish and chickens (complete with heads) from the market, to prepare under expert supervision.

They came back to the boat buzzing with enthusiasm, which we countered by showing our photos of the truly spectacular Pont du Gard where our bus had taken us after the wine-tasting. This aqueduct, built in an incredible five years by the Romans, is one of the glories of Provence.

More stops followed. There was Viviers, its narrow winding alleyways empty of all but cats, with a cathedral at the top and tempting patisseries at the bottom. Then there were the twin towns of Tain and Tournon, a suspension bridge apart, where a French gentleman arranged a special performance of the church carillon for us, with Ode to Joy ringing out over the tiled rooftops. Perhaps loveliest of all was Beaune, with its extraordinary 15th-century charity hospital under a riot of patterned tiles and towers.

Our biggest city was Lyon, spreading downhill from the Basilica at the top, with secret alleyways and excellent shops, its restaurants offering the full range for lunch from Michelin-starred chef Paul Bocuse right down to a McBaguette at you know where. Here, as at every stop, we had a local guide equipped with a radio microphone, so that we could trail behind looking at things and still hear; and then we were free to wander at will.

Sadly, it all came to a stop at Chalon-sur-Saone. For eight days we had been pampered, eaten superbly, drunk Cotes du Rhone wines from the vineyards we had passed, enjoyed beautiful scenery, and had a taste of Cleopatra’s life – minus, thankfully, the asp.

Pamela Wade was a guest of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises and Etihad Airways.

FAST FACTS

Getting there: Etihad Airways code shares with Air NZ and Virgin Australia across the Tasman, with connections through Abu Dhabi to 18 European destinations including Paris.

Cruising there: Uniworld’s 8-day Burgundy & Provence cruise is priced from $4350 per person, twin share. Pay deposit by July 31, 2013, and receive $200 per person early booking discount, or pay in full and save up to $500 per person early payment discount.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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