A Trip Through Provence et le Cote d’Azur

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Part 2: Gordes, Arles, Avignon, Tournon, Tain l’Hermitage, Vienne

Day 7 ARLES. We enjoy a nice breakfast and then walk into old Arles to tour on our own. We visit the majestic Roman amphitheater where gladiators battled and  Christians were fed to lions. Blood still flows in that same arena.  Arles is one of the few cities in southern France that allows bullfighting the Spanish way. That is, when a bull leaves this ring the next stop is the butcher’s shop. And then, I suppose, our lunch plate!  Dining at one of the outdoor restaurants at the Place du Forum, we choose the prix fixe menu which includes Chinese salad, steak de toro, potatoes au gratin, and crème brulee for 13 euro each. We visit the Museon Arleton which depicts daily life in Arles in the 1800s-1900s, with dioramas, artifacts and fascinating displays. Stop into the Nord-Pinus Hotel where Picasso, Cocteau, Yves Montand and other celebrities stayed, along with bullfighters for which Arles is famous. The rooms drip with the atmosphere of that era of luxury and style, but modern pieces of art from around the world are also in evidence. A kind hotel manager treats us to wine in the bar that was a collection of photos and memorabilia—fascinating and wonderful. Back on the boat we enjoy prosecco before dinner, and finally we are underway, motoring upriver toward Avignon.

Day 8 AVIGNON. We walk into the old town and locate the office of a tour operator associate, with whom we walk for a visit of Hotel La Mirande. Located right in the shadow of the Palais de Papes, it is a rare and wonderful hotel, almost a historic monument itself, with a refined aesthetic and  beauty in every corner, every room a work of art. We see its authentic 19th century kitchen with original wood stove and huge woodblock table. This is where the hotel operates its cooking school where classes are taught by the most renowned chefs of Provence.

We visit the Palais de Papes, but make quick work of it, briskly moving through the massive rooms and listening to the recorded guide through our headphones. Then we search for a recommended restaurant—not easy in the convoluted streets of old Avignon—only to find it closed. So we buy baguette sandwiches, which we eat in front of the Palais, then hurry back to the boat for …

OUR PRIVATE WINE TOUR TO CHATEAUNEUF  DU PAPE. Our guide, Marc Jonas, is very wine-knowledgeable and fun to be with. We pass through the town of Orange, passing by one of the best-preserved Roman ruins in France. Unfortunately we have little time, and Orange is one of the five communes that produce the best known of the Rhone wines, the rich and complex blended wine (both red and white) called Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  First we visit the cellars of  Maison Bouachon, and then enjoy a pleasant tasting of several fine vintages of their Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Next we head to a high plateau, site of a large family winery, Mont Redon. Gazing beyond a rolling sea of vines, where vines have grown since Roman times, we can see the Palais du Pape in distant Avignon. On another day Mont Ventoux would be visible. We taste some very wonderful wines and buy several bottles. On the boat tonight we are entertained by gypsy guitar players and a dancer from the Camargue region.

Day 9  TOURNON and TAIN L’HERMITAGE.  In the morning we’re in Tournon, in the Ardeche department. On the Western bank of the river are the Syrah vineyards of Saint-Joseph wines, which we always enjoy.  The stark hillside above the river here has been planted in vines for more than two thousand years.  The vines produce the grapes that go into the famous Tain l’Hermitage wines. Off the ship, we cross the pedestrian bridge, to the town of Tain l’Hermitage. We enjoy a morning walk along the river and find our way to the tasting and retail shop for Valrhona chocolate. What a delicious stop! We buy a large selection of delectable treats, and then head to a little café for lunch. Just off the town square we visit a wine shop, Compagnie de l’Hermitage where Jean Philippe adds to our knowledge of regional wines while pouring tastes for us.  The proprietor arrives, expresses his disdain of wine guides, specifically the Wine Spectator, makes the statement that one “cannot use the English language to talk about wine,” and other friendly insults, and then wins our hearts by pouring us an absolutely delicious taste of a fine vintage.

Day 10 Lovely VIENNE. This morning we awake on the quay of the lovely old town of Vienne. We join a delightful tour led by an excellent guide, Elizabeth, starting with a ride on an open air rail car that climbs up Mont Pipet to see the first century Roman Theatre and other well preserved Roman ruins. As we roll along a narrow street a French gent exclaims, “Je t’aime!” “I love you!” Elizabeth mentions the success of the annual Vienne Jazz Festival that brings revenue to the town. The Vienne Jazz Festival has become an important event that attracts thousands of international jazz fans and world class musicians. This year the festival takes place June 28-July 13. Vienne is considered one of the best and most beautiful event sites on the summer circuit of European jazz festivals.

At noon our boat departs for the 20-kilometer trip to the city of Lyon. We open the french doors of our cabin and enjoy the swirling green water almost close enough to touch, the white swans, the lovely chateaux dotting the banks of the river … this is a completely different kind of cruise experience, so visually rich. We open a bottle of wine and watch the countryside go by. At such a nice slow pace, it takes us 3 enjoyable hours to reach Lyon.

Beautiful LYON. We jump on the motorcoach tour and head up to Fourviere Hill, from where we enjoy a fantastic view over Lyon which is situated at the confluence of the Saone and the Rhone Rivers.  We can see the two rivers and old section of Vieux Lyon below, with its beautiful houses of Gothic, Renaissance and late 16th century periods—the era of Lyon’s heyday as an important center for silk weaving and fabric manufacture. We stop into the  19th century Basilica, ‘Notre Dame de Fourviere’ which we will see from many vantages in the days we wander tirelessly the streets of Lyon.

Medieval PEROUGES. On the tour bus we head out of the city and northeast thirty kilometers for an excursion through the rural departement of l’Ain. As it rains lightly, we enjoy seeing the passing landscapes and country homes and farms which utilize traditional construction and sytems of ponds for irrigation, and in less than an hour reach the “Old Duchy of Savoyen,” the perfectly preserved medieval village of Perouges. With our guide we walk through the cobblestone paths and alleys of the town, which was famous for its weavers and craftspeople. It begins to mist, and the atmospheric quality of a town with such a long history creates a dreamy mood. We duck into a shop filled with antique furniture along with photos of famous visitors (including Bill and Hillary Clinton) for hot tea and the local pastry.

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