Friday 28 July 2023

Exploring The French Riviera, Monaco and the Rhône Valley by Train, part 2

Great Rail Journeys Tour and Cruise in the South of France:
The Rhône and Saône

Our TGV from Marseille brought us into Lyon Part Dieu station, some distance from the quayside at which our river cruise ship, the Amadeus Provence, was waiting, and we were met by a coach which took us through the busy streets of this fascinating city to join the ship. The whole ship was hired by Great Rail Journeys: there was our group and the standard class group who had been with us on the Riviera, plus a couple of groups who had gone direct to the cruise, one by rail and one by air, I think. All of the excursions were included for members of all four groups, as well as optional activities on board the ship. Our Tour Manager Kevin said farewell and handed over to Judith the Great Rail Journeys Cruise Manager, who had been our cruise manager last year on our tour of the Bordeaux vineyards - it had been less than a year since we had last seen her. She was joined by another Kevin as a helpful colleague and Andreea, the Amadeus Provence's own Cruise Director.

Once we were all on board and being welcomed, the ship set sail up the River Saône for Beaune where we were to enjoy the first excursion of the cruise. Our cabin for this trip was stunning. Generally we choose an ordinary cabin on the top deck, giving a good view through a decent window and a reasonable amount of space. There are just a few "suites" available at a considerably higher price and we have never considered these worth the extra money, but a couple of months before departure I had received a letter out of the blue from Great Rail Journeys offering the upgrade to a suite for just half of the normal price. It was still a lot but we decided to take this opportunity, which we might never get again, to experience the top grade of cabin. I presume they must have had unallocated suites on their hands and continuing demand for cabins and so offered the suites to regular customers such as ourselves, but, how ever it worked, we had the best accommodation on the ship, with a lounge area and a balcony as well as all the usual excellent facilities we have come to expect on an Amadeus ship. Indeed, this was the most spacious and best equipped river cruise boats we have ever used, with lots of power sockets in our cabin and even a small (well, tiny) swimming pool aft of the sundeck.

Docked at Chalon-our-Saône, we were divided into three groups and taken by coach for a short guided tour of the town of Beaune and for a wine-tasting at a cellar in the town centre. This is in the heart of the Burgundy wine area with its rich red wines. But there is more to Beaune than wine: it is a fascinating medieval town with a rich heritage and some interesting buildings. After some free time we were taken back to the ship for lunch. As always on these cruises, the meals are all on board and included in the price of the holiday. We opt for the light buffet lunch in the lounge bar rather than the main meal in the restaurant, reserving that for dinner: it would be all too easy to put on a lot of weight on a cruise!

The ship returned to Lyon through the pleasant scenery of the Saône valley and that evening we enjoyed a welcome dinner, slightly more formal than most, and were introduced to the ship's officers who were to look after us. 

After breakfast the following morning we were taken on a tour of Lyon by coach and on foot. We began at the basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière, high on a hill overlooking the city centre, which gave us not only an interesting building to visit but also the opportunity to se the way the city is laid out, beginning at the confluence of the rivers Saône and Rhône and growing in stages. We reboarded the coaches and then back down the hill explored one of the oldest parts of Lyon, along the right (west) bank of the Saône. Here were narrow streets and even narrower passageways between them connecting a myriad of apartments behind the shop fronts.

The Cathedral of Saint-Jean seen from Notre Dame de Fourvière

We had time for coffee and some personal exploring before returning to the ship for lunch. The ship set sail down the Rhône towards Tournon sur Rhône where we arrived by evening with time for a stroll before dinner on board.

The following day was Sunday and breakfast included sparkling wine, although it was German, not Champagne! Indeed, considering that we were largely a British group of passengers on a tour of France, there were no British crew and only one French person that I noticed, the First Captain, who spoke only French and had to have the Romanian Cruise Director translate for him when he spoke to us. 

Our coach took us a little way out of Tournon sur Rhône to the terminus of the Petit Train d'Ardèche, a preserved section of the once extensive Ardèche narrow-gauge railway system that first brought transport and prosperity to this region. We only had time to travel half way up the line, through spectacular scenery, before enjoying and included local drink and nibble and being taken back through the narrow lanes by coach to the riverside and our ship for the usual buffet lunch.

All aboard, the ship set off for Avignon along one of the most scenic sections of the river. Spectacular views could be had from the sundeck, and from the pool deck at the stern and river terrace at the bow. For most of the time the canopies could not be erected on the sundeck because of the need to pass under low bridges and through locks with gateways over the river, but this did not affect the pool deck of the river terrace. 

The next day we woke in Avignon and again we were split into smaller groups, each with a local guide, and we set off first of all on a tour of the town on one of those tourist road trains that you see in many tourist towns. Our guide was able to peak to us through the train's passenger address system and we were shown all round the town centre and the grounds to the Papal Palace, including many narrow streets that a coach would not be able to reach but which we'd never have had the time to visit on foot. Last time I was in Avignon I visited the Pont d'Avignon but not the palace, and this time it was to be the other way round, for a guided tour of the Papal Palace was included in our cruise programme.

Art exhibition in the palace: all this is made of cardboard, the artist's chosen medium

After the guided tour we walked around the town on our own for a while, mostly looking in shops, and then made our way back to the ship for lunch. The lunch menu this day was a special "Taste of Provence" menu with a selection of local and regional specialities. I think I tried everything, including that well-known (in England) dish, escargot (snails). The trouble was that so few people wanted to try the snails that those of us who did were served a generous portion and we did not know whether we'd like them ... Did I like them? They were OK: I did eat most of mine but I shall not be looking to choose them again. Maybe frying them might work ...

The Taste of Provence Lunch

The afternoon was free time and we opted stay on board and relax rather than spend a little more time in Avignon. Later the ship set sail for Arles and we were able to enjoy the scenery over dinner. Some effort was made to serve regional dishes all the time on the cruise, as well as regional wines. Wine, and water, is included on these cruises so you only need to buy drinks between or before and after meals if required, and we found that we really did not need to do that.

Arles was stunning. I knew, of course, about its connection with Vincent van Gogh who lived there and painted scenes there, but I had no idea about it rich Roman heritage, some of which is no only still extant but still in use! The one disappointment was that van Gogh's "yellow house" is no longer there but the rest of the street in his painting of it is still recognisable. Real efforts have been made by some business owners to present their buildings in the way that they appear in the paintings, and many of the scenes have really changed very little since his day. I was very impressed by following the Vincent van Gogh sites with the local guide (who was actually British in this case but still struggled not to speak to us in americanisms!), but for me the highlight was the Roman ampitheatre which is still used for public entertainment to this day, including variations on animal sports that go right back to the Roman Empire (although these days neither the animal nor the sportsman is expected to die).

The games played at Arles Arena are "Courses Camarguaises" with Camargue bulls bred for the purpose, not the traditional violent games but ones where the men, usually young local men, attempt to remove ribbons from the horns of the bull - and it is the bulls who are the stars. They have famous names and large fanbases who follow their exploits and watch them play against anonymous human sportsmen ... and successful bulls are buried with great honour when they die (of old age). We were to see some Carmargue bulls later that day on the second stage of our stay around Arles.

There was a lot to take in at Arles and it is certainly well worth a visit. We finished the guided tour at the hospital where Vincent van Gogh was taken after the famous incident when he cut off his ear. It is now a great place to remember him and includes a café and gift shops.

After lunch on board the ship we set off by coach for a tour of the Camargue Delta, seeing the Camargue bulls and the famous white Camargue horses along the roadside, along with distinctive style of houses with curved north ends to protect them from the Mistral winds which from time to time blight life in that part of the country. The coach took us to the Parc Natural régional de Camargue where we had a long walk around lakes to see thousands of birds native to this part of the Mediterranean coast.

We finished with a few minutes to look around the village of Saintes Maries de la Mare and its fascinating church with its legend concerning miracles and gipsies ...

We were welcomed back on board with a complimentary cocktail on the pool deck (taking care not to fall into the pool ... as the ship moved off for the next stage of our tour, back to the Ardèche region where we had enjoyed our vintage train ride a few days earlier but which now felt a very long time ago!

On the morning of the last full day of our tour, the ship dropped us off and we were taken by coach to visit the Ardèche Gorge, well worth a visit if you are over this way by road.

Highlights included watching canoeists making their way under a natural rock arch, seeing a meander which one day, in thousands of years' time, may become another such arch, and stopping a a view point to take in the grandeur of the entire spectacle - unfortunately slightly marred by rain which restricted the distance we could see, but not by a lot.

We were then taken to a lavender farm which was fascinating. We learnt a lot about the different varieties of lavender, and saw them growing, and the uses to which this plant has been put, medicinal as well as just perfume.

Back on board the ship we made our way back to Lyons to begin our journey home, and the evening meal was the gala dinner at which we met the rest of the crew and were able to thank them for their attention to our needs. The voyage itself was part of the holiday, of course, and there were many locks to pass through on the way.

A final night on board and we awake docked in Lyons and ready for the train home. We were carefully disembarked by party, there being several different Great Rail Journeys parties aboard this ship. Kevin our Tour Manager was there to gather us together and we boarded a coach which took us to the rail station to catch our TGV to Paris. The train was on time and the journey to Paris unremarkable, which I suppose is all you want a long train journey to be, really! We were spending our last day with people who had been with us for nearly two weeks. At Paris Gare de Lyon a coach was waiting to take our two groups to Gare du Nord and we arrived there in plenty of time for the train to London, passing easily through the ticket gates, the security screening (which is still not as slick as in London) and the two passport checks and then having time for coffee and a snack in the waiting area before our train was called for boarding. We left Paris on time and arrived in London on time, being served a light meal on the way. We made our way unhurriedly to Kings Cross and awaited a suitable LNER train back to Peterborough and onward to Stamford, an easy journey home.

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