The idea for cruise to Provence on the Rhone River took hold about a year ago. EO, Educational Opportunities, had notified me that I had some credit coming from my lectures on cruises on the Mediterranean (“Paul’s Fourth Missionary Journey”) and to Alaska (“The Wonder of It All”) I could take it in cash or double its value by applying it to another cruise, this time without lecturing (they must have read the evaluation sheets).
So we told the family and some friends about it, and last Friday thirteen of us met in Lyon, France to board AmaWaterway’s AmaDagio along with another 120 or so cruisers. It was a good decision. We had sailed before, but on ocean cruise ships. This, everybody promised us, would be different. It is.
As I write we’re in the fifth of our eight days of sailing on a river we knew almost nothing about into territory foreign to us. We’re learning and loving it every day.
We met Candy and Michael in London—actually, we camped in their flat for a couple of days. You saw some of our pictures in the last post. Mike was also with us, his baby-sitting duties having come to an end when Joy returned to me from her painting class in NW Ireland.
On Friday we Chunneled from London to Paris, excited to experience this engineering marvel. Joy and I remember when the 31-plus-miles-long tunnel under the British Channel was opened in 1994. Not a lot to write about the experience. It was dark. No sight-seeing. (I tried not to think about the mega-tons of water just over our heads.) So we ate and read and dozed and woke up in France, where we changed train lines in Paris and took off for Lyon, our port of departure for the cruise.
None of us had been here before; the beautiful city captivated us. We had our first meal and then spent the night aboard the AmaDagio, rising at a civilized hour for our walking tour. So much to tell you, so little space. Among its many claims to fame are these:
1) Lyon is France’s third-largest city–Unless you believe our taxi driver from the station to the pier, who insisted it’s the second. (He’s right, actually, if you include the whole metropolitan area. But officially, within the city limits, it’s the third-largest.
2) It is France’s gastronomique center. Don’t listen to the Parisian who would insist otherwise. Our guide warned us that here they eat the “whole pig.” And the whole cow. And a whole lot of other things. The escargot was delicious. The pate de foie gras is the way to eat liver, if you must eat liver.
3) It has been an important center for producing and weaving silk for centuries.
4) Here is where movies began. The brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere gave birth to cinematography in this town.
5) What most caught our attention were the many trompe l’oeil mural frescoes. The term means “trick of the eye” and refers to paintings so realistic you can’t tell without a closer look that you aren’t seeing actual three-dimensional objects. Perhaps the most famous one is the 8600 square foot La Fresque des Lyonnais of some of the city’s most famous figures. We didn’t recognize the people. But we were impressed, anyway.
6) The Traboules. These are the hidden passageways in the old city that helped silk and textile workers move quickly from the river’s shore to their homes and shops. Though the traboules have probably been around since the 4th century, they gave their most significant service during World War II when they allowed the city’s people to escape and hide from the Nazi occupiers.
7) Our cruise brochure also highlighted Boules Lyonnaises-Petanque, a game “where the goal is, while standing inside a starting circle with both feet on the ground to throw hollow metal balls as close as possible to a small wooden ball called the ‘cochonnet’ (piglet or jack). We didn’t see it played and really don’t understand it, but I felt compelled to include it in this description for my sports-minded friends, since about 17 million people in France play a causal form of the game. I think it’s an acquired taste.
If I ever knew the Roman Emperor Claudius was born here, I had forgotten it. But I did know about Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince. This was his home, also. And the sophisticated diners among us recognized Paul Bocuse, France’s most famous chef.
From Lyon we made our way to Collonges, just twenty miles downstream.
After good sleep we ate a full breakfast or two, then took off on the day’s excursion in the wine country of Beaujolais to admire the landscape and visit a vineyard and sample the fruit of the vine in both its original on-the-vine and in-the-glass configurations. What an amazing transmutation the simple grape experiences en route from the vine to the glass.
Over 80 of us are traveling together in the EO group. We signed up for this particular excursion because we wanted to hear Bishop and Duke Divinity School Professor Will Willimon lecture on the significant artists in this area.
He began with the artist Corbet, then went on to Monet and Cezanne, in other words painters of the French impressionist period. He brought along a bevy of slides to illustrate the development of this still dominant school of painting. Then he concluded with allusions to some New Testament examples of Jesus teaching us to pay attention, to look at the people whom the religious tend to overlook, to see with new eyes. This preacher, anyway, loved it, believing it’s as important for a Christian to pay attention to people as for artists to pay attention to their subject matter.
The majority of his lectures concentrated on that eccentric, enigmatic, probably bipolar but incessantly intriguing painter Vincent Van Gogh. I wish I could reproduce his talks and slides of the paintings here. Let’s just say Dr. Willimon did justice to his subject. Even more important, he gave us permission to trust our own interactions with the paintings. We’ll be more attentive to Provence in general and Arles in particular because of his preparation.
Our stop in Vienne (another 20 miles away from Lyle, in the other direction) was a delight. I’d never heard of this town. On our walking tour we peered at the Temple of Augustus and Livia, and the Roman Amphitheatre (the Brits taught the French how to spell in English, as you can see in the re), taking us back a couple thousand years to when Vienne became a Roman colony under Julius Caesar.
The story of the Temple of Augustus and Livia recapitulates the history of Vienne. Built originally to glorify the Emperor Augustus and his wife Livia (who was pronounced a god like the divine Augustus when she died), it was “converted” around the 4th century and christened Sainte-Marie-la-Vieille , or Notre Dame de la Vie). It became a parish church in the 11th century. Then during the French Revolution (late 1700s) it was repurposed as a Temple of Reason and functioned as a commercial and Magistrates’ Court. Then in 1822, yet another conversion, this time becoming a museum and library. It was restored as a Roman temple between 1853 and 1870. The town is pretty proud of this building.
An unexpected pleasure in this Rhone River cruise was passing through twelve locks between Lyon and Arles. It’s an unusual sensation to feel your ship sinking lower and lower beneath the upper surface, then coming out at the lower level. Not for the claustrophobic, once the darkness takes over.
Tourism is a major industry all along the Rhone River today. You can easily see why. The whole area captivates the imagination with its rich blend of Roman, Medieval, Renaissance and modern architecture.
There’s much more to report, but this post is already pretty long. We’ll send you another at the end of the cruise.