Our week on the Rhone is now history. We’ve taken several cruises before; none surpassed this one. Compared with ocean cruising, river cruising has much to commend it:
1) Smaller numbers (almost 130 passengers on this boat versus a couple thousand or more on the ocean liners), so there’s a more intimate feeling less a sense of being part of a herd.
2) Greater personal attention from the staff. We got acquainted with many of them, from Captain Alex and Cruise Manager Camille to the restaurant waiters (Christina, Stela, Anton, Julian, etc.) and our cabin attendants. They’ve been well schooled in professional, smiling service.
3) More relaxed schedule, with no pressure to go on any of the on-shore excursions, even though all were included in the price of the cruise.
4) Ease of access. Ocean cruise ships require large ports or the use of tenders (small boats) to transfer passengers to the port. River cruisers can stop at small towns; passengers can step off the boat and be in the middle of things immediately.
5) More opportunity get beyond the tourist sites to see the “real thing.”
We were hooked. We hope to river cruise again one day.
Of course, the most important ingredient is the group you’re with. Here’s ours, a compatible, companionable collection if there ever was one.
I can’t tell all the stories, so I’ve selected a few highlights:
We enjoyed a brief overnight stop at the small, walled medieval town of Viviers, boasting its own cathedral and a warren of narrow streets, a perfect setting for telling ghost stories. They thought of that before we got there, providing us with a “Ghost Walk” by starlight.
Another treat was in store for us when we visited a truffle farm near Grignon. I confess I’m not much of a mushroom aficionado, but it was enlightening to learn about the harvesting of the black truffle (tuber melanosporum) in mid-November to mid-March.
These nondescript black things grow a few inches underground, so they are impervious to frost. The actual harvesters are either pigs (for much of truffle history) or dogs (the popular choice today), who can smell the truffles and dig them up either with their paws or snouts, delivering them to the farmer. He rewards their efforts with a pat on the head and a cookie or a little cheese. Seems unfair, doesn’t it? What they really want are truffles!
Avignon was high on my list of must-see places. It was the seat of the Roman Catholic Papacy (the so-called “Babylonian Captivity”) from 1309 when the French Pope Clement V—needing to escape the dangerous intrigues of Rome) chose Avignon as his headquarters. Altogether seven popes resided there until 1377, when Pope Gregory XI moved headquarters back to Rome. That started a schism in the church and for several more years there was a pope in Rome and an anti-pope in Avignon.
In Avignon we saw the Papal Palace, so large it overshadows the cathedral
next door, saw more ancient ruins, walked along the city wall, which has been preserved almost intact, a rarity. The town is now classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city belonged to the Papacy until 1791, when the French Revolution appropriated It. It has remained in French hands ever since.
Our final port was Arles. There was too much to see, so the Os and Ls added a couple days to our itinerary so we could absorb more.
A highlight was The Artist Experience. I cannot do this unique experience justice. We were bused to a former limestone quarry which serves as the sight of a multi-sensory phenomenon unlike anything we’ve encountered before. It is a total immersion in light and sound, the light being the projections of the paintings of Marc Chagall accompanied by a wide selection of music (I recognized “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons). Others immediately recognized Janis Joplin’s “A Piece of My Heart,” but that’s a different era! The visuals were projected on every wall and even the floor. I wanted to stay for hours.
The dominant name in Arles is Vincent Van Gogh. We visited the hospital where he spent his last year. We looked out the window onto the garden that he painted. (This wasn’t his room, but close enough that the view of the garden was similar.)
Near our house was the restaurant he made famous.
After having known the painting for a long time, it was as special treat to suddenly come into the street where the actual restaurant still exists today. You’ll notice, of course, that Van Gogh did not attempt to realistically recreate the actual scene (here or in any of paintings), but offers his idiosyncratic impression.
What a tragic figure. After a lifetime as a self-perceived failure, he shot himself at 37 years of age—and even botched that, lingering for a few more days after the suicide attempt before breathing his last. In his lifetime he sold only one painting. He was supported by his faithful, encouraging brother Theo. Some of this apparent failure’s paintings now sell for multiple millions of dollars. I wish he could have known! (What a lesson, by the way. We sometimes have to wait a long time for the rest of the story, the final sorting out.)
How to tell you about our house in Arles. It, too, beggars description. It’s an apartment about 12 feet wide, maybe 40 feet long—and three stories high. The oldest sections of the walls are a few centuries old; the doors and windows are new. The combination works. Joy likes places with character. This place oozes it, as you can see by the picture of the staircase up to our bedrooms.
I need make amends on another subject. Early in these posts I grumbled a bit about the weather. Too much rain, I said. Here’s the fact check: Everywhere we’ve been, including the Lake District, we have enjoyed exceptional weather, with a minimum of rain. Even the rains we’ve had have been gentle (except maybe for one or two in San Miguel). It rained a little yesterday, for example, but was thoughtful to appear at times which did not inconvenience us in the least. Thus it has been, mostly.
We head back to London from here. Probably it’ll rain. Then I can grouse again. [It didn’t.]
You might remember my reporting on the day when Joy left her gray bag on the train in Oxenholme, England, and we had to go to a lot of trouble to retrieve it a few days later. I confess I might have felt a little smug at the time. That’s something I would never do.
Well, my smugness ended abruptly Sunday. We rode the train from Arles through Avignon and Paris to London. Again our travel agent Candy made the arrangements. Everything went smoothly. (Full disclosure: Joy did have to point out that Candy’s little blue suitcase was missing in Avignon station. She hurried back for the rescue before thieves could make off with it. Crisis averted. I might have made a comment or two about the necessity for exercising care in such matters.
Then in the Paris train station I got to remind Candy again that she was walking off without her blue bag. Oh, the responsibilities we parents carry, even with our adult children. Of course, she was making all the decisions and guiding her husband and senescent parents safely through the labyrinth that is the Gare du Nord in Paris. We couldn’t have navigated on our own. Still, I felt compelled to point out her oversight.
And here’s where my smugness evaporated. After finally clearing security and nearly running through the mob of travelers for the train with a mere eight-minute cushion before departure, as we were putting our luggage on the rack in our coach, I discovered my little green personal bag was missing (along with my iPhone, money, other incidentals). The porter recognized our panic and told Michael he had just enough time if he’d run like crazy, which he did. He tore off for the security station hoping it was still there. It was. He had to identify it, then dash madly to the train which, fortunately, hadn’t slammed the door yet. You know, Michael isn’t really young. After the exertion he collapsed on the seat, panting and perspiring. I apologized all the way to London. He kindly accepted my protestations but with more than a hint that I’d be paying him back for a long time to come.
People our age shouldn’t be allowed to travel on their own.