Ooo…la…la…la…French Gourmet Dining Experience

About once a month, I receive a brochure in the mail from Viking River Cruises. I look at it, ponder its contents for a while and then place it in the recycle bin. Last year, I thought, what if? After discussing the idea with some of my friends, we decided that a river cruise just might be fun. We have all taken at least one cruise with a cast of thousands of passengers, but this would be something different, more intimate, since these vessels are small and, for the most part, sail with two hundred or less.

After some research, we decided on AMA Waterways for our maiden voyage. I have always wanted to spend some time in France, and one of their cruises sails in the south of France. Perfect. Arrangements were made, and the trip commenced on April 19, 2013. After sitting on the tarmac at O’Hare Field for two and one half hours, waiting out the flood that encircled Chicago, we were off, in time for me to miss my connecting flight from Frankfort, Germany to Lyons, France.

All’s well that ends well, and I finally made it to Lyons, to rainy, cool weather, but definitely in time to board the boat on the Rhone River. On our first day, we remained in Lyons to tour Fourviere Hill for “a fantastic view of Lyons.” The rain and fierce, aggressive winds tore our umbrellas as we climbed the hill for our panoramic view of the city so nothing was left except the steel rods. We could not see anything as we huddled into ourselves for warmth, feeling sorry for our guide who was not warmly dressed, but who bravely persisted in doing her job, talking about the sights we were supposed to see.

Day two was in the picturesque region of Beaujolis, home of fine wines. We visited a winery, where we tasted several wines, had sausage and cheese and listened to the owner talk in French about his wines as the local guide translated. He said he did not speak in English, as he was “not paid to do that.” Our tour included the tiny, quaint, pristine village of Oignt (pronounced Wah), which has been voted best local small village.

Day three was a walking and train trip to the Roman ruins on Mont Pipet Hill in the town of Vienne. A minitrain took us up to a well preserved temple, dedicated to Julius Caesar and his wife, Livia. Interestingly, all the retail stores were closed because this was a Monday and retail stores in France are shuttered on Sunday and Monday every week. I could not help mentally contrasting that with the seven days our stores are open all year long.

The morning of day four took us from the town of Tournon to a wine tasting experience in the wine making region of Cotes du Rhone. There we listened to a young woman, representative of an old, winery family, tell us all about the history of wine making and techniques, after which we had a tasting of seven wines.

In the evening, we journeyed to the town of Viviers for a “ghost walk.” Most of the passengers on the ship participated, as this was definitely a fun activity. We walked through the old city, a walled, medieval town, where our guide, dressed in period costume, introduced us to the “ghost” of Noel Albert, the most famous inhabitant, beheaded for corruption. It was well lit, to highlight the medieval feeling of the city by night. Although 30,000 people lived here at one time, today the town counts less than 4,000 inhabitants.

The fifth day trip was Avignon, where we toured the papal palace. At one time, Avignon was an important Catholic church center and was the home of the papacy from 1309 to 1377. Avignon actually belonged to the Catholic church for 400 years until the French Revolution when it was reincorporated into France. Seven popes resided in this vast, resplendent palace. During our walk, I noted that this is a lively town with many shops.

Finally, our last day in Arles and a visit to an impressionist museum in a stone quarry. In 45 minutes, against a background of classical music, we watched all of the paintings of the impressionist painters change, ceiling, walls and floor, until all the works of every impressionist painter had been shown. We then visited the asylum where Vincent Van Gogh was a patient and where he painted many of his finest works. The hospital is still in use, and one hundred women are currently patients.

Later that afternoon, we toured the city of Arles, which has splendid Roman remains, notably a huge theatre and an amphitheatre, with a seating capacity of 25,000, proving that the Romans lived well, even in the provinces. The town is also a gathering place for gypsies from all over Europe.

The food was divine, truly ooo…la…la…la…a French gourmet dining experience. We were in the heart of French gastronomy and wines, where the French take true pride in both the presentation and taste of their offerings. Fine wines of the area were ever present, offered freely without cost at both lunch and dinner. Pastries and wonderful breads were all baked on board by boat chefs and bakers.

The staff was friendly and accommodating, always providing a cordial, friendly atmosphere. There is no assigned seating, so if you are open to meeting new people, you can meet and make new friends during mealtimes. After dinner, on many evenings, local entertainment is brought on board. We saw performances by a chanteuse, a pianist with many hats and songs from around the world, and a trio of gypsy performers.

All of the towns have local tour guides, guaranteeing familiarity with the area. A nice touch is the Quietbox, which has earphones so that the guides can be heard from a distance. No more following on the heels of the guide to guarantee hearing the presentation! Also, the cabins each have a television that can be converted into the Internet at the touch of a button.

River cruising has only been in existence since 2006, because the Rhone was once a treacherous, often flooding, body of water. The first lock was installed in 1956, and today twelve locks make the river current manageable. At present, over 20 boats sail around the rivers of Europe and Asia. Three new boats are being added this year, one of which will be on the AMA line. Boats cannot be made wider, only longer, so this is a limiting size factor.

On the seventh day, after disembarking in Arles, we went back to Marseille, from where it is possible to take a trip through the French Riviera. In Marseille, we boarded a Hop On-Hop Off bus tour around the Marseille City Center. Because the company had shortened their schedule, we would have had to wait two and one half hours for a bus if we left the vehicle to explore, so we had to content ourselves with the ride around the old city.

The next day, a van booked through a local tour company took us to Cannes, Nice and Monaco, all lovely, pristine communities. We took pictures in front of the famous theatre in Cannes. The grand staircase is not grand at all, just ordinary stairs, which must be photographed so that they will appear imposing. The beaches of Nice have many names, one of which is Miami Beach. They contain no sand, only stones, so the people lying on them must be very uncomfortable. Monaco is imposingly kept up, so that it appears as unreal as a movie set. We also visited the Fragonard perfume factory where we learned that there are only 150 perfume makers in the entire world. Schooling lasts three years, with another seven of internship. Anybody making perfume cannot drink liquor, smoke or eat spices, as these activities will impact the nose. A perfumer only works two hours a day. The nose gets tired.

From Marseille, we flew to Paris. Ah, Paris. So much has been written about it. What can I possibly add that will matter? On our first day, we walked on the Avenue Champs d’Elysee to the Tuileries Gardens, which are not gardens at all, but simply statues still remaining where an opulent, imposing palace stood before the French Revolution. The French people have an interesting distance perspective. We were told repeatedly, over a distance of over two miles, that the Tuileries are “just over there.” What we learned is that nobody who said “just over there” had ever walked the distance.

On our first full day, we rode the Hop on-Hop Off bus, to which we had purchased a two day pass, which had to be used on consecutive days. Our first stop was the Eiffel Tower where the line snaked around the block. Had we stood in the line, it would have taken several hours to be taken to the top, so we elected not to remain. Instead, we visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame, where the wait was at least reasonable.

That night we did the tourist thing and saw the show at the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre. If they packed in any more tables, there would have been no room to walk. The food was mediocre, but the show was lush and memorable, with excellent dancers, memorable, vivid colors and costumes, a ventriloquist and a couple of who performed a remarkable, seemingly impossible, acrobatic act.

Our second Hop on-Hop off was largely spent in the charming, old Marais section, which also contains the Jewish Quarter. There are several Jewish stores among the boutiques. Among them was a Jewish bakery, where we had a most delicious sandwich.

As we peered into the window of a tiny, locked synagogue, a man came to the outside door and invited us inside. If more than a dozen people were in this room, it would have felt claustrophobic. It was that small. However, adorning the bimah, were no less than six beautiful Torahs. The man turned out to be the assistant rabbi, who spoke to us at length about the “improvements” the mayor of this district had made. It seems that the cute boutiques and newly paved streets are not improvements at all in the minds of the Orthodox Jewish community who lived here. He bemoaned the fact that the stores were open on Saturday when residents were enjoying the Sabbath, and that the noise and tumult of all the visitors defiling their area had caused everyone to move away, creating a kind of ghost street. Some quirky laughs came when we saw a resale shop entitled “Come on Eileen” and when we noted the name Panzer on a grocery store window.

We visited the Paris museum of the Holocaust. It is free and richly documented but, unfortunately, very little was translated into English, so we missed a great deal of the commentary.

We finished the afternoon in Montparnasse, where we had coffee and hot chocolate in a café during a downpour. At the end of the day, we had a very rich French dinner in a recommended restaurant. A final note. The French people get a bad rap. They were unfailingly polite and often volunteered “I speak English” when they heard us talking in rudimentary French.

My last day in Paris. On my first trip to Paris, I had not been able to go to Versailles. It was one of the major sights I wanted to see this time around. Museums are shuttered on Mondays, so we had bought a two day bus pass for Monday and Tuesday. Because of the consecutive day rule, only Wednesday was left for Versailles. It seems that Wednesday, May 1, is the French Labor Day and everything is closed. Everything. Even department stores. We were going to the Bon Marche, the grande dame of French shopping, only to find that it too was shuttered. Instead we saw the La Basilique du Sacre Coeur du Montmartre, where a funicular (mini train) elevated us several hundred steps to this impressive small cathedral. We also walked the length of the Avenue of the Abesses, lively and charming.

Foiled again. Two trips to Paris and still unable to see the fabled splendor of Versailles. Well, I guess that just means that I will have to return to France.