Friday 30 September 2016

Burgundy & Provence: Cruising down the river in France

Burgundy & Provence cruise

Emily Hourican

Published 18/07/2016 | 02:30

The Roman Amphitheatre in Arles is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Roman Amphitheatre in Arles is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Chef on SS Catherine
SS Catherine

Ratty was right. "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats," he says to Mole, in The Wind In The Willows, and now I see that he is correct. After a week on the Rhone, part of a Uniworld cruise, I am a convert.

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Having had the dimensions of an ocean liner in mind when I thought 'cruise', my first thought on spotting the SS Catherine was 'how elegant,' followed by 'how apt,' because it turns out the boat is named for the famously elegant French actress and icon Catherine Deneuve. Long and relatively low, the SS Catherine displays two floors and the deck above water, with plenty of windows - large for the bars and restaurant, smaller for the cabins. Having flown from Dublin to Lyons with Aer Lingus, our little group was conveyed speedily on board and introduced to what would be our home for a week. The itinerary is relaxed, but covers plenty of ground, starting in Lyons, finishing in Avignon, taking in Macon, Tain L'Hermitage, Viviers and Arles along the way. Sometimes the Catherine moors close to a city or town so that you can step off and right into the heart of the action, othertimes she pulls up against green banks with barely a soul in sight.

There is a pleasing opulence to the interiors, which are cunningly designed to maximise space but not at the expense of soft furnishings and artwork. The hand of Beatrice Tollman - co-owner, with her husband Stanley, of the Red Carnation Group (which now includes Ashford Castle in Co Mayo), of which Uniworld is a part - is much in evidence. Beatrice seems to be a woman of lavish and excellent taste. Bedrooms - called staterooms - are carpeted, with thick curtains and padded headboards, in a pretty greeny-blue colour scheme. Actually, I felt rather like Joan Collins for most of my stay, lounging across the plush bed - made by Savoir of England, dressed in Egyptian cotton sheets of high thread count (these things matter) - or applying make-up in the small but perfectly-formed en-suite. Plenty of framed art work hangs on walls, while an extravagant chandelier and gorgeous horse, both made of Murano glass, dignify the lobby, reached by two sweeping staircases. The Bar du Leopard in the stern of the Catherine looks like the kind of place Lauren Bacall might walk into, with trouble close behind, while the main dining- room is a riot of gorgeous colour and cloth.

Once you get on board, a cashless economy is in operation. In practice, what this means is that you may come and go between the restaurant, the two bars and various terraces, and back again, without trailing handbags and wallets behind you. At every turn, charming, intelligent staff are there to provide you with whatever you need, whether that's a glass of white wine, a Campari and tonic, a cup of mint tea and a couple of biscuits, or something more elaborate. And that's just outside the official dining hours.

Food on the SS Catherine is an integral part of the experience, with much thought, love and effort put into it. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style, but do not allow that to provoke visions of the usual kind of hotel or shipboard buffet. Here, we are talking French restaurant quality food, in glorious abundance. For someone as greedy as me, the sheer delight of contemplating the promise of an array of different options, changed daily and supplemented by regional specialities depending on the exact location of the ship, was the gift that kept giving. And, of course, this being the SS Catherine and literally nothing (that I could find anyway) being too much trouble for staff, there was also the possibility of something special just for you - eggs Benedict, say, or an omelette, made to order.

Excellent as breakfast and lunch are, dinner is a whole new level. The first and last nights are Gala dinners and the in-between nights are no slouches either. There is the chef's suggested menu, including a vegetarian option, which makes the most of local ingredients and styles of cooking, while for those (unaccountably, if you ask me) in the mood for something simpler, there is also the option of, say, steak and salad. Each course is paired with a carefully-chosen wine, which allows for discoveries far beyond what I would normally reach.

SS Catherine
SS Catherine

Every night, a tiny gift appears on the pillow as part of the turndown service. One night it was a box of sweets, the next a tiny bottle of L'Occitane lavender pillow spray. Also provided is a typed list of the next day's itinerary and activities, with departure times, length of trip and return times marked. This is remarkable useful for those who, like me, are not very good at paying attention to detail when this same information is delivered verbally over pre-dinner drinks in the Van Gogh lounge.

This is the moment when everyone comes together, after a day of doing various different things; a cooking class perhaps, walking tour or vineyard visit. On all sides, while sipping a pre-dinner drink, you can hear people asking each other "how was the trip? What did you do?" while stories are swapped of individual comings, goings and doings. The week I was there, most of my fellow cruisers were American and Canadian and this, I believe, is a pretty representative mix.

This pre-dinner meet-and-greet is also an opportunity for the (dashing!) ship's captain to describe the next day's activities, and for the ship's sommelier, Laurentia, to describe the wines that will be served that evening at dinner. She was, beyond a doubt, the most eloquent sommelier I have come across, with an infectious passion for her job, and a store of the most apt quotes about wine and food, including this one from Socrates: "Wine moistens and tempers the spirit and lulls the cares of the mind to rest. It revives our joys and is oil to the dying flame of life."

Comfort and relaxation may be the motivating forces behind the SS Catherine, but there is plenty to do, if doing is your thing. Everything from walking tours of the nearest town or city, to vineyard visits, canoeing, even a trip up in a private plane (this is extra, but that is understandable), are organised and ready to go. All you need do is sign up, or simply turn up at the appointed time. Best of all, there is none of the forced conviviality of some tours - attendance is not mandatory, although given the range of what's on offer, you'd be mad not to.

So, what were the excursion highlights? These were many.

The trip to Arles was a chance to see some Roman architecture, including Les Arenes, an amphitheatre, built in 90AD and able to seat 20,000 blood-maddened Romans as they watched wild animals and men tear each other apart in jolly circus displays. Arles is also where Van Gogh (or 'Vincent' as my five-year-old daughter familiarly refers to him, having learned the sad story of his life in school) lived and worked, and there is a Van Gogh trail to follow, taking in the cafe where he socialised, now named for him, on the Place de Forum.

On another day, a walking tour of Lyon took us through a fascinating labyrinth of what are called traboules, medieval passageways between buildings and streets. Often reached via very unremarkable doors, the traboules are secret reminders of the past, sometimes dark and narrow, other times with lovely old courtyards at the heart of them. In fact, Lyons, third biggest city in France and possibly gastronomic capital (this is, natch, a hotly-contested title), was a revelation all round - a great combination of a modern, functioning city with plenty of medieval and renaissance beauty.

The famous indoor food market, Les Halles, has a pretty irresistible selection, well over 50 stalls selling cured meats, cheeses, foie gras, wine, caviar, vegetables, sweets, preserves and cakes. That evening, a night out in the city gave a small gang of us a chance to try some of the specialities - andouillettes, a sausage made of pork intestines, also quenelles (dumplings made with pike; delicious, but not for the butter-wary) and a salade Lyonnais (basically bacon and poached eggs with frise leaves. Mmmm).

Chef on SS Catherine
Chef on SS Catherine

A visit to a truffle farm was great fun. The stars of the show were a pair of Labradors who effortlessly dug up a series of truffles, the black gold of Provence. Then I tried the farm's truffle oil, which rather replaced the dogs in my affections.

Avignon was magnificent - still Pope-ish after all these years (639 to be precise; it ceased to be the seat of the popes in 1377). There is no mistaking the look - grand, historic, rather pleased with itself. And beautiful, of course.

But undoubtedly my favourite excursion, was an afternoon's canoeing, a combination of enjoyable physical exercise - with the odd resounding thump when a combination of wind and inexperience sent us straight into the river bank, despite our best and desperate efforts to paddle away - and sightseeing. We paddled enthusiastically along the Gardon river until, after about an hour, and just exactly as I began to get tired, we rounded a bend and there in front of us was the glorious Pont du Gard. Built by the Romans in the first century AD as an aqueduct, to carry water from the spring at Uzes to their baths in Nimes, this is utterly beautiful, a triple-arched structure of golden limestone, 160ft high, that spans the river and under which we glided on our canoes. I saw it first on my honeymoon, and have never forgotten the glow of that stone in the sunlight, or the rather breath-taking dimensions of construction. And then they ask what the Romans ever did for us . . .

Meanwhile, back on board - where there is also a gym, a spa and a relaxation pool - by the end of the week I got into an extraordinarily virtuous regime: getting up for the 7am session with Florian, the onboard Wellness coach and a former Olympic athlete, who led a small party of us to the deck for sun salutations and stretches designed to start the day the healthy way. By the time I made it to the Cezanne restaurant for breakfast, I felt I had earned the pancakes, waffles, mini croissants and other deliciousnesses with which I loaded my plate, to be followed with bacon, sausages and perhaps those eggs Benedict.

And in-between the visiting, the exploring, the eating, drinking and socialising, there was much-needed time to simply drift. To wander into a town when moored close by, for coffee and a stroll. To sit on deck with a book, watching as the green river banks slipped by at what felt like the perfect speed - fast enough to stir a breeze, slow enough to see everything we passed - while a little voice in my mind whispered 'this is bliss.' In the background, the Jura mountains, with the sun beating down and another excellent meal on the horizon.

Like I said, Ratty was right.

Getting there

Emily travelled on her cruise with Uniworld Boutique River Cruises. Prices for the Burgundy & Provence all-inclusive river cruise onboard the stunning SS Catherine start from €2399 per person, departing on August 21, 2016 (other dates available).

Uniworld's value-packed itineraries include seven-nights in a riverview stateroom, return airport transfers, all meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks) and unlimited onboard drinks including fine wine, beer, spirits and cocktails, Captain's Farewell, Gala Dinner and fine-dining experiences. Also included is a full programme of daily excursions, all gratuities, evening onboard entertainment, signature lectures and free internet and Wi-Fi.

For more information contact uniworld.com, Freephone 1800 98 98 98 or visit your local Travel Agent. Emily flew to Lyon direct with Aerlingus.com.

Take three: Top attractions

Pont du Gard

Whether you see it by boat or bus, do not miss the Pont du Gard. Actually an aqueduct, with, originally, a toll bridge on the lowest level, this was built by the Romans in the first century AD, as part of a 50 km-long system to carry water from a spring at Uzes to the baths in Nîmes. Three tiers of glorious honey-coloured limestone stretching over the Garderon river. Completely beautiful.

Avignon

All French children learn to sing Sur Le Pont d’Avignon, and indeed the bridge is well worth singing about. Along with the Palais des Papes and the Cathedrale Notre-Dame des Doms, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A very manageable size, you can wander into Avignon and up to the Place du Palais in  a few minutes. Avignon was the seat of seven popes, between 1309 and 1377, and stayed under Papal control until 1791.

Lyon

Third largest French city and the gastronomic capital of the country, Lyons is a delight. Big, bustling, full of daily life conducted around the many medieval and Renaissance buildings. Heaps to see, but don’t miss the Institut Lumiere, a fascinating museum with many of the Lumiere brothers’ earliest cinematic inventions, Les Halles, the covered food market, and the Cathedral of St John.

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