The south of France is the stuff of art and fiction. Painters such as Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin have tried to capture its vast azure skies and sun-kissed landscapes. Writers such as F Scott Fitzgerald have immortalised it in novels. And ordinary travellers have fallen in love with its sleepy villages, scenic vineyards, lively markets and encyclopedia’s worth of chateaux.
Though it’s only a few hours by train from Paris, the region feels worlds away from the French capital. There is little hustle and bustle, and far less traffic. Everything moves at a slower pace, yet nothing feels inefficient. No wonder celebs like David and Victoria Beckham, Elton John and Brad Pitt have all purchased Provencal homes. The beauty of the region, the sunny climate and the relative dearth of people (and prying eyes) make it the perfect getaway for the privacy-starved.
The region, however, is sprawling. The towns and cities are much farther from each other than expected. And the weather from June to August can be prohibitively warm, even if it is also the time when all the fields around you are etched with perfumed lavender, golden sunflowers, bales of wheat and bottle-green vines. One way of exploring the South during summer is by a river cruise that takes you from one picturesque town to another without the hassle of packing and unpacking at each destination.
UniWorld, one of the world’s most-garlanded river cruise companies, offers an 8-day Burgundy & Provence package, which has its super-ship S.S. Catherine winding its way gently through France’s Soane and Rhone river, from Lyon and Viviers to Arles and Avignon. Each stop offers more than a snapshot of the rustic villages, atmospheric cafes and cobblestoned sidewalks; there are organised visits to wine cellars, olive farms, silk-weaving factories, and Provencal cooking classes at the renowned La Mirande Hotel – so you get to know the traditions and history of every stop.
Food, glorious food
Beginning from Saone River, the luxury cruise ship first stops at Lyon, the gastronomy capital of France. There are over 1,500 eateries here for a population of half a million, and that means there are more restaurants per head here than anywhere else in France.
For the past 100 years or so, Lyon has been a mecca for global food pilgrims who duly make reservations at the 20 Michelin-starred restaurants months in advance. These include the famous restaurant Paul Bocuse which has three Michelin stars, La Mere Brazier (two stars), Neuvieme Art (two stars) and Takao Takano (two stars). Bocuse is one name you need to know before you step into Lyon, because he practically invented modern Lyonnaise cuisine.
But if you don’t score a reservation at these restaurants, there is still much of Lyon’s food culture to enjoy. For one thing, there are bouchons everywhere – traditional Lyonnaise family restaurants that serve home-cooked specialities whose recipes have been passed down generations. Some of these bouchons are centuries-old, and distinguishable by their red-and-white checked table-cloths and conspicuous absence of a menu – the waiter will tell you what they’re serving.
There are boulangeries, patisseries, fromageries, cremeries, and chocolatiers galore, as well as lively food markets such as the famous Les Halles de Lyon, the market on Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse, as well as Saint Antoine Farmers Market, where you’ll find good quality regional food products at different price points.
Though you have only a day in Lyon, your food adventure doesn’t have to end once you return to the S.S. Catherine. One aspect that everyone seems to agree on – and they include this writer, real-life passengers and online commentators – is the high quality of UniWorld’s food. Every night for dinner, the ship offers a range of local treats made from ingredients sourced from the respective port city.
On the first night, it offered eggs meurette (poached), cream of potato and leek parmentier, and corn-fed Gaston Gerard chicken breast, all classic dishes of Burgundy, to mark the ship’s departure from the region. On another night, there was regional antipasti, baked escargot Burgundy style and pan-seared Salmon L’Oseille Troisgros-style as part of the local dining experience.
If you’re not an adventurous eater, you can always opt for more conventional options such as beef steak with pepper sauce. There’s always an attentive wait staff floating between tables to find you something that may not be on the menu, and a sommelier to ensure that the right wine goes with your dinner choices.
At any rate, the menu changes every night, and it is often the subject of lively discussion among passengers the morning after.
Shall we dance?
One of the pleasures of being on a cruise is going to bed at night and waking up the next morning having arrived in a different city. While you’re sleeping in one of its well-appointed staterooms or suites, the S.S. Catherine is gently cruising towards the next destination, ready to surprise you with a new view from your window at daybreak.
After Lyon, the floating boutique hotel travels to Viviers, an enchanting little town with a population of less than 4,000 people. With its tree-lined avenues, bougainvillea-draped lanes and babbling fountains, Viviers is everything you imagine a rural medieval French town to be. Though there’s little by way of architectural attractions, Viviers makes up for it with small surprises, such as staging a 30-minute classical organ concert in a 12th century cathedral for tourists, and offering exceptionally good local coffee in the brasseries.
UniWorld’s guide for Viviers, a long-time resident by the name of Pierre, also turns out to be an unusually witty man. He says: “When it snows here, the people of Viviers don’t go to work. When it rains here, the people of Viviers don’t go to work. And when we do have to go to work, we go on strike.”
Pierre takes the group to a crumbling bishop’s palace where, in a large mural-filled hall, he pops a CD into a stereo player and stages a series of dances with his female partner. It runs the gamut from waltz and tango to polka and rock and roll, all performed with such precision and gusto, you’re convinced this is how he and his fellow townsfolk keep their spirits up in such a sleepy hamlet.
For some of the cruise passengers, this unexpected spot of dancing is just what they need to get psyched for the evening’s entertainment. After dinner, the SS Catherine doesn’t encourage its passengers to retire to their rooms immediately. There is live music in the lounge performed by different guest musicians every night.
Once there was an all-women troupe belting out 1970s disco classics. On another night, a piano man regaled listeners with jazz standards well into the early hours. As with the food and wine on the ship, the entertainment is covered by the cruise fare, so you can dance and drink the night away without worrying about the bill.
What Van Gogh saw
Tempting as it is to stay on board the ship and let the attentive staff address you by name and feed you every hour, the next two Provence cities – Arles and Avignon – offer an embarrassment of scenic riches you cannot refuse.
Arles is a particular draw for art lovers. Though it’s a small city with a population of just 53,000 people, it punches far above its weight artistically and historically. Between Feb 1888 and May 1889, Van Gogh lived and painted some of his best-known masterpieces here, such as Starry Night Over The Rhone, Bedroom In Arles and Van Gogh’s Chair. Commercially unsuccessful, he committed suicide in 1890 when he was 37. He had sold only one painting in his lifetime, The Red Vines, which he also painted in Arles in 1888.
The Dutch artist was particularly drawn to the light in Arles. He was obsessed with the “yellow sun” that seems to pour its warmest, most sensual rays into this part of Provence. He was convinced that no other place in the world received the same kind of aureate benediction, and he was capturing it on canvas to prove it to everyone.
As you wander the streets of the city, certain buildings might strike you as familiar because you’ve actually seen them before in his paintings. Helpfully there are signs erected before the places he’s immortalised in oil, such as The Yellow House, The Café Terrace At Night and The Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles – all of which still exist and look almost exactly as they did over a century ago.
Van Gogh, however, isn’t the only person to have been inspired by Arles to leave a permanent cultural mark here. Long before he lived, Arles was already a beautiful and prosperous port city beloved by Julius Caesar. The Romans had built a 12,000-seat theatre and 20,000-seat amphitheatre in the city centre, where everyone from prostitutes to politicians congregated to watch gladiator fights, chariot races, music performances and classical plays.
In fact, Arles continues to host bullfights, operas, concerts and street parties in these legendary spaces, which are open on most days for the public to visit and reimagine live spectacle as it was staged two millennia ago.
Follow the pope
Because the cruise begins in Lyon and ends in Avignon, it feels as if UniWorld has deliberately bookended the itinerary with the two most exciting cities. Lyon keeps your stomach full, but Avignon fills your head with ancient architectural pleasures and mysteries. From the time you arrive in the city, you instantly notice the several towers, gates and high walls that enclose this UNESCO World Heritage site.
Avignon was once called the “Vatican of the North”, after political infighting in Rome forced Pope Clement V to move to France with his entourage. One of his successors, Pope Benedict XII, decided to build the magnificent Palais des Papes (Popes’ Palace) that would house a series of popes through the 14th century. The wealth of the Vatican meant that the palace was sumptuously decorated, as thousands of pilgrims, diplomats and courtiers travelled across Europe to pay their respects.
Today, though the papacy has returned to Rome, the Palais des Papes remains one of the most fabled buildings in all of France. The fortress-castle is one of the largest Gothic buildings in the world, a sprawling complex filled with huge dining halls, beautiful medieval frescoes and exquisite interior tile-work.
As much as Avignon is a historic town, though, it is also a contemporary city that embraces new forms of expression and creativity through its festivals, theatre companies, galleries, art studios and opera house.
When the S.S. Catherine docked near its massive ramparts in late July, Avignon was staging its famous Festival d’Avignon, drawing over 120,000 theatre lovers from around the world. Every performance hall was packed to the gills with residents and tourists, as were the pubs and restaurants. The shows ran the gamut from classic Moliere comedies performed in French, to a modern retelling of Ibsen told in English. And even on the streets there were musicians, acrobats and jugglers.
The buzz of Avignon was the perfect way to cap one’s experience of the south of France. Blending rich medieval history with a lively artistic free-for-all, enveloped by a light made famous by Impressionist paintings, Avignon is the stuff of travel hyperbole that makes you want to return to the south and experience its varied pleasures again.
The writer was a guest of UniWorld. For information, visit uniworld.com
This article was originally published in The Business Times.
Photos: Helmi Yusof/BT & Uniworld