Our last day in Provence, then homeward bound

Our time in France was quickly coming to a close, only another day before we took the train back to Paris. So far, we had been blessed with beautiful weather and no sign of the dreaded Mistral which could arrive without warning. Today’s tour had been as much about the country and culture of Provence as tasting wines as you can’t have one without the other.

Amazing tree in the restaurant garden

After a leisurely lunch in the garden of  the chateau restaurant, and a brief stop at the small farm winery, we were headed to the vineyards of a most famous marque.

Our final winery stop  In Provence would be the world renowned Chateau Neuf de Pape, perhaps the best known appellation in France, as so many wines are made in its image. As we drew close to the village, the road wound through acres of

According to Gilles these limestone pebbles contribute to the excellent flavor of the Chateauneuf de Pape wines.

grapevines growing out of pebbly soil. To our eyes, it was amazingly pebbly and unlike any vineyard the Ramblers had ever seen. Gilles assured us the limestone pebbles were prized and an important factor in producing the distinctive taste of the wines of the area. He stopped so I could look at the vines close-up. Was tempted to taste a grape but didn’t.

Chateauneuf de Pape is both an historic site and a winery. The castle which overlooks the village, now an imposing ruin was declared a French Historical Monument in 1892.  The original structure was ordered built by the second Avignon Pope, John XXII in 1317.

A sketch showing the castle and village around 1650. No plans of the building remain.

Unfortunately Pope John did not get much benefit from his new castle because he died only a year after it was completed. None of the 5 following French popes was ever known to have stayed at the castle although the Avignon Anti pope Clement VII, frequently sought refuge there.  After the schism of the Catholic Church was settled, Rome again became the center of Catholicism and the castle of Chateauneuf de Pape gradually fell into decay. It was just too big and expensive for the archbishop of Avignon to maintain.

The donjon from the parking lot at the top of the hill.


Through the centuries it lost some of its stones to villagers for their own building projects, was pillaged during the Wars of Religion in 1563,  and suffered again during the French Revolution. As it had not been inhabited for some time, in 1797  it was bought by a local farmer who divided it into 33 equal parts. By 1848 much of the castle had been destroyed by its purchasers but the mayor of Chateauneuf finally forbade further destruction and the castle finally got some respect. Unfortunately then the Germans used the donjon as an observation post and tried unsuccessfully to destroy it before they left in 1944.

A closer look at the massive construction ot the castle walls

Luckily the castle’s fortunes have taken an upturn in recent years as the ruin has been stabilized  and draws a number of visitors every year. In the sixties, the municipality developed the the ancient cellar into a meeting hall. I believe it is beneath the concrete in the above photo.

After admiring the still impressive ruin, the Ramblers carefully walked down the steep hill to the winery at the edge of the village at the bottom. Gilles told us he would move the car after the tasting  to the edge of the village at the bottom of the hill.

We had to walk down from the castle to the edge of the village after our wine tasting. The village is pedestrians only.

That way  the Ramblers would have a downhill walk instead of a steep climb back to the top from the winery.  Although I had been looking forward to  tasting the wine at Chateauneuf de Pape, I was somewhat disappointed by the experience. Of course, if I had thought about it, I would have realized it would be crowded and it was. The location in a cellar hewn from local limestone was somewhat oppressive because of its low ceiling and dim lighting. The tastes were tiny,  and we had little time in between the different varieties to discuss them and  I actually was  glad when the tasting ended. It is definitely not for the claustrophobic.

After I met the Senior Rambler outside the winery, Gilles  hurried to get the car and promised to meet us at a brasserie in the village.

The brasserie at the edge of the pedestrian friendly area.

He felt we would be able to find our meeting place easily.  As it turned out, there was just one problem. The narrow, sloping medieval streets twisted and turned  like a maze. Without a map it was difficult to determine which way we needed to go. The Ramblers were beginning to wonder if we would ever find Gilles when our view opened up and we spotted him patiently waiting at a table in the shade.

We made one more stop on our way back to Le Limas, which I enjoyed.  I had asked Gilles if he would stop at a store  on the way back to Le Limas. I wanted to pick up a few munchies and some bottled water as we weren’t planning on going out later on. He chose a small LIDL market and I got a chance to check out an  Avignon quick mart. Call me weird but grocery shopping in a strange place is something I enjoy. I was amazed by the prices at the LIDL, much cheaper than they would be at a similar store in Georgia. I understand LIDL( a German chain) is now building stores in the US and I am looking forward to shopping at one someday. Snacks in hand, we headed for our room to relax and enjoy a lazy evening

The famous Avignon Bridge or the St. Benezet bridge. Tho it is hard to tell in my photo, the bridge only spans half the river.

Our  last day at Le Limas was again bright and sunny. I had penciled in a day to relax after two 8 hour plus days days of touring. This gave us time to gear up for our trip home. After breakfast, we headed towards the Rhone River just a few blocks away. There we strolled towards the St. Benezet Bridge, made famous by the song Sur le pont de Avignon which has been around for centuries.

Unfortunately, you can not just walk up onto the bridge. You enter through the gatehouse which has a video and other information about the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The entrance fee is 5 EU or 4 for seniors. We thought about going up but although we found out later that it was handicap accessible, at this stage of our trip we were toured out! The bridge does have an interesting history. Archaeologists believe that there has been a bridge over the Rhone in this spot since Roman times. If you recall, in the previous post, the photo of Pont Julien, this bridge was built in the Roman style only much larger. The bridge you see today was probably built in 1345, after an earlier 12th century bridge was destroyed. Unfortunately, the Rhone is prone to flooding which weakened the arches so much that the citizens gave up on the bridge  in the 17th century.

An excellent photo of the chapel from e European travel magazine. It clearly shows how the chapel’s two levels extend above and below and even into the bridge deck.

The chapel of St Nicholas, constructed in the 12th century but much restored over time, still stands on the second pier of the bridge.  For several centuries,  Rhone boatmen attended devotions in the chapel as St. Nicholas is their patron. The body of St. Benezet was also interred inside, however as the bridge became more dilapidated, the boatmen’s confraternity build a chapel on dry land, and St. Benezet’s remains also were moved to a place inside the walls. Ironically, the new chapel was destroyed by a major flood in 1856! Although the interior has been stripped to the stone walls, its construction is worth seeing as it is has two floors, each with a nave and and apse. The upper floor is level with the bridge deck and narrows the walkway to less than 6 ft., while it is necessary to descend a set of stone steps to enter the lower floor.

The 14th century Gatehouse next to the walls of Avignon also remains as a reminder of medieval times when the bridge and gatehouse had great strategic importance as the only bridge crossing the Rhone between Lyon and the Mediterranean sea. The Gatehouse restricted entrance and exit from the city.

The Gatehouse, connected to the Avignon walls, with drawbridge visible. It isn’t used today.

One of the things we did during a lazy afternoon  was watch a man practice his petanque skills in a courtyard across the street from le Limas. Having tried it, I could appreciate his skill and determination. Two weeks ago, on the reality show, Amazing Race, teams had to compete against each other at petanque and found it wasn’t as easy as it looked.

Marion Wagner, our hostess, took care of calling a taxi for our trip to the train station. We were going to attempt the TGV back to Paris on our own. We had come to Lyon to board our cruise on the TGV as part of an escorted group from Paris. This time we would be on our own.  When our taxi arrived, we were surprised to find that the driver was a woman, and was she good at her job. Not only did she move our luggage very quickly into the taxi, but when we got to the train station, she carried it inside and showed us where to go to wait for the train. Needless to say, we really appreciated her help and cheerful attitude. Wish I had taken her photo as the people you meet on these trips are among the most interesting. We found all the French natives we met on this trip to be very friendly and helpful except for the mystery woman on the first tour.

Boarding the TGV in Avignon. You wait for the train on the second level, benches are behind the glass.

Boarding the TGV was a little more difficult than we expected as we now had all our luggage with us. On our trip to Lyon, our larger cases had traveled by bus and we only had our carry-on’s to worry about. This time, we had both and modern trains, except maybe for the posh Orient Express, don’t have porters ready to help you and your luggage aboard. Plus, there isn’t alot of time to get on board and usually you are with a crowd of people. We did manage to get everything on board and a pleasant young man traveling with his young son helped us stow them. He also alerted us when it was time to get off, as there are several stops in Paris.

The TGV at CDG is crowded and busy and reading signs is important though sometimes confusing.

Luckily we got off at the right stop for CDG as Paris has 3 large train stations, (the TGV runs right through the airport). We had to scout around for our shuttle to the hotel where we would spend the night. Our luck was in as the Marriott shuttle was the first to arrive. There are at least four hotel shuttle busses that run from  Charles de Gaulle  to the hotels near the airport, and we surely didn’t want to get on the wrong one. Soon our bus dropped us at the entrance to the Marriott in the small village of Roissypol which over time had almost been encircled by the encroaching airport. Today there are six or seven hotels built along the road that runs past Roissypol which suit a variety of budgets, I chose the Marriott because of its 24 hour shuttle.

The atmosphere is more like a village in the country than one right next to a huge airport. Highly recommended.

The Marriott turned out to be an excellent choice as it was the closest to the village and we later walked there to get a light meal for dinner. We ate outside at a little cafe enjoying our last meal in France even though it was pretty basic. The next morning we headed back to the village as we had spotted the village patisserie the night before.

Friendly service and tasty pastries, who could ask for more?

We had excellent fresh pastries for breakfast with coffee to go which we ate in a bench on the square and then headed back to our room for our luggage.  The Ramblers heartily recommend staying in one of the Roissypol hotels before or after a flight that ends at Charles de Gaulle.

Another Marriott  shuttle ride brought us back to CDG where we had a relatively short walk to Departures and went through security. Unfortunately security took my wonderful Avignon lavender honey which I had packed in my carry on. Didn’t realize that honey was considered a liquid…sigh. An uneventful flight brought us home to Hartsfield and as always, “good to go and good to get back!”


More amazing history and then tantalizing samples of Provencal wines

We were by no means done learning about Provencal history after our stop for lunch, there was quite a bit more to the day’s tour.  We had become accustomed to the silent Frenchwoman in the front seat who only spoke to JB in French. Unfortunately, as the day went on, we heard more in French and less in English. However, this did not prevent us from enjoying our afternoon.

The alpillies are a region of rugged beauty,

Not only did we visit The Maison de St. Paul de Mausole,the hospital where Van Gogh had himself committed but we stopped at the site of the Roman village of Glanum a short distance away. Both are close to the village of St. Remy de Provence, set in the Alpilles, a series of small limestone hills and mountains, none more than 1,500 ft high. The Alpilles have a rugged beauty that makes them a destination on their own.

The entrance to the grounds of the monastery/hospital.

Our next stop was the site of the Monastery of St. Paul de Mausole. Although it is no longer a monastery, since 1000 AD, various Catholic congregations treated the sick on this spot, particularly those who suffered from madness. although the convent at St Paul in 1789 was nationalized during the French Revolution, the building is still used to heal the victims of mental illness. It was here that Vincent Van Gogh committed himself for treatment from May 8, 1889 to May 16,1890. He was not confined to his room but was allowed to stroll around the extensive grounds and paint. In fact, he produced 142 paintings during his stay including the Cypresses and Starry Night.  Mausole has a museum with information about Van Gogh’s stay but we did not go inside but instead wandered the paths where he might have set up his easel.

One of Van Gogh’s painting spots

Only a short distance away were the ruins of the Roman village of Glanum. Archaeologists have found evidence that people have lived in this area since 2500 BC, but it wasn’t until ca. 600 BC that a wandering tribe settled in the area because of its spring, soon considered sacred and healing. First the Phoenicians and then the Romans were attracted to the area and it was they who named the town Glanum, after an ancient god. It was the Romans who built a variety of structures there, including a forum, temples, baths, and theaters. The town prospered until a series of barbarian invasions resulted in its destruction ca. 260 AD.

Still an amazing structure, over 2,000 years later.

Excavation of Glanum started in 1921 and today much of the city has been uncovered. Because it was nearing the end of our day, we didn’t enter the city itself but did admire its two outstanding structures just outside the gates. The most eye-catching is the Triumphal Arch built ca. 20 AD. Although its roof was rebuilt in the 18th century, the exterior still has many beautiful bas-reliefs which illustrated the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar.  The other structure which stood outside the entrance was the Jules

The two structures that remained from the town of Glanum before excavation. the local residents called them the antiques!

Mausoleum which dates from perhaps 30 BC. It and the arch were the only evidence of Roman occupation visible until excavation started in 1921. It looks like a small round temple but is actually a mausoleum dedicated to a prominent local family who were given the Roman name Julius, a mark of honor at the time, and if you know Roman history, accomplished quite a lot during several centuries.

Our day would end with a stop at the Pont De Gard, a huge aqueduct, and yet another amazing reminder of Roman times turned into a popular  recreational spot.

The amazing Pont du Gard is the highest of all the elevated aqueducts constructed by the Romans in Europe at 160 ft. high. It is also one of the best preserved as 35 of its original 47 spans still survive.

Strolling along the banks of the Gardon River towards the Pont du Gard in late afternoon.

It was constructed ca. 40 – 60 AD and carried an amazing 8,800,000 imperial gallons of water a day to the fountains, baths and homes of the residents of Nimes. The Romans loved using water and bathing. Historians speculate that it might have been operational as long as the 6th century AD, but after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was no longer maintained and silted up. However, it survived because of its secondary function, as a toll bridge over the Gardon river. In the 18th century the aqueduct became increasingly popular as a tourist attraction and shops and restaurants of all kinds soon  cluttered the area.

Ruins at the end of the bridge

Cars were even allowed to drive on the bridge until the 1990’s. This all changed when it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. All the buildings were torn down, driving on the bridge was forbidden and a new visitor center was built nearby. As the Pont du Gard was our last stop before heading back to Avignon and it was late, we merely walked along the banks of the Gardon and marveled at the amazing structure build so solidly several thousand years ago. It is still a popular place to visit but now you see campers on the bank and kayakers in the river. The Ramblers were ready to get back to Le Limas so we were glad a stroll on the aqueduct wasn’t in the plan.  We were not eager to climb the steps to the top but we were glad we had a chance to see it, truly amazing structure.

Enjoying the river on a warm August day; the aqueduct is to the left.

Back at Le Limas, we had a light snack and a relaxing evening watching  the sun set over the Papal Palace as its lights slowly flickered on. The next morning we had another enjoyable breakfast while waiting for our second tour guide. We feared it might be JB again, because he had mentioned how much he knew about wines yesterday, however… We were relieved to find that our guide for the second day was Gilles, not JB, and that we were the only people on the tour this day. We would have enjoyed meeting fellow tourists but not if they totally ignored us all day. I guess it would have been worse if we had been snubbed by English speaking tourists. LOL

Gilles explained that he would be taking us to a variety of wineries, a chateau turned restaurant for lunch and then we would finish up at Chateauneuf de Pape. This all sounded very good to me, and the senior Rambler was resigned to having plenty of time to enjoy the fresh air of Provence on a beautiful sunny day.

The entrance to Mas de Tourelles, flanked by olive trees.

Our first stop was at Mas des Tourelles, a winery  on a Roman site which had been producing wine for several thousand years. Indeed, the current proprietors now made several wines in the Roman style which I later tasted (and didn’t much care for.) The tasting room was part of a restored complex that dated to the time when France was Gaul and a province of Rome.

Grapes ripening on vines growing in the limestone rich soil of Provence.

We arrived slightly early and Gilles gave me a tour of the vineyard and explained that the limestone pebbles in the soil were an important part of the wine culture and imparted some of the terroir of the region which produced delightful wines that varied with the mineral and rock content of the soil.

Mas de Tourelles produces three wines that they say are made just as the Romans did. The first, mulsum, was mentioned by Pliny the Elder and is a blend of wine, honey and a variety of herbs and spices including pepper and cinnamon. According to ancient accounts, Mulsum was often served as an aperitif or with spicy dishes. Too sweet for the Rambler.

Mulsum. Turriculae and Carenum

The second, Turriculae, was a Roman attempt at a dry wine, again not a Rambler favorite. They evidently added a concentrate of seawater and fenugreek  during vinification. A French wine review called it “rich and supple with a round prune flavored finish.” Finally, the last Roman style wine was Carenum, a sweet amber colored wine which the wine review recommended as an aperitif, While it was interesting as was the winery structure itself, there were not wine I would care to drink in any quantity besides a tasting portion.

Our next stop, Chateau de Manissy, produces wines that were much more to the Rambler’s taste and a bottle of rose was purchase for drinking that evening.

Tasting pleasant wines at the Chateau de Manissy.

The Chateau is owned by the Holy Family Missionaries and today is used as a residence for retired priests of the order. The Holy Family Missionaries have been producing rose wines here since the early 1900’s but today the winery is run by winemaker Florian Andre.  The Chateau now produces organic wines both rose and red in the style of Chateauneuf de Pape. Since it was still early, I was the only one in the tasting room and it was an enjoyable experience.

Our next stop was lunch. Gilles drove us to an 18th century chateau which is now a restaurant. I am not sure we ever learned its name because it had all been arranged as part of the tour, Because it was a beautiful day, we ate in the garden and again, we were the only customers. The food was excellent and Gilles was a pleasant companion.

Our stop for lunch, we never went inside, but dining al fresco was wonderful.

After lunch  we would visit two more wineries, the first, a small, family operation, and the last the very famous Chateauneuf de Pape. At the family vineyard, the winemaker, a friend of Gilles, showed us through his operation. It was not fancy or slick but his family obviously took pride in its operation. His wines were simple but tasty, as we would say, a daily drinker,  and it turned out that  Gilles was a regular customer. We enjoyed talking about politics the EU and the US  with the winemaker. Certainly EU regulations do not make his job easier.

I thought I would be able to finish blogging about our adventures in Provence today, but there is just too much to include yet, so I will add one more blog entry on this trip before we travel somewhere else.

Small but welcoming tasting room of the farm winery. Boxes of wine for sale at a great price.


The Romans, wineries and medieval history intertwine in Provence

Thinking back about our time spend in sunny Provence during August 2016 is a pleasant way to escape from chilly Georgia in January 2018. Provence was a place the Rambler had wanted to visit for a long time and when we finally got to stay there for a few days, it did not disappoint. After touring the region on the Uniworld SS Catherine, for a week, we had two days to explore on our own and two we would travel around the area with a  Viator guide.

I had booked two tours from Avignon before we left Georgia through Viator, a subsidiary of Trip Adviser.  Viator works with local tour companies all over the world and lists many tour options on their website for almost everywhere. The best thing about using Viator is that they have vetted the local tours and if something goes wrong, they will make it right. Our first tour was to be an overview of Provence in one day; obviously we wouldn’t see everything but this seemed to be a great way to get a feel for the area. On the second day we would do a wine tasting tour; a little selfish on my part as the senior Rambler doesn’t drink, but we would also enjoy the varied scenery of Provence as well as the wine tasting.

Although our guide for the first day, JB (Jean Baptiste) was not our favorite, he did take us to some amazing places ranging from ancient towns and monasteries to Roman ruins. Unfortunately although the trip was supposed to be English language, we found that a small French woman was already seated in the tour van when we boarded. JB announced casually that he had another passenger and she did not speak English, so he would conduct the tour in both English and French. I am pretty sure that the woman spoke English, he said she was a teacher, but for whatever reason, she did not want to speak English or French for that matter, to us. In fact, she totally ignored us for the whole tour. In fact, she was the only French person we encountered who was not friendly and willing to speak to us. To make matters worse, as the day went on JB, spent much more time speaking French to the French teacher than he did in English to us. This was very frustrating but there wasn’t much we could do about it except complain to Viator when we got home (We did and they were very good about refunding half our expense.)

The other problem we had  was that except for three stops, JB dropped us off and stayed with the van so we didn’t learn as much about the area as we would have liked. We were used to having a guide along with us when we toured but evidently on this tour, because of crowds of tourists and minuscule parking, the guide was supposed to drop off the tourists  and pick them up at an agreed upon time.

Dropped off on the village square in a Provence hill town.

Admittedly parking was very tight in those small villages built way before the advent of the auto, and it did save us some walking but the negative was we got no information on what we were seeing as we strolled around the towns.

It was also un-nerving to be sitting in the middle seat of his small van where we had an excellent view of his no hands style of driving on the narrow roads of Provence. As we headed away from the busy city of Avignon, and into the countryside, JB told us the legend of the Mistral.  This strong and often unpleasant wind  which often blows tiles off roofs and branches from trees, also dries  out the air in the region saving millions of grapes from mildew. For an excellent re-telling of the legend click here.  https://curiousrambler.com/2016/07/28/the-mistral-of-provence/

We found that the lingering presence of the Roman empire is never far away in Provence. One of the first sites JB pointed out was the oldest bridge in Provence, Le Pont Julien which dates back to the beginning of the first century. It was built of interlocking stones without mortar by Roman engineers over the Cavalon River, circa 3 BC, as part of a much longer Roman road.

The bridge is in amazing shape considering that it is more than 2000 years old. I am sure it will last longer than the one built to replace it.

The river was dry on this August day, but the Cavalon is a rushing torrent in the springtime.   Unfortunately there is absolutely no information about the bridge at the site which is a shame. I later learned that only a few years ago cars drove over the ancient structure but now theRoman bridge is restricted to pedestrians and bicyclists.

JB  then parked on the shoulder of a hill so that we could look down at the Cistercian monastery of Senanque near Gordes.

Looking down at Senanque from the road above.

While we were stopped, he picked some thyme and other herbs (the Herbes de Provence)  to show us how they grew wild by the roadside.  Although Senanque was abandoned during the French revolution, in the 20th century a small group of monks returned and Senanque is now flourishing.

a close-up of the Abbey church.

When the lavender is in bloom, the monastery is bordered by fields of scented purple flowers. Unfortunately, Senanque was not our list of stops as I would have really enjoyed walking through the 12th century Romanesque church of Notre Dame.

From Senanque we traveled to Gordes, a town built up a hill for protection in the Middle Ages. All of its buildings are made of pale, white-gold limestone, durable and readily available. Tourists from all over come to the beautiful hill-top towns of Provence and Gordes was no exception, almost all built of the pale white-gold stone.

The soldier on the monument is wearing the  French infantry uniform of the WWI era. Many of the men and boys from the town were killed at Verdun and the Marne.

We were dropped off at the village square and given a chance to explore on our own. The first thing I noticed was the town’s WWI memorial, standing somewhat forlornly and un-noticed in the town square. These monuments are found in most French villages but this was the only one I saw that featured a soldier. Most are usually much larger and impressive.

The area around Gordes has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Tourists come to walk and marvel at the almost perpendicular streets of Gordes and its ancient Church and castle ruins.

The hilltop village of Gordes

However, on the outskirts of the town is another village dating to prehistoric times. Much of it has been restored, and like the Romans, these early inhabitants built their houses, called borries,  out of stacked stone, without mortar.

The entrance to the prehistoric village; several borries are visible as is a no parking sign!.This road was a busy one and the two tourists are cautiously waiting to cross.

It is possible to walk through the rebuilt town but we just took a peek inside because  our time in Gordes was limited.

Our next stop after Gordes was an ancient farmhouse, part of a working farm, and not much changed for several centuries.

The farmhouse, much changed for centuries and built to last even longer.

The family who lived there raised chickens, rabbits and a few other animals for their own use but also maintained bees which produced lavender honey.

A side view of the building; small windows and thick walls aided heating and cooling. NO dryer in this home.

They had a small home business selling home packed lavender honey and other lavender products. Alas, the honey I bought there never made it back to Georgia because I forgot to pack it in my checked bag; unfortunately honey is considered a liquid, Who knew? I am sure the pleasant farm  family was happy to have groups stop there as it is increasingly difficult to make a living farming because of European Union regulations. Their honey was delicious and I only wish it had made it home.

JB at the rabbit hutch, built into the wall, these bunnies were probably raised for food.

We were on our own for lunch on this tour but JB picked a beautiful spot: Le Fontaine de Vaucluse. This was a small town of 500 which revolves around an amazing natural wonder, a fontaine or spring. It is, in fact, the largest spring in France and the 5th largest in the world. Vaucluse comes from the Latin for closed village and indeed it huddles close beside the spring which is surrounded by limestone cliffs.

One of the popular hotels in Vaucluse, and our view from La Terrasses of the flowing spring and encircling cliffs..

Our uncommunicative French lady quickly marched off on her own without even a nod. The Ramblers shrugged and strolled alongside the river that flows from the spring, evaluating the various restaurants for their potential. We finally settled on Les Terrasses, mainly because it had some tables available with a water view. Since we had eaten excellent cuisine for two weeks, we enjoyed a simple snack of pinions de poulet (chicken legs); the senior Rambler had an Orangina, while I settled on a pichet of rose wine, what else, in Provence.

After a leisurely lunch and stroll along the flowing spring, we would spend the rest of a long day, about 9 hours in total, seeing even more of beautiful Provence.  To be continued…


The magic of Provence

Provence has always been a spot I wanted to visit because of its history and beautiful vistas. One of the reasons I chose this cruise was because it ended in Avignon and gave us a perfect opportunity to stay there a few extra days. But where? As you might expect, there are many, many places to stay in the Avignon area, both inside and outside the walls of the historic city. I had almost settled on a hotel outside the walls when a friend who had been there said we must stay inside the walls. Since he had been to Provence many time, I immediately moved my search only to places inside the historic city.  This reduced my search pool but as you probably know, if you’ve never been to a place, your choice is always somewhat of a crap shoot.

Our home away from home in Provence. Our room faced the street, the first row of windows above ground level.

Of course I read dozens of reviews of the likely candidates but no matter how good the rating, there are always one or two negative postings. At this point, the gut instinct comes into play. My instinct told me to avoid the hotels near the square and choose instead a small B&B called Le Limas.  The owner, Marion Wagner, had a very clear and easy to navigate web site which also appealed to me. It was not the least expensive by any means, and it did have stairs but the location was very good. In addition, she was quick to answer any questions I had..

When, the SS Catherine returned to Avignon on the last night of the cruise, we packed  before dinner and were  ready for our next adventure the following morning. Disembarking from a river cruise is  a busy time and often confusing time as passengers head off at different times to different places. Most were going to the airport but a few were staying on or traveling by train. Ms Wagner, our hostess sent a cab for us later in the morning. We found Le Limas just as it had been pictured, a tall 19th century building, on a quiet street an easy walk  from the main square of Avignon. Our room was one flight up fairly steep stairs, but the view was a pleasant one, overlooking the street. It was large and comfortable with an en suite bath. We learned later that Le Limas had a rooftop terrace with a view of the Pope’s Palace; this was a wonderful place to watch the sun set every evening. Unfortunately there was no elevator so we had to climb more stairs to reach it. It was worth it though.

We spent a relaxing day walking around the square and ate a somewhat mediocre evening meal at one of the many restaurants on the square. The Ramblers didn’t mind as we had eaten very well on the Catherine, but we found, as  we already knew, that you can go wrong in choosing a restaurant in France. LOL The next day would be a busy one;I had scheduled all day tours for the next two days through Viator. The first day we would visit a variety of beautiful and historic places in Provence while on the second, , we would tour a selected group of Provence wineries, including Chateau Neuf de Pape.

View of the Pope’s Palace at sunset from the terasse at Las Limas.

As it turned out, our tours were quite different. Both were interesting but we enjoyed the second much more than the first. The reason was simple; on the first tour, our guide spent most of his time speaking in French to a third passenger, who said she spoke no English, even though this was supposed to be an English language tour. As the day went on, he spoke more and more to her, and less to us.To make matters worse, he kept turning around to look at us, and spent much time waving his arms around when he should have had them on the steering wheel. Many of the roads were narrow and full of traffic and his driving style was un-nerving even for the Senior Rambler. We did see some beautiful places but we were pretty much dropped off and left to wander around which we did. We actually didn’t mind this, although we would have like a little more information on what we were seeing.

We were worried about the second tour on which we were supposed to visit some of the  famed Provence wineries. It couldn’t have been more different as our driver went out of his way to make us comfortable and took us inside the wineries himself.

Having a tour go wrong is one reason we always book our tours through Trip Adviser’s site Viator.  When got home, I emailed them about the problem we had with the first guide. They asked if I would be satisfied with a 50% refund. Of course I was as we had seen a good many interesting places even though the guide did not do his job.


Special Post – Riding German trains in the summer of 2017

Before we get back to beautiful Provence,  the Ramblers would like to publish a special post on a recent experience we had while traveling this summer. We enjoyed another river cruise a few weeks ago which ended in Basel, Switzerland. The Rambler had decided that it might be fun to take the train from Basel to Amsterdam where we were scheduled to fly home. All the other (sensible) persons on our cruise extension flew from Basel to Amsterdam or wherever they would board their connecting flight home. We alone stayed an extra day, and very relaxing it was at the Hotel D one street over from the Rhine.

View from our covered terrace, the Rhine is to the left and we looked down at Les Trois Rois where we had stayed for the Uniworld extension in Basel.

We spent the whole day taking it easy, mainly enjoying the view from the terrace of our top floor room.  Although we had planned to pick up lunch at the excellent department store on the Basel main square, the COOP, we learned that almost everything in Basel closed on Sunday, including most of the restaurants.  Fortunately the corner store next to our hotel was open and we were able to buy snacks and wine while the Indian restaurant across the street recommended by the hotel, was open for dinner.  The next morning , after enjoying some great pastry from a nearby bakery, we took a taxi to the train station, first making sure we went to the correct one. There are two, one German, one Swiss.

The Indian restaurant where we had dinner. Our table overlooked the Rhine.

Unfortunately  we got an unpleasant surprise when we got to the Basel Bad Bahnhof.  Because of a tunnel cave-in, all trains leading out of Basel in the direction we were going had been cancelled. Our only option according to the gentleman in the office (who spoke little English) was to take the next train, a special not on the schedule, which left in 4 minutes. From there we would have to make a series of transfers in order to get to Amsterdam that evening.

What we should have done was given up on the train right then and there and tried to get a flight to Amsterdam from the Basel airport.

But we didn’t. The Ramblers were dismayed when we saw that the only handicap access was a steep 50 ft ramp to the platform above. The senior Rambler had hurt his back getting off a gondola at Mount Pilatus the day before and was in pain. He also couldn’t walk very fast.  Although I tried my best  to get up the ramp as quickly as possible, the train pulled away as I neared  the top.

Evidently there would be another such train in an hour so we settled down to wait.  Sweaty and exhausted from the climb up the seemingly endless ramp, we sat glumly on a nearby bench and waited. The only other person waiting was a young man looking at his phone. I decided to see if he might be able to give us more information. As it turned out, Thomas was one of many helpful Germans who helped us surmount the seemingly endless obstacles that we had to face that day.

The travel I had originally  booked  had only one connection, first taking a train from Basel to Koln. There  after  a leisurely connection of several hours, we would board another train that would take us to the Amsterdam Centraal Station. There we could get a taxi to our club level room at the Renaissance Marriott on Kattegat street.

What we got instead was a series of transfers from train to bus to train before we finally ended up in Frankfurt. There we were reassured that we could take a train that would get us to Amsterdam that evening.  Each connection involved moving our increasingly exhausted selves and our luggage up and down a seemingly endless series of stairs. Fortunately every time we needed help, a smiling German stepped forward to carry our bags up or down the stairs.

Before going any further, the Ramblers can’t stress enough that if you have trouble with stairs or walking , DO NOT take the train in Germany or most other countries in Europe. The ADA facilities that we are used to in the US are simply not available except in the larger cities. This does not apply to the TGV or other high speed trains or if your destination is a large city, but everywhere else, you are not likely to find many elevators, except perhaps for bicycles and strollers. Instead there will be stairs and fairly steep ones at that.

When we got to Frankfurt we breathed a sigh of relief as one of the DB service employees helped the senior Rambler into a wheelchair and took us to the track platform where we would board the train to Amsterdam. We were still hopeful that we would get to Amsterdam that evening, but we were wrong…

Don’t know why I didn’t think of this then, but NEVER accept the word of a railroad employee that the train which arrives is going where you want to go. If I had only asked one of the people waiting to board,  if the train was going to Amsterdam, we would have avoided considerable discomfort and expense. But I didn’t. And so…

Frankfurt station, the first time…where we waited for the wrong train!

The conductress who looked at our tickets after we boarded  seemed confused, but she spoke Russian not English and this did not help. So we watched most of the people get off the train at various stations until we were the only people in the car. This seemed odd, but I didn’t realize that we had made an unfortunate mistake until a German railway employee walked into the car and told us we would have to get out because this was the end of the line. We were stuck on a siding by a small town and had actually boarded a local that had taken us in the wrong direction. After we explained that we couldn’t jump down from the car, the helpful trainman brought a little ladder that allowed us to get down, and he and another helpful young German got us over the tracks. Yes, we had to climb over a series of tracks and a concrete barrier (almost didn’t make that one) to get to the end of the station platform. Now what…

Our current guardian angel checked his phone regarding possible trains but it turned out we were stuck there unless we hired a taxi to take us back to the Frankfurt station. We agreed that it was our only option and he found a taxi driver who was willing to make the long drive. Although it cost 134 Euros, we were happy to at least get back to Frankfurt where we had a fighting chance to get to Amsterdam that night.

Unfortunately our troubles weren’t over. Our taxi driver wouldn’t accept our credit card, he wanted to be paid in Euros. We could understand this but had few Euros left at the end of the trip, so I had to find an ATM. It was up to me to locate one, as the senior Rambler found walking painful. WhenI finally found a machine in the station, it wouldn’t take my card. I went back to the senior Rambler and the cabby and he pointed out several banks across the street. Then yet another friendly German offered to take me to an ATM across a very busy street, but when we got there, that bank was closed. We tried another one and it didn’t work. By this time, I was pretty frustrated and wasn’t watching where I was going. Thus I tripped and fell into the bank that had a working ATM. Our helpful friend was concerned that I had hurt myself, but I just wanted to be helped up so I could get to that darn ATM. I had slammed my right arm hard against the door and hit the step with my ribs but adrenaline had kicked in and all we  wanted was to get on the right train to Amsterdam ASAP.

Our taxi driver happily paid off, we headed into the busy Frankfort station and went immediately to the information counter. There I showed the DB representative our tickets and explained what had happened and that we needed to get to Amsterdam to catch our plane tomorrow at 1 PM.  Silence… The manager was called. He looked at our tickets and heard our tale of woe. More silence…

Finally he told me that we wouldn’t be able to get to Amsterdam that evening because the next train didn’t leave until 5:30 AM.  It turned out there was one other option but it would involved at least 3 changes and a bus, and we were not up for this. He told us the DB would pay for a hotel close to the station and we would be able to get to Amsterdam by 9:30 if we took that early train. Since this was our only option at this point, we glumly headed for our hotel. We had wanted to take a taxi but he assured us that it was very close.

The exhausted Ramblers trudged out of the station, this was surely the worst experience we had ever had…but it was not over. We had to walk through a very seedy area to get to the hotel and walked right past the hotel because the manager had given us the wrong name. The senior Rambler now had to pull both bags because it was obvious that my arm was probably broken as it had turned amazing shades of black and blue. A gentleman from Florida saw that we needed direction and helped us find the hotel several blocks back. Not the Kaiserhof but the Mercure, and a fairly spartan one at that. However it was clean and they were able to print out our boarding passes. Of course our DB rooms were at the far end of a very long corridor. We picked up a couple of the worst McDonald burgers we have ever had–par for the course, since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast and it was now 9 PM.  As we stretched out on our tiny twin beds, I thought longingly of our club level room at the Marriott which I had been unable to cancel.  However, we did go to sleep, but not for long with a 4 AM wake-up call.

After another taxi ride to the Frankfort station, the area seemed even seedier at 4:30 AM than it had last night. We found our platform and waited for yet another train to arrive. This time I asked several people waiting for the train if this was the train to Amsterdam. It was, and we were happy to board. The head conductor helped us with our baggage and put us in a first class compartment for all our trouble. At last, we were on our way, and if we were lucky, we would make our flight.

It was a beautiful morning and the final leg of our trip unfolded as I had imagined when I booked our trains. We traveled through tidy farms and villages, and I even spotted a few old-fashioned windmills. Half-way through, we were joined by a pleasant Korean girl who had been visiting Germany. She too had experienced bad luck on the DB as while she dozed off on her previous connection, someone had stolen her backpack with laptop inside. Fortunately she had her passport on her person, but it was not a pleasant experience for her.

This time our train rolled into Amsterdam Centraal on time. We had another long walk to the taxi stand, but readily found a taxi which would take us to Schipol. We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to check in. All we can say about our train experience in Germany is Never Again!

This is what we looked like when we arrived in Atlanta, we were really happy to be home.


Arles and Tarascon, 2000 years of scenery in one day

Our last day on the Catherine was unusual  in that we sailed for Tarascon that morning. On most river cruises, the ships usually sail to their destinations in the evening or at night. The exception is if they will be sailing through especially scenic areas or are stopping at two places in the same day.  In this case, it was probably because there was comparatively little dock space at Arles or Tarascon and plenty at Avignon, as this stretch of the river was definitely not scenic, and as soon as our tour of Arles was finished, the Catherine would head back to Avignon.

Two cooling towers alongside a giant windmill, with a dam in the distance.

En route, we saw an occasional ruined castle in the distance, but more spectacular and some how sinister,  were the modern cooling towers of several nuclear plants. On the way to Avignon we had locked through at Bollene, the deepest lock on the river, there too we had seen nuclear  energy plants  near the dam. The Catherine was now close to the Rhone delta, beautiful in its own way but not a place with many docks for river boats   For this reason, Tarascon/Arles was as far south as most river cruises got, because Arles is an interesting and enjoyable stop.

The ship either descends or rises 80 ft when locking at Bollene. It is the deepest lock in Europe

As it turned out,  the  Ramblers were glad we were only at Tarascon for the afternoon. The quay, actually more of a dock led only to a dusty field as just to get to the outskirts of Tarascon was a fair distance. The shoreline on both sides held little of interest and if we had wanted to go ashore in the evening there was no place to walk close by.  We passengers disembarked onto a long boardwalk that eventually brought us to shore in a dusty field. This area of Provence generally has hot and dry summers so this was not a surprise,

As you can see, there is nothing close by this dock on the Rhone. We are close to the place where the river splits as it flows towards the sea. All the river cruises end at this spot although ships can go further.

The senior Rambler decided that he would stay on board for this tour as it seemed there would be alot of walking (there was) and it was really hot . However I was eager to see the Roman ruins of Arles which were plentiful. Arles was also one of the places Van Gogh had  painted. He spent a very productive year in Arles, before he descended in to the  madness that would eventually claim his life.

I matched up with some  other pokey people in the gentle walker group and we headed  along the boardwalk as the senior Rambler happily waved me off.  Note to spouses or partners: if they don’t want to go on  an excursion, don’t insist. You will have a much better time on your own.

After we  left  the boardwalk, we hiked to our air conditioned bus which was waiting to take us to Arles.  As it turned out, Tarascon and Arles were fairly close together however I wouldn’t want to walk there.  Arles is much larger than Tarascon, and although a little run down, has a welcoming and almost raffish air.

As the Catherine moved towards the dock, we could see the Tarascon castle with the Church of St. Martha in the distance.

Folks who didn’t go on the main excursion had a chance to stroll through Tarascon with Martin our Concierge a little later in the afternoon. They could inspect the medieval castle, the  Chateau de  Tarascon  and the Church of St. Martha. I am not sure how many went on the stroll as it was really hot by then with not alot of shade.

The Chateau de Tarascon is the quintessential   brooding castle and looms over the river. In fact, it is built right on the banks of the Rhone. Unfortunately we only got to see it as we drove by on the way to Arles.  We also glimpsed another ruined castle at Beaucaire,  the small town opposite Tarascon on the other side of the Rhone.

Tarascon’s claim to fame is that St. Martha tamed a dragon that was terrorizing the villagers in days gone by. Unfortunately for the dragon, the villagers killed him despite or perhaps because he had been tamed. Today the legend lives on as part of the town’s history.  We had to make a choice between the two towns and Arles had much more to offer.

Part of the massive Roman wall and gate at Arles

The fields we drove past as we headed towards Arles,  were sun baked and dry as the crops had been harvested already. The terrain was more open and windswept than it was further north. We weren’t too far from the Camargue, the swampy plains that lead to the sea. I wondered what had attracted so many artists here as we rode along, as there were many places more beautiful. Finally  I realized it was the amazing light. In some places, daylight seems to have special qualities which are hard to describe unless you experience it. Provence was such as place, as is Taos New Mexico.

It didn’t take long to get to our drop off point some distance from the Roman gates of Arles. There was no  room for our giant bus on the narrow streets of the historic center. Luckily the guided part of our tour was relatively short as most of us wilted rather quickly in the 93 degree heat as we trudged along.

The Romans built to last, as this amphitheater is still in use.
Poster advertising an upcoming bullfight near the amphitheater

The Roman ruins were amazing. Much of the amphitheater is still standing, has been stabilized  and  is used now for concerts and cultural events. However, it is also used for an event that the Romans would have approved of: bullfighting! Les Arlesiennes  stage two different versions, one in which the bull survives and the other where the bull is killed. A poster advertised an upcoming bullfight,  Judging by its design, it was the the kind where adventurous youth try to touch or snatch a ribbon off the bull rather than kill it. Although the amphitheater is most impressive, the Roman presence was everywhere. Some ruins had incorporated into medieval buildings while the baths, an important part of any Roman city, had been reconstructed as much as possible.

Views of the hospital from the Van Gogh tourism website The second is Van Gogh’s version. Below is mine.

After we marveled at the remains of the Roman empire scattered around the town, we headed to a more modern relic, the hospital where Vincent Van Gogh stayed after his inner demons got out of control. It is called the yellow house for obvious reasons, and has been preserved as a museum. Its courtyard, filled with flower-lined walkways has been maintained as it was during Van Gogh’s time.

My photo  of the garden after using the Waterlogue App to turn it into a water color image somewhat in the Van Gogh style.

When our little group reached the garden, we noticed a small cafe with outdoor tables in blessed shade that faced the yellow house. We watched like hawks until a table was available and pounced on it. There we enjoyed a pleasant hour talking about the things we had seen during our cruise and our travel plans on the next day .

Our good friend from South Africa, Gerda, looking very warm.

Gerda who farms near Capetown South Africa had the furthest to go while the Ramblers would not leave Avignon the next day. Instead we would stay at a B&B inside the walls for four nights.

Too soon our time was up and we headed out the gates of the walled city towards the river where our bus waited. It didn’t take long for our trip back to the Catherine and then to Avignon, where we would have time to pack for our disembarkation tomorrow.  This time we wouldn’t have to leave the ship before daylight. Instead we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and light  lunch before Marion the proprietor of our B&B sent a taxi to pick us up that afternoon. This had been a wonderful cruise, now the second part of our adventure had begun.

Avignon, a historic walled city

Unlike many places we docked on this trip, Avignon had an extensive quay, which allowed many ships to dock at one time.  Since it is a very popular stop in the summer, this is a good thing.Most of the dock space was occupied by ships from many  different cruise lines. From the  Catherine’s spot on the quay, we had an excellent view of the medieval walled city and could check out the other ships docked nearby.

A view of the historic area of Avignon from the sundeck of the Catherine.

The historic area itself is surrounded by boulevards and green space, but. not far away, a wholly different modern Avignon city exists, not much different than any other French provincial city. This we would learn later as the Ramblers planned to stay on in Avignon for 4 nights at the end of our cruise.  Although we did not have to share our dock, two ships from different cruise lines did raft together in front of us. Rafting is no big deal, but sometimes the ships don’t match up well, and the passengers in the rafted ship may have to walk up and down stairs to disembark. On a positive note, it gives you a chance to check out ships owned by other lines. The most humorous experience we had with rafting was two years ago, on the Maria Theresa. The MT is one of Uniworld’s super ships, which means it is as big as you can get through the locks. As a result, she did not always match well with the  smaller ships. At one stop, we had to climb the steps to the sun deck and then down again to disembark. When we returned, the kitchen staff was loading foodstuff and we got caught up in a procession of kitchen staff  and some crew, each toting boxes filled with produce. Although it looked like a scene from Disney, I am sure it was not much fun for the hardworking staff.

Although the Catherine has her spot on the quay to herself, two river cruisers had rafted in front of us, the Swiss Emerald with a home port in Basel and the Amadagio based in Hamburg

In Avignon, it was pleasant to walk down an almost level gangplank and stroll along the quay. This had been laid out as a wide and pleasant promenade with benches along the way. It was possible to walk for several miles along the river in both directions. The massive Palace of the Popes was clearly visible in the distance and lighted at night. We would dock here for one night and move to Arles/Tarascon during the  day,. Tarascon was the farthest we traveled on the Rhone. However we would dock there only briefly. The  Catherine would turn around after we toured the city and return to Avignon for the last night of the cruise.

An aerial view of the Palace. You can see the river on the left. The Palace wall forms part of the city wall.

Today Uniworld offered three options. The first, and the most logical choice for the Ramblers was a tour of Avignon including  the Palace of the Popes. However, the  gentle walkers could ride a little tourist train around the historic area inside the walls instead. This choice was a no-brainer for the Ramblers. We decided on the train. The Palace of the Popes tour involves lots of walking and steps as it is huge and unfortunately  largely empty.

The Ramblers weren’t attracted by the other choices either. The first was a Kayak ride on the Gardon River scheduled for the afternoon. If we Ramblers got into a Kayak, we would have to be hoisted out, not a pretty sight. However a number of the younger passengers signed up for kayaking on the river. Those who went really enjoyed it, although they returned looking very hot and sweaty. Fortunately they would have plenty of time to relax before tonight’s gala farewell dinner. Kayaking on a French river was one of the go-active tours available during every cruise. Some are strenuous hikes, others involve bike rides and all are very popular with the less sedentary passengers.

The third choice was a tour to the Pont du Gard Aqueduct. It was scheduled for the same time as the tour of Avignon, providing an interesting option for those passengers who had already visited Avignon.

Our approach to the nearest gate in the wall gives an even better idea of how massive it is.

As you can see from the aerial view, the palace is immense, the largest medieval Gothic buildings in Europe.  Constructed as both fortress and palace it was briefly the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The palace is actually two buildings joined together. If considered as one, they form the largest Gothic building of the Middle Ages. Although construction began in 1252 AD as a Bishop’s palace, the first Pope, a Frenchman, Clement V moved to Avignon in 1309 AD because of chaotic religious and military issues in Rome. The following 70 years, when the principal see of the Catholic Church was in Avignon, is often referred to as the Babylonian Captivity. This was one of the low points in Catholic history as for a time there were two Popes, and then a third until Urban V and Gregory XI returned to Rome, convinced that the seat of the papacy could only be the by the tomb of St. Peter. Despite its brief role as the center of Western Christianity, the Avignon papal library  of over 2,000 volumes drew clerical scholars, including the founder of Humanism, Petrarch. Composers, singers and musicians came to compose and perform in the Great Chapel of the Palace. Because it was so huge, 118,403 sq ft,  the Palace forced the centralization of services, creating the first central administrative system for the Church. It also required a large staff of both religious and lay persons unusual for the time.

Unfortunately, although the return of the Pope to
Rome was good for the Catholic Church, it resulted in the deterioration of the Palace. Such a large space simply wasn’t needed in Avignon. Consequently it was in bad shape by the time the French Revolution broke out in 1789.The Palace was stripped of its remaining furnishings and artwork during and after the French Revolution and these items were never restored

As you can see, this petit train is similar to the one we rode  thru the vineyards..


We gentle walkers assembled for the relatively short walk to the square where we would board the little train. Unfortunately we didn’t realize that  was more than one train in service . It probably wouldn’t have mattered as we boarded the one that was there. However, one of the trains is quite new, and seems to have had a more careful driver while the one which we boarded was ramshackle and  as we soon  found out, with a  driver to match.

Unfortunately this battered contraption was the one that showed up when we waited at the stop.

I wanted to sit in the last car again  so as to have better photo opps. This was a mistake.  Riding in the last car, the Ramblers thought our driver was playing crack the whip as we bounced along the cobblestones and whipped around the corners of the narrow streets. To make matters worse, the narrative that accompanied the tour was impossible to understand.  I am sure the gentle walkers with back problems were only too happy to disembark at the end of this tour although the children probably enjoyed it.

Not sure whether the nun was a tourist or a resident of a nearby convent.

Our ride ended  in the square,  a relatively short walk back to the closest city gate and then not far to the Catherine. We took our time as we knew that if we missed lunch in the dining room, we could always order a sandwich in the Leopard Lounge. While we were in the square, I took perhaps my best photo of the trip. It was a hot day, and the noon sun was very warm.  I noticed an elderly nun, resting in the shade, not far from the Palace.  I don’t usually take photos of people without their permission, but in this case I couldn’t resist.

A cruise in France would not be complete without a lesson in crepe making by our chefs. I am really not sure just day we had this but it was fun to watch.

Margery and the chefs quaffing the cognac. It was to give her courage to flip the crepe, and it worked!

Although the chef prepared the crepe batter, he was looking for some one from the audience to make a crepe. First they asked innocently if anyone made crepes at home, When I mentioned that I had, many times, they tried to coax me into coming forward and being their guinea pig. The Rambler politely refused, suggesting that someone else have the honor. Eventually, Margery the daughter of my South African friend, volunteered. She was quite the sport and actually managed to flip her crepe after toasting her attempt with a glass of cognac.

That night we had  our “Gala Farewell Dinner.”  I put the title in italics because every night, we had an excellent 5 course meal with several choices. Fortunately the portions are small, otherwise many passengers wouldn’t be able to buckle their seat belts on the plane going home. One of the appetizer choices for the Gala was foie gras which neither of the Ramblers enjoy. But I guess it was good, as our waitress told us folks at another table had asked for, and received 2nds and 3rds.

The Senior Rambler enjoying a special meal in the Leopard Lounge.

All the courses had accompanying wines which were excellent, while the senior Rambler had his customary orange juice or coke. One thing we enjoy about river cruising is the open seating. We tried hard to sit with different people at every meal but eventually, especially for the Farewell Gala, you gravitate towards the friends you made on the voyage.

For dessert, what else but Baked Alaska, on the Catherine’s special china.

Ironically, the Gala is not usually on the last night of the cruise but the preceding night. I am sure this is because the crew has to get ready for the next group of passengers who will be arriving as we disembark. Clearing up for such an elaborate meal obviously would take longer. Plus, some passengers had very early flights home. At end of one cruise, European Jewels in 2015,  we had to leave for the airport at 3:30 AM, so obviously  not a good idea to eat a rich meal only a few hours earlier.

On our last day of this cruise, the Catherine would set sail tomorrow for Tarascon at 9 AM. The Captain isn’t kidding. if the schedule says 9, the ship leaves at 9. This was not a problem for anyone on this trip nor should it be, as the next day’s schedule appears in your cabin the night before.

A step back in time at Viviers where the Rambler is schooled in petanque

From Lyon, a  modern city built over and around its historic past, the Catherine would take us to Viviers, a smallish place  with perhaps 3,900 inhabitants and few elements of modernization. Vivers is in the Ardeche or Rhone-Alpes region and lies at the confluence of the Rhone and the Escoutay Rivers.

View of the hilly terrain around Viviers. The Rhone is in the distance.

Viviers was founded before the fall of the Roman Empire. Then it was called Vivarium and supplied the nearby Gallo- Roman city with vegetables and wine. Viviers was also a Christian center and in the 5th century, the Bishop of Alba decided establish his episcopal see there.

The tower of St. Michael is the oldest part of the cathedral structure, dating to the 11th century.

If you have a bishop, you have to have a cathedral, and so it was. Not too much later the first church was built on a high rocky hill, called the Chateauvieux Rock  which overlooks the town and the rivers. The foundation  of the current Cathedral of St Vincent date to the 12th century

. At first, part of the Holy Roman Empire, Viviers’ citizens later were incorporated into the Kingdom of France and thus were endangered by the Hundred Years War fought between the French and the English. They also suffered from the bubonic plague or the Black Death in the 14th century. Unfortunately Viviers has endured more than its share of war and suffering but has survived. It is no surprise that its citizens tried to protect themselves from conflict and disease. In the oldest part of town one sees homes with few windows and no doors facing the street as if to keep trouble out.

All the houses in the hsitoric center of Viviers are made of stone, even the roofs because of the powerful winds common to the area.

Today we would first go to the Cathedral of St. Vincent at the top of Chateauvieux. Despite the bus ride to our destination, the senior Rambler decided there would be too much walking for him and he opted for a leisurely day on the Catherine. As it was a fairly steep climb, the gentle walkers happily rode the bus to the top of the rocky hill. There we had a chance to stroll around and admire the view before the scheduled organ concert in the cathedral. The organist was talented and played  a spirited program of sacred and classical music

Our organist waves to acknowledge our applause after a spirited concert.

. Before the concert,  I wanted to light a candle as I usually do when I visit a church but there were no lighters. A German tourist from another group tried to help but succeeded only in snuffing out 5 or 6 candles. Fortunately yet another tourist sprang into action with his lighter and lit my candles as well as those that had been put out prematurely.

St. Vincent’s before the tourists flocked in, a beautiful and peaceful place and also quite small as Cathedrals go.

The cathedral is a popular stop for travelers and river cruisers so we were joined inside by several other groups. St Vincent’s is the smallest cathedral in France and the oldest still in use, a historic and beautiful place. However most guidebooks and the guide in the Cathedral didn’t mention that It was also the scene of a daring art theft in 1974. Instead of the more common wall frescoes, carvings or statues, the altar of St. Vincent’s is surrounded by beautiful Gobelin tapestries woven in France at the end of the 18th century. Unfortunately 43 years ago, daring thieves cut down three of the six tapestries from the wall at night.  This was not an easy task as they weighed more than 100 pounds a piece and had become somewhat fragile.

The Cathedral was the absolute worst place to take photographs on the trip. Too much light or no light. Here you can see two of the tapestries; all feature scenes from the New Testament. Not sure which ones were stolen.

Each tapestry is considered priceless today  and although stolen art recovery specialists searched diligently for the missing Gobelin’s only two have been recovered to date. It is said the parishioners of St. Vincent’s pray for the return of the missing tapestry every Sunday.

After the concert, we wandered around the top of the rock for a while enjoying the views on a beautiful day. Then  our guides gathered us in to walk down the hill into the town.

Our guide for the second part of our tour. She was delightful, Unfortunately I forgot to write down her name.

We had divided into smaller groups, each of which would visit a shop or a home in the historic part of Viviers. Our group went to visit the Poterie, where we got a chance to see the owner at work making his wares.

Our potter at work. What a pleasant workplace it was.

We also learned about the business The owners lived upstairs; the shop was on the ground floor in an ancient building. It was a pleasant place to work as pedestrians wandered in or walked by, through the sun-dappled,  cobble stone streets,  It is the custom to offer visitors some kind of snack in this part of France. The people are very hospitable and friendly and so we sipped some local wine and munched on local cheese and home-made appetizers in their showroom/ home. It was a pleasant time.

All too soon it was time to straggle back to the ship and I took my time, enjoying the walled gardens, narrow byways and ancient buildings.

Must admit I peeked into one of the walled gardens.

I wondered  as I walked along what it might be like to live in Viviers where everyone had their place. My thoughts were interrupted by Yann our hotel manager and Martin our concierge who called me over to a dusty field where they were playing some sort of ball game.  Yann and Martin coaxed me into trying my hand at game of what I learned was petanque. My partner would be another  crew member who didn’t know much about the game. I am the sports loving Rambler and am always eager to try some new game but I had never seen petanque played so I didn’t know what I was getting into. I also didn’t know then that it was practically the national game of Provence and the Ardeche.

This narrow passageway is actually a street.

Yann kindly instructed us two newbies in the rules of the game and allowed us a few practice  throws. The rules and equipment are simple. Each player has 3 steel balls which they are supposed to try to land in a circle drawn in the dust, about 15 ft away.

Here are the three innocent looking steel balls…

Inside the circle was a little wooden ball. The idea was to land the steel balls as close to the little wooden ball as possible. Seems simple, right? Not… What they didn’t tell us was that another part of the game was to knock the opponent’s ball out of the circle. When they graciously let us go first, they were actually setting us up. Through sheer luck, my partner and I managed to score one point. Fortunately more of our group were strolling back to the ship and some took up Yann’s friendly offer  to enter the shark tank as we escaped.

After tramping around in that sandy field, my sandals were truly full of sand, and I was glad to get back to the Catherine where I could shake them out. Then it was time to relax and enjoy the scenery on the river. Our next stop would be Avignon.

Moored across from us were three barges that had been converted into houseboats.

Lyon at night and Tain l’Hermitage in the morning…

After  a full day of activity and a dinner that featured the special chickens from Lyon, the Poulet de Bresse, the Ramblers were ready to spend a relaxing evening on the Catherine. However, our cruise director, Emmanuelle had other plans. She  had added an evening event, a driving tour of Lyon at night. She also hired two busses, each with a Lyonnais guide, for a  tour of  the historic downtown of Lyon, famously lit up at night.

Initially the Ramblers were not too eager to go because the tour wouldn’t start until 9 PM. Of course it wouldn’t begin until full dark, and the Rambler’s night photos didn’t often turn out the way she wanted. However when we learned that one of the busses had an open top and it was a clear night, we changed our minds. Fortunately we managed to get seats on the bus with the open top deck.

Here we are seated on the open topped bus, with the mini-Eiffel tower and the Basilica of Notre Dame in the distance.

If i was to get any worthwhile photos, it would have to be from on top.

As it turned out, we were glad we went. We got to see a beautiful city from an entirely different angle.

Beautiful detail on the entrance to the basilica.

It was fun, and although we got off near the basilica on the hilltop, visible during the day from our quay, most of the tour involved no more action than craning our necks to make sure we didn’t miss anything.  We also learned from our guide, Jean, how much the people of Lyon appreciated our traveling to France despite the horrendous events of a few months ago. We were happy to hear this, as you might imagine.

Our first stop was at the basilica de Notre Dame, beautifully lit to show the incredible detail of its exterior

Majestic at night, the Basilica of Notre Dame.

. In the distance, we could see Lyon’s copy of the Tour Eiffel, also lit up though much smaller. After a brief stop to view the lights of Lyon reflecting on Saone River, we climbed back on the bus  for a tour of the city. We didn’t realize that Lyon had over 300 wall paintings or frescoes. These has been painted by a group called  CitéCréation starting in the early 80’s to revitalize the city. The murals they produced  were designed not just as decoration but to help the people of Lyon rediscover their local identity, to trace the history of a particular quartier, or district, and to make art accessible to everyone.They have certainly been successful  as the painting are wonderful.

Here is a close-up as I could get with a camera that has no zoom. I think you can see that the people look thred dimensional.

Obviously we were able to see only a few of the paintings on that night. The one we got the best look at is perhaps the most famous trompe l’oeil mural in Lyon.  Called La Fresque des Lyonnais, it depicts  some 30 of Lyon’s most renowned citizens, past and present. Included in this group are the Roman emperor Claudius, who was born here when Lyon was the Lugdunum of Roman Gaul; the pioneer film making Lumière brothers; silk weaver and inventor of the Jacquard loom Joseph-Marie Jacquard and author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  Others appear on their balconies by the Saône River. The famous Lyon chef Paul Bocuse stands in the doorway of a typical Lyonnais restaurant, and at one of his tables is crime writer Frédéric Dard. Just down the road is La Bibliothèque de la Cité, the City Library, another trompe l’oeil, which sits opposite a real second-hand book market on the banks of the river. The murals are so life like that they appear third dimensional. Certainly these murals were the highlight of our visit ranking right up there with the Bocuse Market. Both were typical of the city in totally different ways.

The reason the Catherine is so white and clean is the sailors scrub her down whenever they have a chance.

The next morning  we woke to find the Catherine docked at the attractive small town of Tain L’Hermitage.

The dock at Tain L’Hermitage.

It is situated in prime vineyard country so we had the option of taking a tour of the town and vineyards on a mini-train or doing the same thing on a bicycle. We didn’t have to ponder this one. Since the train would take us up Hermitage Hill,  famous for its terroir but a good walk up to the top, we opted for the mini-train. Quite a few of our passengers took the bike option and zoomed past us later on as we chugged up the steep hillside in the little train.  Of course they had to pedal up the winding road to the hilltop first.

Many hectares of premium vines grow here.

Although we did not visit any tasting rooms, Tain L’Hermitage  and its sister town Tournon, are famous because of the wines produced there. If you have time, I would suggest visiting the tasting rooms of Chapoutier and Jaboulet. You won’t be able to ship any wine home, but both companies export to the US and Australia. Unlike in the US, wine tastings in France are free, so enjoy if you can. We had a chance to taste Tain L’Hermitage’s other claim to fame, the wonderful chocolate produced at the Valhrona House of Chocolat.

The Ramblers chose the last car of the Tiny Train as it was the best for taking unobstructed photos as we traveled up the hill, and we were glad we did. The train was open to anyone who wanted to pay the small fee. A young mother and her children asked if they could join us and although we couldn’t communicate well, we enjoyed having them on the train.

The Tiny Train of the Vines, en route.

Near the end of  our tiny train tour, those who wanted to visit the famous Valhrona House of Chocolat were dropped off in Tain. It is not really that big of a place, and it would be a relatively easy walk back to the Catherine even for me. The Senior Rambler opted to ride back to the ship so he missed out on tasting some terrific chocolate. He thought that they only made dark chocolate, and he only eats milk chocolate, lots of milk chocolate. In this case, he was very wrong; their milk chocolate was just as good as the dark and ready for sampling.

The site of the tasting room of Valhrona. The factory and school of chocolate are nearby.

One of the top French brands of chocolate, Valhrona has been produced  in Tain L’Hermitage since 1922. Besides the factory, they have a school where they teach chefs how best to use chocolate in cooking. They are also famous for working with growers and have long been one of the companies that produce chocolate from single bean varietal.

Visiting the Valrhona store is an amazing experience even if you are not a chocoholic.  I have never seen so much chocolate available for tasting in one place. Dark, milk, filled, plain… even hot chocolate to taste, not so appealing on a warm day, but good nevertheless. As to the fillings, they ran the gamut from the more common creams and jellies to exotic flavors, and being France, liquor filled chocolates.

A selection of their chocolate bars, all different , depending on the cocoa beans used and the amount of sugar. In the lower right hand corner, you get a glimpse of one of the many dishes of samples scattered around the room. Lighting was terrible for photography.

Although I enjoy chocolate, I only tried a few pieces, and bought some to take home. I did notice that most of the people in the store were tasting multiple samples and I expect that they suffered from severe chocolate overload later on. In a way, the experience was similar to that of  a wine tasting where you are offered substantial tastes of many delicious wines too good to spit out and you pay for it later. The chocolates were so tasty that I didn’t see anyone discarding a half-eaten piece.

Unfortunately Valrhona besides being one of the best tasting chocolates is also quite expensive, so choose wisely when you visit.

This smiling young woman carefully wrapped my packages.

Thoughtfully, the charming young woman who waited on me added a variety of  samples to my bag which was beautifully wrapped.

Back on board, we gratefully sank into comfortable chairs to watch the Saone flow by on the way to our next day’s stop, Viviers.

The traboules of Lyon and the famous Bocuse Market

Wednesday morning, we woke  to clear blue skies and a view of Lyon across the Saone.  Our excursions looked promising. First a trek through Vieux Lyon for a look at the traboules or covered passages of the silk weaver’s district and then a visit to the Paul Bocuse Market. It would be a busy but fascinating day.

As you can see, Lyon also has its grafitti artists. The Basilica is at the top of the hill and to the right is their mini Eiffel Tower. We would see both lit up at night.

The word ‘traboule’ is a corruption of the Latin ‘trans-ambulare’, or ‘to pass through’, and the earliest date from the 4th century. These passages were built to allow more direct access to the town’s fresh water wells than the winding streets provided. There may be as many as 400 traboules in Lyon- but only a small percentage of them are open to the public, mostly located primarily in the historic Vieux-Lyon and the Pentes de la Croix-Rousse areas.

In recent years, the city of Lyon bought up many of the ancient properties in both neighborhoods and converted them into low cost housing. However, the renters had to agree to allow access to the traboules during a normal workday before they could live in one of these apartments. If you want to check out the traboules, it is best to go with a local guide, because they are hard to find unless you know where to look. Visitors are expected to act appropriately. When you enter a traboule, you will be walking past peoples’ front yards, so to speak.

One of the ancient wells that were accessed by the traboules. No air conditioning here but they do have running water.

A traboule may be hidden behind a stout wooden door or can be entered from an open courtyard. They are an often mysterious and hidden record of the past.  While most are hidden behind locked doors, the city of Lyon has placed markers by the entrance to some that are open to the public. These were the ones we visited with our guide.

For a brief period at the end of the 18th century, the traboules briefly served as a hiding place for the silk workers of Lyon. They had rebelled against the industrialization of their ancient craft which cost them their livelihood.

While the interior has a hint of hidden mystery.

Lyon was once the capital of Roman Gaul and later served as the center of the French silk industry. Unfortunately industrialization made hand woven fabrics prohibitively expensive and the industry died out. A small amount of hand woven silk is still produced in Lyon today.

This traboule had the look of a Renaissance tower,

Our next stop would be the famous Paul Bocuse Market or Les Halles. , Bocuse, now  91, has been the face of Lyon’s gastronomy for many years. One of the pioneers of nouvelle cuisine, Bocuse has, over his long career, trained many chefs who have gone on to become famous in his own right. During his long life, Bocuse has been in the forefront of French chefs, a lusty and vigorous man well into his senior years.

Paul Bocuse in his Top Chef regalia. he was in his 80’s when this photo was taken.

The Covered Market of Les Halles is not really a tourist place, although  tourists go there as we did. It  mainly serves the people of Lyon who go there to buy the very best of Lyonnaise products showcased in a most beautiful fashion. If you want to see all the wonderful and sometimes strange products that make French cuisine so outstanding, you can find them there. Blue-footed chickens? Check!  Esoteric cheeses? Check! Any  part of a pig but the squeal? Check! Amazing baked goods? Check! Sausages of all shapes and kinds? Check!

As we  learned, in this covered market, the citizens of Lyon can buy the finest food products produced in the area and so they do, when they can afford them. We, on the other hand could merely admire the bountiful displays. The Rambler wished she had a market only half as good near her home in Georgia.

A typical Lyon bouchon, or bistro, which serves the popular dishes of the area at affordable prices. usually very good and affordable tho not haute cuisine.

We did not get a chance to visit one of the Paul Bocuse restaurants when we were in Lyon, however at dinner that night, one of the entrees featured a special chicken breast from the famous Poularde de Bresse, that was sold at the market. It was delicious.

Here is a listing of what a full meal at a Paul Bocuse restaurant would cost, and what it would contain.  Would love to try it.


Collonges au Mont d’Or, Rhône (69)

275.00€ tax inclusive
per person

Apéritif + Starter + 2 main courses + Cheese + Dessert + 1 bottle of wine for 2 + 1 bottle of water for 2 + Coffee

And now for a look at some fabulous and quite expensive foodstuffs.

If you study this photo, you can see that the chickens are sold complete with heads and feet. This identifies them as Poularde de Bresse, the only breed of poultry that has its own appellation and sells for 20 Euros a kilo!
As the sign says, delices, and I am sure they are very delicious!
The omnipresent Bocuse stares at the customers at a shop selling sausages.
A variety of excellent and expensive meats

And finally, macaron heaven!


Love these things, they are addictive and expensive at the Bocuse market.


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