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.