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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..

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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.

PAUL BOCUSE

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.

 

The Chateau de Rully, where the past meets the present

While waiting for our bus to the Chateau de Rully, we joined some new friends for a drink at a little cafe. Gerda and Margery had come all the way from Capetown South Africa to tour France, but they had been on the Bordeaux cruise while we went to Normandy.  The Ramblers learned that Gerda, mother and Margery, daughter, were of Boer heritage and Gerda still farms in the countryside outside Capetown.

The Ramblers enjoyed a snack while waiting for our bus to the Chateau with Gerda and her daughter Margery.

When Gerda learned that I was a retired history professor, she asked if I would answer some questions she had about US history. I was happy to do so and before the end of the cruise, we would sit down for a question and answer session. I think it was fun for both of us. Today, however, we were just getting to know each other. Soon after we finished our coffee, our bus arrived and we eagerly boarded for our trip into the Burgundy countryside.

Rows and rows of great burgundy wine in a Beaune wine cave.

The Chateau was a fair distance from Beaune and along the way, our guide, Leslie,  told us something of its history. What was amazing to me was that the estate had been in the same family since the 12th century although the owners’ last names have  changed over time. This was because the Chateau was  inherited through  the female line several times. The bride then  took her husband’a name when she married, no hyphenated names in this family. Ownership thus  went from the Rully founders who built the first square, fortified keep, to the St. Leger’s , the Montsessus’  and finally to the De Ternays who have owned the Chateau for the last three generations.

Count Raoul and his three little boys. The eldest is in line to inherit the title and the Chateau, a mixed blessing in these days.

Count Raoul de Ternary is the current owner and he grew up and now lives in the Chateau with his wife and three little sons, his mother and his aunt.  Unfortunately for the Count and his family, although the Chateau is classified as a monument historique, the De Ternays receive no funds for its maintenance from the French government. Thus the Count in engaged in a constant battle to maintain his beautiful but aging home. You can just imagine what might need work in an 800 year old building. Consequently he decided to open the Chateau to tour groups, by appointment. In addition he added a wedding facility in the former stables where we would enjoy a farm-style lunch. He also owns a successful winery which is made from  grapes grown in the vineyards that surround the estate. Fortunately for him, some of his vineyards are classified as Premier Cru, which generally means the wines made from the grapes grown there will sell for a higher price.

The Chateau de Rully surrounded by vineyards. looking like a fairy tale castle.

We gained some background about the Chateau’s construction from Leslie en route. By end of the 14th century, the castle, initially a small fortified keep , now had, along with the initial keep, three round corner towers and one flanking tower. All were connected by curtain walls  and crenelated at the top. The St. Leger’s dug a broad, deep moat surrounding its base. The only entrance was then through a single  drawbridge. By the 15th century, the Saint-Leger’s had added a succession of buildings with splendid oak woodwork on the east, north and west of the interior courtyard,

The older part of the Chateau needs constant attention.

However at the end of the 19th century, the medieval structure. was modernized.  The moat was filled in by the order of the first De Ternay owner, after he fell into it! The  drawbridge and the large, protective courtyard doors were also removed at this time,  and another more modern building was constructed. Since the family lives on the upper floors of the Chateau we would only be touring the ground floor as well as the wine cellar. As it turned out, there was plenty to see.

Needless to say, we were all  excited when we got our first sight of the Chateau. It certainly lived up to its billing, towering  over the acres of vineyards that surrounded it on all sides like a fairy tale castle. In August, the vines were a deep green and the grapes were beginning to ripen. It was only a short walk to the open courtyard of the Chateau. No longer would we have to walk across a drawbridge which spanned a deep moat.

Here is the main entrance to the Chateau, no more moat or drawbridge.

One  of the things that Leslie pointed out was the statue of the Virgin Mary which rested high in a niche over the entrance. The statue was  placed there by the Count’s great grandmother after WWII,  in thanksgiving as the Chateau had been spared from Nazi bombs during the war.

If you look at the niche above the gateway, yo can see the statue of the Virgin Mary which was added after WWII.

We were met at the entrance  by the Count who welcomed  us to his home. This was a very different experience than entering a castle or historic building that no longer housed a family. It was obvious that the Chateau besides surviving from the 12th century, was  lived in and loved.

Count Raoul was very friendly and hospitable and open to answering questions from  our group. As he talked about growing up at Rully, I asked him how his wife felt when she came to the Chateau as a bride. He responded that it had been quite an adjustment for her at first, as she had been a city girl. I can see how one would eventually succumb to the charm and beauty of the Chateau, and it is a wonderful place to raise three active little boys. They certainly have plenty of places to explore. No one asked if the Chateau was haunted, and the Ramblers felt that it was too happy a place to house a ghost of any kind.

Before we entered the Chateau we walked around the side of the building and entered  its wine cellar.

Count Raoul opening one of the bottles we tasted.

There we would have a tasting of the wines produced from the Rully vineyards. The Count does not manage the vineyards himself as it would be a full time job.  The Rully vineyards extend over 800 acres!  Burgundy is, of course, one of the important wine producing regions of France and the Rully vineyards are just outside the famous golden triangle of Burgundy viticulture which produces the greatest white burgundy wines.  Fortunately it shares the same terroir or soil and climate.

Here is the wine I purchased in Kennesaw GA. It has traveled a long way from Burgundy.

We tasted four of the Count’s wines, two whites and two reds, and while the senior Rambler passed on wine as did a few others, I enjoyed them very much. I recently checked and found that they are available at our local Total Wine warehouse, so I had to buy a bottle of the white to enjoy at home.

The converted stable where we would have our lunch.

After the tasting, we were escorted to lunch held in part of the stables which had been converted into a sunlit room. There we were served..what else but Boeuf Bourguignon, family style along with delicious bread, salad and coffee.  Of course we enjoyed a red wine with the meal. it was an tasty meal and the service by women from a local village, was excellent.

Our lunch at the Chateau is served; a good time ws had by all.

After lunch, it was time for our tour of the inside of the Chateau. Of course its walls were lined with family portraits, some dating back to the 16th century. Perhaps the most interesting was the portrait of the Marquise who was imprisoned by the Jacobin revolutionaries

I am pretty sure this is a portrait of the beloved Marie Fernand de Vaudrey who saved the Chateau.

during the French Revolution. She was so beloved by the people who lived on and nearby the Rully estate that they protected the Chateau from damage and petitioned for her release. She was eventually able to return to the Chateau although the records are unclear as to how long she was imprisoned. Family tradition says a few days but the Count told us he recently found records indicating she had been imprisoned for months.

As you can see, they could roast some huge animals in that fireplace. Of course, the current owners have a much smaller modern kitchen elsewhere.

Mere photographs don’t do justice to the interior of the Chateau. We got a chance to see a series of formal and informal rooms, the library and finally the kitchen. The windows were relatively few in the old part of the building and the walls thick which only added to the sense of history and the past. A secret passage was even mentioned by the Count.

This had been an outstanding day, but Leslie rounded us up to board the bus for our trip back to Macon and the Catherine. As we were sleepily watching the countryside roll by from the auto-route, Leslie asked us to look outside the windows of the left side of the bus. Of course, the Ramblers with their usual luck, were sitting on the right side but… as it turned out we were able to see the white peak of Mount Blanc in the distance, more than 200 miles away

Just use your imagination and look at the area where the skyline meets the ground. You can just make out the shapes of the French Alps in the far distance. We could see it much better from the bus of course.

. Leslie said it was extremely unusual to sight the famous mountain from Burgundy but it did happen once in a while. She then added that it usually meant bad weather was coming. As it turned out, she was wrong about the weather, as we had no rain on the rest of the trip.

Back to Lyon tonight!

 

Lyon, the gourmet epicenter of France

After our 2 hour long train trip on the TGV, we boarded a bus  for the Quai Claude Bernard  where the SS Catherine was docked in Lyon. On the Catherine, much larger and newer than the Baroness, we happily moved into a larger cabin, which we greatly appreciated. Uniworld had scheduled no special events for Sunday arrival night, as this week’s passengers came at different times. Some were already  on board when we climbed up the gangplank. The Baroness passengers who were doing the Grand France tour came from Paris on the TGV along with another group who had sailed the Bordeaux rivers, However, the rest arrived in small groups the rest of the day.

Our cabin on the Catherine. A moody bland and white perspective

Just as on the Baroness, the Catherine was only a little more than half full when we sailed, as many people had cancelled due to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Marseilles. Given that there was heightened security in France at the moment, the Ramblers were surprised to see that our luggage and ourselves were not scanned for explosives at the Paris train station. Although there was a visible police presence, it seemed to us that maybe checking baggage  was a good idea. Fortunately there were no incidents on the train, but still…

We spent the rest of a beautiful afternoon exploring and enjoying the comforts of the Catherine and strolling along the quai. We were well acquainted with the cruise director, Emmanuelle Bonneau, who had come with us from Paris, but almost all the rest of the staff were new to us, and equally nice,  Ariana, the bartender in the lounge, was familiar from last year’s cruise on the Maria Theresa.

The senior Rambler got a pleasant surprise after boarding the Catherine. He learned that his luggage had arrived from Paris, all in one piece and had been placed in our cabin. When he checked the contents later, nothing was missing although it was obvious someone had looked through it. We  thought that we would never see this bag again but evidently after a week of calling from France and some prodding from Delta Atlanta, Air France delivered the bag to our ship in Lyon. It would have been much easier for AF if they had just sent it to us when we were in Paris. Evidently it had been sitting in their lost luggage room for the last week.

The crew of the Catherine were always busy. When they were docked, it was time to make sure the Catherine was the best looking ship on the river.

We thought we would be touring Lyon the next day, but on checking the schedule, we saw that the Catherine would sail for Macon that evening; all-aboard was set at 5:30 PM and they weren’t kidding.  Promptness is very important on a Uniworld ship, and passengers soon learned to be on board before all-aboard time as the sailors would immediately begin dismantling and stowing away the gangplank and the ship would be underway shortly afterwards.

We would tour Beaune next morning before boarding a bus for the 12th century Chateau de Rully where we would enjoy a wine-tasting, lunch and a tour of the Chateau conducted by its current owner, the Count de Rully. A little bonus was the bus tour through the vineyards of Burgundy on the way to the Chateau.

The Chateau Rully tour was the only extra tour that the Ramblers signed up for on this double cruise and we were glad we did. Emmanuelle had assured me that I shouldn’t miss this tour and she was right. Even better, the Senior Rambler enjoyed it as well. But first we headed for Beaune. Unfortunately we would not see much of Macon except from the Quai des Marans before we left for Beaune. As soon as we got back from our day’s outing, the Catherine would sail back to Lyon for a full day and night’s exploration of that most interesting city.

A typical small village near Beaune in the Burgundy countryside.

Beaune is in the heart of Burgundy wine country the seat of the Dukes of Burgundy until the 16th century. Unfortunately we missed the Saturday morning market which winds around the cobbled streets of the historic center. Of course Beaune is also the heart of one of France’s great wine regions. The Hospices de Beaune which we would shortly enter, is the site of the largest charity wine auction in the world, currently in its 150th year.

The entrance to the Hospices is quite plain but it opens onto a beautiful courtyard.

The Hotel-Dieu or Hospices de Beaune is one of the great historic sites of France. Not a castle or a palace, but instead a 15th century almshouse  founded in 1443 by Nicholas Rolin the Duke’s Chancellor. The people of Beaune had suffered terribly during the 100 Years War and many were destitute. Thus the Hospice was built and staffed by a new order of nuns to heal both the bodies and spirits of the poor. Amazingly, it remained a hospital until the 1970’s!

The more than 500 year old building is well preserved and  still contains half-timber galleries and ornate roof-tops and a wonderful glazed tile roof. These  roofs originated in Eastern Europe but soon became a Burgundy trademark. Unfortunately the current tiles are replicas which date from the early 20th century but they still look wonderful.

The beautiful sunny courtyard was unexpected after the plain entrance.

The large central “room of the poor” is set up as it might have been in the 15th century  with two rows of curtained beds and space for dining in the center. From there, one enters the chapel which was the original location of the Roger Van der Weyden  polyptych altarpiece now in the Hospice museum.

I had one of my worst photo days inside the Hospices and this shot of the nuns at work in the kitchen was one of the better ones. The mannequins are amazingly lifelike, clad in the habits of the past.

The Hospices is now a non-profit organization which owns 150 acres of donated vineyards, much of which is classified as Grand and Premier Cru. It is these wines that are auctioned off yearly on the third Sunday of November as part of a 3 day festival celebrating the food and wines of Burgundy.

Not wine but chocolate caught my eye before we left Beaune.

We couldn’t leave Beaune without visiting one of its famous wine shops or caves, although we passed up a wine tasting at the Caves des Cordeliers (wine cellars) formerly Beaune’s oldest convent dating to 1242. This despite the lure of going away with my own tastevin or Burgundian wine tasting cup.

Next stop, The Chateau de Rully!

Goodbye Paris, Hello Lyon!

The last day on a cruise usually goes by quickly, and so it was on our last day in Paris. We were docked in the same spot, Quai Andre Citroen with its view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

On the last night, we were determined to catch the Tower light show as it sparkles and changes color every evening at dusk. We did, but  not with the world’s best photo.

This morning’s excursion was a bus tour of Paris with stops at the Eiffel Tower for a photo op, if we chose. We would also enjoy a drive along the Seine and some of the wide boulevards of Paris, and finally a stop at the Luxembourg Gardens before heading back to the ship. It was an early start, at 8:30 ,which allowed us to get around the city before it was fully awake.

Our early morning drive along the Seine, only one vendor had opened his stall.

It would also get us back to the Baroness with plenty of time for those who were going to the Moulin Rouge that evening, to pack up for tomorrow’s departure. Although you can stay on board your boat and enjoy breakfast and even lunch before you depart, you must be out of your cabin by 8 AM that morning. This is because the Baroness would be welcoming another group of passengers that afternoon and all the cabins had to be thoroughly cleaned before check in. The housekeeping staff really has their work cut out for them on those days, but they do a fantastic job.

For the more energetic in our group, the option was to “see Paris as the Parisians do,” a walking tour of the Latin Quarter and Notre Dame. Twenty years ago, we probably would have chosen this tour. I well remember walking miles around Paris when we were here with my study abroad students nearly twenty years ago. Paris is an eminently walk-able city and the metro is readily available to move you from stop to stop.

Twenty years ago, we would have walked there, today we were content to see Notre Dame from the comfort of our motor coach.

However this was the summer of terrorist attacks in France, plus the Ramblers were in a relaxed mood. We were perfectly happy to leave the driving to the our bus driver and we got to  enjoy walking around  during our several stops, first at the Eiffel Tower and then at the Luxembourg Gardens.

Paris is  a city of wide boulevards which provide great long view of the its beautiful buildings However, they also force pedestrians to practically sprint across  before the light changes. No worries on the bus. We enjoyed a slow drive along the Seine, and were able to see the magnificent Notre Dame cathedral  on the other side of the river from many angles. On our side of the river, bookseller’s stalls lined the embankment. Almost all of them were closed as it was still early on a Saturday morning but soon the vendors would arrive. Obviously Amazon.com has not overtaken the brick and mortar book stores in France because even in our relatively short tour, I saw numerous  bookstores.

One of the many bookstores in Paris

Our stop at the Eiffel Tower was interesting to say the least. Our guide warned us to be on the look out for pickpockets. She also said we would probably be besieged by African vendors selling tourist souvenirs. Although  we didn’t get our pockets picked we were besieged by vendors. The most popular item seemed to be small gold-tone replicas of the Eiffel Tower itself. We didn’t buy any but some of our fellow passengers did. I though we should try to get the requisite tourist photo in front of the Tower, and I had a friend take one. Unfortunately the senior Rambler looks like he has just bitten into a lemon so we did not use it for our Christmas card. LOL

No doubt the Eiffel Tower is a tourist trap but it is also a must see stop.

Our next stop was the Luxembourg Gardens. What a beautiful place. Parisians were enjoying it to the fullest. On our stroll through the Gardens, we came across many young families, joggers and gentle walkers and even an exercise class of energetic twenty-somethings being put through their paces by a trainer.

Parisians enjoying the Gardens

What was once an exclusive palace is now enjoyed by the people of Paris as well as visitors.

One of our guide’s covert reasons for this stop was that the Gardens have an excellent Restroom facility. She cleverly led us there before we left the Gardens and most of our somewhat senior group took advantage of the opportunity. Smart move.

A glimpse of the Palace and the gardens that surround it.

On the way back to the bus, we passed by amazing greenhouses and outdoor vegetable and fruit gardens. I would have liked to spend time there but had to keep up or I would have missed the bus. I did notice that some of the fruit on the espaliered trees was wrapped in paper or cloth, not sure which. Of course at the end of August, the apples and pears were almost ripe.

Fruit wrapped up. looks like the missed one, on the lower left.

Couldn’t find out why they were wrapped so I wrote to the University of Oregon Agriculture website. Incidentally, this a great place to get answers to gardening questions of any kind. Within a day, I had my answer. This is a somewhat common custom (not in the States) as the fruit is wrapped to prevent insect damage or blight before they are ready to pick. Not a bad idea, but labor intensive.

Back on the Baroness, we spent a leisurely afternoon packing our bags and enjoying the company of the friends we had made on board. Several were from Wisconsin and members of a Gluten Free group put together by their travel agent. Most had serious diseases that were exacerbated by eating gluten so their agent had arranged with Uniworld to provide gluten free dining for those that needed it. This was done in a very unobtrusive way and the gluten-free food looked amazing.

Dinner was a quiet affair as about half of the people on board had gone to the Moulin Rouge for a gala dinner and show. We spent some time in the lounge, enjoyed the pianist who played every evening and headed for bed, after exchanging addresses and saying  our good byes.

Departure Sunday morning started even before breakfast for some. All passengers had to have their luggage and themselves outside their rooms by 8 AM. The luggage was stowed until their departure when it re-appeared ready to be loaded on their transport.

After placing our luggage outside our cabin door, we headed to a leisurely breakfast and heard about the Moulin Rouge excursion. The general consensus was that it  was excellent and worth the money. However, the Ramblers didn’t feel they had missed out, just not our thing.

Had to include this photo of smiling member of the dining room staff on board the Baroness.

Departure time on a river cruise depends on where you are going from there. If you had an early flight home, you were bussed to the airport at the crack of dawn or earlier, and so on. This time it would be different for the Ramblers and a number of our fellow passengers. We had booked a cruise called Grand France which was in two parts, on two different boats. We had now completed the first half, in Paris and Normandy, and were  headed to Lyon later in the morning  for the second half of our cruise  on the SS Catherine. There we would cruise the rivers of Provence.

We had wondered how we would get to the Gare de Lyon and find our train, but soon learned that Emmanuelle Bonneau, our delightful cruise director, would shepherd us onto the TGV as she was transferring to the Catherine for the second part of the cruise. We later learned that she lived in Marseilles and that this would be her last cruise of the season

Not too crowded early Sunday morning, you can see the TGV in the background.

. At the Gare, we met another group of Uniworld passengers who had been on a different first half cruise, to Bordeaux and were also going to Lyon for the second half.

We enjoyed the train ride, it really doesn’t seem that you are going as fast as you are, and before you know it, we were approaching Lyon. En route we had passed many interesting villages and churches, and even a few castles but they went past in the blink of an eye. One tip for riding the TGV, if you have problems with stairs, book a seat on the first level. The Ramblers’ seats were on the second level and it was no fun getting our carry-on cases up the spiral stairs.

Lyon at last! Before we knew it, we were at the quay, ready to board the Catherine for another wonderful week on the river.

We were happy to see our new ship, the SS Catherine docked in the center of Lyon.

Conflans, both mariner’s retirement home and medieval town

At breakfast this morning, we watched the Baroness make a technical stop at Mantes la Jolie,

The Baroness making a technical stop.

although our destination was Conflans Ste. Honorine.  On a river cruise, a technical stop occurs when some of the passengers are going on a special tour and it is more convenient for them to board their busses before we got to the days destination.  In this case some of our friends were going on an optional excursion to the Palace of Versailles. Since the Ramblers had already been to Versailles, we were happy to stay on board. Especially since the busses left at 8:15 AM,on the first cloudy morning of our trip.

At 6 PM, the Baroness would set sail for Paris. where we would spend our last full day on board.

The church in Auvers through the eyes of Vincent Van Gogh

The week in Normandy had gone by all too quickly. Today’s excursion was a walking tour in Auvers-sur -Oise, the village where Vincent Van Gogh spent the last two months of his life, killed himself and was buried.

Although we decided to stay in Conflans and walk along the river, we learned that Van Gogh went to Auvers because it was a place beloved of many impressionists who had lived there. There Van Gogh was treated by a doctor whom he liked, but felt wasn’t doing him much good.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Van Gogh’s doctor. The painting sold for 82.5 million plus 10% buyers’ commission.  Van Gogh painted Dr. Gachet, his therapist shortly before his death. There is another version of this image which varies in color at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. There is some debate that the second painting is a counterfeit as Van Gogh never mentioned it.

In fact, he committed suicide two months after his move to Auvers. After hearing more about the village, I was sorry that we didn’t go on the tour but we did enjoy our time in Conflans.

Conflans is an ancient place and got its name originally because it is at the confluence of the Seine and Ouse rivers. You can see the divide from the boat if you look for it. At Conflans we were moored at a quay right in the center of the historic area of Conflans. We learned later that Conflans was considered a far suburb of Paris and was only 15 miles by road or train from the center of the city near where we would dock that night. Consequently when we set sail at 6 PM, we would see the outskirts of Paris as we enjoyed the gala farewell dinner later. On this cruise, because  our ports were close together, we never cruised very long on any day, even at our speed of about 6 knots per hour. (A knot is slightly longer than a mile.) The distance between some ports on the Rhine, Danube and Main rivers can be much farther. Spending a lazy afternoon cruising is a very relaxing experience.

Ariel view of Conflans at the point where the two rivers come together. There is a monument at the spot. Photo from Conflans St. Honorine tourism brochure.

However, now we were in Conflans and determined to take a look at the dozens of barges converted to houseboats that lined the bank. It is said that Conflans has become the final docking spot for many retired mariners who spent their lives on the rivers of Europe. It seems like a good choice because while they are moored in a relatively small town of 30,000 plus inhabitants, they are only a short train ride from the center of Paris.

One of the many docks with barges moored on both sides.

Around 370 barges make their home at Conflans including the Chapelle Je Sers, a barge built in 1911 that had been converted into a floating church and pastoral center for the maritime community. We were unable to visit the chapel on board because a funeral was in progress. Many cars and taxis lined the quay and while groups of somberly clad  people talked quietly outside. What a wonderful idea it was to convert a barge into a floating church. Of course it was named for St. Nicholas, the patron saint of boatmen and women.

Funeral held on Je Sers the afternoon we were in Conflans. You can see the entrance to Je Sers in the middle of the photo.

Conflans also boasts a number of interesting buildings both along the river and at the top of a high bluff. We were not ambitious enough to climb to the top that afternoon but now wish we had. The historic center of Conflans has not lost its medieval roots. Because of our laziness, we missed the maritime museum, the Church of St. Maclou, with its relic of St. Honorine. St. Honorina, a 10th century Christian martyr, lent her name to the town. She is also considered the patroness of mariners. Conflans also boasts one of the last remaining stone towers in France, the Tour de Montjoie.

The historic center of Conflans,with the Tour Montjoie on the left. Wiki had one taken from a river vantage point.

The tower can easily be seen from the river. Unfortunately it is only an imposing shell, as the interior is an unsafe ruin. It is surrounded by a beautiful medieval garden and worth a look

We strolled the bank of the Seine from one end to the other, taking a good look at the interesting buildings that lined the quay. Several of the most imposing looked unkempt as though they were no longer occupied or had fallen on hard times.

A beautiful home but it looked very neglected. Lots of weeds in the planter.

One of the oldest was the Chateau de Themericourt built by a secretary of Louis 14th in 1667. It changed hands many times, and was sometime a hospital and a school. Although it belongs to the state, the chateau seems to be waiting for a new purpose. Unfortunately, it is not a very interesting building, just a large, square box with two rows of windows, totally bereft of landscaping or ornamentation. Some of the windows on the second floor were covered and the others allowed a look into a mostly empty building. Hopefully the government will find a new use for the chateau.

The chateau looking lonely, waiting for the next stage of its long life.

Our time in Conflans was low-key but enjoyable as we had a chance to spend some time in a very pleasant spot. We stopped at the tourist office to pick up one of their brochures, in French, but this allowed us to identify what we were looking at.

The Baroness sailed promptly at 6 PM on the last leg of our journey. We would be back in Paris at the Quay Andre Citroen by 11 PM at the latest. It is the Uniworld custom for the Tour Director to have a talk about the next day’s activities before dinner.

Our tres chic cruise director Emmanuelle explaining our next day’s activities.

Tonight was especially important because many of the passengers would be off the ship at the Moulin Rouge tomorrow night.  One of the few optional tours on this cruise was a  chance to attend a dinner show at the Moulin Rouge, our last night in Paris. The Ramblers decided not to attend. The senior Rambler in particular, does not care to be in large rooms full of people nor is he a great fan of most music. Although I enjoy music, I don’t like large crowds either and the Moulin Rouge is in a very large room indeed so it was not difficult to miss it. Friends that went said it was an excellent show, worth the high price (195 Euros per person.) If you would like to see a little of what we missed, click here. http://www.moulinrouge.fr/?lang=en

Thus our delightful Cruise Manager, Emmanuelle Bonneau gave the disembarkation talk one night early. Many of the guests would be going with Emmanuelle to the Gare  de Lyon where we would catch the TGV to Lyon. There we would board the SS Antoinette for the second week  of our Grand France cruise on the Rhone and Saone rivers in Provence.

Heading back to the Quay Andre Citroen on the banks of the Seine

Honfleur, thatched roofs and an aviation mystery…

As we soon found out, it was not a very long ride from the Manoir Apreval to Honfleur. The city of less than 9,000  has been a port since the early middle ages. Its harbor is so beautiful that it has attracted artists for several centuries. We were dropped off in the bus parking lot where we would meet up again several hours later. Our guide, Irene, gave us a brief tour of the harbor area and then  we were free to wander around at our leisure.

My view of the harbor, it was a lovely romantic spot.

The Ramblers could see why the harbor had been painted many times, the reflection of the tall medieval houses in the still water was framed by a host of sailboats in the marina. I took a number of photos but none of them really did it justice. The good thing about this is that many skilled photographers have photographed it and you will surely see one of these in any article about Normandy. We ducked out of the tour early because it was fun to just to wander aimlessly around the harbor looking in the shop windows and admiring the view.

I had wanted to buy one of those Breton blue and white striped sailor shirts but missed my chance the first time I saw them at a highway rest area. Honfleur seemed like a perfect place to get one but alas,  they seemed to sell shirts for only petite French women, although I saw many much larger folks wearing them. Not to mention  they were very expensive. The shops in the harbor area were mostly upscale and seemed to cater to  wealthy tourists. As it turned out, I wouldn’t get one until we got home when I ordered a very nice one, on line and  on sale, from a British company, Boden. So much for an authentic Breton shirt. LOL

Here, once upon a time, working class women used to gather to do their laundry. Now it is a pleasant spot for people watching.

In our search for the elusive shirt, we headed away from the harbor but learned most of the shops faced the harbor. Instead  we found a relic from the past. Honfleur had preserved a covered pool where women used to gather to wash their clothes in the days before washing machines and running water. The pool was now a nice mini-park so we sat down for a while and did some people-watching. There were many family groups in Honfleur that day, enjoying the beautiful weather at the end of summer.

Wide selection of fresh fish available at the market. Note the eels in the right bottom corner.

Truthfully the Ramblers were a little tired. We had already enjoyed a very busy day, so we headed back towards the parking lot to wait for our bus, and found some  of our fellow passengers already there. Guess we weren’t the only tired folks in the group. However, I couldn’t resist walking over to a large building close to the harbor which seemed to be a fish market. I was curious as to what kind of fish they caught and even how much they cost. The market had an amazing variety of seafood on ice in the market, many you rarely see in the US, including eels. I am sure eels are tasty, but somehow they have never appealed  to me.

One of the problems about a busy tourist spot like Honfleur is the large number of busses  arriving to pick up folks from river cruises and land tours. Many of them  are very similar and sometimes it is necessary to walk right up and look inside to see if you recognize the driver. The Ramblers had absolutely no desire to board the wrong bus and miss our own. Fortunately all the  Baroness passengers who had congregated at the edge of the parking lot were looking for the Uniworld busses which made spotting them much easier.

On board, our guide, Irene, told us that she had another point of interest for us to see on the way back. We did drive by the impressive modern Pont de Normandy which connects Honfleur with Le Havre, but we didn’t cross it.

The Pont de Normandy, which somehow looks out of place among these historic spots.

Instead we were headed inland for a while before we reached our quay at Caudebec. Irene explained that this area of Normandy was famous for houses built with grass or thatched roofs, many with plants growing on then. As we passed through the small towns of Berville sur Mer, Jobles and Conteville, Irene asked our driver to go very slowly and even pull over if he could, so we could see them.. Fortunately there was not much traffic on the narrow two-lane road, so he was able to do so

One of the prettiest of the cottages, it looked inviting.

As luck would have it, I was sitting on the side of the bus  closest to the buildings, which usually didn’t happen. The cottages and barns were indeed picturesque and seeing them was lagniappe forus on a pleasant day. I did look them up later and found that this area has few permanent residents. Indeed many of the buildings have been turned into gites     ( vacation rental homes) or bed and breakfasts. As you might expect, many  of them are listed on Trip Adviser.  if you are considering a vacation in the Normandy countryside, it is a pretty place.

Another thatched roof farmhouse in the distance, set in the rolling hills of Normandy.

Back on board the Baroness, we went to the top deck after our ship set sail. We didn’t want to miss  the airplane carved in the sandstone cliffs mentioned by our hotel manager, Celina Sousa. The Latham 47 Monument was not far from Caudebec and again, on the port side, so we spotted it from the boat and I took a photo. What we saw looked amazing but it was too far away to take in all its details. Neither did we learn anything else about its story, so we promptly forgot about it.

Here is my original photo much enlarged. Wish we could have seen it close up.

When I started blogging about this trip, I vaguely remembered the airplane as did the senior Rambler but we didn’t remember exactly where it was in Normandy. Also I didn’t remember my photo as it was taken from far away and the plane was barely visible.  Well, I thought, something so spectacular should be easy to find. Wrong! Even though I had some idea where it was, my search descriptors brought up nothing. But there is more than one way to locate a place. I had run across an excellent blog titled, Normandy Then and Now written by Pip and Ian. They thoughtfully provided a contact email so I sent them a query about the sculpture. The next day they replied that they hadn’t heard of it but they would send out a Tweet. Amazingly one of their followers sent the link to the Latham 47 Monument the next day. Bingo!

The Latham 47.02 before it took off from Norway on its last flight.

Caudebec is a small town, and it wasn’t much bigger in the 1920’s. Who knew it had been  the site of the Latham seaplane factory. The factory  no longer exists, but Societe Latham and Cie built seaplanes for their government there in the late twenties. The Latham twin-engine flying boats were a fairly large plane for the day, equipped with two engines mounted below the upper wing. It was flown by two pilots in an open cockpit  but had two more cockpits and room for additional crew.

Although these planes are long gone, one particular Latham 47 made the news when it disappeared on a mission to rescue  the Italian polar explorer Umberto Nobile. Nobile and his crew were stranded on the polar ice cap when their dirigible crashed. One of the crewmen jumped out with a two-way radio, so the would-be rescuers knew their position. However, getting to them was another story.

For more information about Nobile and the rescue mission, look here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umberto_Nobile

The stone plane seems to be fling out of the fog.

An attempt was made to rescue Nobile by 6 men, including Roald Amundsen credited with being the first to fly over the North Pole in the dirigible Norge. They chose the new Latham 47 because it was capable of landing on ice or water. However, after the flying boat left Norway, it was never seen again. A piece of  its pontoon was later found by searchers but the fate of Amundsen and the Latham remains one of the great aviation mysteries.  The daring but failed rescue mission was commemorated in a striking memorial sculpted by Robert De Landre in 1931, It is an amazing sight.

Alas we are leaving Normandy behind and heading back to Paris. Our next stop is Conflans Sainte Honorine.