Paris outshines the smaller French city of Lyon on many fronts – architecture, art, big pointy towers – but when it comes to movies, Lyon wins hands down. While Paris has played the starring role in many films – Amelie, Moulin Rouge, Before Sunset, Midnight in Paris – Lyon is the actual birthplace of film. Before the Coen Brothers and Warner Brothers there were the Lumiere Brothers, local Lyonnais lads Auguste and Louis, who brought moving pictures to the world in 1895 with the invention of the Cinematographe.
Lyon marks the geographical midway point of our 11-day Burgundy and Provence cruise aboard the 128-passenger Avalon Poetry II, a luxury river cruise ship launched in 2014, part of Avalon Waterways' fleet. She is a blue and chrome javelin powering towards the confluence of the Rhone and Saone Rivers, all sleek, modern lines in contrast to weight of history around her. And like any first city/second city rivalry it doesn't really matter whether Paris or Lyon is better, since we'll be visiting both on our journey from the Cote d'Azur to Paris
If the European river gods conspired to create the ultimate cruise itinerary, this would be it.
The city of Lyon arrives in a wash of morning light, its pastel-coloured buildings reflected in the pewter water. After an orientation lap of the city to see Lyon's mini-me version of an Eiffel Tower (Tour metallique de Fourviere) and Notre Dame (Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere) our local guide takes us to one of Lyon's famous painted walls, of which there are more than 150 splashed across the city. La Fresque des Lyonnais depicts 31 famous people from the Lyonnais area. Among chefs and soccer players, journalists and scientists there's a mural of the Lumière brothers depicting L'arroseur arrose (The sprinkler sprinkled), a silent comedy produced in Lyon 1895, said to be the first comedy film ever produced.
Afterwards, while others set off to explore the Traboules (secret passages) or to find the perfect bouchon (traditional inn) I make a beeline for the Museum of Miniatures and Cinema. Housed in a 16th century building in Lyon's Old City, the museum is home to more than 300 original props and artifacts, most specialising in special effects. Wandering through narrow corridors over five floors I pass everything from complete film sets used in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer to a scale model flying ship from The Three Musketeers, a bloodied human scalp from Inglourious Basterds and the latex prosthesis from Mrs. Doubtfire. The museum also contains two floors of exquisitely crafted miniature scenes from world-renowned miniaturists. For a film fan, stumbling upon this theatrical lair is as unexpected and delightful as finding Mary Poppins at my front door.
Our journey began six days earlier in Monaco, the tiny toytown on the Riviera, where our excited group of Aussies, New Zealanders, Americans, Brits and a sprinkling of Europeans, landed like lemmings into a James Bond fantasy on the drive from Nice airport (minus the Aston Martin). Thanks to movies such as Never Say Never Again, Golden Eye and Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief the yacht-strewn harbor and soaring cliffs are immediately familiar.
After two sun-filled days in Monaco – visiting galleries and museums, walking the Princess Grace Trail, taking an optional tour to Nice – we travel by coach to Arles to join Avalon Poetry II, where our welcome dinner hints at the culinary pleasures ahead; vichyssoise shooters, an intermezzo of pan-fried sea scallops, a choice between roast beef tenderloin with béarnaise sauce and rack of lamb with ratatouilles, and mille-feuille or cheese platter for dessert.
In days of old, river rats and gypsies plied these waters, cruising from port to port like Johnny Depp's vagabond character Roux in Chocolat. Later that night with the darkened riverbank trundling past my room I feel a hint of the same carefree attitude, albeit with a queen-sized bed, fine Egyptian linen and a chocolate on my pillow.
The cabins are an absolute delight; spacious and contemporary, without a fake anchor or faux chateaux motif in sight. As a point of difference to other European river cruise ships, Avalon Waterways' Suite Ships have done away with traditional balconies. By sliding open the wall-to-wall glass doors the entire living space becomes an open-air balcony. This makes good sense in Europe when it's often too hot or cold to sit outside. Furthermore, the beds are strategically angled to face the scenery.
Food is another highlight of any Avalon cruise, even more so when travelling through France. Executive Chef Goncalo Pegado goes ashore each morning to stock up on fresh breads, fruits and goodies. In between buffet breakfasts and four-course diners, al fresco barbecues and intimate tasting plates we sample sausages from Viviers, cheese from Tournus and Valrhona chocolate from Hermitage. Wines (beers and softdrinks) are included with the evening meal and feature varieties from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Cote du Rhone and Provence. Any hopes that my offshore excursions would balance my onshore eating fade in a cloud of macaroons, peach tarts and chocolate éclairs.
I've cruised with Avalon Waterways before, and although the quality of included and optional tours is excellent, the opportunity to explore on my own is what I covet the most. In Arles I step ashore under the cover of darkness, straight into van Gogh's Starry Night over the Rhone (1888) the riverbank illuminated by streetlights and a universe of stars. In Viviers it's a lone organ player, in Vienne a quiet moment amid Roman ruins. In St Remy it's a flea market, strolling past stallholders, watching lovers holding hands and children on merry-go-rounds, characters whose past and future stories I will never know. For me, the ease at which we dip in and out of such places is the big reward of river cruising.
From Arles to Avignon, Tournon to Lyon it's a roll call of both big and little delights. After my morning in Lyon I join an optional tour to Perouges, a small village in the rolling hills of La Dombes, which has long been used for films such as Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) and Monsieur Vincent. The sunflowers are a van Gogh mirage under a cerulean sky as we make the 30-kilometre coach trip through ochre-roofed villages, past undulating fields dotted with Charolais cattle and over hills raked with vines.
Perched on a hilltop the medieval town of Perouges is ridiculously beautiful, all yellow-stone walls and cobbled alleys. Entering the village via the Upper Gate I half expect a sword-wielding musketeer to come hurtling towards me, instead I find a central square with an ancient lime tree overlooked by a sign dial, which reads, "I will tell you only the beautiful hours of the day". As well as its film pedigree the town of less than one hundred inhabitants is famous for a sweet, pizza crust-style dessert known as galette de Perouges. Devouring a wedge on a shady terrace with an icy-cold cider it is the perfect afternoon snack.
Continuing my walk I'm soon distracted by a bellowing Frenchman, a cross between Gerard Depardieu and a fairytale ogre, who has attracted a small crowd. His hand-painted sign reads 'Spectacle de Contes'. Storyteller. At his feet sits a semi-circle of wide-eyed adults and children, all spellbound by the big-bellied man's rendition of some terrible injustice. I join the circle, and for the next hour, with barely any comprehension of the French language, I'm swept up in a tale as old as time itself – of wicked witches and beautiful princesses, of comedy and tragedy, love and fear - the hallmarks of any great performance.
While the pleasures of Macon, Tournus, Beaune and Paris lay ahead, for the moment I'm content relax and enjoy the spectacle. It seems the greatest playwright of all, William Shakespeare, was on the money when he wrote; "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." For the last week I've had box office seats to it all.
Explore Burgundy and Provence in 2016 with Avalon Waterways on an 11-day itinerary between Cote d'Azure and Paris. Prices start from $4395 per person twin share in a Deluxe Stateroom (lower deck) including one night on the Cote d'Azure, a seven-night cruise on the Rhone and Saone rivers on board Avalon Poetry II, and two nights in Paris. Fares include all meals, wine and beer with dinner, gratuities, transport, entrance fees and most tours. Phone 1300 230 234 or see avalonwaterways.com.au
Cathay Pacific operates several flights per day from Sydney and Melbourne, via Hong Kong, to key European gateways, including arrival and departure points for Avalon Waterways' cruises. See cathaypacific.com.au
The writer was a guest of Avalon Waterways.