Photographs of the Camargue, a triangular delta between the Rhône and the Mediterranean, usually depict white horses galloping through misty marshlands and elegant pink flamingos reflected in endless watery vistas. Sure enough, we see many of the famous wild horses during an afternoon in the Wild West of Provence. And while the flamingos are elusive, probably because it's autumn, there are thousands of black Camargue bulls grazing on rough, salty pasture.
It is an intriguing area, where Spanish influences run deep. After a scenic drive from Arles, where our river ship MS Swiss Emerald is docked, we arrive at Les Marquises, one of the Camargue's oldest manades (wild horse and bull breeders). We are greeted by three generations of the Laurent family in full traditional costume, mounted on magnificent white horses; Annie and Henri, whose forebear Paul Laurent founded the manade in 1944; their son Patrick and his wife Estelle, who now run Les Marquises; and their son Paul, an accomplished rider.
A Spanish gypsy band welcomes us into the ranch house, where a delicious spread of Provencal salads and tapenades is laid out – the main course is beef (bull) stew, cooked in locally grown red rice and red wine. In between the band's lively musical sets Estelle entertains us with stories about the manade and two Arles women demonstrate the art of dressing for the Queen of Arles contest – we see an abridged version of the marathon two-and-a-half hour process.
After lunch we head to the bullring. Cowboys (gardians) have rounded up bulls that charge into the arena, to be teased by teenage boys who run in front of them then leap up the sides of the ring to escape goring. It is compulsive, if uncomfortable viewing; however, as we discover at the Roman amphitheatre in Arles, course camarguaise is quite different to Spanish bullfighting. Running of the Camargue bulls is all about the bull – the runners have to wrest ribbons from the bull's horns to win trophies, rather than kill them. Champion Camargue bulls die at a ripe old age – a limited number of non-performing bulls are raised for beef.
We leave Arles for Avignon, a short hop along the Rhône, and sign-up for a tour of the indoor market with chef Sergejs, maitre d' Catalin and Captain Patrice. Sergejs, from Riga in Latvia, first takes us to his favourite wine store, where we have an early-morning tasting of organic Rhône and Rhine wines accompanied by regional cheeses and charcuterie. Then it's on to the seafood shop, where Sergejs buys oysters, cod and wild salmon for the signature dinner a couple of days hence.
The rest of the day is spent wandering around the medieval city, home to the Popes' Palace and the famous Pont Saint-Bénézet, known to everyone as the Pont d'Avignon. It has just four arches left from the original 22, having been destroyed in a siege, rebuilt and washed away by floods; in the middle is the Chapel of Saint Nicholas – patron saint of bargemen – which dates back to the 14th century.
That evening, we're whisked off to another exquisite medieval town, Uzès, where we are invited to a guided tour and dinner at the recently restored Duchy d' Uzès. The Duchy has been described as a potted history of France, displaying architecture from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the 17th century; the current duke is the 17th and he, his wife and two teenage sons live in these sumptuous surrounds part-time.
Dinner for the 53 guests from MS Swiss Emerald is superb – fabulous food, wines and service score an emphatic 10 out of 10. Music performed by a trio of talented artists further enhances the convivial atmosphere. Does it get any better than this, our small group of travel journos ask each other?
Well, it does. This is just the first of several chateaux we visit during the cruise from Arles to Lyon, and the first time I have travelled with Tauck. It is a well-known travel company in the US but doesn't have a high profile in Australia; it specialises in small-group tours, small-ship and European river cruises.
Tauck directors Luellen from the US, Denise from Canada and Matthieu from France accompany excursions, present knowledgeable talks and trivia quizzes and are on hand to provide advice on just about anything; they speak at least two languages apiece and are great fun to travel with.
Chateau number two is Pruzilly, which we visit from our mooring at Mâcon on the Saône River. Before we dive into an extravagant lunch, we explore the remains of the hauntingly beautiful Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, once the world's largest Christian church. Adjoining the Abbey grounds is Haras National de Cluny, France's national equestrian centre, where we meet some venerable steeds in their stables and watch a fascinating dressage demonstration.
At Chateau Pruzilly we meet owners Jean-Paul Achkoyan and Annlien Heijnis, who have turned this lovely old property into a B&B and sought-after wedding venue. We enjoy yet more fine food and wines (macarons with fresh raspberries and crème anglaise are a highlight) and the views over the tranquil Saône Valley that stretch to the Alps are to die for.
After a morning walking around misty Chalon sur Saône we are driven to Chateau Rully in Mercurey, the largest wine-producing area in Burgundy's Côte Chalonnaise. This chateau has been owned by the same family since the 12th century and the affable owner, Count Raoul de Ternay, gives us a personal tour of rooms furnished with elegantly worn antiques, formal portraits of generations of ancestors and casual photos of his wife and children. In the huge medieval kitchen we sample three of the renowned chardonnay wines that are grown on the estate; several Tauck guests put in substantial orders for wines to be shipped home to America.
The fourth (and final) chateau we visit is the moated, 17th-century Chateau de Cormatin, also set in the rustic Burgundy countryside. Three friends bought it in 1980 and rescued the chateau from years of neglect; they have devoted their lives to restoring the buildings and park-like gardens to their former glory. It is an incredible achievement; these days, more than 60,000 people visit every year and its "pleasure garden" that consists of a maze, an aviary, fountains and theatre is listed as one of the finest in France.
If chateaux aren't your thing, this cruise offers many more things to explore in this scenic, history-rich region of Southwest France. In fact, at every evening briefing it is hard to decide which excursion to take the next day – FOMO is the only "problem" we encounter. However, we still squeeze in a visit to St Paul de Mausole – the hospital where Vincent van Gogh stayed for a year – a lengthy bike ride along the banks of the Rhône from Vienne, wine-tasting at Les Vergers des Papes and walking tours at every stop along the way.
We have a full day of tours in Lyon before disembarking MS Swiss Emerald, then another day to prepare for the return to reality. As it's a Sunday there's not a lot happening in Lyon, so we do as the locals do – go out for a very long lunch.
Emirates flies daily from Sydney to Dubai, connecting to Paris, Nice and Lyon in France. Phone 1300 303 777, see http://www.emirates.com/au/english/
Tauck's 10-day "Savouring France: Paris, Lyon and Provence" itinerary includes a seven-night Rhone cruise from Arles to Lyon, April to September 2018; from $7490. The "French Escapade: Monte Carlo to Paris" (and vice versa) itinerary includes a nine-night cruise from Arles to Lyon, in June, July and October 2018; all-inclusive fares from $8240. Phone 1300 732 300, see tauck.com.au.
Sally Macmillan travelled as a guest of Tauck and Emirates.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN LYON
BUY EDIBLE SOUVENIRS
Sample sublime culinary goodies at Les Halles De Lyon Paul Bocuse, Lyon's main indoor food market. Buy cheeses, charcuterie, bread and pastries for a local pique-nique and beautifully packaged chocolates and spices to bring home. https://thisislyon.fr
DOWNSIZE YOUR VIEW
The Musée Miniature et Cinéma showcases more than a thousand fantastically detailed micro-scenes and sculptures by artist Dan Ohlmann and other miniaturists plus a collection of original props and costumes from major Hollywood movies. See https://www.museeminiatureetcinema.fr/en/
GET A MODERN ART FIX
Set in a former Benedictine abbey, the Musée des Beaux-Arts is home to France's biggest collection of Impressionist artworks after the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. The statue-studded gardens and café in the cloisters are worth a visit alone. See http://www.mba-lyon.fr
LEARN ABOUT SILK
La Maison des Canuts (the House of the Silk Workers) is a 19th-century mansion dedicated to Lyon's 500-year silk industry. Take a tour to see Jacquard hand looms working and discover how the canuts were integral to Lyon's development. See http://www.maisondescanuts.fr/en
SHOP YOUNG DESIGNERS
The Village des Createurs is an exciting area where young designers producing fashion, jewellery and accessories – including stationery and paper products – have workshops and sales spaces. Find them at Passage Thiaffait, a short walk from Rue des Capucins in the 1st Arondissement. See www.lyon-france.com