River cruise around Provence, France: The French medieval town of dungeons and dragons

There's a touch of sadness in the air as the Scenic Emerald, our luxury river cruise "space ship" comes in to dock just outside the town of Tarascon, Provence, in France's south-west.

Yes, the Rhone River and the surrounding countryside are unusually fetching and, just a few hundred metres back, we passed a remarkable medieval castle perched on the very edge of the water that wouldn't have looked out of place in Game of Thrones, but there's a but.

After all, this is the final destination in a trip that has taken us from Paris and the mustard capital of Dijon all the way down through Avignon, Lyon and rolling landscapes that are belle even by the high standards of La Belle France.

But this means the adventure is almost over, and that's reason enough to feel a little down.

On the other hand, they might possibly have saved the best for last.

From here we take coach trips to the Camargue and to Arles, 20 kilometres further south, but it's the charmingly medieval Tarascon itself that turns out to be full of unexpected delights, not least of which is the local legend about the Tarasque, a so-called dragon that terrorised the countryside here.

This monster, a chimera with a lion's head, an ox-like body covered in a turtle shell and a scaly tale that ended in a scorpion's sting, lived on an island in the Rhone devouring passers-by and the occasional ship until St Martha happened along, tamed the beast and brought it into the town, where the locals promptly slaughtered it. It's a legend that echoes down the ages still, with an annual parade on the last weekend in June during which a young girl leads a large Tarasque effigy through the streets.

Martha is said to be buried in the crypt of the local church that bears her name and which sits across the road from a small statue of the beast she lured to its death. It is, to be honest, a bit of a letdown, looking more like a Muppet than a monster.

It does, however, have the distinct advantage of being right next to the towering remains of the moated castle, the Chateau de Tarascon. Started in 1401 by Louis II of Anjou, it was finished in 1449 by his son, Rene I of Naples, and is one of the finest medieval castles in France.

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We have the place pretty much to ourselves – and cheaply, too, as Scenic cruise customers get a discount on the entry fee.

From the outside it's square and stern with thick, unadorned, 48-metre high walls topped with basic crenellated battlements and flanked by turrets. Inside, though, across the drawbridge, it's a different story.

For not only is it surprisingly elegant, but its history as a military prison in the 17th century is quite literally written on the walls. Here it was that soldiers and sailors from around Europe, captured during France's many wars, carved their names and their stories into the stones that imprisoned them.

Following the free map we make our way slowly up through a maze of banqueting halls, stone chapels, grand rooms garlanded with ancient tapestry, winding staircases, smaller bedrooms and their primitive "commodes", always finding here and there poignant, sobering snippets from long-dead prisoners.

Some of the graffiti is simple declaration of fact – "Charles Morgan of Newport, Monmouthshire, taken April 6, 1757" – and others are more elaborate and, in the dungeons, include large carvings of ships, religious iconography, cannons and at least one chessboard. That you can still run your hands over these messages from the long dead is quite astonishing.

And so we gradually make our way to the great, flat roof, where our breath is taken away by the 360-degree panorama of the Provencal countryside. It is just perfect and we find ourselves grinning like idiots.

The writer travelled as a guest of Scenic Tours.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

See www.scenic.com.au

GETTING THERE

The major airlines have frequent flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Paris.

CRUISING THERE

Scenic's 15-day South of France river cruise from Chalon-sur-Saone to Tarascon is priced from $7545. Cruise through France from Chalon-sur-Saone to Arles. Visit Lyon, the famous wine region of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, papal Avignon and the spectacular Camargue National Park. Book a standard suite throughout 2016 and fly free to Europe including taxes. Book by October 31 or until sold out. See www.scenic.com.au or phone 138 128.

DINING THERE

The Scenic Emerald has several dining options, including an a la carte restaurant, a degustation only restaurant and casual cafe dining area. Of course, you can always leave the ship and explore the local restaurants and cafes on your own.

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