We’re not the first eager Francophiles to visit Provence and we certainly won’t be the last. Foreigners have been invading for centuries. The Greeks planted grapevines there in 600BC; the Romans gave Provence its name and stayed for about 700 years; seven popes deserted Rome for Avignon; artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne made it their home – and English writer Peter Mayle’s best-selling 1989 book A Year in Provence attracted truckloads of Brits looking for their rural French idyll.
Our river cruise on board APT’s AmaDagio, heading north on the Rhone, started in Arles and finished in Lyon. I still can’t believe how much ground (or water) we covered in a mere seven days, although the pace never felt hurried. I could have happily stayed in Arles for a week, but a night and day had to suffice. This is where Van Gogh stayed in hospital (now an art museum) before he was shipped off to the nearby St Paul de Mausole asylum, where he produced some of his most famous paintings. It is a fascinating, if haunting, place to visit.
The market at Arles on a sunny autumn Saturday is a visual feast. Mouthwatering Provencal goods such as olives, olive oils, nuts, fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, cheeses (fromage sounds so much more appetising), nougat, meat and fish are displayed on colourfully artistic stalls; live rabbits and ducks in cages await their future.
Bullfights are still held in the 20,000-seat Roman amphitheatre and there are impressive Roman monuments and ruins throughout Provence. The Pont du Gard, 21 kilometres from Avignon – our second port of call – is a magnificent example of Roman design and engineering. The three-level, 50-metre-high aqueduct bridge took 15 years to build in the first century AD and over 2000 years it has withstood earthquakes, wild weather and even bombing in 1944. Contemporary builders might appreciate the recipe for the mortar, which was made with pig fat and figtree sap.
The living history lesson continues with a visit to the beautifully preserved Renaissance town of Uzes – Mick Jagger once had a house nearby but that was just last century – and a night-time guided walk through Viviers. Local actors in medieval costume told the story of the philandering Huguenot captain who was responsible for building the 16th-century facade of the grand Maison des Chevaliers.
There is a very good choice of shore excursions from AmaDagio, orchestrated by our tireless cruise director Anja. One of my favourites was to a truffle farm in the Rhone Valley near Grignan, yet another impossibly picturesque mountain village surrounded by lavender fields, orchards and olive groves.
Domaine Bramarel is run by Gilles Ayme, whose great-grandfather established the farm in 1850. Gilles talks us through the growing cycles of Tuber Melanosporum, which is known as the “black diamond” because of the €1000 a kilo price it commands.
Two happy honey-coloured female Labradors give a demonstration of truffle-hunting and come up with a few samples of the autumn variety, which are not as valuable as the black winter ones but it’s just lovely seeing the dogs in action and obeying orders in French and English. Our group was then treated to a generous tasting of the black diamonds – very pungent – washed down with a crisp rose from a local vineyard.
Other foodie highlights of the shore tours were visits to a goat farm in the Ardeche Verte and a saffron farmlet in the Isere district, near Lyon. Both businesses are owned and operated by women, who share their specialised knowledge with charm and enthusiasm. The adorable alpine goats, which were all due to give birth the following day, tolerated us photographing them and were probably very relieved when we moved on to tasting Geraldine Cognet’s superb home-made chestnut cake and quince paste in the peaceful garden of her farmhouse.
Stephanie Sable runs one of just a few hundred saffron farms in France – Iran is still the world’s major producer of the “red gold”. Saffron sells for about €32,000 a kilo, totally eclipsing the prices even for the white Italian truffle (about €3000 a kilo). It’s a one-person, highly labour-intensive business, although she says she has help from her farming neighbours during the brief picking season.
Following Stephanie’s informative talk, she invited us to her rustic home where we tasted exquisite jams, chutneys and mustards that she makes from local organically produced fruit and spices when she’s not working on her saffron plot.
Excellent food, fine wines and good fun are also integral to the experience on board AmaDagio. Head chef Jozsef Kovacs has worked with the cruise line for eight years and he and his team of eight create dishes that reflect the regions we cruise through. Jozsef’s soups and desserts are a major highlight and fromage fans like me were seriously spoilt for choice every evening at dinner.
The crew is a tight-knit family and our very young French captain (all of 27) is extremely popular with the ladies. The officers put on a hilarious show one evening and certain passengers danced and partied hard until the wee small hours – is 65 now the new 25?
Lyon, our final port of call, is another eye-opener. Set at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers, it is France’s second-largest city after Paris and gives it a good run for its money. As with all the places we visited, I could have stayed there for days, but a joy of cruising is sampling a destination and returning later to savour it.
The writer travelled as a guest of APT and Emirates
EATING OUT IN LYON
Lyon is reputedly France’s “gastronomic capital’’. Treat yourself to at least one fabulous meal there. Celebrated chef Paul Bocuse’s three Michelin-starred l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, is near Lyon and he has four brasseries in Lyon: Le Nord, l’Est, Le Sud and l’Ouest – somewhat more affordable.
Then there are bouchons, small, informal brasseries that are a Lyon institution.
They serve regional dishes, particularly duck, pork and offal. There are about 20 bouchons officially certified by the Association for the Preservation of Lyonnais Bouchons but many more in the style. To find a genuine bouchon check out en.lyon-france.com.
AmaDagio operates seven-night cruises between Arles and Lyon on the Rhone River, and 14-night cruises between Arles and Amsterdam.
Emirates operates 82 flights a week to Dubai from Australia (Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide) with onward daily connections to London and Europe. Phone 1300 303 777, emirates.com/au.