Rhone River cruise: The French connection

You can say what you like about Catholic popes – particularly 14th century ones – but they knew a thing or two about real estate. And wine. And having a good time. Back in 1309, after a long-standing feud between church and state, newly elected Pope Clement V (a Frenchman no less) refused to move to Rome, transferring the entire court to Avignon in France.

Once ensconced in sunny Provence, the popes liked it so much they stayed for the next 67 years, constructing the monumental Palais des Papes (Papal Palace), building a summer retreat and promoting the production of local Rhone vintages (yes, I'm oversimplifying, but stick with me).

"Seven successive popes, all French, reigned during the Avignon Papacy," says Isabelle, our local guide. "And they all enjoyed a drink." 

After cruising into Avignon aboard Avalon Poetry II we've joined a morning walking tour of the Palais des Papes, said to be the biggest Gothic palace in Europe. Crouched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Rhone River it is as foreboding as it is beautiful.

Our tour begins in the cavernous banquet hall called the Grand Tinel, where the first of the papal pranks come to light. "Each pontiff had a particular taste," says Isabelle, warming to her topic. "While Clement V loved wines from Burgundy, his successor John XXII would only drink Cotes du Rhone." 

Standing beneath the arched timber ceiling it's easy to imagine the mischief a daily wine allocation of 2.5 litres would incite.

"Murder was also high on their minds," says Isabelle, explaining that the pope was the only one in the room permitted to use a knife. "In case someone tried to kill him." For further papal protection meals were sampled by a specially trained maitre d'hotel capable of detecting poison.

Leading us from the Great Clementine chapel to Benedict XII's study, Isabelle tosses tales like lollies from a pinata, proving there is no greater travel gift than a good guide. "They were a pompous lot," she says, with a sniff. "Living more like princess than popes." Popes such as John XXII, Benedict XII and Clement VI reportedly spent a devil's ransom on artworks, tapestries and tableware. But they were also misers. "Guests were not allowed to leave until the staff had counted every piece of gold cutlery."

Each successor added his own touch – a tower here, a turret there – until the palace covered more than 15,000 square metres. The pampered popes so loved their Provincial lifestyle (and I daresay the wines) that when Gregory XI moved the Papacy back to Rome in 1377 it caused a split in the Catholic Church. "The French popes didn't give up without a fight," says Isabelle. "For the next 40 years two rival popes clung on in Avignon." 


Today the squabbles are over and the interiors are bare; the faded frescoes inside La Chapelle Saint-Jean keeping watch over the tour groups, whose footsteps seem too loud in this palace of ghosts. After the last pope checked out the palace fell into disrepair, eventually being used as a prison, military barracks and depot for ammunition during World War Two. They say if you look closely you can find graffiti left by German soldiers.

To be frank, I've had enough history for one morning, the only thing I'm interested in finding is where the popes kept their blessed grapes. Fortunately, for budding wine disciples, there is an optional afternoon tour to Chateauneuf-du-Pape (meaning "The Pope's new castle"), the nearby village where the popes idled away their summers among the vines.

The sunflowers are in bloom as we take a coach out of the city, passing through olive groves and verdant fields raked with vineyards. Although the ''new castle'', which was built between 1317 and 1333, is now nothing more than a crumbling ruin, the entire region is collectively known as Chateauneuf-du-Pape (so, too, is the village, but that's another story). 

Today, Chateauneuf-du-Pape is one of the most important wine appellations in the Rhone Valley, home to 321 wineries. We have time to visit only one – Le Pavillon des Vins at Skalli Estate.

At least that's what I think it is called. Given that French wines are labelled by a baffling checklist including appellation (AOP), year the grapes were harvested, where it was bottled, village name, estate's name, owner of the estate's name, and quite possibly the estate's poodle's name, cracking the code is enough to turn anyone to drink.

Gathered at long tables in the gaping barrel room our host Benigne Barbier enlightens us about the virtues of Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines, explaining things like colour and clarity, the importance of terroir and how the river rocks from the last Ice Age give the region its characteristic flavour. 

The Red 2007 is so achingly good I stop making tasting notes and simply settle in to enjoy the experience. Drinking wine alongside the ghosts of a renegade group of popes is as close to heaven on earth as this wine devotee can get.




Cathay Pacific flies frequently from Sydney and Melbourne, via Hong Kong, to key European gateways, including arrival and departure points for Avalon Waterways' cruises. See cathaypacific.com.au


Avalon Waterways' 11-day itinerary between Cote d'Azur and Paris starts at  $5,509 a person twin share in a Deluxe Stateroom (lower deck) including one night on the Cote d'Azur, a seven-night cruise on the Rhone and Saone rivers and two nights in Paris. A tour of the wine cellars of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is an optional extra. Phone 1300 230 234, see avalonwaterways.com.au
Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Avalon Waterways.