River cruising in France: A laid-back cruise from Paris to Nice

An age-old "secret" recipe and all-ages architecture are some of the many highlights of river cruising in France, writes Keith Austin.

You don't need to be within cooee of Dijon to make its eponymous mustard; it's merely a recipe, and anyone, anywhere can make and call it Dijon. 

This is both a surprise and a bit of a letdown, to be honest. It's like saying anyone can knock out champagne or roquefort. It's just not cricket.

In its most basic form, this most famous of condiments is essentially the juice of unfermented grapes (verjuice) milled with brown mustard seeds. It was invented in 1756 when a local, Jean Naigeon, substituted verjuice for vinegar in a traditional recipe – but today it's made everywhere from Holland, to the US and Japan.

We learn all this while grinding away with mortar and pestle, making our own mustard, at the Edmond Fallot moutarderie in Beaune, the so-called capital of burgundy wines. At one time, says our guide, some 98 per cent of the seeds used in even local "Dijon" mustard came from Canada. Seriously, is nothing sacred?

To combat this, local mustard companies came up with Moutarde de Bourgogne, which can only be made with 100 per cent burgundy seeds and 100 per cent white burgundy wine. It is, to use an over-used adjective, unique to the area and, as such, protected under the appellation d'origine controlee (AOC). This is what decrees that roquefort can only come from Roquefort, one of the smelliest villages on the planet.

It's like a fairytale and should really be made of gingerbread. As charitable almshouses go, it's a corker.

Keith Austin

It is this Moutarde de Bourgogne, on the whole, that fills shop shelves in Beaune and in nearby Dijon, where the streets are paved with the stuff. Not literally, of course, but shops such as Moutarde Maille ("maison fondee en 1747"), are filled floor-to-ceiling with jars and jars of it. Pinot noir mustard, anyone? No? Blackcurrants, perhaps? Saffron? Chilli? Basil? Walnuts?

There is also, believe it or not, a horseradish mustard.  This, we discover during a tasting at the Beaune moutarderie, basically strips the lining from your nostrils and peels a layer off the back of your eyeballs. It is an acquired taste and proof that, sometimes, two rights can make a wrong.

It's October and we are just about to start a 12-day river cruise from Chalon-sur-Saone, just below Beaune, to the tiny medieval village of Tarascon, some 370 kilometres south in Provence. This is the last cruise of 2014 before winter closes in.  

It is a trip that begins in Paris where, from our hotel near the Opera House, we enjoy a lazy afternoon strolling the streets taking in the Louvre, the Pont des Arts, straining with now-banned "love" padlocks, a little of the St Germain area and then back across the Pont Neuf, where the chancers are selling new "love" locks to attach to the railings there.

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In the evening a small bistro close to the hotel serves up perfect jetlag food in the shape of traditional entrecote, frites and une pression. .

The next day we join more of our fellow guests for the 100-minute high-speed train (TGV) trip to Dijon where we tour the town before boarding coaches to take us to the boat in Chalon-sur-Saone.

Dijon was founded by the Romans and was the capital of the powerful dukes of Burgundy for some 400 years. It's a history that is beautifully preserved – despite many sieges and some serious bombing during World War II – in a fascinating mix of wooden houses, winding streets, quaint squares, ducal palace and impressive cathedral. It's like an architectural stick of rock with hundreds of years of building styles running through it.  

These include the medieval, renaissance, gothic, baroque and rococo styles – all within just a short walk around the flag-bedecked town centre. Beautiful half-timbered houses from the 18th century and earlier are scattered throughout the modern stores and mustard and foie gras shops.

 Set in the cobblestones, here and there, are small metal triangles depicting an owl. They are part of a 22-stage Owl's Trail which starts outside the tourist office in Place Darcy and takes in items of interest including the soaring gothic cathedral, the 16th-century Palace of Justice and the Museum of Fine Arts. 

The ducal palace, which doubles as the town hall and houses the Musee des Beaux-Arts, was mostly built in the classical style of the 18th century and looks out on to Place de la Liberation. Stop for a cafe creme at one of the cafes that fringe this large semi-circular plaza with its pink-water fountains.

In Dijon we encounter an architectural oddity displayed to better effect in Beaune the next day – the toits bourguignons - terracotta tiles glazed in green, yellow, red and black and arranged in geometric patterns which adorn so many Burgundian roofs. They turn even the most nondescript of buildings into a work of art.

That afternoon we arrive in Chalon-sur-Saone, where the Scenic Emerald is moored and staff in suits and bright white gloves welcome us on board. This thin white needle – it is essentially two cabins and one corridor wide – will be our home for the next 12 nights but, for the moment, it's going nowhere.

The next morning we board the coaches again to visit the moutarderie in the pretty town of Beaune, the main hub of the wine trade in the burgundy region. On the way our guide reckons that it's "impossible not to fall in love with Beaune" and she might be right. It is a quaint town filled with historic buildings and a pastel-coloured children's carousel sitting in a leafy square of cafes and restaurants. It's also, she says,   honeycombed underground with wine cellars: "Like Swiss cheese beneath our feet."

The jewel in the crown of Beaune, is the Hotel-Dieu, a hospice for the poor established in 1443 by politician Nicolas Rolin, designed by Dutch architect Jacques Wiscrere and finished in 1452. It's nothing much to look at from the outside but prepare to have your breath taken away upon emerging in La Cour d'Honneur (interior courtyard).

Rumour abounds that Rolin wasn't so much looking after the poor as erecting a monument to his own success and good taste but, really, who cares? The cobblestoned courtyard is an almost overwhelming feast of glazed red, brown, yellow and green geometric tiles atop circular turrets and ornate gabled, dormer and attic windows piled in turn on half-timbered galleries.

It's like a fairytale and should really be made of gingerbread. As charitable almshouses go, it's a corker.

A tour around the building takes in the imposing scarlet richness of the Salle des Povres (Great Hall of the Poor), where the ill and destitute slept four or five to a bed. At the far end is a chapel, placed there so the inhabitants could attend mass without leaving their sick beds. The tour takes in the kitchens, the pharmacy, a cabinet of devilish-looking medical implements and, finally, the amazing polyptych of the Last Judgment, by the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden.

This is made up of 15 paintings on nine oak panels (six painted on both sides) with six outer hinged shutters. Tucked away in a dimly lit room to protect it from the sun, it is almost as impressive as the building in which it's housed. Ask the guard on duty to operate the giant mechanical magnifying glass for a fantastic close-up of the paintwork.

That afternoon, after lunch on the ship, we take a stroll around Chalon-sur-Saone, a small city much used as a base for wine tourists venturing out along the Routes des Grand Crus.

The first square we come to has tried to mix the modern with the ancient in the form of light poles that mimic the double helix of DNA. They look like giant grey electricity pylons and seem to lean in to the frame of every photograph we try to take. It is not a success.   We eventually come upon the peaceful little plaza in front of the neo-gothic pile of St Vincent cathedral, which is overlooked on three sides by the quaint half-timbered houses we've come to expect.

Beautifully kept and restored with facades of pink, green, orange, they all seem to lean slightly forward as each succeeding floor juts out over the next. It's like they're trying to read the menus over the shoulders of the customers at the cafe tables scattered in the middle of the square. Off to one side a modern fountain consisting of a large sandstone ball shows how the medieval and the modern can co-exist.

We give the cathedral – built piecemeal from 1090 to 1520, with the facade dating from the 1800s – the once over. It's nice but not spectacular – the real action is in the square outside where restaurant, bar and cafe waiters dash back and forth between tables.

It starts to rain but the Scenic Emerald is just around the corner, a short dash south of the Pont St Laurent. We slip back on board with 20 minutes to spare and repair to the top deck with a nice burgundy as, for the first time, the engines rumble to life and we head out into the Saone to watch the 40-metre towers of Chalon cathedral gradually disappear from sight.

"Has the cruise started now?" chuckles a West Ham supporter from Billericay in Essex. "Only I'm exhausted."

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

scenictours.com.au

TOURING THERE

Scenic Tours' 13-day Paris to Nice resume in March. Priced  from $7395 a person, twin share, there are free flights  on selected departures, depending on the cabin booked. Beverages, butler service,  Wi-Fi and return airport transfers are included. 

DINING THERE

The Scenic Emerald has several dining options and  you can always leave the ship and explore the local restaurants and cafes on your own.

The writer travelled as a guest of Scenic Tours.

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