I just took a river cruise in Provence with The Husband for our 35th Wedding Anniversary and it turned out to be the perfect way to celebrate the occasion. Come along as we explore this area of France and discover some amazing food.
Day One: Hello From Lyon
Yesterday marked the 35th anniversary since the day The Husband and I tied the knot. I know – 35 years! I can’t tell you where the time went, but I can tell that the two of us have snuck away to Lyon to celebrate. We went there for the first time two years ago and were completely knocked out. It’s not just the culinary capitol of France, it also happens to be one of the most beautiful cities we’ve ever seen. In the morning we walked up and down the city and rewarded ourselves with lunch at Daniel et Denise,
a well-established gem recommended by Daniel Boulud, who grew up here. Today we start a week-long cruise of the River Rhone. Just a couple of lucky ducks….
Days Two and Three in Lyon
On our way back to our hotel, the Carlton, after our dinner at a typical Lyon restaurant, La Tassée – The Husband was knocked out by his rognons (veal kidneys) – we were hanging out by the fountains in the Place de la Republique when our attention was arrested by a dozen or so young couples jitterbugging to Rosetta Hawks’s 1937 recording of “If You’re a Viper.” I was surprised at first, but then it struck me that it’s no weirder for the French to love American jazz than it is for Americans to love French cuisine.
The next morning we got up early and went to the Musee de Beaux Arts. We were on a mission to check out their collection of Impressionist paintings, but ended up enchanted by a couple of other pieces. The first was an astonishing painting by Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret entitled “Une noce chez le photographe.” Dated 1879, it’s as much about the antic crowd gathered to watch a photo being made of a newly married couple as it is about the couple themselves.
In the adjoining gallery there was a wooden sculpture of an owl by the one and only Picasso (pronounced “Pee cah so” in these parts) from 1953. I’d love to see it on our kitchen table, but I must admit it’s a little bit out of our range.
Day Four: Our First Day on the Ship and We Explore the Market in Lyon
This morning we boarded our ship, the Viking Heimdal, docked on the River Rhone in Lyon, settled in our cozy little room with a balcony where I plan to spend a lot of time and got ready to sail to Macon. The plan was scrapped though, thanks to some kind of weird hiccup with the water level. Not a prob. We had another day in Lyon. We used it to visit Les Halles, a huge supermarket of fresh produce and prepared foods, most of them specialties of Lyon, the whole place overseen by a giant mural of Chef Paul Bocuse, who is to the cuisine of Lyon what Einstein was to atomic physics.
The local folks are not shy about the animal origins of some of the food we eat, which is why, among other amenities, they display their superb whole chickens with the bird’s head still attached. Otherwise, there were more kinds of cheese, sausage, shellfish, produce and pastry — all luscious-looking beyond belief — than I’ve ever before seen in one place at one time.
It’s also pretty pricey. We restrained ourselves, took photos but ate very little, and returned to the ship at lunchtime, ravenous.
Day Five: We Visit Perouges
This morning, after a quick walk in Lyon in search of cough drops for The Husband (he’s fighting a cold, poor guy), we came back to the ship for lunch. The centerpiece was the most delicious garlic soup. It was garnished with chopped hard-cooked egg white and caramelized garlic chips. It was not only good, it was good for ya – the perfect dish for someone battling a cold. (The food on this boat is uniformly excellent!)
In the afternoon, we left the ship for a bus trip to Perouges, a medieval stone village set high atop a little mountain. France has officially designated it one of the most beautiful villages in the country, and who were we to argue? It’s beauty aside, there’s certainly no knocking its durability.
Both the streets and the buildings were made of stone some 700 years ago. It’s the kind of place filmmakers go to remake “The Three Musketeers,” the action of which begins in 1625, ecause there’s no need to build a set.
I did wonder, though, what Perouges’ everyday citizens do for a living. Some of them depend on tourists like us, working at the town’s few cafes and gift shops. Some are artists.
All of us enjoyed a slice or two of the local specialty – galette de Perouges. It looks like a pizza – thin and round – but it’s sweet, not savory. The dough is rich and buttery, and it’s topped off with sugar and spices. I was inspired, I must say. Made me think I should try a version with some kind of fruit, maybe apricots. Celine, our guide, was terrific. I never knew until I heard her speak that I was so interested in ancient stones. Now I’m ready to move to Perouges (at least for a month). It is so charming.
Day Six: We Take a Tour of Vienne
Got up bright and early to check out Vienne, a perfect little gem of a city, population 30,000, whose roots go back to the Roman era. Two thousand years later, one of its enduring attractions is the Temple of Augustus and Livia, a magnificent ruin in the center of town that electrified Thomas Jefferson when, as America’s Minister to France, he visited in 1787. (Our guide, Stephanie, described it as “the ooh la la building.”) The city still boasts a plaque in honor of Jefferson.
Walking on, we arrived at a large Roman-Gallic theater carved into the earth. Restored in 1908, it became the site of a yearly jazz fest in 1981. A year later, Miles Davis (a notorious Francophile) played it for the first time and was so knocked out he returned four more times. A large mural on the back of the stage depicts a number of world-class performers. On its far right, trumpet to his mouth, is none other than Mr. Davis. To his left, seated at a grand piano with his head in his hands, is Hector Berlioz. Why is the composer so glum? We never did figure it out.
Before the morning was gone, we rode a trolley to a high point in the city. It delivered just the kind of panorama you’d hope for, but it was also the site of a charming little church. In a country chock-a-block with magnificent old churches, this place was not a contender. But our tour guide was proud of its acoustics and decided to give us a demonstration of its excellence by sailing into an a capella performance of “Ave Maria.” Acoustics be damned, she was a compete knockout. I am not a religious person, but I felt shivers running down my back.
Back on the Viking Heimdal for lunch, our bow now edging into Provence, the chef decided to seduce us with a few choice Provençal delights. First course was bouillabaisse. It was parfait. We were happy.
Day Seven: A Train Ride in Wine Country
The river took us today to the mountain town of Tournon Sur Rhone, where we boarded a locomotive straight out of “Death Valley Days” and chugged off into the mountains surrounding the Doux River. This is rugged country – wine country — green, rocky, and utterly beautiful. The air was cool and sweet, except for those moments when we rocketed through a tunnel, forcing us to taste the coal soot produced by our steam engine.
Back at the station, we washed the soot out of our mouths with a cocktail that is one part white wine and one part Crème De Chataigne D’Ardeche, a chestnut liqueur and local delicacy. Casey Jones never had it so good.
On the ship after lunch, the Heimdal’s chef left the kitchen to demonstrate the recipe for Chocolate Fondant. This is a moist dessert with a molten center, which is why we know it as Lava Cake. It’s one of my faves, rich rich rich and chocolate-y as a dream.
We had the chance to walk it all off during a nighttime tour of Viviers. A broad cobbled avenue shaded by cypress trees led us into a small town, population three thousand. There the streets narrowed and twisted before taking us up a hill to a panoramic view of the valley and river below. I wondered what it might look like during the day, but The Husband was content with its charms by night.
Day Eight: We Explore Avignon but Save Time for Two Amazing Meals
Spent the day in Avignon, a medieval city surrounded by stone walls. For 70 years during the 14th Century, it displaced Rome as the papal seat of the Catholic Church. Today it is a modern city of rare charm, perhaps best known to outsiders as the home of the namesake bridge in “Sur Le Pont D’Avignon,” a catchy little ditty that made its debut in 1853.
We checked out the bridge early and late, at ground level and from a hillside well above it. Built to span the Rhone in the 12th Century, it was destroyed during the Crusades, then rebuilt, badly, a couple of hundred years later, then abandoned when it started to fall apart. Today only four of the original 22 arches survive. It’s a little odd – not to say surreal – to see a bridge end halfway across a river, but it remains a thing of beauty.
We ate lunch at a great little restaurant called La Fourchette. It was recommended to us by Mathieu Rochet’s mom. Mathieu, a friend of ours, is a filmmaker based in Lyon. His mom lives in Avignon. We assumed that the restaurant would be a quaint, old-fashioned spot, built along the lines of a typical bouchon. In fact, it was modern, elegant, and airy. The food was fantastic. The Husband was delighted to see brandade among the first courses. I chose duck breast with sautéed plums as my main course. We washed it all down with Chateauneuf du Pape, a local brand with an international rep.
Not to be outdone, the ship rolled out a five-course dinner that evening. Afterwards, we spent some time out on the deck, marveling at the moon and the stars. For dessert, some Armagnac and the night air. Life is tough.
Last Day On The Ship: Arles
Arles was our final destination. Best known as the inspiration for the several hundred canvases Van Gogh painted there in 1888 and 1889, this small city is sunny, cozy, and colorful. Indeed, parts of it are unchanged since Van Gogh’s day and on the morning we visited we were duly directed to a café with yellow awnings in the center of town, still open for business, that Van Gogh immortalized as “Le Café la Nuit” and later to the hospital where he was taken when he had his breakdowns.
Less well known is Arles’ affection for bullfights, a seasonal attraction mounted in a coliseum built by the Romans two millennia ago and resuscitated at the beginning of the 20th century.As we know, in Spain the bullfight is over when the beast is killed. In France, the exhausted bulls are allowed to go home afterwards to recuperate and fight another day — at least if they’re French bulls. Sometimes the bulls in Arles are imported from Spain. Much bigger and brawnier than their French cousins, these bulls are killed at the end of the match.
One way or another, the butcher shops in Arles are pleased to offer gardiane de taureau and terrine de taureau. Buying or making one of these delicacies on our shores wouldn’t be like snapping your fingers, but it’s easy enough to read about them. Here’s a recipe.
That afternoon the venue changed and I attended a show designed to appeal to our more elevated sensibilities. Held at Les Carrieres de Lumieres in the ancient town of Baux-de-Provence, it was devoted to the work of the painter Marc Chagall.
The museum projected huge blow-ups of Chagall’s work onto the walls of a limestone quarry while music from Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Janis Joplin, and Prokofiev played. It was magical.
The Les Baux boutiques also had their charms. I hadn’t planned on it, but it was right there that my Christmas shopping began.
The Husband, tired of culture high and low, stayed in Tarascon, where we were docked, and visited the local cemetery on his own. It was quiet and beautiful, he said, crowded with graves, but empty of other living humans. He returned to the ship refreshed.
And that was it. Back on the Heimdal for our final dinner, we ate and drank well and enjoyed grown-up conversation with some of the friends we’d made during the cruise. As ever, the service was super-competent and friendly. Indeed, Viking takes care to hire and train an exceptional staff. We were especially impressed by Nicholas our program director, a young Belgian who spent years growing up in Phoenix. Smart, funny, and organized, Nick was the glue that held us all together. What more can I say? This Viking cruise of the Rhone River turned out to be the perfect way for The Husband and me to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary.
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