“Did you know that the Old Town of Lyon was named after the Beatles?” our guide asks us on the first day of our cruise. Apparently we’ll be walking through the neighbourhoods of St Paul, St George and St John although there’s no mention of St Ringo.
More importantly Lyon, where our Uniworld Burgundy and Provence cruise begins, is the gateway to the Burgundy region of France. The city’s position at the confluence of three rivers, the Rhone, Saône and Somme has enabled it to dominate trade through the centre of France for centuries.
The journey to join the SS Catherine has been effortless, with the Titan Travel VIP door to door travel service delivering us to Heathrow and the Uniworld staff greeting us at Lyon Airport. Our spirits are only slightly dampened by the rain, but our guides are resolutely chirpy. Whatever the weather, they tell us, we’re going to have a great time!
Our lovely cabin on board SS Catherine is some distraction from the grey skies; all monogrammed bedlinen, embroidered curtains and marble filled bathroom. Like all the Uniworld fleet it’s a truly luxurious ship stuffed with Murano glass chandeliers and €2 million worth of artworks by the likes of Joan Miro, David Hockney and Henry Moore. We’re told that the opulent green and gold glass horse in front of the mirrored water feature is one of only two in the world, the other being in the palace of the Emperor of Japan. An exotic mural of porcelain birds, fruits and flowers encloses the reception desk and the small indoor pool is lined with richly coloured mosaics of leopards and African birds.
It’s still raining as we head to Beaune, a charming old town known mainly for the Hospices de Beaune. A masterpiece of medieval charitable work, the almshouse and hospital was founded in the 15th century by Nicolas Rolin, the Duke of Burgundy’s chancellor, and his wife Guigone. The colourful roof tiles of the Hôtel-Dieu, as it’s also known, make it one of the most photographed buildings in Burgundy. Money attracts money and over the centuries the Hospices has become one of the wealthiest landowners in Burgundy, as other benefactors donated vineyards and land to the foundation. Each year the Hospices de Beaune host a wine auction which last year raised 11 million Euros.
The wines of Burgundy are undoubtedly one of the very good reasons for visiting this part of France and we are plied with as many wine facts, as we are tastings of wine. We learn the difference between an Appellation Villages, Premier Cru and Grand Cru and how the low wall or Clos around the vineyard protects the most special vines from wind so that they ripen a little earlier. At Chateau de Rully the affable Compte de Ternay invites us down to his cellar for a wine tasting and then treats us to a lunch of Boeuf Bourgignon in one of his outbuildings amid the vintage farm carts. The chateau has been in his family for 22 generations and he’s hoping that his ‘petits monstres’, as he affectionately refers to his three young children, will be continuing the family tradition.
As the SS Catherine returns to Lyon we get the chance to meander through the cobbled streets of Vieux Lyon, which in the 16th century was the largest renaissance city after Venice. We duck out of the rain into the Traboules, secret passages built in medieval times to connect the narrow streets. The time worn doors look as if they’d open to an old house, but instead lead through to courtyards in between the buildings and were used to great effect by the resistance in World War Two.
Later, we wander around the streets on our own to discover a silk weaver’s workshop, with gorgeous scarves in the front of the shop and silk looms in the back room. The owner explains how the silk cloth is still made by hand today, commissioned for fine Japanese kimonos or the damask curtains of a Burgundy chateau.
As our cruise continues south, the weather improves and a stop at the Valrhona chocolate factory in Tain Hermitage lifts the spirits even more. The Cité du Chocolat is a chocoholic’s paradise with every conceivable flavour and type of chocolate on sale and all with a small bowl of tasting samples to try before you buy. And needless to say buy we did! As if that wasn’t enough, we are able to taste the Valrhona chocolate again at dinner, one of the ‘local’s choice’ food specialties that Uniworld includes in each daily menu.
The food on board SS Catherine is faultless, with healthy choices as well as old favourites and many recipes taken from the collection of Mrs Bea Tollman, owner of Uniworld’s parent company. To accompany each meal there are excellent wines of the regions we are passing through, which the enthusiastic sommelier explains to us every evening before dinner. We enjoy the free dining arrangement too, sitting with different guests each evening for convivial conversation to compare notes on the day’s activities.
At Viviers we reach Provence and discover the picturesque streets of the old town that were used as a film location in the film Chocolat. We wind our way up to the top of the hill, the ‘sacred’ part of town where the church owns the views over the Rhone and a special organ recital has been organised for us in the cathedral. The afternoon finishes as our guide invites us back to her house in the old town where we drink the rosé wine of Provence on her flower filled garden terrace while hearing how her aunt had sheltered fleeing Jews here during World War Two.
In the afternoons on board SS Catherine, we can’t resist taking an elegant tea among the gilt sofas and tapestry cushions of the Van Gogh lounge. With the pianist playing in the background, the atmosphere is seductively relaxing and the macarons rival any we tried in the gourmet paradise of Les Halles Paul Bocuse in Lyon. The attentive staff constantly check that we have everything we could wish for and we feel thoroughly spoiled.
By the time we reach Avignon, we are enjoying the sunshine of Provence that we’d hoped for, with the imposing stone turrets of the Papal Palace framed by the blue sky. The Popes made their base here in the 14th century, controlling the trade passing across the famous Pont d’Avignon that still partially spans the Rhone. We can still feel the wealth of the town, with the elegant shops that are difficult to resist and terrace restaurants tucked away in charming ancient squares throughout the town.
Where there had been plenty of low bridges in the upper stretch of the Rhone, causing the upper deck to be closed off, on the lower stretch we enjoy the open views of grassy banks filled with wild flowers.
From Tarascon we make our final excursion to Arles, feeling truly in the heart of Provence. This was the town that Vincent Van Gogh made his home for a year in 1888, during which he painted over a hundred paintings. In Arles you can see the cafes and street scenes that Van Gough depicted replayed before you. Tucked down the back streets beyond the Roman amphitheatre, there’s the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh where they have a fabulous collection of his paintings mounted against richly coloured walls.
Our journey ends back at Avignon, within sight of the city walls, the papal palace and the old Pont d’Avignon. On this Burgundy and Provence cruise we’ve cruised past the fields and vineyards of the Rhone, tasted the best of Burgundy cuisine and wine and soaked up the art and history of Provence. If only we could stay another week to enjoy the sunshine and explore the lavender filled promise of Provence!
Read Heather’s article reviewing her Uniworld cruise experience here.