Carolyn Lockhart boards the luxury riverboat ms Emerald to cruise on the Rhône and the Saône from Arles to Lyon through the gentle countryside of Provence and southern Burgundy.
On a golden autumn evening in Provence we drive down an avenue of plane trees planted by Napoleon III to shade his troops on the march. Beyond the polished white trunks lie small vineyards where each leaf seems infused with an artist’s palette of yellows brushed with scarlet and bronze.
Everything has a luminous quality. It’s the celebrated light of Provence that attracted van Gogh and other Impressionists to this part of France. We’re on our way to a gala dinner at the historic Château du Duché d’Uzès, the ancestral home of the current and 17th Duke, Jacques de Crussol d’Uzès. A tour of the 12th-century castle is followed by a champagne reception in the walled courtyard. Our splendid private dinner is served in the vaulted stone dining room. Sweet sounds of stringed instruments add to the romantic atmosphere.
Later we return to our Tauck riverboat, ms Emerald, moored in Avignon.
My spacious cabin welcomes me with its inviting bed facing a wall of sliding doors opening to the river. I part the curtains and look forward to seeing the misty riverbank sliding by when I wake.
In the footsteps of van Gogh
Arles and Avignon are synonymous with Vincent van Gogh and it is here that he spent the most creative period of his life from February 1888 to May 1889. His work was not understood and he only sold one painting in his lifetime. It’s ironic, then, that his Laboureur dans un champ, painted from his window in the Saint-Paul Asylum, recently sold in New York by Christie’s for US$81 million.
Arles is a lovely small city to explore on foot, with many well-preserved remains of the Roman era, including an arena and a theatre. We see the hospital and the cloisters that van Gogh painted many times, and the yellow cafe where he produced Café Terrace at Night still functions as a coffee house in the corner of a pretty little square shaded by plane trees.
From Avignon we visit the asylum in Saint-Rémy de Provence where van Gogh was sent after cutting off his ear. When he felt well he painted furiously in the grounds of the hospital. It is here that he produced celebrated Irises; the plants are still grown in the gardens.
White horses and black bulls
The Camargue is the semi-wild plain not far from Arles where cowboys, known as gardians, ride an ancient breed of feisty horse. The foals are born almost black, turning to white as they age.
Black bulls are bred here to fight in France and Spain. The region is also famous for abundant birdlife, including thousands of migratory flamingos.
The Laurent family invites us to lunch on their working ranch. Three generations of this handsome dynasty, mounted on horseback and wearing traditional dress, are lined up to greet us. We walk into lunch in the large barn to live music by the Gipsy Kings, and feast on a buffet of rustic dishes, including the traditional long-simmered bull-meat stew.
After lunch we move to an arena where four athletic young men taunt a young bull then run to leap up the walls just ahead of the enraged animal. It’s a daring performance, but most of us feel sorry for the bull as we know he has been “tickled with a trident” behind the scenes.
There seems to be a picturesque castle or abbey around every bend in the river and Tauck organises some private visits, often escorted by the owner.
My favourite is Château de Cormatin near Tornus on the Saône in southern Burgundy. It was built to impress in the 17th century with towers, a moat and magnificent gardens. Its modern owners have lovingly restored it, preserving the richly coloured interiors and retaining the period collections and furnishings from different periods.
A moveable feast
There are many highlights for foodies both on and off the boat. In Avignon we join chef Sergei as he shops for produce in the markets. “You can have a taste of anything here,” he tells us as he buys oysters and cheeses for tonight’s dinner.
The itinerary includes visits to renowned vineyards such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Château de Rully, where we have a guided tasting and the opportunity to buy some special wines from the cellars.
In Chalon-sur-Saône happy pink umbrellas are strung high above the narrow streets. Here we visit the Edmond Fallot Mustard shop; the green tarragon was already on my shopping list. Then it’s on to a tasting across the way to try tiny warm artisan pastries.
The Compass Rose dining room serves breakfast and lunch buffets and hot dishes cooked to order. At dinner an outstanding menu of regional delicacies and French classics is prepared by Sergei and his team.
I have travelled with Tauck, the family-owned American company, before and have been most impressed by its low-key luxury, attention to detail and warm knowledgeable staff. Tauck is rapidly establishing a market in Australia with riverboat cruising being much in demand. Looking at the brochure of European River Cruises for 2018, I can’t wait to go back myself.
Information and Cruises
This article appeared in volume 28 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.