River Royale by John Gawne - July 11, 2010 Burgundy & Provence, Arles to Chalon sur Saone
After 56 ocean cruises, my wife and I decided to try a river cruise. We chose Burgundy and Provence because we especially like red wine, and the only white wine my wife likes has bubbles in it! We are wine fans, but were not as familiar with the regions of France, so this itinerary was just right... through the heart of some of the best red wine regions in France.
We flew to Marsailles and were met outside customs by the Uniworld representative a little after 10am, and advised that the bus transfer to the ship would be at 11am. We relaxed in the terminal enjoying coffee and french bread and at 11 went looking for the Uniworld bus. Unable to find it, we checked with the Information booth and she advised they left at 10:40. They called Uniworld and the representative arrived and told us they were waiting for a flight due about noon. We finally boarded the bus about 12:40 and arrived at the ship in Arles a bit after 2pm. The embarkation processing was very prompt and we were in a cabin quickly. The luggage arrived a few minutes later.
The ship, new in 2006, has a crew of 34, and a capacity of 134. On this sailing there were 125 passengers. The crew are multi-tasked on embarkation and debarkation day, loading and delivering. The ship has one elevator, so it could accommodate a wheelchair, but it would not be able to go up to the sun deck. The sun deck has hot tub aft, and many chairs, tables, and chaise lounges. There are two large awnings, but they must be lowered to pass under some bridges. There are 3 passenger decks, the bottom with portholes, the middle deck with windows, and the top deck has French balconies for each cabin, with a glass door that opens and you can actually step out about 2 feet to a railing. That is what we had booked. Considering they urged us to travel with one piece of luggage and a carryon, the storage was adequate. The bathroom was adequate with a glass enclosed shower. There was a 110 volt razor outlet in the bathroom, and a 110 volt outlet on the dressing table in the cabin. A hair dryer was provided. Bottled water was complimentary.
The middle deck is where the dining room is located. Dining is buffet style for breakfast and lunch, and open seating for diner, with tables for 2, 4, 6, and 8. Breakfast included French pastry, omelets to order, a rotating daily choice of fruit filled crepes, or pancakes or French toast. Dairy products and fresh fruit were available. Lunch had salads, hot entrees, small pre-made sandwiches, pasta, and a carving station. Soup was available to order from the waiters. If you sit in the same area each time, you will have the same wait staff.
At dinner they offered a 5 course menu with a choice of 2 entrees. My wife, who prefers fish, was happy to be offered halibut, grouper, John Dory, dorado, pike, salmon, and trout. Meat entrees included pork loin, strip steak, lamb shank, veal filet mignon, chicken, beef tournedos, and rabbit. Steak, chicken and salmon were always available as options. This was an Epicurean Adventurer theme, and local recipes, food and wine were featured. Wine at dinner is complimentary, and ranged from Cote du Rhone (Syrah), to merlot, pinot noir from Burgundy, as well as several white wines from the regions. There is also a wine list available with wines for purchase. Dinner was generally at 7pm.
I was impressed that at dinner the servings were not oversized. Sometimes on ocean cruises, if I eat the full 5 course meal, I'm stuffed! The portions served in the river cruise were modest and I didn't feel I had overeaten at any time. They also could accommodate special requests at dinner.
Entertainment was limited to a pianist and small dance floor in the lounge on the top deck, where a bar is open all day, and continental breakfast and light lunch and tea are available during the day. On two evenings after dinner, a local pianist and vocalist played, and one afternoon a demonstration of silk painting was available. But with a city every day, walking excursions, and fine dining, not much more was needed. There was a flat screen television in the cabin with CNN, BBC, Sky News, and some movies.
There is also a fitness room with 2 machines, a massage area, and a sauna, located aft on the top deck, just below the hot tub. Just outside the dining room on the middle deck is a boutique open a few hours a day, and a lounge with 2 computer stations, but no printer. Internet was available for 15 Euros for unlimited time during the week, and the satellite was generally available. In the lounge is a machine that makes instant beverages, including expresso, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. It is available 24 hours a day. There are also 6 bicycles available at no charge that can be used or reserved. They are beach cruiser style but have hand brakes and gears. We did use them in Lyon, the largest city visited during the cruise, to get around in the afternoon.
Because the ship docks right in the towns, my wife was able to get up early and walk 5 miles each morning feeling safe and getting an early look at the new towns. Each evening before dinner they have a short presentation about the next day's agenda, including what time the morning excursions would depart. Each day there was a free excursion, all but two walking through the town with a local English speaking guide and a AudioVox set with earphones so we could hear the guide without being right next to them. We would walk through the area, narrated by the guide, and generally there was some time to walk independently before returning with the group, or we could remain on our own. One of the free excursions was by bus where we rode through the Burgundy vineyard areas and visited Beaune, followed by time on our own in the Saturday market, and a ride back. There are four optional afternoon tours available, at reasonable cost, that included a visit to an olive farm, a visit to lavender fields, a visit to a Roman aqueduct and wine tasting in Chateauneuf de Pape, a visit to a working 17th century chateau followed by Burgundy wine tasting.
The vessel accounts for passenger leaving and returning to the ship by issuing cards for each person in the cabin. You collect your cards at the purser's desk when you leave, and return them when you return.
The mix of passengers ranged from a credentialed chef from a community college in Illinois with a group of students, a group of 20-30 year olds, a good number of 60 somethings from England and Australia, and the rest North Americans, and one German couple.
On Monday in Arles we had an informative lecture about Van Gogh, who lived there for 2 years and painted “Starry Night” and others there, before the morning excursion visited a Roman amphitheater, where they still hold bull fights, and other local sites. In the afternoon we walked around the town again, and stopped at a supermarket to purchase wine to take back aboard. We had a day and a half in Arles.
On Tuesday we were in Avignon, a walled city to where the popes in the 1300's had fled from Italy and built a place for the popes. It is open for touring and our morning walking tour went into the walled city and to the palace. There was a room where the wines of the area were available for tasting or purchase. The tour then visited an indoor market where every kind of local fruit, fish, meat and cheese was available.
In the afternoon we went on the optional tour by bus to the Roman aqueduct and the wine tasting at a winery in Chateauneuf de Pape.
Wednesday we were in Viviers and the morning walking tour into this medieval village ended with an organ recital in St Vincent Cathedral.
Thursday the ship was berthed in Tain L'Hermitage. The morning tour walked to a local winery for a tour, explanation and wine tasting. We then continued across the river on a pedestrian bridge to Tournon for a guided walking tour. Some of the vineyards on the hillsides here, especially on the L'Hermitage side, were originally planted by the Romans.
Friday we berthed in Lyon, the second largest city in France and a city known for its food. The morning tour was by bus to the basilica which is Lyon's hallmark church overlooking the city, and narrated drive through the city. After lunch we rode bicycles back into the town, where we spent several hours.
The ship is required to pass through about 10 or more locks sailing up-river on the Rhone and Saone rivers, at least one of which raises the ship 75 feet.
Saturday we arrived in Chalon sur Saone, and in the morning traveled by bus through the Burgundy countryside to Beaune. It is a historic, walled city that for centuries has been at the heart of France's wine trade. It was, and still is, an affluent city. The land the vineyards are on is very expensive, and the wines produced, some of the best in France, are auctioned here. We had a guided tour through th Hospices de Beaune, a hospital built to serve the indigent centuries ago, and was still operated until the 1970's. It is now set up as a museum. We were then free to spend an hour on our own in the Saturday market, where vendors offered samples of cheese, sausage, and other wares. We purchased wine for our coming visit to Paris there, including an outstanding local sparkling white wine, a cremant, and a pinot noir. In the afternoon we walked throughout Chalon sur Saone visiting shops, watching two wedding parties, and sampling some wine.
There is no need to put luggage out the last night. On Sunday, breakfast was available early for those with early departures. They arranged taxi for us and two other couples that were taking a train, and moved our luggage to the pier for the taxi at 7:45am. The taxi was only 12 euros for 3 couples and all out luggage.
I had purchased tickets online from Rail Europe in advance for a train from Chalon to Dijon, and a high speed train with reserved seats from Dijon to Paris Lyon station for $69 per person. There was a long queue for taxis at the Paris Lyon station, but we were at our hotel by 2 pm.
I had selected a hotel on the Left Bank in the Latin Quarter, just blocks from Notre Dame Cathedral, a brand new Holiday Inn with ultra modern room and bathroom treatments, and a refrigerator in the room. It was a block from Rue St Michele and literally dozens of bistros and a french bakery was half a block away. Also nearby was a bank, the BNP Paribas, with ATM's that Bank of America had advised me in advance would charge no ATM fee for using BofA debit cards to get Euros. I used this bank any time in France I needed Euros, and there were branches all over.
With just 2 days in Paris we elected to purchase a 2 day hop-on/hop-off bus ticket for 32 Euros per person. There are 4 routes, and we chose the Paris Grand Tour route on Sunday, which included Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysees, Eiffel Tower, and much more. With the Louvre alone needing most of a day, we left entry for another trip. The other routes we rode on Monday included the Montemarte Grand Boulevards, with a view of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Moulon Rouge, and fashionable shopping districts. Next was the Blue route which included the site of the Bastille Monument, and Bercy, including the national library, the sports stadium, city hall, and the train station we had arrived at. Last was the Orange, Montparnasse – St-Germain route which included the Latin Quarter, Luxembourg Gardens, the Pantheon, and more.
We ate the first evening in a bistro. Most offer a 3 course fixed price menu for about 14.50 euros per person. The second evening, we chose a small very nice restaurant overlooking the Seine and Notre Dame and paid a bit more, which with a bottle of Rhone wine ran about the same as a nice restaurant in the US. After dinner, we walked across the Seine, past Notre Dame to a bridge where we could see the Eiffel tower lit at night, and saw the hourly light show at midnight.
We had arranged a private shuttle through the hotel from the hotel to the airport, about 20 miles away, about 40 minutes in traffic, and 60 euros.
We look back on this trip as truly memorable. We loved the personal attention on the small ship, berthing in town, walking through the small towns sampling wines and visiting markets, and everything about Paris. And I learned much more about French wines and wine production requirements there. We'll do it again, perhaps Paris and Normandy next.