- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

The MS Provence slips down France’s Rhone River and several of its canals from Lyon to Aigues Mortes in Camargue, with overnight stops along the way at Tournon, Viviers, Avignon and Arles. The Provence is a well-appointed, 50-passenger hotel barge that, like all Continental Waterways barges, has comfortable, attractive cabins with good bathrooms and plenty of hot water. Ours had sliding glass doors and a little balcony just big enough for two wooden chairs and a little table. The cabins are decorated in pretty Provencal fabrics, and the bunks are supercomfortable.

The Provence doesn’t sail at night; breakfasts each morning delight with fresh bread and pastries from the local bakery. Interesting excursions are offered daily at each port of call; all meals are served on board. The lunch buffet offers a hot dish such as quiche or a roast, three salads, and cheese or dessert; dinner is a four-course served meal. Two or three cheeses from France are served at each meal as well as different red and white wines. The food is excellent.

The crew is multinational, but all speak English. Everyone is helpful and friendly. Our guide, a young Canadian who speaks flawless English and French, was excellent; a local guide also is on hand at times.

One of the wonders of sailing slowly down the Rhone is the numerous locks all along the way, some of them just barely wide enough to allow the Provence to slip through. Most impressive is the Bollene Lock, about 75 feet deep, the second-deepest in Europe.

On either side of the river are vineyards, including the magnificent Chateauneuf-du-Pape, once the Pope’s private vineyard. There also are ruined castles with romantic histories, such as the Tour de l’Hers, where a leper locked herself in a room for a lifetime; it is said she haunts the area. It was prophesied to Pope Clement VI (the first pope of Avignon), who burned Templars at the stake, that he would see the true judge in 40 days; he went to the Tour de l’Hers and was dead 40 days later.

This section of the Rhone is one of France’s loveliest as well as richest wine-producing areas. Tournon, our first overnight stop, has an imposing 10th-century fortress. Across the river are the rolling hills of the north Cote du Rhone. We crossed over to visit the Ferraton Winery, where we tasted some delicious St. Joseph, Hermitage and Croze Hermitage vintages in the Ferraton tasting room. Eighty percent of these wines go to the export market; Ferraton has used no pesticides and few additives since 1998.

A lavender distillery in Nyons turns the fragrant plant, abundant in Provence, into a powerful essence. When the main industry in 18th-century Grasse was making gloves and perfumed gloves became fashionable, the local shepherds supplied both the sheepskin and the lavender. By the end of the 19th century, the industry in Grasse moved from glove-making to perfumes. In 1901, with the invention of the washing machine, lavender assumed new importance as an ingredient in detergents.

Up the street from the lavender distillery is an ancient olive press. Under their stone house and olive press, the owners discovered a secret passage that may have served as an escape route for Protestants during the wars of religion.

A special treat was a visit to the Romanesque abbey of Senonc, a splendidly austere Cistercian structure still inhabited by monks, who make their living from the gorgeous fields of lavender surrounding the abbey.

We glimpse the village of Gordes perched on the top of a hill as we drive to Roussillon, the village famous for the ocher-colored earth surrounding it. Local legend explains that the earth turned red because a troubadour fell in love with the wife of the lord of Avignon and in despair she jumped from a cliff and stained the earth red with her blood.

Avignon and Arles are well-known destinations. We docked just beyond Avignon’s famous bridge of the children’s song (“Sur le pont d’Avignon …”) and had time for a leisurely visit to the magnificent Palace of the Popes, the chapel of the Black Penitents (nobles who became monks), and the charming trompe l’oeil paintings on the buildings around the central square.

Arles is a gorgeous little city, founded by Greeks and Celts around 600 B.C. and long an important Roman center.

The amphitheater, built in the first century, can accommodate 30,000 people and is still used for bullfights and concerts.

Vincent van Gogh’s famous yellow house is no more, but the site is pointed out to anyone interested in the master’s work, as are the places throughout the town seen in his paintings. A modest memorial nearby honors two American fliers shot down during World War II.

Toward the end of its weeklong excursion down the Rhone, the Provence meanders through Camargue, a wild stretch of marshland in the south of France. It is here in Stes. Maries de la Mer that Gypsies gather every May 24.

We are lucky and see wild flamingos, the famous white horses of Camargue and numerous species of birds; we watch as the reeds growing along the riverbank are cut for expensive roof thatching.

Our final destination is Aigues Mortes, an extraordinary small walled town. In the 11th century, when Aigues Mortes was inhabited only by monks, the sea came all the way to the town walls. In the mid-13th century, King Louis IX of France launched the Seventh Crusade from Aigues Mortes. In return for building the town, its citizens were granted exemption from taxation.

At its peak, the town had 12,000 inhabitants; today there are just half that number. A marker boasts that Aigues Mortes is the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle, but he actually was born hundreds of miles away.

Originally the curious, massive Tower of Constance was the town’s only fortification, but by 1241, the walls surrounding the town were about 20 feet thick and 100 feet high.

A moat with a drawbridge and a series of lighthouses and watchtowers, many of them with booby traps, were constructed as further fortification. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the tower was transformed into a prison, where 15-year-old Marie du Roche, whose mother was hanged and father sent to the galleys, spent 38 years for refusing to renounce her Protestant faith.

In Aigues Mortes, we bid farewell to our captain, France Touzelet, and his competent crew; we leave our comfortable bunks and the delicious cooking of young chef Jean Christophe Bourgoim for a quick look at Nimes, another lovely Provencal town with a splendid Roman amphitheater and the famous Maison Carree (square house), once a Roman temple and now a little museum. Then it’s back to Paris and home after having slept well, eaten grandly and feasted our eyes on some of France’s lesser-known splendors of the past and present.

A room in Paris, a boat on the Rhone

Continental Waterways runs 11 canal boats throughout France, accommodating about 20 passengers.

Four larger boats accommodating 38 to 50 passengers cruise the rivers of France, and two smaller boats (20 to 22 passengers) cruise the waterways of the Netherlands. Brochures detailing the cruises and boats are available upon request from Continental Waterways, 1 Promenade du Rhin, PB 41748, 21017 Dijon Cedex, France; phone, 3-80-53-15-45; fax, 3-80-41-67-73; www.continentalwaterways.com; e-mail, [email protected]

The Provence sails from Lyon down to Aigues Mortes (Nimes) and on alternate weeks up from Nimes to Lyon. The TGV fast trains run from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to Lyon about every two hours. Reservations and tickets can be obtained from Rail Europe, 800/328-7245.

Accommodations in Paris

It appears that all railroads in France lead to or through Paris, where we found both a superdeluxe hotel and one, while far from luxurious, that is very convenient for travelers leaving for Provence as we did.

The relatively new Park Hyatt on the rue de la Paix is a haven of elegance. My window had a little balcony from which I had a view of the magnificent Place Vendome.

The hotel, which is a combination of several town houses (maisons particuliers), once was the showcase for the house of Pacquin designs. Rooms are large, very comfortable and modern and have computer outlets.

The bar and informal restaurant are inviting and attractive, the latter located under an atrium surrounded by the inner walls of part of the hotel. It’s expensive, but it’s grand. Park Hyatt Paris, 5 rue de la Paix, 75002 Paris, France; 1-58-71-12-24; fax, 1-58 71-12-35; www.paris.vendome.hyatt.com.

Across town, a block from the Gare de Lyon, is the modest but classic travelers’ hotel the Lyon-Bastille. Nothing fancy or charming there, but it’s very clean, and the Parisian-style windows open to let in the bright sunshine and a view of a typical Parisian street. Bathrooms are large and modern. The price is right. Best of all, the front desk under the sure hand and memory of Madame Sophie couldn’t be more helpful and pleasant. Hotel Lyon-Bastille, 3 rue Parrot, 75012 Paris, France; 1-43-43-41-52; fax, 1-43-43-81-16; [email protected]

Around the corner from the hotel and across the street from the station, where all the high-speed TGV trains leave for Midi and Provence, is one of those large typically Parisian brasseries that specialize in shellfish. Huge platters of oysters and mixed shellfish accompanied by bottles of muscadet are served to a very Parisian clientele. Meat dishes are good, too, and the atmosphere is just what every tourist is seeking.

The station itself is home to one of Paris’ classic restaurants, Le Train Bleu, named for the famous train that made the journey from Paris to Marseille in about eight hours. (Now it’s made in three, and the restaurant car is gone.) The trip is short, but if you want to take along a picnic, just about every bakery-pastry shop makes delicious sandwiches of cheese, ham, salami, tuna, tomato or pate on baguettes. Indeed, there’s no shortage of food in Paris to carry out, to eat in or to sample.

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