Somewhere along here, if I remember correctly, we entered a 70 foot deep lock to lift us up to visit all of the rocky bits in the Cote du Rhone region, where men are mountain goats and vines grow sideways up hills. It is really something when getting used to darkness at about 10:30 pm, to slowly enter into a deep dark chamber, during dinner. It certainly makes the conversation change, I'll tell you. We had over a dozen locks to go through, on the Rhone but this one was very memorable. It lifted us and we sailed on through the evening toward our docking place, Vivier, which we reached at just about 10 pm. Those stallwart types, and especially the ones who did not pay for other excursions were all seemingly happy to go traipsing through a tiny hilltop village, with a guide and their flashlights, in the dark. Me? I chose to get a good night's sleep as we were tethered up next to another smaller riverboat and was looking forward to the morning's sail up to Tain-l'Hermitage.
Look, up there in the top portion of the photo; this is our Viking Europe tied up for the day, as seen from a very old walking bridge across the Rhone.
This was definately a divided community, with the older and less fortunate town on our docking side, with the newer and more commercially vibrant side being to out backs. The old part had some interesting bits and we walked around a while before it was time to join up with our guides. I especially liked this castle built on a big rock. In the dark of that opening were big meat hooks...hmmm...for humans?
Look up on those hills, can you imagine the hard work for the guys taking care of those vines? It was like this on the other side of the river, as well.
From this place we boarded busses and went across the river, which could have been accomplished by walking, of course. We had some very elderly people who had some issues with walking and so we had to get on and off of busses, when I would rather have ambled around. This town was where we visited the Valrhona headquarters chocolate shop, which gave something else to carry home, even though I was so very intent on getting out of that nightmare of a crowded place, as soon as possible. There is a chef's school attached to the small factory.
From there, we hopped back onto the bus for a couple of blocks ride (!) up the road, which let us walk back to the bridge that Rod and I had walked, earlier. Sigh. Of course, I had to take another picture of this house, which to me was the epitome of Southern France.
We walked around the corner and into a small gallery tucked into a 15th century stone house, featuring works by the owner's father, the late Pierre Palue (my French family's name was Palu). It was a quirky place and we got to actually understand why everyone can survive nicely in the summers, by merely closing their shutters and staying cool during the heat of the day.
Our last stop was quite a bit out of town where we were taken to a small winery in the Cote du Rhone appellation. Our guide must have been friends with the non English speaking family and so she ran the tastings. I, for the life of me, was so very surprised that they were pouring wine from 2012, which they were so proud to make in stone, instead of wood. It was...pretty terrible and I felt sad for them but there was actually one guy who purchased a couple of bottles, so there was no accounting for taste. I found myself to be pretty spoiled by the wines in our region and of course, in this area, they were pretty much relegated to Syrah grapes, which may be another region that I was unimpressed...but seriously...2012???
We are still nibbling that chocolate, after dispersing most of it to others. That was the highlight of the day.
I do! For the longest time, I thought that Chateauneuf du Pape was the name of a winery and that is because I did not know better, at the time. Now I do! We took this extra-curricular bus ride and left our boat to motor on up the Rhone without us, which felt kind of freeing but a little bit sad to say au revoir to Avignon for the last time.
Out along the freeway, which felt so weird after being only on back roads and a river, and into the nearby wine region/appellation by that long name up there. As we drove into the lower part of the little village, which is home to about 300 winemaking families and their workers, the bus turned into a modern looking area for our first official French Style wine tasting. We were ushered into a big room with tables set up in a big U and our host put on the transmitter and began to teach us about his appellation and all that goes into wines that earn the AOC for Chateauneuf du Pape. There are actually 13 different grapes that may be used in the making of their red wines, which we learned subsequently, is a VERY generous array from which to choose, when making their wines. I had tasted many of the Rhone Valley varietals, here in El Dorado County but this terroir made things special.
We learned that in France, to earn the AOC, there are a LOT of strict rules to live and die by and one of them is that there is NO irrigating allowed. If one year differs greatly from another, it is all because of the weather and up there in the rocky hills above the Rhone, the grapes are meant to dig deep and find the water, during the stinging summer months, when the sun sears and the Mistral batters the vines.
We learned the proper way to taste a wine and swirled, admired color and legs and then took in the bouquet at the top of the glass and the bottom of the glass, before we were allowed to swish the wine in our mouths. It was quite the education and after trying three wines, the final one was so wonderful that I bought a bottle to drag around with me, all of the way home. It has the telltale raised keys and Chateauneuf du Pape lettering on the bottle made nearby. This was magnificent stuff.
We said goodbye to the winemaker and headed up and up and up through the village until we drove through some typical vineyards, which are like none that I have every seen, here in California. The soil was chock full of big river rock stones, so far above the Rhone, and these stones help to insulate the roots of the vines by keeping them cool in the blistering sun and then warm as the air cools. We watched as a man driving a very specialized machine tickled up the rocks to aerate the soil. These were 60 year old gnarled vines and were considered Middle Aged. Wow.
We were dropped off at this hilltop aerie that was once one of the French Popes' fortification, before being blown to smithereens in the last war. From here, the Popes could survey all that they owned and see just who was moving long the river.
The view to the east that includes the pre-Alps.
We walked down the hill from here, into the sleepy little village of Chateauneuf du Pape (new house of the pope) and were treated with beautiful sights of an old town sporting big Ram trucks behind garden doors, which means that in the land of $8 a gallon gas, these vintners are doing more than OK.
I did a little shopping on this street, finding a small place with a little dress and purse for a certain little girl. Charming is the word.
This is the town center. Notice the key insignia on the near building? This is the crest for this appellation.
After gathering at this spot, we joined our guide and ambled our way down the hill toward the bus, which would drive us down a dirt road, right down to the Rhone, to meet the boat, which had been waiting to pick us up. To say that I had a great time on this side trip would be saying it lightly. I learned a lot about the grapes of the Rhone and had yet another time in a Provincial hill town, which I found to be my favorite kind of a place.
Yesterday, I perfected that shutter color, which was a beautiful and ever-present part of the landscape in Provence.
You know, that very first night, I forgot that we were all encouraged to go up to the sundeck because the captain was going to give us a treat of a licorice digestif while motoring up to the old bridge, well, half of a bridge, there at Avignon. We had quite the wacky crew of waiters (especially the ones who also helped in the lounge) and they got us all to sing "Sur le Pont d'Avignon" in a chilly, huddled mass. It all came back to me. That bridge was ruined, not because of any bombing but because of the wildness of the Rhone River, which broke it, one terrible winter/spring.
It is ironic that I have been catching up with some of my taped shows, now that I am more lucid, and the other night I had to say out loud, while watching The Borgia's..."THAT's not Avignon! Where's the river?"
This is Avignon, from the outside and all around the perimeter. They can still close things off, in case the Rhone floods, which can happen. When you walk through the gates, you see a really great little town!
We had an early morning appointment with our guides, who met us at the boat, just outside of these walls and once inside, we walked along beautiful streets that were yet uncrowded, due to the time. Not too many people were walking these streets and so our groups got a lot of attention before being in the way of traffic. We found our way to the center of the old city and were going to be treated to a visit to the Pope's Palace.
This is where a long line of French Popes had their castle, well behind Avignon's fortress walls and we did a lot of climbing through the many floors and rooms of this place, grateful for the workout.
Like all French antiquities, the taxpayers and tourists are paying to keep these places in a constant state of restoration. There are windows on one floor of this building, where a library has been established for scholars. I think that it is interesting to see how these places have had so many changes made to them, over the centuries, and yet they live on, bearing only the scars. In the main courtyard of the palace, scafolding and a stage were being constructed, for summer night festivals of the arts.
We were craning our necks a LOT in this town, getting the entire history of the place in a three hour walk. Look, there is Rod's ever present Tom Bihn backpack! That thing was a workhorse.
Well ready for lunch, we walked back to the boat before our afternoon extra-curricular trip to Les Baux.
On Monday morning, I woke up early, sensing that we were moving and sure enough, upon peeking out of the drapes, the world was going by at a very smooth and leisurely pace. The curtains were thrown wide open at that point and I was simply grinning as I knew that the adventure had really begun. We were not moving at any breakneck pace and before we knew it, we had come to a stop and all that I could see was a dock arrangement and Rod surmised that we were in some sort of a holding area for a lock. Sure enough and when it was our turn to enter, we had this view out of our cabin window; some hopeful feathered friends, before sunrise.
This act of sliding into a concrete lock was going to be a big part of our travels, as we went UP the Rhone but this time we made a little side trip down to the farthest reaches open to non sea-going vessels; Arles.
We watched the sun turn the landscape pink and got ourselves showered and ready for the first breakfast aboard, making a right, out our cabin door and down the hall to the dining room. It was full of chatter as we began anticipating our first stop of the trip, in the little town made famous by a certain ginger haired lunatic and his colorful vision of this land of Provence. Good coffee, croissants, fruit, cheese and crudite were my favorite breakfast, well that plus the amazing fresh yogurt prepared onboard in little glass jars. It was a great way to get ready for the walking.
We arrived at about 10 am and were ready to surrender our room keys in exchange for a "boarding pass" and a group number, anxious to join our first local guides, on this, our first walking tour. Each person had their own receiver with an ear-piece that was tuned to the frequency emitted by our guide's transmitter. When we were all tuned in, off we went, to discover Arles. As you can see, old and new coexist.
It was a Monday morning, but it seemed that the people of Arles were just not that interested in any hustle bustle and so that part of the equation was provided by tourists. The wind was howling that day and we got a good idea of how the Mistral, which blows down from the far north can make winter miserable in this region and can cool the stinging heat, in the summer. We were bundled up in layers and as we got into the arena, where the Mistral could not reach us, we all got a little bit sunburned!
This arena has been and is being lovingly restored and is used all summer for a series of festivals and cultural events, which I found to be so thrilling. There are non-lethal bull festivals and operas and all sorts of concerts within these walls.
On we walked, through the windy and narrow streets of this ancient city until we came to this square with a familar piece of architecture.
You can see our guide, there. She reiterated what we began to hear, in the South and that was that because of tourists coming to see their local treasures, educated guides could make a living in the high unemployment areas. We felt less like interlopers and more like welcome guests. The education that we received from this gal with her thick Occidental accent was amazing, as she pointed out all of the places where Van Gogh hung out, recuperated and was tolerated (somewhat). In the April sun, I could begin to understand what the colors were all about and as a Californian, I recognized that light.
We finished our tour of this throughly charming little town center and ambled our way back along the cobblestone streets, through history, on our way back to the waiting boat. Hands into the sanitizer spritz and boarding passes exchanged for room keys, before lunch was served. Salads salads salads and then a main course plus dessert...good thing that we signed up for more walking.
Rod and I had signed up for the optional afternoon tour of the hospital where Van Gogh was kept and where he produced some of the most magnificent paintings that I have "known as long as I have known myself". It was a bus ride past some of the newer and rougher areas of Arles and we discovered that this was the home town of one of my favorite musical acts; The Gypsy Kings...yes, a very large enclave of Roma call Arles home.
We motored out into the country and split the groups up so that not everyone was descending upon the hospital at the same time. Our first stop was at some of the Roman ruins, that are nearby. See that sky? This was a funerary monument, although it was probed with sound or light and was found to be empty...just for show, I guess.
You know, when you walk through a place and begin to recongize the trees and flowers as those things that you have seen in works of art, it is a humbling thing. Van Gogh was shut away in this hospital for the mentally ill and his brother could not afford the very best of care, so he was upstairs in a small room but as he began to paint and the people who ran the sanitarium recognized his talents, he was moved to a room with better light and more air.
We saw the original, over two weeks later, in the D'orsay, but as we walked the gardens of this place, there were copies of these works everywhere.
We scurried up the stairs in the museum portion of this place and found the room where Van Gogh lived and then went down to view the works of art created by the women living in the portion of the hospital still caring for the mentally ill. Art.
It was hard to say goodbye to this place but our busses awaited us and had to get those of us who took advantage of the Extra Enrichement (who would NOT want to see it all?) back to the Viking Europe, with time for a wash and for me to have the joy of finding my suitcase waiting for me in the hallway before dinner. Oh, what a day in the bosom of Provence.
As a little girl, I always identified with the portion of my heritage that came to Oakland, straight from France, in the late 1800's. Now that I know a LOT more about my heritage, I know that my roots go very very far back through centuries in this country but also through England and then again to France. I can't get away from it.
I knew that I was an unusual looking kid and was made to feel weird because of how I resembled my mother and grandmother...you know, the French side. I had that profile that was not very all-American, which would make me the brunt of jokes in high school and beyond, but once I was enclosed in the big Airbus, heading to France, with the flight attendants who sported chignon and had a certain familiar profile, I began to feel a certain Home Coming. Rod kidded me and said that a certain attendant looked like she could be related to me...yes, I see that.
We flew over Canada and on through to Charles de Gaul, arriving wide-eyed and excited to be on the adventure that we had been looking forward to for a full year. We made it through the international terminal and found our way to the little pods for the domestic flights and felt like we had stepped into it, in a big way. Chaos and crowds but a flight that took us down to Marseilles, to meet the folks who would get us to our ship.
I kept wondering when we would really have to go through all of that standing and waiting through customs, but it never happened. We got off of the smaller plane and went down an escalator to find someone with the Viking sign, awaiting our arrival. BAM, we were really in it. "Your baggage carousel is over there" led us to wait to find our bags, until the gal came back to ask if we were the Souzas, only to tell us that my bag had not made it on the flight from Paris, which "happens all of the time". We were escorted to the baggage office, filled out paperwork and were handed kits with a teeshirt, toothbrush and other essentials, which made the journey begin with a "got to laugh" story. I had carried a heavy bag on with me and had all of my essential items plus one change of clothes, which would get me through the first day and a half. It seems that Air France gives out a LOT of these oopsie kits...
We were "those people" who delayed the others from heading to the ship but once the bus got rolling, most of the other passengers passed out while I took in every inch of the scenery, as we motored up the highway to Avignon, which is where the Viking Europe was docked and waiting for us. This river boat and her sister ship, which we would board in a week, became our home away from home. Our grand adventure was just beginning and we became acquainted with our lovely cabin on the port side. Before we knew it, it was time to change out of the travel clothes, grab a shower and head down to the lounge for the cocktail hour.
People who know me are surprised to know that I am more of an introvert than an extrovert and so it was an interesting experience, finding a couple at one of the small tables, introducing ourselves and beginning the first of the many many many getting-to-know-you conversations. Lucky for me, our program director began the festivities by introducing herself, the hotel manager and the Maitre d' before telling us about what we were going to be experiencing that evening and the next day. We had the chef come out and describe his suggestions for the evening meal and found it all to be overwhelming and exciting. With the words "Bon Appetit", we made our way along the hallway, past our third floor cabin, remembering to use the hand sanitizing spritzer as we entered the dining room for our first fancy-pants meal in France. I don't remember what we had, that first night but I was very impressed with the service and food and company and couldn't believe that I was on a riverboat parked on the Rhone River, just outside the ancient walled city of Avignon, which was lit from within. It was a magical beginning with a limited wardrobe. :-)