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The grand houses of Provence with lush gardens

Cruising down Rhône with Provence’s wine

Ever since the publication in 1989 of Peter Mayle’s runaway bestseller A Year in Provence, this southernmost region of France

A week in Provence's vineyards, cruising along the river-ways in style

Ever since the publication in 1989 of Peter Mayle’s runaway bestseller A Year in Provence, this southernmost region of France, its wonderful food and wine and its relaxed way of life have exerted a magnetic pull. By river boat, you can travel through it at the best – the slowest – of paces. Drift past medieval towns and villages, sunflower and lavender fields, truffle and olive groves, vineyards and foodie markets and you’ll begin to understand the magic. I didn’t have a year but at least I had a week in Provence.

The Rhone winds and meanders through the countryside of southern France
The Rhone winds and meanders through the countryside of southern France.

Compared to ocean-going ships, Belmond Afloat Napoléon feels like a toy boat with just three decks and six cabins for a maximum of 12 passengers. There are six crew, too – talk about personal service! This is most definitely the luxury end of river cruising – hardly surprising when you learn that Afloat in France is in the same group as the Orient Express.

We are journeying down a river that gave its name to one of France’s most famous wines – Cote de Rhone – and wine is quite a feature on this trip. Our first stop is a tasting at the Ferraton vineyard in Hermitage and several more follow, with many of the choicest bottles ending up on the table at dinner!

Lavender fields

It was actually the Romans who planted the first vines, and they also brought lavender to scent their bath houses. Nowadays, you can buy it here fresh from the fields as an aromatherapy oil or perfumed pillow. And you can still see it ground between the same enormous millstones the Romans would have used. Its heady fragrance fills the air for miles around.

The Romans brought water, too, from mountain springs to their new cities via aqueducts. The greatest must be the Pont du Gard, a UNESCO world heritage site close to Avignon and part of a 50km stretch of a massive threestorey structure. It’s quite a view from the top.

There’s an even better one from Les Baux. A short drive from our mooring at Arles took us up – and up – to a spectacular mountain eyrie and one of the most picturesque villages in France with breathtaking views of Arles and the Camargue below. The original lords of Baux claimed to be descended from one of the Magi, the three wise men, who visited Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus and they put the Star of Bethlehem on their coat of arms to let everyone know. Nowadays, the title belongs to the rulers of Monaco, the Grimaldi family, and Princess Caroline of Monaco is the Marquise des Baux.

It was in Arles that Van Gogh painted dozens of his most famous pictures. His dreamy, luminous portrayals of the city include the night-time pavement café on the Place du Forum bathed in a golden glow. It still looks exactly the same today – a good place to stop for a cold drink. Or take an evening stroll to the spot where the artist painted ‘Starry Night over the Rhône’.

Avignon is just a few miles by boat from Arles and we dock in front of the famous bridge, Pont Saint-Bénezet, immortalised in song as Le Pont d’Avignon – to discover it’s only half a bridge. Frequently washed away by the Rhône, the locals decided it just wasn’t worth the constant repairs, so it now arches gracefully – but only halfway across. It’s a city full of surprises. There are beautiful ancient walls, narrow cobbled streets and bright blue shutters at the windows. Expansive gardens sweep down to the river and the Palais des Papes. But if all this sounds historical and just a bit quiet – don’t be fooled.

The river has a number of canalised sections that have tamed its course
The river has a number of canalised sections that have tamed its course.

For all its Roman and medieval roots, this university city buzzes with life. In July and early August, it also has one of France’s most famous summer festivals when every café, theatre and even the Palace of the Popes is a venue for music, comedy, theatre and art. There are street entertainers in every square and in front of every pavement café. And it’s not a bad place to go shopping either. You’ll find everything from fashion to copper pans and pretty Provencal kitchenware.

Back onboard, the Napoléon certainly lives up to its name. We lived pretty much like emperors. Every day fresh food from the local markets was transformed into superb meals. Salmon and wild boar, delicate shellfish and sun-kissed fruits, rustic breads and cheeses to die for. Some of our excursions were seriously foodie, too. At Le Grand Servan, we discovered how the best olive oil is traditionally made and later visited a truffle farm where the ‘black diamonds’ were dug up not by pigs, but by Labrador dogs!

It was an action-packed week that covered a lot of ground – or water. But it was also very relaxing. The top deck of the Napoléon is open with a Jacuzzi, exercise bikes and plenty of loungers. As you drift down the Rhône at a maximum speed of 15 kilometres an hour, you can feel yourself unwind under the hot Provencal sun as the olive groves and vineyards, fields of lavender and sunflowers drift slowly past. Ducks dabble upside down, dragonflies land on the rails and shimmer in the heat. Then one of the crew comes up on deck. ‘May I offer you a glass of champagne?’

The Napoleon has large, comfortable cabins and a sunshade on the top deck for lunches on the move
The Napoleon has large, comfortable cabins and a sunshade on the top deck for lunches on the move.

Well, what can you say? A six-night journey on board Belmond Napoleon starts from 4,804 Euros per person based on two adults sharing a double cabin. This includes 1st class TGV transfer from Paris to the boat, all meals and drinks on board and all shore activities outlined in the itinerary. belmond.com

 

© This article was first published in June-July 2017 edition of World Travel Magazine.

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