I don't know if you’re aware of this but apparently Australians have something of a reputation abroad.
According to my extensive research, its a known fact among overseas destinations that Aussies love to splash their holiday cash, travel far and wide to see more than the usual tourist haunts... and don’t mind paying for some quality F&B along the way. All of which makes a river cruise through the South of France almost the perfect holiday.
Of course, Australians have been coming to France for decades, drawn by the well publicised charms of Paris and, in recent years, to mark significant wartime anniversaries. The Normandy battlefields and the City of Lights are all in the north, however, leaving the south relatively unexplored by those from Down Under.
Thankfully that is changing with Evergreen running their seven-night/eight-day Sensations of Southern France itinerary from Arles to Lyon (or vice-versa) aboard Emerald Liberte. Launched in February, the 138-passenger ship is all new and sparkly, and comes complete with a pool, cinema, two dining venues, fitness area, massage room and complimentary bicycles for onshore use.
This was my first experience of river cruising and I took to it like a canard to eau. Having unpacked in my modern and comfortable cabin, I was able to forget the suitcases for a week and simply enjoy this floating hotel as it moved from one port to the next. There’s something glorious about waking up in a different place every day and then heading out to explore said surroundings – like several mini-holidays all rolled into one.
A daily activity sheet kept everything on track with optional excursions, daily walking tours, entertainment and special events all laid out, along with the dinner menu for that evening. There were no airports to negotiate, no taxis to order, no hire cars to pick up, no hotels to check-in to – the ship simply plonked you right in the heart of town and off you went to explore.
Of course, if it wasn’t for the fact that the Saône and Rhône rivers flowed through them, tourists probably wouldn’t ever go to places like Macon, Chalon and Tournon. These are authentic French villages, towns and cities where you’ll get a friendly and genuine welcome from locals who are delighted you stopped and had a look around – not always the case in a place like Paris.
My starting point was the charming and ancient town of Arles in Provence. Julius Caesar founded the town in 46BC and the Roman influence can still be seen throughout, with an amphitheatre, theatre and baths drawing plenty of modern day visitors. Julius may be long gone but historians got extremely excited a few years ago when divers found a bust, purportedly of the famous Roman emperor, in the Rhone. It now sits in the town museum and if it is truly the great man, it is the oldest known sculpture of him in existence.
While doubt may surround this particular work of art, there is no arguing the influence Arles had on Van Gogh. He spent 15 months here between 1888 and 1889 and in that time knocked out some 200 paintings (including Sunflowers), eight of which are on display in a museum dedicated to him. Admission to the exhibition is possibly the best €9 you will spend as you can almost reach out and touch such works as Entrance to a Quarry, The Weeders and Olive Orchard.
Arles is also home to the gaudy yellow restaurant made famous in Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Nightand where, famously, he is alleged to have cut off part of his ear after a row with Gauguin. You can’t miss it because hordes of Japanese tourists pose outside for photos, somewhat irreverently holding their ear lobes!
From Arles, Liberte headed to Avignon, home of the grand Palais des Papes (Popes Palace) and a famous, half-demolished bridge. Yet it was the memorial wall, containing the names of the 422 people sent by the German occupiers to various concentration camps (some of them as young as five) during World War Two that stuck with me the most.
In Tournon you’ll find Tain l'Hermitage, one of the best and most expensive wines in France. While that might be a little out of your price range, the good news is the village is also home to a chocolate factory, which smells beyond description and has a selection to suit all tastes... you can also try before you buy!
Macon was quirky, with a wooden house from the 15th century that was once frequented by ladies of the night, and a former hospital with a baby barrel built into the walls. In olden days, ladies who gave birth but didn’t want to keep their baby would place them in the barrel on the street outside and then spin it round so the nursing staff inside could care for the poor, unwanted bub.
A slightly happier birth is celebrated in Chalon, where photography was said to have originated in the 19th century. There’s a really good museum in town dedicated to the art, with lots of memorabilia, equipment and a colourful tribute to those staged Kodak moments of the 1960s, complete with dad with seemingly ubiquitous pipe, mum in her apron and two fresh-faced kids.
For me, however, the pièce de résistance was our final stop in Lyon, a fantastic city which can be explored quite comfortably on foot (even in 35 degree heat). Depending on which statistics you go by, it is either the second or third largest city in France but is much less pretentious than the capital and much cleaner and safer than Marseilles.
Lyon is renowned for its cuisine, with 14 Michelin-starred restaurants in the city, earning it the title of the gastronomic capital of the world. There are more eateries here than you can throw a chefs hat at, all reasonably priced and delivering exceptional food that you can sit and take an age over. The French love to dine, chat and drink and all three can be accomplished to extremely satisfying degrees in this big-little city.
Simply find a bouchon (traditional Lyonnaise restaurant) and tuck in, enjoying local specialities like quenelle de brochet, a pike dumpling with crawfish sauce, washed down with wines from local regions Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône. English is widely spoken and most menus have translations so don’t worry if your French is a little rusty – you wont end up with sheep brains instead of a BLT.
Not that hunger is ever an issue on an Evergreen river cruise. On Emerald Liberte you’ll eat often and extremely well, with breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner prepared by the onboard chef and his small team, and lovingly presented by the excellent wait staff.
Indeed, every night before dinner, the head chef would recommend his dish of the day and you’d be mad not to take his word for it. Think lamb of sisteron confit with lemon, chateaubriand or black bigorre pork, followed by such drool-inducing desserts as dark chocolate and chilli mousse, upside down apple tarte or the intriguing omelette surprise. All accompanied by carefully selected wines and designed to send diners off to the evening entertainment with a smile and a slightly wobbly gait.
And it's here in the lounge that another real advantage of river cruising hits home. While Zoltan is tinkling the ivories or the crew are putting on an impromptu cabaret, you can sit and discuss the days adventures with the friends you have made on the journey.
My wife and I met up with a couple of Aussies from Queensland (well call them Harriet and Godfrey to protect their reputation) who became great friends and made the trip even more enjoyable. We were united by a love of travel, cuisine and good company. Surely there can be no better epitaph for my first river cruise than that... now all we’ve got to work out is where to go next? Sensations of Southern France is a seven-night/eight-day sailing from Arles to Lyon or vice versa. Guests can also do a river cruise through Portugal or an MSC ocean cruise either before or after. Getting onboard is easy with flights into Marseille, Nice or Lyon.