There really is much pleasure to be had in learning about new places, and so it was at Arles in Southern France. A small town with a pretty hefty legacy! The Romans were partial to it, sitting safely as it does on the Rhone, a few miles inland from Marseilles, so they bequeathed Arles with an arena and an amphitheatre. Walk up a slight hill, passing a typical French square and interesting buildings with seemingly ancient doors, and there it is: the arena, slap bang at the top of the street, quietly monumental in the sunlight. It has been absorbed into the town and is still in use today for concerts and entertainment with bulls. Not fights, as we are firmly told by jolly Valerie, our guide on the walking tour. The amphitheatre is being restored, having been cannibalised for later buildings in the town. It has a certain charm as it: columns and capitals higgledy-piggledy on the ground, piles of rocks roughly indicating where seating would have been.
The other legacy left to Arles is that of Dutch artist, Van Gogh, who spent a year, 1888, here towards the end of his life. He loved this area of France, calling Provence ‘the Japan of the south’. The hospital, where he stayed and painted the courtyard garden, looked the perfect place to recover: although, sadly, not in his case. And most helpfully, there are information plaques at many spots where Van Gogh painted. The site of The Café Terrace at Night is little changed, nor is that of Starry Night over the Rhone.
A tad overwhelmed by so much unexpected history, we returned to the thoroughly modern Emerald Liberté to prepare for dinner. Our cabin, decorated in a tasteful palate of neutral creams, browns and greys, was utterly peaceful, with a divinely comfortable bed, replete with Egyptian cotton linens. We had plenty of space for clothes and shoes, a surfeit of plugs (what joy!) and a wonderful panoramic window, which descends to waist height at the push of a button, creating an instant balcony. A definite plus in my view and that of several other guests. The bathroom is neat and nifty with a great power shower, full of useful shelves and cubbyholes amid its clean, uncluttered lines.
A welcome gathering in the Horizon lounge set the tone for each evening: our lovely cruise director, Jana, previously employed as an archivist in Moscow, so multi-lingual and surprisingly jolly, introduced the team and explained the next day’s plan. And so to the Reflections restaurant for dinner, which was a delight, on this and every evening, thoughtfully prepared and beautifully presented, preceded by Theo’s (head Chef) explanation and wine pairing suggestions. A choice of all the courses meant everyone’s tastes were catered for. Wine, beer and soft drinks are all part of the inclusive package, which made every meal a relaxed experience. Then we retired, with a post dinner port to the sundeck, to watch the countryside pass by.
Next morning found us in Avignon, home to that famous bridge! After breakfasting lightly and quietly in the lounge, a full service with numerous choices was available in the restaurant, we stepped ashore, complete with our near-magical QuietVox devices, enabling everyone to hear the guide, without a raised voice or goose-gaggle cluster around her. Our group sang the song beside the bridge in poor French, much to the bemusement of a group of Chinese tourists! One thing to be said about Avignon is that lavender is in plentiful supply: as a plant, soap, ice cream (very tasty), on tea towels, dolls, tee shirts – you name it, and it’s been lavender-ised. What knocked my socks off was the monumental scale of the Papal Palace, once again, right in the centre of the town, an immoveable, unshakeable creation, part palace, part fortress. The seat of six Popes in the 14th century, it is a UNESCO listed site and a magnificent piece of Gothic architecture.
That enormity aside, Avignon is a lively place, chok full of visitors and relaxed locals going about their daily lives. We returned to the ship for lunch, and a gentle afternoon reading on deck, whilst others headed for an excursion to Pont du Gard and Uzès, home to the Haribo Candy Museum and of course, an excellent cathedral. I roused myself from my book for a swim in the small but perfectly formed pool, with the roof open above. This was a find: really pretty, and I had it to myself. Pre-dinner drinks, a port talk with Jana and the speciality Provencal Gala dinner, délicieux, followed – this was so relaxing, I wanted for nothing! A little light piano music in the lounge with a brandy, and then off to sleep, in a turned-down, spotless cabin. Tournon tomorrow!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Emerald Waterways.