We were getting used to life onboard – peaceful early mornings, gently gliding along the water, with the promise of an interesting town ahead. What consistently struck me was the wealth of history in each of our stops: it drips from the chimney stacks, rooftops and gable ends, soaking the stones and bricks below. France ‘has been here forever’ as an American onboard put it, which leads to remarkable legacies in the towns through ancient buildings, churches and civic monuments, indeed even the shape of the towns reflects this, moulding to the geography of their situation.
At Tournon, we enjoyed the spectacle of a marché aux puces on the quayside, where jazz belted out from a windup gramophone and various stallholders, all sporting berets, Frenchmen straight from central casting, are selling a dubious selection of brocante items. We breakfasted lightly in the bar again. He with whom I travel had decided three square meals a day were certainly no good for the neat fit of his chinos, so we skipped the full English in the restaurant for fruit and yoghurt upstairs. Tournon is a small town, however it has a massive, highly impressive castle, rising upwards most solidly as if it grew fully formed from the ground, in this there are echoes of the palace at Avignon. Marauders would be hard-pressed to mount a successful attack, I suspected. Peeping into the church of St Julian, I was treated to an impromptu, flamboyant organ recital, Saint-Saëns, reaching the rafters and way beyond.
Our afternoon brought an EmeraldACTIVE experience, 22 kilometres on a bike ride to Glun, along the river. Flat in other words, which suited me just fine. We headed over the bridge to Tain l’Hermitage, of the wine fame, where robust reds are grown on granite to be laid down for at least a decade, maturing to their fruity finest. We pedalled on, with our excellent guide, humorous and informed, spotting a practice session of water jousting, involving men with heavy fir spears on platforms in dinghies whilst almost doing the splits! Not yet an Olympic sport, however perhaps one to watch for in the future. A speedy final 5 kilometres got us back to the ship, ready for the evening’s EmeraldPLUS fabulous wine tasting. Entirely in keeping with our location, that had vineyards stretching high into the hills.
After the exercise in Tournon, we took the next day in Macon easy, joining the morning walking tour in this relaxed town, decorated with coloured umbrellas. Another afternoon on deck with our books (were we becoming lazy?) in remarkably warm weather, 26°C and sunny, led to an easy snooze, early aperitif and another delicious dinner at which the wine flowed pleasantly. Local musicians arrived to entertain us rather well with light Motown. We were, naturally, compelled to strut our stuff and boogied with moderate abandon. What fun!
The next morning found us firmly in the Burgundy region, on the river Saône, having left the Rhône at Lyon, to which we would return. We moored at Chalon-aux-Soane, charming and bustling, is not only famed for its importance in wine trade but also as the home of photography invented by Joseph Nicephore Niepce in the early nineteenth century. Our excursion took us to Beaune, a place with Michelin starred restaurants by the dozen. We took a look at one such establishment, all honey-coloured stone and exceptionally civilised, although my eyes watered a little at the prices! And indeed, would on earth would one wear to sample such culinary delights? This is a gourmand’s paradise. The surrounding villages looked utterly charming too, picture postcard enchanting, with clusters of stone buildings, all perfectly preserved, producing wines of world-class quality. Despite the snug chinos, he with whom I travel suggested another visit here at some stage, preferably with a large vehicle to transport wine and food back to the UK. We did note, however, that in Beaune shipping all manner of goodies home is an option.
The local vintages are renowned of course, as is the mustard and you can shop for these until you drop. Tasting is on offer at every gorgeous street corner, however you might be lucky to have even a square inch spare after Emerald’s delicious dining! We were wowed by the place initially, and then quite breath-taken by the Hôtel Dieu, a hospice founded in the 15th century by Nicolas Rolin. It may be for the sick and poor, however its glorious architectural details, the coloured tiles of the roof are magnificent, honour every individual involved in its creation. Vineyards were bequeathed to the hospice over the following 500 years, thus ensuring its financial security forever. Even today, the wine is auctioned by Christie’s late November each year to generate funds for the conservation of the buildings and maintenance of the retirement homes in the grounds. If you’re in the region, Beaune is a real must-see!
Back onboard Emerald Liberté for a cheese and olive tasting, more regional food and tasty too, Captain Luke executed a nifty U turn and we sailed back to Lyon. If Beaune is small and perfectly formed, Lyon is a celebration of France and life. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, bursting with culture and history as well as exceptional cuisine. My desire was to visit the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière which commands a spectacular position above the city and offers fabulous views across the terracotta rooves and river below. We took the funicular up the steep hillside and marvelled at the sights below. The Basilica itself is a 19th century construction, highly ornate in style in the upper church. The lower church is a worldwide witness to the Virgin Mary, with images from every corner of the globe dedicated to her. It’s simplicity and inclusivity are humbling: manifestations and interpretations of Christ’s mother in every colour, style and race.
We wandered back down to the city through pretty gardens and meandered through the Old Town, a magnet for tourists though none the less interesting for that! At the Place des Terreaux, a vast open square in the centre, local dignitaries appeared on the balcony of the City Hall, an astonishingly grand building and seriously imposing. A quick stop for tea on the terrace of the Museum of Fine Arts, with brilliant exhibits as you would expect, and then back to the ship for our farewell gala dinner with 5 courses! The Chateaubriand with truffle celery mousseline was a real triumph, the chefs deserved all the praise (and more) that we heaped on them. Splendidly replete and then some, this was our last night.
Determined to squeeze the very last drops from Lyon, we packed early and I marched us off to a truly French Saturday morning market – cheeses, flowers, fish, vegetables and fruit, bread and fine pastries – all displayed most invitingly. And indeed, I was tempted by everything. All ages were shopping, young, old, teenagers, with such interest in the food, tasting and testing. It was an insight into the lives of the people of Lyon: food is a big priority.
With moments to spare, we headed back to the ship for our airport transfer, and who should we meet in the terminal, none other than Michel Roux Jr, the fabulous chef. It seemed appropriate given Lyon’s culinary prowess.
Reflecting on our cruise onboard Emerald Liberté, we had been shown Provence, the Beaujolais and Burgundy in a leisurely yet informative manner, whilst staying on a fantastic ship which graciously provided exceptional comfort and modern, welcoming surroundings. The friendly and thoughtful crew complemented their ship, and their pride in a cruise well sailed was more than justified!
Jennie travelled on the Sensations Lyon and Provence cruise with Emerald Waterways.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Emerald Waterways.