Trip of a lifetime

Travel Talk

In September, in this “Now and Then” slot, I mentioned my friend Clare  Dudley, and the terrifying trip I took to France on her behalf, several years ago.

I also commented that I had written about that trip in a previous article.

“No you haven’t”, I was told. So I checked and discovered that my account of that trip did not, in fact, appear here. It is time I rectified that omission, so here goes.

It was, without doubt, a good plan. Clare would assemble a group of thirty people to go on a river cruise in France, and I would accompany them – “to provide added value”, she explained.

Just what this “added value” amounted to was somewhat vague, but she assured me the group would be led by an experienced, multi-lingual tour guide. If I wanted to lend him (or her) an amateur hand, this would be fine, but my role would be to act as an extra host, perhaps dispensing some occasional liquid hospitality, as we sailed the Saone and the Rhone, but certainly telling a few traveller’s tales and being a pleasant travelling companion.

“You could get a nice little article from this trip”, she added as a clincher.

Well, you know what Robert Burns said about the best-laid plans, and this one “ganged a-gley” with a vengeance – because Clare couldn’t get enough clients, and couldn’t justify sending a tour leader with such a small group.     

That’s how I came to find myself responsible for the welfare of five couples from East Anglia, who had no idea I was completely out of my depth. Certainly no idea, when we met to board Eurostar at Ebbsfleet, that from the outset I had been convinced we were meeting at St. Pancras, and discovered my mistake only by chance two hours previously. What a great start that would have been!

I like the idea of Eurostar, but I certainly didn’t like Ebbsfleet, and was really unhappy about having to clamber up three metal steps in order to get on the damned thing.  

Later, I asked a Eurostar press lady why the platforms couldn’t have been built higher, but she explained that Eurostar has to fit into the European rail system and this means low platforms and steps.  

“The staff will always help, if needed,” she added.

At Ebbsfleet the staff yelled hysterically and blew their whistles as eleven people “rich in years” (one with a leg brace) tried to get themselves and their luggage up those wretched steps. The staff’s priority wasn’t to help anybody, but to get the train away on time, and they obviously thought screaming would do it.

Breaking the journey to Lyon, where the river cruiser “Princesse de Provence” would be awaiting us, we spent a couple of nights in Lille.    

Lyon City Hall It’s a smashing town, with lots of snack bars and restaurants, many good shops, a most impressive Opera House and Town Hall, and a broad, majestic main square. The excellent Carlton Hotel is within walking distance of them all and we were delivered there by a husband and wife, each driving a “taxi-bus”, who had met us, by arrangement, at Lille railway station.

The fact that the board he held aloft had “Gulliver’s Tours” on it (we were definitely not “Gulliver’s Tours”) didn’t augur well, but I dredged up some schoolboy French and tried to make light conversation as Madame  negotiated the traffic with a look of incomprehension on her face. Fortunately my fellow passengers could not see this expression and I like to think they were impressed. I doubt it.

I almost relaxed in Lille, but had the foresight to check out the railway station so that our departure on the TGV to Lyon would go smoothly.   

It would have done if all the group had been able to use the escalator to get down to platform 43. Unfortunately one of my ladies (I was beginning to get proprietorial at this stage) wasn’t able to use an escalator, but we got ourselves on board – scrambling up those wretched steps again, and with no room for all the luggage on a busy Saturday. Then, as we pulled smoothly away for our three hour journey south, I realised two of my group were missing.

Lille Belfry Fortunately I found them. Unfortunately, they had wandered into the wrong coach and were sitting, like a pair of tranquil Buddhas, oblivious to the arm-waving, ticket-brandishing, agitated French couple whose seats they were occupying.    

Oh, the relief of getting to Lyon and on board “Princesse de Provence”! For the next few days my merry band would be the responsibility of the Cruise Director, even when one of them set off the fire alarm in the small hours of the morning. Even when the same one was found to possess no credit cards. (As he had been one half of the pair who had gone briefly AWOL on the TGV at Lille, I was not surprised.)

That couple had around £40 worth of Euros between them. They would need far more to cover their incidental expenses on board, for they enjoyed wine with their meals and an occasional aperitif in the bar beforehand.

Fortunately Mrs. had her bank card. So, each morning, the pair of them were escorted to a local bank by the Cruise Director, who interpreted and negotiated a withdrawal of funds. I hate to think what that cost them in bank charges (you know how greedy they are when you use your card to get cash abroad). But, as they had given me so much trouble, I felt no sympathy.

Île Barbe As we cast off, I cast away my responsibilities and settled down to enjoy the scenery and the shore excursions. “Princesse de Provence” is made for relaxing, being run with German efficiency, crewed with French flair and with a staff of cabin stewardesses, waiters and waitresses who seemed, in the main to have come from Bulgaria.

“Say something to me in Bulgarian, please” I asked the wine waitress as we sat down to dinner one evening.

She did so.

“Ah, you are from Varna,” I said, to her utter astonishment. She thought I could tell from her accent. In fact I had overheard her telling another passenger in the bar beforehand. My fellow diners thought I was no end of an expert. They did not realise my entire career has been based on such deceptions.

Built in Hull in 1992, the ship takes 148 passengers in 70 somewhat snug cabins. As a solo traveller, I had no problems, but the couples said it was something of a tight fit. Among the other passengers were several heftier folk. How they managed, I cannot guess.

MS Princesse de Provence via Wikimedia Commons/Karl Gruber The meals – six a day – were excellent. You are not compelled to eat everything – though the aforementioned larger guests did not seem to have got that message. The service was also excellent, especially in my case from the wine waitress, who recognised a good customer when she saw one.   

At one point on the trip, though, she chided me for not drinking enough wine – but wouldn’t believe me when I told her that is exactly what my doctor recently said. Nobody does.

The wine was reasonably priced (20 euros for a bottle of 2006 Cotes de Provence, 32.50 for a 2007 Pouilly Fuisse, 37 for a 2006 Cote de Nuits Villages, for example) as were most of the bar drinks.   

We journeyed to Trevoux, Tournus and Chalon sur Saone, retraced our route to Macon, then down the Rhone to La Voulte and Viviers, Arles and Avignon, then back to Lyon by way of Vienne.

Everywhere there were men playing boules and women haggling at market stalls. There were local festivals, occasional folk singing, coffee shops, historic buildings. There were guides spouting history and telling us of the “wineyards in the walleys”, and all around a landscape dedicated to Bacchus – field after field, slope after slope, row after row of vines.

Arles Roman Arena We tasted and compared, and some even purchased. We sat in the amphitheatre at Arles watching a man hose down the sand because there was to be “bull running” that afternoon. A Gallic version, much truncated, of the activity that goes on in Pamplona. But whereas San Fermin is concentrated into a single week, in Arles they have the bull running every Wednesday afternoon “throughout the season”. And “weather permitting”.    

That voyage was like sailing through a wine list, but I am sad to report that the company which operates “Princesse de Provence” Peter Deilmann – has ceased its operations. However, others have filled the gap and offer very similar holidays, based on Eurostar and TGV rail travel.

Speaking of which, brings me to contemplation of the return trip – on the TGV from Lyon to Lille, where we were to make a connection to the Eurostar.  

I would have to resume my responsibilities, and was worried because, according to the timetable, we had only eight minutes to make that connection. Possible, perhaps, for a fit young person with no luggage. Utterly impossible for us.     

Avignon Bridge As it turned out, I needn’t have been concerned. It being a summer Sunday, the entire TGV system was in chaos and our train was 40 minutes late arriving at Lille. I told my group (see how easily I’ve got round to calling them “my group”) that there was no need to worry, as we would simply transfer to a later train. Then I went away with all our tickets and had a little worry all by myself.

In the event the transfer was smooth. I told the chap at the re-booking desk it was vital we got eleven seats together on the next available train, thus inadvertently assuring us of an upgrade to first class.  

I didn’t let on about the “inadvertently”, especially when the complimentary drinks trolley came round. To my delight we passed Ebbsfleet, and I was able to say my fond farewells at St. Pancras, having handed over the group to a couple of minibus drivers who were waiting to convey them to their homes.

“Never again”, I told Clare. “The stress is just too much.”

But, a couple of days later, I got a letter from one of the ladies, telling me how much she and her husband had enjoyed their trip and my company, how grateful they were for my organising the upgrade on the journey home (!), and how much they would like to do it all again.

For a second or so I was tempted. Then I thought about Arles and the weekly “bull running”. Then about the real bull running in Pamplona, and how I took part in it many years ago.

Way back then, I planned to do it just the once, but a combination of stupidity, bravado and wine led me to run on four mornings, one after the other.  

I am older and wiser now. When it comes to traumatic experiences,  once is quite enough.

Our holiday and travel recommendations for river cruises

See also

A letter to Clare

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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