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Long ships on French rivers feature fine food and wine, old ruins, and glittering cities
Check out the photos from this gourmet cruise.
The best way to see the river and the valley is, unsurprisingly, from the river itself. Recently, I was a guest of Atout France, Air France, and CroisiEurope, the Alsace-based cruise company that is Europe’s largest, to spend a week aboard the newly outfitted and fittingly named Camargue. Snapped in between long meals on board, vineyard visits and strolls down innumerable small village streets, here is my photo notebook.
My first stop on arriving in Lyon – also widely revered as the food capital of the Western world – is to make a morning visit with chef Joseph Viola at his Daniel & Denise restaurant just around the corner from Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse. Look for chef Viola, who heads the local organization of bouchons, to break out of Lyon soon, following the path of Bocuse and others.
Our talk is interrupted by the arrival of a catch of the day, seafood being one of the hallmarks of bouchons – a type of local eatery also specializing in less-popular cuts of pork, pâté, duck dishes, and soups. There are around 80 bouchons in Lyon, 23 of which are members of chef Viola’s group, Les Bouchons Lyonnaise. “We are really picky,” he explains.
That evening I board my new home-away-from-home, the Camargue, which has an open bar, a great restaurant, and 76 cabins. Mine is a single, as small as an economy room in a Manhattan hotel. European river cruises are a booming tourist pastime, and the Camargue, in the medium price range, is one of many “long ships” cruising the Saone and Rhône.
As all drinks and meals on the cruise are included, it poses a dilemma – how can I leave food like this behind to go romancing other restaurants in river towns along the route? For most meals, my fidelity wins out. Our dishes are not for lightweights – lots of cream, butter, and cheeses. Some diners ask for half-portions of the four fixed courses.
Desserts are generally spectacular, whether I’ve saved room for them or not. All these calories from the night before may be why most passengers – a mix of European and American tourists of middle-age and up – go on the daily excursions, one-to-three hour walking tours. On ship and ashore, both French and English are spoken. Dessert fork, anyone?
As we leave Lyon and the Rhône for an overnight jaunt up the Saone, we pass the newly opened Confluence Museum that rises, like a modern castle in a sci-fi film, from a point of land where the rivers merge. According to the guidebook, exhibits are “organized around various questions on the origin and fate of humanity.” That’s heavy stuff.
If you’ve ever wondered where Pouilly Fuissé comes from, here’s your answer. I jump ship in Mâcon to visit old acquaintance Frédéric Marc Burrier as others tour the Cluny ruins. At his Château de Beauregard, we taste the very promising 2015 vintage of the chardonnay-based pride of the Mâconnaise, the most famous white wine south of the Montrachets.
Man cannot live by live by Pouilly Fuissé alone, so I roam the not-so-mean streets of Mâcon looking for a caffeine fix. I find it on Rue Joseph Dufour at the Zing’a’T shop, run by cousins Christine and Fleur, who create all their food in-house, from soups to tartines. I am offered a selection of 26 different teas, but I stick with a favorite, Earl Grey.
Downstream, we stop at Trevoux and Vienne before coming to Tournon on a sunny afternoon. I walk across the suspension bridge to Tain-Hermitage, glancing up at the famous vineyards of Hermitage. I smile, remembering an earlier picnic behind Hermitage’s famous chapel – the small building on the upper left – as the vineyards were being plowed by horse.
At Avignon, I again go AWOL. I have seen the Palais des Papes, so I instead walk east from the Place de l’Horloge along Rue des Marchands and its glittery stores, working my way to Avignon’s busy indoor marketplace. At a small shellfish café, I order a half-dozen fine de claire petites. My chef/sommelier recommends a crisp picpoul de pinet to go with them.
I have never been to Arles, but I love saying its guttural name – “Arrrrrles!” Arles is known for its many rulers and thus many ruins, such as this Roman amphitheater built in 90 A.D., no doubt at taxpayers’ expense. Today, Arles is overrun by legions of Van Gogh fans flocking to the newly re-purposed fifteenth century Hôtel Léautaud de Donines to see “The Yellow House.”
I walk behind the amphitheater this Saturday morning and find myself in the middle of a vast marketplace of all things edible stretched out along the leafy Boulevard des Lices – a cornucopia of take-away delights. I’m amused by a young vendor talking on his iPhone while tending his flock of finger-licking-great ducks and chickens. Make mine extra crispy.
South of Arles, in the flat and marshy wetlands of the Camargue, we see a different kind of bird – dozens of pink flamingoes – as well as the Camargue’s famous white horses and black bulls. The Rhône ends near the seaside town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where the season is also ending, but not before I order a cone of rum raisin glace artisanale.
As the Camargue sails north toward Lyon, Chef Karoly Reinprecht gives a lesson in cooking without gas. The demonstration is on making tartare from both fresh salmon and fresh beef. The tenderloin version gets the full monty of ingredients – garlic, onions, cornichons, parsley, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, and egg yolk. The chef tastes and – yup – needs more salt.
Last evening on board, and our server at dinner – a ringer for Renee Zellweger – emerges out of the after-dinner darkness with a with a flaming baked Alaska that is about as good as a dessert can get – a fitting finale to our “Rhônen” holiday. Cruise over! Lights out! Luggage in the hallways.