Returning to the south of France after ten years, we are relishing the area from a different perspective. Instead of driving for miles and miles over narrow, bumpy country roads, finding new accommodation every evening, we are exploring Provençe from a river.
The growing popularity of river cruising becomes immediately apparent. For our eight-day sail, we unpack once. What a treat! Emerald’s ship Liberte with its contemporary, minimalist décor sparkles with glass and chrome and ingenious use of the limited space includes everything we need and nothing we don’t need. As we journey from Arles to Lyon, the window wall of our 180 sq ft Panorama Balcony Suite provides an up-close view of the passing countryside – one that includes Provençe’s sun-drenched lavender fields waiting to bloom and Burgundy’s acclaimed vineyards dotted with quaint villages and story-book towns.
Living the Dream
We quickly discover this is an idyllic cruise for food lovers, wine buffs and anyone enchanted by the perfect beauty and gentle lifestyle of southern France. We have chosen early spring before the summer heat brings hordes of tourists, inevitable line-ups and standing-room-only events. The cherry blossoms and cascading wisteria are spectacular, the temperature is pleasant and the countryside basks in golden sunshine. Between four-star service on board and appealing tours at ports of call, we are seduced by the best of two worlds.
To Market, to Market
There’s no better way to meet local characters eager to share their passions than spending an hour or two strolling around a village market. By 8 am on market day, a sleepy little town square has morphed into a vibrant bazaar. Fruit and vegetable stands tantalize with lush, sun-kissed produce. Brilliant bouquets of flowers spill out onto the walkways. Immense jars of spices, oven-fresh baguettes and equally fresh fish permeate the air in a tangle of erotic scents. We taste the olives, sample the cheese, sniff the lavender, finding it impossible to resist the charismatic vendor, cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth, who insists I should have one of his straw baskets.
Visit Le Pont du Gard
Of all the historic landmarks to visit, Le Pont du Gard was at the top of our list. Apart from being around for nearly 2,000 years and in remarkably good condition, le Pont du Gard, at 48 metres high, is the world’s tallest aqueduct-bridge. When Rome controlled what is now southern France, the Romans were responsible for some mighty impressive engineering feats. ‘Impressive’ doesn’t begin to do this structure justice. Soaring over the canyon, the World Heritage Site is jaw-dropping. Little wonder it attracts a million and a half visitors every year.
A Day to Tour Avignon
Thanks to that well-known children’s, song, Sur le Pont d’Avignon, the iconic bridge is the first thing many visitors want to see. Today it costs $5.50 ($3.80 for a kid) to dance on what’s left of the bridge that dramatically ends in the middle of the river. But there is more, much more, to discover of this charming city, and there’s something for everybody. We stroll the warren of cobbled streets and alleys within the walled old town, shopping for lavender and sunny Provençal fabrics. The monumental 14th century Papal Palace still imposes Gothic authority. Across the square, the Petit Palais houses an outstanding collection of Italian art, including Botticelli’s Virgin and Child. Sipping rosé in the afternoon sun along the Place de l’Horlogue with its magnificent antique carousel, we have front-row seats on life in Provençe.