Waiting for my Cleopatra Moment
I will openly admit to being fascinated by Cleopatra, her power, her reported beauty and her lifestyle. Having admitted this, you can understand that when I had the opportunity to travel to France for a Rhone River Cruise, the mental image of lying on a sumptuous bed, relaxing and watching the countryside pass by my window really appealed to me. I was going to be Cleopatra in a kinda sorta way! Who needs the beauty, money and power? I had the something ahead of me she did not….the south of France.
My husband and European travel companion of more years than we care to admit (we traveled to Europe as high school students many, many years ago on a school trip) headed three days early to Lyon for what was to be the only dry days of the trip. Dry meaning no rain, certainly not dry in terms of no alcohol. In Lyon, we encountered a city of culinary giants and warm November sunshine. This city is widely recognized of late for its food, boasting restaurants and chefs that rival (and some say exceed) those in Paris. Boasting chefs the likes of Paul Bocuse, Nicholas Le Bec, Philippe Jousse and Jean Marc Villard, it is hard to argue its rise to culinary nirvana.
Lyon is a very walkable city and walk you should after eating in its marvelous Bouchons. You can also purchase a Lyon City card through the tourism office to get around quickly to the museums and old town section. Like many exquisite European cities, the architecture dates back to the 15th century and is breathtakingly. Lyon certainly has a reputation for its city lights and it is a pleasure to walk the street in the evening with the buildings aglow.
After three days in Lyon, it was time to travel on the Chalon Sur Saone to catch our river cruise. Excited with anticipation and eager to meet the other travelers that we would be with for the next week, we boarded the ship and headed for the first of many “lounge meetings”. Little did we know that the lounge would become the briefing room for weather that would steer the balance of our trip. We learned the itinerary in great detail, as well as the ship protocols, and met our ship mates (about 130 of them), all of whom were also waiting for their “Cleo moments”.
Day one started with rain and lots of it! We were undeterred and set sail for the first short leg of sailing. Some of our shipmates opted for an option tour and would catch up with us at our first port. Sail, we did, and for a few short hours I perched on the bed in our cabin to watch the magnificent French countryside pass by. It was everything I imagined, but too short. This turned out to be our only sailing time and the folks that took the optional trip never sailed at all.
The rain never stopped and the Rhone River rose to historic levels prohibiting us from traveling under the century old bridges. We never sailed again, but the story then became one of the hard work and professionalism displayed by the staff of the Viking Neptune. They were determined to provide their guests with a quality vacation under extraordinary circumstances.
Instead of traveling from Macon on board our ship, we docked for the balance of the trip and traveled by bus to our scheduled destinations beginning with Beaune (pronounced bone) and the Burgundy wine region.
Beaune is the wine capital of the Burgundy region and the town is quintessentially Burgundy perfect! Strolling through Beaune, you can understand its allure to international millionaires and celebrities who crave burgundy wines and atmosphere.
The Hotel Dieu, today a hospice museum, is an incredible sight. It operated as a hospice in the years after 1443. The eerie elegance of the facility is quite amazing and the history fascinating with its neat beds lying in a row where the dying lay side by side. The museum quality depiction of the life and death in the facility is palpable.
Each evening back on board the ship, we were treated to fantastic food created by Chef Magalese. She would march in to a clapping ovation and end her chat with a rally call for exciting deserts. This chef from the Alsace region of France brought our sunshine each evening.
As each day passed, we traveled to destinations that were on and off the itinerary. One trip not on the scheduled itinerary was to the Beaujolais region and the famous Georges Duboeuf winery. Late that evening at midnight, the 2011 Beaujolais Nouveau would be introduced to the world and shipped at the stroke of 12:01. While I do not like the Beaujolais Nouveau that made them famous, I did love the facility and hoopla. They know how to throw a heck of a party!
I have outlined separately some great French wines and facts that speak to the wine splendor of both the Beaujolais and Burgundy regions. There is much more to the Beaujolais region that the Nouveau, and tasting in both regions was an extraordinary experience given the time of the year – there were no crowds and lots of great wine available to enjoy.
Traveling midway through the week to Arles and Avignon was bittersweet. We did have to leave the ship we called home and board a bus to Provence. Keep in mind that traveling to Provence in any mode of transportation is well worth the effort. Throughout the region you are treated to wonderful cafes with outside dining (even in November), as well as towns with enchanting carousels, bakeries and a slow-paced life. Provence should be on every traveler’s bucket list.
Shopping opportunities are plentiful and truly priced right. The Euro is not in our favor, but the prices in the towns, off season, seem to reflect a generous consideration for that fact. I purchased two of the famous Provence oil cloths/table cloths as well as some great chocolate and food items that are hard to come by in the U.S.
Arles (Provence) has marvelous diverse architectural with vibrant colors that has inspired artists and writers alike. It is also home to impressive Romanesque ruins and churches. I must go back for the “nerdy” tour that some would appreciate and others would hate. As my traveling companions said when I explored too long for their liking, “We will meet you at the café.” Either way, Arles is not to be missed on any trip to Southern France.
Well, the cruise trip that was not a cruising trip was about to end and the best was saved for last…Avignon. Again, we traveled by bus and the trip was a long one.
For years, I have enjoyed Peter Mayle books about Provence. He is so comical and entertaining and always painted vibrant images of the people, food and environment that are truly Provence. For me, the books came to life in Avignon.
The Palace of the Popes is majestic – the palace that became home to the papacy in 1309 during a violent time in Rome – tours are open daily and you have the ability to prowl for hours around this medieval masterpiece of architecture. You are able to enter the papal dining rooms, bedrooms and climb the stairs to the most spectacular views of Avignon. Everything is open to the public, unlike touring the Vatican.
At the time we were in Avignon, the city opened its quaint outside holiday market place. Tented kiosks were open all day and into the evening with crafters and artisans. It is France, so most everything offered was food related and fabulous!
Their streets are cobblestone, their bakeries are filled with the best breads and pastries that you will ever eat in your life, they drink early and often, but even that fact seems charming. It would not be viewed as “charming” here in the US, but in Avignon, these hearty folks never seem drunk. Only satisfied and happy.
I came away feeling that the people who live here are the luckiest on earth. Outside their doors they have the best the world has to offer, with the possible exception for what was heading their way in a few short days after we left for home…the mistrals. Mistrals are strong biting winds that blow for days and keep people in their homes and out of work and school, but before you feel sorry for them realize that they are walled in with the best of food and wine!
I wanted the Cleopatra experience of rest and relaxation on the Viking Neptune’s Southern France river cruise. Sometimes life throws unforeseen obstacles your way that are sometimes a blessing in disguise. So we didn’t actually get to cruise the entire time. We came away with something much, much better.
About Viking River Cruises
There are many cruise lines touring the rivers of Europe, but Viking is my top recommendation for quality, service, reputation and the amenities – food, staff and a great ship.
Since its 1997 inception, the company has grown to a fleet of 18 vessels, and provides unique, deluxe vacations to experienced travelers with an interest in geography, culture and history. They have invested heavily in upgrading their ships and provide larger-than-normal cabins attended to by a very polite staff. In fact, it’s the staff that makes Viking special – they are all trained in the European manner of quality and attentive service. You are not among 2,000 cruise ship passengers, but rather 125 to 150 people, which leads to the opportunity to meet others from all reaches of the world and to develop special relationships that will remain far after the cruise end – and that makes this experience special. We shared so many laughs I lost count!
Viking River Cruises, now the world’s largest river cruise company, offers scenic cruising along the rivers of Europe, Russia, China and Egypt. As mentioned, they have not lost sight of quality which is expected by all vacationers. The company has been honored multiple times as the top river cruise line on Condé Nast Traveler’s “Gold List” and Travel + Leisure’s “World’s Best” Awards, as well as recognized as the World’s Leading River Cruise Operator at the World Travel Awards. Travel agents have also recognized Viking River Cruises as “Best River Cruise Line” by Travel Weekly, “Best River Cruise Line” by Recommend and Travel Agent magazines, Best Cruise Line for Luxury River Cruises at the Luxury Travel Advisor Awards of Excellence and as “Best Overall Cruise Line for River Cruising” and “Best River Cruise Line for Travel Agent Support” by TravelAge West.
Viking has a very popular 2-for-1 cruise program and they are offering it earlier in 2011 than last year. Many, if not most, Viking cruises were sold out last year, so advance planning is a must. Their reservation agents handle all the details including air, if you wish, as well as ground transfers. Once onboard, you are in the hands of the staff which include the Captain, Hotel Manager and other executives in engineering, food & beverage and social activities. There are shore excursions (many included in your fare) or you can lounge for the day and watch the countryside go by. There are also options to explore the cities you dock in. Since the vessels are smaller and nimble, you get right into the city and can walk from your ship to the center of town.
- Plan and book early. You can save money and not be shut out as many cruises sell out.
- The best cabins are in the middle and upper decks (there are only three) and worth the few extra dollars.
- Either add-on to the beginning or end of your trip to experience a new city in detail.
- It makes life easy if you have the cruise company book your air travel. This way your transfers (which can be expensive) will be included.
- Look for onboard special like “free wine” onboard during meals.
To contact Viking River Cruises: call your travel agent or call 877.523.0549 or visit www.VikingRiverCruises.com.