April 7, 2017

A river cruise along the Rhone offers sunshine, Syrah and serenity

The Scenic Sapphire docked along the Rhône River in the village of Vienne, France.

The Scenic Sapphire docked along the Rhône River in the village of Vienne, France.

Story & Photos by Joanne Sasvari
There was a note in my cabin, right next to the white rose in its crystal bud vase: “Ms. Sasvari,” it read. “I’m delighted to be your butler.”
Must admit, I was pretty delighted, too.
By the time we disembarked from the Scenic Sapphire a week later, this river cruising thing would totally ruin me for any other kind of travel, ever.
Until then, I’d never really been into cruises. Being stuck on a giant vessel in the middle of the ocean with 3,000 pastel-clad strangers and an all-you-can-eat buffet? No thanks. But river cruising, I discovered, is a whole different story. The ships are smaller. They glide quietly into ancient villages, tying up at docks free of touts and aggressive vendors. Stroll across the gangplank, and you’re mingling with the locals, shopping in the same boutiques and dining in the same restaurants.
This particular voyage was Scenic River Cruises’ “Idyllic Rhône” trip, a seven-night journey from Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy to Tarascon in Provence. We’d enjoy wines from the vineyards we passed and food from the markets in the towns where we docked. We’d take tours of big cities, medieval villages and Roman ruins. And we’d discover how soothing travel on the river can be as the scenery slips slowly, quietly by.
Bubbles and bliss
As we board the Scenic Sapphire, servers pass us glasses of Champagne. We explore the ship’s amenities: the open-air deck up top, a dining room below and, in between, a chic lounge for hanging out during the day and dancing at night. Breakfast and lunch, we learn, are extensive buffets. Dinner is served at table and features regional specialties with an impressive selection of mainly Rhône wines.That first night, we do little more than settle into our stylish little cabins and discover how easily the river can lull one to sleep. Overnight, the engines throb to life, and we awake in Macon, where we sample local wines in a historic castle before heading back to the ship and south to the land of sunshine.

The Van Gogh Café in Arles, made famous in the artist’s well-known painting.

The Van Gogh Café in Arles, made famous in the artist’s well-known painting.

Silk and cream
That evening, we sail into Lyon, darkness settling around us like a velvet cape. We would have a whole day exploring this 2,000-year-old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of Roman ruins, cobblestoned medieval streets and the famous “traboules,” hidden passageways silk workers once used to carry their precious cargo to ships on the river.
But me, I’m most excited about Lyon’s reputation as the gastronomic capital of France.
After a quick city tour featuring the gaudy Basilica de Notre-Dame de Fourvière with its spectacular hilltop view, I head out on my own: shopping at Les Halles Lyon Paul Bocuse, the market named for the chef who is the city’s most famous son; lunching on salade lyonnaise and pâté en croûte at the bouchon Daniel et Denise, one of the traditional cafés designed for silk workers; dining on an epic, cream-drenched feast at La Mère Brazier, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant established in 1921 by the legendary chef Eugénie Brazier, who would become Bocuse’s mentor.
I return to the ship footsore, but replete.
Wine and song
After the medieval village of Vienne, the scenery becomes hillier and striped with vines. We float past the Côte Rôtie and St-Joseph, home to elegantly peppery Syrahs, before docking in the village of Tournon for a wine-tasting party at a medieval castle that gazes out upon the famous vineyards of Hermitage.
Another day, another medieval village, this time the charming Vivier, with its stark stone buildings and pretty green and blue shutters. By now we’re all getting to know our shipmates and I join new friends for a walking tour through steep, winding streets.
We pass through locks, under bridges and by the castle-topped hills of Châteauneuf-du-Pape–as the sun gets brighter, the wines become richer, darker and more intense.
Arriving in Avignon, a chanteuse sings “Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse,” as we sail past the remains of the 14th century bridge made famous in the children’s song. We spend a day browsing through shops and markets, enjoying glasses of rosé in the Place de l’Horloge before heading to the Popes’ Palace for a private concert that night. I fall a little in love with Avignon, and fill my bags with sachets of lavender and herbes de Provence.

Sunflowers under a bright blue sky near Arles.

Sunflowers under a bright blue sky near Arles.

Sunshine and flowers
We wake up in the sun-soaked heart of Provence. The cool greens and greys of the north have given way to brilliant azure skies and fields vibrant with sunflowers. This is Vincent Van Gogh country, and we’re on our way to Arles, where the painter sought the brilliant light that flooded his masterworks. We wander through Roman ruins and snap pictures of a vividly hued bistro we all know from the painting Café Terrace at Night.
Back on board the ship, the mood is bittersweet. There’s one last Champagne toast. One final gourmet dinner with my butler wielding his giant peppermill. One more night listening to the river lapping under my private balcony.
Then the engines are silent and the voyage is over. But if I listen carefully, I’m pretty sure I can still hear the river calling from afar.

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