Last fall when Covid variants continued to threaten, my wanderlust took me to Europe twice within five weeks. My September jaunt to Paris and a 13-day small-boat cruise down the Rhone River through Provence quickly gave way to an October 18-day sea voyage on a ship along the Iberian Peninsula around Gibraltar with a stop in northern Africa capped off my 2-year hiatus of international travel.
Both trips had been planned for at least a year and throughout last summer, I kept checking travel restrictions to ensure that finally, finally, I was packing my bags again. Sister companies, Overseas Adventure Travel and Grand Circle Travel, never let me down. From adventures to four countries in Southeast Asia, a 3-week trip to Northern India during the colorful Holi festival, and a South America/Galapagos exploration to more “tame” trips to Sicily, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, these companies always deliver.
My France trip took me to a bull ranch where the bull is king to an American cemetery where World War II soldiers are buried to discover little-known architectural treasures in Paris to the South of France and the Mediterranean.
Embracing the French
Pre-trip PCR COVID tests and requirements to wear masks on all flights were standard as my friend Lynda from St. Augustine and I made our way to Paris to join our group of 16 for 13 days of cruising the land of vineyards, lavender fields, castles and historic villages. While our boat Chanson held a maximum of 70, it was booked at half-capacity in deference to Covid. Aboard were two travel groups of 16, each with our own trip leaders who guided us to amazing sites and discoveries not often visited by the average American.
Paris was bustling. A drive by Notre Dame Cathedral was bittersweet as towers of scaffolding, tall construction fences and re-routed traffic reminded us of that ancient treasure and the tragic fire on April 15, 2019. It will be years, decades before it reopens to the public.
Instead, we visited one of my favorite places – Sainte-Chappelle – a jewel-box gothic church within the walls of the Palace of Justice court complex. Built in the 13th century, the three-level church features two stories of stained-glass windows held in place by narrow stone gothic braces. Depending on the time of day, rainbows of light bathe the floors and walls. The cobalt-blue gothic ceiling is painted with thousands of gold stars. Not often visited by US tourists who opt for more popular sites like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the now-closed Notre Dame, it was breathtaking.
The romance of Provence
Our river journey on the Rhone River began two days after arrival in Paris, boarding in Lyon, known for its silk industry during the Renaissance and a key location during World War II. Along the narrow streets, we ducked into the shop of a silk weaver who still makes church vestments and other silk goods by hand; it’s becoming a rare trade.
A trip to a local market one morning was a feast for the eyes and the stomach. It stretched for blocks and offered a colorful array of fresh local fruits, vegetables, nuts, pastries, breads, meats and fish. We only wished that we lived there and could load up to cook our own gourmet meals. A young Asian violinist provided classical music as people walked by.
We sailed at night, headed for Vienne, home of ancient Gallo-Roman ruins: a Roman temple, and an open-air theater with stone seats from the time of Roman rule. In Vienne, we were treated to a home visit to get to know more about how the locals live. This is a traditional feature of trips with Overseas Adventure Travel and Grand Circle, and it’s always a treat. Our trip leaders take us to families who have agreed to either provide coffee and dessert or lunch. Then we’re on our own, communicating in each other’s languages as best we can. By the end of the visit, we’d made new friends.
Food on board was amazing and included full breakfasts, plus lunches and dinners with elegant French-inspired desserts. On-board nightly entertainment encouraged guests to spend time getting to know each other.
Next stop: Viviers, called the Gateway to Provence, where we learned about the Chauvet Caves by visiting an exact underground replica of the ancient Paleolithic caverns that until 1994 had hidden some of the world’s best-preserved figurative paintings of horses, lions, bulls and advanced drawings of musical instruments and other tools used by this early civilization.
A late-afternoon and night sail downriver to Avignon, the heart of Provence, brought us to the “City of the Popes” where during the 14th century it became the center of the Papacy as the situation in Rome was changing.
In the morning we toured the Palace of the Popes then journeyed to the Pont du Gard Aqueduct, built by the Romans in the first century to move water from underground springs to serve the region. At more than six-tenths of a mile long, the three-tiered structure soars across a nearly dry riverbed 160 feet below the top level. It’s the world’s tallest and one of the best-preserved Roman aqueducts.
As we began the final leg of our river cruise, Arles awaited. Famous as the town of Vincent Van Gogh, it’s where he painted the majority of his masterpieces, drawing on scenes of the local people and countryside. We walked past familiar scenes, inspirations for such paintings as “Starry Night,” “Hospital at Arles” and “Café Terrace at Night,” marked with interpretive signs to aid in going back more than 100 years to his heyday. Although some of his 860 oil paintings are among the most valued of the post-impressionists, he died penniless two days after he shot himself with a revolver at the age of 37.
A visit to a multi-generational family’s working ranch where prize bulls are raised. As we drove up, nearly a dozen “cowboys” and “cowgirls” greeted us, mounted on the backs of beautiful white Camargue horses. From the back of a farm truck’s trailer we followed the guardians as they rounded up the bulls from their day in the pastures. The family shared the French traditions of bull farming with us before heading back to the Chanson for our Farewell Captain’s Dinner.
Almost over, discoveries continue
Leaving our boat behind the next morning, we headed across the southern part of Provence toward the coastal city of Nice, stopping at the Rhone American Cemetery to pay tribute to the 858 Americans buried there who lost their lives during the 1944 Allied invasion of Southern France in World War II. Veterans on our trip placed a wreath at the memorial.
Our final stop, a couple of days on the French Riviera in Nice, included time to walk the city’s seaside Promenade, walk the extensive gardens and parks, spend time in the city’s large outdoor market in Old Town Nice and begin to bid farewell to our fellow travelers.
Lynda and I both tested negative on the PCR covid tests required before flying back home, so we were on our way without a hitch. We brought back memories of new friendships, plenty of photos and a few extra pounds from the delicious French wines and cuisine. Nothing to complain about as early overseas-travel adopters last fall.
To be continued: Next month, senior writer Pam Keene shares her voyage to the Iberian Peninsula from Lisbon, Portugal, to Barcelona, Spain.
Watch video for more photos from France.
Photos: by Pamela A. Keene