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French affair

It’s easy to experience la vie en rose aboard Uniworld’s Provence and Burgundy tour down the Rhône river – exceptional service and picturesque scenery, all accompanied by glorious French cuisine. C’est magnifique.

French affair

It’s no holiday, being a tourist. You get tired mentally, because you’re always paying attention, noticing things, looking for photo opportunities; and physically because there’s so much footwork – every day you’re on your feet, walking between attractions. And there are always long flights of steps, up towers and spires, to lookouts and rooftops. It’s exhausting.

That’s why river cruising is such a brilliant idea. You climb aboard, unpack, and then sit back in comfort as you’re transported through postcard-perfect countryside where there’s always something to look at. You can get up, walk around, take a nap or soak up the sun outside. And then, each day, you stop in the centre of a town or city, where you can choose to go on a guided tour or simply wander off on your own before returning to the ship to swap notes with other passengers over an excellent dinner.

Eight days spent cruising up the Rhône through Provence and Burgundy was all it took to convert me into an avid river-cruising fan – though it did help that I was travelling with Uniworld. The company’s fleet of boutique ships all employ clever use of space and light and the attention to detail is unsurpassed (I loved the L’Occitane toiletries and super-fine sheets). But where Uniworld really stands out is in its service.

The crew are friendly, to a fault: always cheerful, efficient, informed and professional. They made all the difference – from cruise director Laurent explaining that the French don’t smile (“Please don’t take it personally”) to Todor the waiter from Bulgaria, who studied our names and dining preferences overnight.

Gastronomic delights

And oh, the food. From the pre-breakfast pastries to the last crumbs of cheese – three different ones every day – after dinner, there was no doubt whatsoever we were in France.

It was all there: made-to-order breakfast crêpes, paté and escargot, veal and duck, gateaux and tartes. And perfectly baked bread – warm, fresh, crusty and delicious. It’s one of the true pleasures of France; the other, of course, being the wine. And sailing, as we were, past some of the best vineyards in the country – indeed the world – it was a daily feature.

Local wines would accompany every meal and at many stops there were also opportunities to enjoy wine tastings, sometimes at the cellar door. At Avignon, I went to heaven and back at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Driving by coach through vast expanses of vines savagely pruned to squat stumps, we were instructed on how to swirl and slurp, swallow or spit; but mainly on how to enjoy the wine as it has been enjoyed for millennia.

Yes, millennia – there were vineyards already established when the Romans arrived 2000 years ago to build, among other triumphs, the Pont du Gard viaduct. This beautiful construction, a three-tiered marvel of weathered stone, is still standing strong, untouched by floods that have swept away more modern bridges.

Everywhere we went, from Arles all the way up the river to Lyon and beyond to Chalon-sur-Saône, there were ancient buildings both grand and immense, like the Palace of the Popes in Avignon with its towers, turrets and soaring ceilings, as well as humbly practical structures, like the olive mill outside Arles, where the Sourdon sisters run the generations-old family firm, proudly producing the green-gold oil.

The walking tours – conveniently using radio microphones, which meant we could trail behind the guide and still hear – gave us the history-lite version of the towns: all the fascinating stories, none of the dry facts. We still got distracted, however – tempted by patisseries with their decorated cakes and bite-size glazed tarts displayed like jewellery, or by inviting little boutiques.

Though Arles had the most colourful shops, full of lovely fabrics printed with traditional patterns of olives and fruit in bright yellows, reds and greens, it was the village of Les Baux-de-Provence, perched on a rocky peak, that stole my heart. Its winding lanes, too steep and narrow for vehicles, climbed up to the 12th-century church from where the view over the surrounding countryside, with its twisted cypresses and ancient olive trees, was spectacular – and alarming. This was because we were there on a day the “mistral” was blowing, the icy cold northerly wind that, in the past, was accepted as mitigation for murder and can be so strong and treacherously fitful that it’s a genuine hazard.

Precious memories

Each town had its memorable features: in Tain-l’Hermitage it was the sumptuous Valrhona chocolate factory with its rows of tasting bowls; Viviers, mysteriously empty of people but full of cats, gave us a stirring organ concert in its extravagant Gothic cathedral. Arles was where Van Gogh spent a year painting the picturesquely peeling houses along its cobbled streets; most of them are still there for comparison with his colourful canvases.

Lyon, the largest city we visit, rose up the hill from the river to its wedding cake-like basilica. Following our local guide, we slipped through inconspicuous doors into the confusing maze of enclosed alleyways that the Resistance exploited so successfully during the war. Sadly, the highly regarded and must-see Museum of the Resistance was closed for renovations during our visit. Instead, an offbeat museum of automatons tucked down a side street was full of delights, including a remarkably handsome Captain Nemo.

Our last stop was Chalon-sur-Saône. From there we drove to Beaune where the world’s best get-into-heaven ticket stands in all its flamboyant, 15th-century splendour. It’s the Hospices de Beaune, built by a businessman to atone for all his sins, and delighting people still with its glorious patterned roof of coloured, glazed tiles surmounted by pointy turrets. It was built to give comfort to people who needed care and rest. We could empathise with that: we’d just had eight days of nothing but.

New beginnings 

New on the Rhône for the northern spring of 2014 is Uniworld’s SS Catherine: that’s SS for Super Ship, both in size and guest experience. At 135 metres in length, it’s one of the company’s longest, but rather than being used for cramming in more passengers, the extra space is devoted to roomier suites as well as public spaces. The maximum complement of guests is just 159 in total.

The light and bright décor is elegant – but bland it’s not. The Leopard Lounge is designed with a quirky safari theme; there are original art works around the ship; and all the rooms, from the Royal Suite to single staterooms, are full of thoughtful touches, including L’Occitane toiletries in the marble bathrooms.

On the upper Camargue Deck, almost all rooms have open-air balconies that convert into glassed-in conservatories at the touch of a button.

Uniworld has the highest staff-to-guest ratio in the river cruise industry and, with all gratuities included, their attention to detail is prompted by the purest of motives.

Fast facts

New on the Rhône for the northern spring of 2014 is Uniworld’s SS Catherine: that’s SS for Super Ship, both in size and guest experience. At 135 metres in length, it’s one of the company’s longest, but rather than being used for cramming in more passengers, the extra space is devoted to roomier suites as well as public spaces. The maximum complement of guests is just 159 in total.

The light and bright décor is elegant – but bland it’s not. The Leopard Lounge is designed with a quirky safari theme; there are original art works around the ship; and all the rooms, from the Royal Suite to single staterooms, are full of thoughtful touches, including L’Occitane toiletries in the marble bathrooms.

On the upper Camargue Deck, almost all rooms have open-air balconies that convert into glassed-in conservatories at the touch of a button.

Uniworld has the highest staff-to-guest ratio in the river cruise industry and, with all gratuities included, their attention to detail is prompted by the purest of motives.

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