Paris to The Cote d'Azur, Part 2

June 18 - July 2, 2001
By Lewis Nolan

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Speedy Jumps To Trip Segments:

Part 1: Memphis to Paris, Sights of Paris
Part 2: Dijon, Chalon-sur-Soane, Cruising the Soane River, Macon, Lyon, Vienne
Part 3: Cruising the Rhone River through Tournon, Provence, Viviers, Avignon, Arles
Part 4: Aix-en-Provence, Cote d'Azur, Juan-les-Pins, Monaco, Antibes, Nice to Memphis
Photo Album

Quick Jumps To Points of Interest in This Segment:


June 22, 2001, Friday morning - To Dijon

We were up at 6 a.m. to finish packing. Grand Circle only allowed one checked bag per passenger, so ours were big ones. We had an early, light breakfast at the Hotel Concorde La Fayette buffet (for me ham on a deliciously fresh baguette plus a small portion of fruit cocktail), retrieved our passports and money from the hotel safety deposit box and checked out on schedule at 7:30 a.m. Our precautions against theft have so far been successful. We were repeatedly warned by Grand Circle to be wary of pickpockets in tourist areas; a Memphis pal who works for a security firm had her wallet stolen on her first day in Paris several months earlier. After three days in Paris, we were eager to get the day's bus ride behind us and board the boat in Chalon-sur-Soane for the river cruise segment of our trip.

We were on the "blue" bus, part of tour director Katell Le Bourdonnec's group of about 40. Helene Clement had the "red" group. Girard, a Belgian man of about 40, led the "yellow" group of travelers who had taken the Loire Valley trip extension. The buses were scheduled to leave at 8 a.m. To my amazement, we actually pulled out at 8:20 a.m. We quickly found that the overhead storage compartments were too small to accommodate our carry-on bags. Betty had to ride with her small bag under her feet; I removed the shave kit from mine and jammed it and the partly emptied carry-on into the too-small compartment. We learned that was probably why Grand Circle had shipped us a free carry-on that was even smaller than a gym bag (we left it home).

It was obvious the bus designers had taken a lesson from the airlines. Extra rows of seats had been packed into the bus and only a single, tiny restroom. Seats were much smaller and far less comfortable than those I remember on the old Greyhound buses back home. But at least the air conditioning on the "blue" bus worked. It didn't on the "red" bus and those poor folks had a long, hot ride as temperatures rose into the 80s. The rest of us had a beautiful, sunny day for the drive and the passing countryside reminded me of West Tennessee in springtime, with rolling hills, green grass and occasional herds of cattle. But in this case the cattle were the blonde Charolais breed rather than the Angus or Hereford we see back home. I was glad we brought our own bottles of water since no drinks were provided. However, some regional candy was passed around. We learned that an older gentleman sitting in front of us was so fluent in Parisian French (the result of his working 8 years in Paris after World War II) that he is often taken for a native. But the cramped seating and tight aisle running the length of the bus discouraged conversation with our fellow passengers, so Betty read and I tried to nap.

Our effervescent tour director, Kattel, intermittently "worked the bus," merrily chatting with passengers about various aspects of French life and handing out maps and other information. We happily found that the written material and other information provided by Grand Circle was first-rate, starting with the pre-trip catalogs and brochures, continuing with the detailed itinerary and instructions and certainly including the excellent sheets providing just the right amount of information about the places we visited. The info sheets were delivered to our cabin on the boat and included background and historical information on the locations, at-a-glance data about various attractions and restaurant suggestions. On top of this were briefings most days (we missed most of them) and a flip chart in the lobby that listed the schedule and menu for each day.

We drove southeast from Paris toward Dijon on the A38-A6 National Roadway, an excellently engineered and maintained toll road that has four or more lanes divided by a broad, grassy median section. A network of the National Roadways crisscrosses France, the equivalent of the U.S. Interstate Highway System. The main difference, at least on the French roads we drove on during this and our previous trip, is that the French toll roads are smoother. Much of the superior pavement condition is likely due to the absence of the really big, semi-tractor trailer rigs that plough up the U.S. roads with their heavy weight. Overloading is common among U.S. truckers, as is driving too many hours. French trucks, which must be prepared to negotiate the narrow streets in the older sections of most towns and cities, are smaller than American OTR trucks and usually consist of a single unit. Many are manufactured by Mercedes-Benz and are identical to the British "lorries," perhaps half the size of the behemoth U.S. rigs of a tractor with a trailer or two behind.

The French trucking industry seems to be closely regulated by government, as are many other aspects of commerce in the French form of socialism. The trucks and buses have special recording machines that log distance, speed and hours driven. Drivers must insert a paper disk about the size of a CD-ROM into the vehicle's recorder for the duration of the drive. They must submit the disc to the police for monitoring. Any telltale record of excessive speeding or driving too many hours results in fines and loss of license. Our bus had to change drivers once we reached Dijon because our first driver maxed out with nine hours, the result of an earlier run.

Signage on the National Roads is excellent, with exits to many historic locations clearly marked. Also excellent are the roadway service complexes that are a combination of rest stops, gasoline stations, restaurants and in some locations roadside motels.

After driving nearly 3 hours on a route that took us south and east of Paris toward Dijon, we stopped at a very nice service station near the village of Hotel. Spotlessly clean and quite spacious, it was a mini-mall in itself, offering souvenirs, several places to buy food and wine, a picnic area, tennis court and motel. There were a host of gnats flying about the rest area's sycamore trees that were strangely attracted to my yellow golf shirt. A French woman said they must have thought I was a large, beautiful flower. I first thought it might be my aftershave that attracted them, but soon noticed other people wearing bright yellow clothing also had their clouds of admiring insects.

Food included self-service plates of exquisitely arranged cold cuts, cheese selections, quiche, fancy salads, baked chicken, breads and attractive deserts. An average lunch cost $6 or $8. There was a good selection of wine available for about $7 a bottle. Separate parts of the store sold souvenirs and traveling equipment.

June 22, 2001, Friday afternoon - In Dijon and to Chalon-sur-Soane

We stopped for a nice lunch of roast chicken at a restaurant in the heart of Dijon, which is the economic capital of the Burgundy region (Bourgogne Department). Our group occupied the entire second floor of the restaurant. Our tour guides quickly learned that Betty and I have mild intolerance for lactose, making it impossible for us to eat many of the rich sauces and ice cream desserts loved in France. But they got the restaurant to substitute cream-free vegetables for the Potatoes Lyonnaise for us. Similar substitutions became an everyday occurrence for us in the boat's dining room.

Dijon was the capital of the powerful dukedom of Burgundy for nearly 500 years before it was absorbed into the kingdom of France in 1493. It is still an important center of culture and its museum - which unfortunately was not a stop on our tour - includes works of Delacroix, Rodin and Picasso in its collection.

We took a walking tour of the historic section of Dijon, led by a woman guide who lives in the town. We learned that the once-powerful Dukes of Burgundy lived in a palace of modest proportions there when the region was independent from France. A Duke of Burgundy in the 15th Century had 30 children, which according to the guide was why his statue in the courtyard had such a tired-looking face. We also visited a beautiful, medieval cathedral built in the 12th Century. Called Notre Dame (it seems that every town in France has a cathedral named after the Mother of Jesus), it reminded me of a smaller version of the Paris landmark, complete with flying buttresses, gargoyles and griffins. Some of the stonework frieze around the church had been defaced during the peasant uprising during the French Revolution of the late 1700s, when the nobility and its institutions (including the clergy) were uprooted.

I am astonished that France and its people have all but blotted from memory the horrors of the Revolutionaries' butchery of tens of thousands of members of the nobility, the clergy and the political opponents. I saw no monuments to Robespierre or signs giving locations where the guillotine decapitated so many innocent people. I asked our Dijon tour guide about it and was told that the general public just doesn't think about the ravages of history 200 years ago. They prefer to look at the French Revolution as an event that changed the world and Napoleon as a great hero. There is still an echo of pride from the time when Napoleon's Grand Armee shook the world. The French infantry, supported by artillery, would form in massive, charging columns under Napoleon's brash and deadly tactics. The column of troops would be 60 abreast and hundreds of yards long. The might of that concentrated force, with spirits whipped up by the drumbeat of the "pas de charge," crashed through Europe's finest armies. At least they did until the French columns faced Wellington's line formations and better trained, faster firing riflemen.

I believe my view of Napoleon, attained from my pre-trip reading of Alan Schom's critical biography, where the monstrous side of the devious leader is presented along with his genius for organization, is more balanced than any I encountered in France. But then I must admit that the winners always write the history. Back home, one rarely hears much about the loyalists to King George III and how they were abused and had their homes burned by the Colonial insurrectionists of the American Revolution.

Our brief tour of Dijon would have been greatly enhanced by a visit or even a drive-by to a factory where the famous mustard is made. We were told that mustard making is a cottage industry there and there are several dozen small plants that produce it. Oddly, the mustard seeds used as the base ingredient are now imported from Canada.

June 22, 2001, Friday afternoon - Chalon-sur-Soane

We arrived at the lovely town of Chalon-sur-Soane about 5 p.m. and were very happy to get off the bus after a tiring day of riding. By the time we boarded the M/S Ravel and got somewhat settled into our tiny cabin, it was time for a cocktail party, briefing and introduction to the boat's 32-member crew.
Betty by M/S Ravel at Chalon-Sur-Soane
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The "capitaine" of the boat is Pascal Rech.He is in charge of the crew operating the vessel. The "hotel manager"is Sebastien Wendling. He is in charge of the crew working in the restaurant, bar, maid service and other "hotel" activities. In an odd shared authority arrangement in which there is no overall "czar," the three tour directors are jointly in charge of all activities involving their complements of about 40 passengers each. Also aboard is a Grand Circle executive who is one of the big bosses in France (as it unfolded later, evidently he was on ship to judge then discharge the Austrian chef) and two supernumeraries taking a familiarization trip. One is a friendly young man named Rudi, who is considering transferring to this cruise from the Grand Circle cruise from Amsterdam to Vienna. Another is a mature, trying-hard-to-please, French woman being looked at for her potential as a tour director.

The boat is 363 feet long and 37 feet wide, designed to precise specifications allowing it to navigate through the locks and under the bridges of major European waterways. It has 60 cabins for passengers on two decks. There is a third deck of crew cabins at the waterline. The Ravel, one of 11 riverboats owned by Grand Circle, was built in Holland and put into service this year. It is sparking clean, painted white with blue trim. The top deck is made into a gigantic porch, complete with plastic chairs, recliners and a few tables. A large canopy provides shade. The canopy, pilothouse and running equipment like radar can be raised and lowered as necessary to pass under low bridges.

Our room is No. 301 and is ideally located. We have the closest cabin to the lobby/reception area, which is staffed 24 hours a day, and the adjacent ship's library. The library is the size of a small bedroom and is stocked with paperback books and, when available, the latest editions of USA Today Europe and the International Herald Tribune. It also offers a selection of postcards and souvenirs. We, and our neighbors across the passageway, have the closest cabins to the lounge, to the exterior stairs to the topside sun deck and to the gangplank when in harbor. We are on the starboard side, which seems to have more than its share of favorable facings for viewing while underway and also when in port.

Our cabin on the Soprano deck was ingeniously designed. An amazing amount of storage space and convenience were built into 150 square feet of floor space. The cabin included:
* Compact bathroom with toilet, basin, cabinets and shower. A clever stainless steel rail on the floor kept water from the shower from running out.
* Adjustable heating and air conditioning controls that really worked.
* Color TV with CNN and other English languages channels, nightly movies and a 24-hour view from the bow camera.
* Telephone.
* In-room safe.
* Two twin beds that convert into small sofas for daytime use. The Murphy-style bunk beds fold down into surprisingly comfortable bunks and are equipped with soft, warm duvets. Daily maid service includes bed turndowns and turnups. But the beds are light enough that we could easily open and close them if we wanted to nap during the day and didn't want to call maid service.
* Table for writing.
* Lots of closet and drawer space that was plenty adequate to accommodate everything we brought, plus lots of shelf space atop the built-in Murphy beds to hold binoculars, books, glasses, etc.
* Sliding glass doors that opened to a small, private balcony, equipped with two chairs.
All in all, the cabin exceeded our expectations and was every bit as comfortable - and much more cleverly designed - than the cabins we had several years ago on two Carnival line cruise ships.

The lounge is at the bow (front) of the ship. It is elegantly furnished with easy chairs and tables. It is where the daily briefings, lectures and other activities are held. It has huge windows providing panoramic views and many passengers hang out in the lounge to read and watch the passing scenery. The bar serves mixed drinks but I was astonished to learn they had no tequila or other ingredients for a margarita; following my complaint the bartender bought a bottle in port. A large glass of Belgian draft beer is $3.60; a Coca Light (European for Diet Coke) is $2. Wine is about $4.50 a glass. But there is an ice machine for those who want to mix their own drinks and small ice buckets in every cabin.

The restaurant is at the stern (rear) of the ship. It is just as elegantly appointed as the lounge and is surrounded with wrap-around, large windows. Most tables seat six in comfort; there are enough tables to accommodate 120 passengers, plus a separate table for the ship's officers and tour directors. The table settings are like those in any fine restaurant.

Breakfast is served in a very attractive buffet, generally from 7 a.m. until 9 a.m. Just about every imaginable breakfast food is available, including omelets cooked to your preference while you watch. Bacon, ham, sliced salmon, fruits, breads (still warm from the oven), cereals and on and on are available. I thought breakfast was uniformly the best meal of the day, made so by the delicious bread. Most days, I snagged a roll or two on my way out for a mid-morning snack. Lunch is a sit-down meal; usually served at 1 p.m. Passengers have a choice between a cooked dish and something on the light side, like a fancy salad or sandwich. There is always dessert available and an unending supply of French bread and butter. The lunch menus are on the breakfast tables and dinner menus on the lunch tables so passengers can give their preferences for the next meal to the servers. It gave us an opportunity to make our lactose intolerance known so they could prepare an alternate dish or sauce if necessary.

Dinner is also a sit-down meal, usually served at 7 p.m. and lasting until about 8:30 p.m. There is no reserved seating, but after a few nights some couples made it a point to sit together. The meal would usually start with a cold appetizer, perhaps a seafood salad, followed by a hot appetizer, an entrée (choice of a meat or fish/poultry) served with vegetables and desert. White and red table wine of good quality was liberally poured throughout the meal at no extra charge. Most of the desserts were built around ice cream and it was clear that Grand Circle knows their travelers' preference since the cholesterol busting desserts were devoured. The kitchen staff would prepare some fruit or perhaps cookies for Betty and me.

Some of the servers were more experienced and attentive than others. But they seemed to rotate tables at random so it was not possible to get the same ones all the time. I thought the ship was short one or two servers because of the lengthy delays in getting food to all the passengers. The food was always attractively served but was of uneven quality. Some was pretty good, but neither I nor anyone I talked to thought a single meal was extraordinary. There were widespread passenger grumblings about how poorly the meals compared to those on other cruises. The staff was so embarrassed by a couple of evening entrees (really crummy roast beef one evening and undercooked fish another evening) that the head chef was sacked at midweek. I'm sure it was awkward for everybody because the Grand Circle staff is anxious to please the passengers. But close living quarters aboard ship and long working hours must make for some uncomfortable strains on friendships when somebody isn't doing the job expected of them.

We had an elaborate but crummy dinner the first night, immediately following the Captain's Welcome Party that featured some nice champagne and hors d'ouevres. The M/S Ravel is docked close to the center of Chalon-sur-Soane. Betty and I had no interest in taking an all-day bus tour of Burgundy the next day and were pleased that the ship could provide a light lunch for us and two other, like-minded couples. We were also pleased to learn that France's Grand Prix of hydroplane boat racing starts the next day a few hundred meters upstream. So we would have the day to ourselves, with the option of watching the boat races on a day of glorious weather. Tired by the long bus ride and mellowed by the wine served with dinner, we retired early and found the Murphy beds and quiet ship conducive to long, restful sleep.

August 22, 2001, Saturday - In Chalon-sur-Soane

Per my pattern, I was up at 7 a.m. and quickly repaired to the breakfast buffet while Betty caught some more sleep time. My usual morning meal was two or three slices of cold ham on fresh French bread, a little bacon and some fruit. With nearly all our fellow passengers eating early in preparation for the all-day bus tour of Burgundy, the dining area was bustling with activity. I snagged some pastries and orange juice for Betty and returned to our cabin. Still somewhat jet lagged and tired from yesterday's bus ride, I climbed back into bed and took a morning nap. Delightful.

Had we not already seen numerous fields of grape vines and tasted the local wines on our 1991 trip to the Loire Valley - and also at wineries in Arkansas, California, Texas and Washington - the "Wine Road of Burgundy Tour" might have had more appeal for us. It included stops at Clos de Vougeot and Beaune, the wine capital of the region, and its Hospices de Beaune, founded in 1443 as a hospital. The hospital still stands and it owns most of the vineyards in Burgundy. Wines produced in Burgundy include many familiar varieties and appellations. Among them are Chablis, Cote de Nuits, Cote de Beaune, Beaujolais, Maconnais and Montrachet. I stopped drinking the full-bodied, red Burgundy table wine years ago once I connected even small quantities of it to large headaches due to the heavy tannin content. Many people who can tolerate the tannin count Burgundy wines as among the finest in the world; one of our fellow passengers bought a $140 bottle for a birthday celebration. Barge cruises on Burgundy's network of canals are popular, expensive vacations for affluent wine lovers.

While most others rode off on the cramped excursion buses, Betty and I slumbered away and got some much needed rest and relaxation. At mid-morning, we heard the roar of the hydroplane races on the broad Soane River. We decided to have a look, first from the Ravel's sundeck and then from the river promenade a few hundred yards upstream. It was the first day of racing for the Grand Prix of France and it was quite an event. There were cordoned off areas for the officials and sponsors that included fancy tents with meal and wine service. It cost nothing to watch the races from the promenade or nearby bridge, which at 350 meters in length is said to be the most slender in all of France. There were several rescue boats at the edge of the buoy-marked, racecourse, manned by ready-to-go divers. Missing were the super unlimited class boats - a la Miss Budweiser - but it looked like the Grand Prix included jet-propelled, very fast hydroplanes only one class smaller than the big American boats which race on Lake Washington near Seattle. There were also the smaller hydroplanes; speedy little crafts that whiz about at great peril to their drivers when going through waves.

We had the day to ourselves, with no schedules or other incursions. I watched the races, but Betty soon tired of that and headed off to poke around the shopping and old town part of Chalon-sur-Soane. I caught up with her later and together we enjoyed walking around the town center. Chalon is an ancient crossroads. It was used by Julius Caesar in 250 BC as a supply depot for his campaigns in Gaul. Its economic importance grew in the late 18th Century when the Canal du Centre was built, giving merchants additional access by barge to markets in the Loire Valley to the west. The Soane River is quite beautiful here and the riverfront is a pretty study in just how attractive a town can make its front doorstep. Blonde-colored stonework and shady walkways adorn both sides of the river. Wild, white swans paddle about unmolested. Flower beds as large as city lots greet the eye. There are lots of hanging baskets of annuals swinging from graceful, ornamental ironwork that support street lamps. The only thing to mar the beauty of Chalon are numerous piles of dog waste. Unlike Paris, Chalon seems to tolerate thoughtless dog owners allowing their pets to use the sidewalks and other public areas. We didn't see a single instance of a pet owner cleaning up their animal's waste. Disgusting.

The main shopping district is centered on one narrow, twisting street that is closed to vehicles. It is a mile or so long and is paved with cobblestones. It must date to medieval times. Some of the oldest houses contain wooden paneling from the 15th Century. I particularly enjoyed the Saint-Pierre Church and its former Benedictine chapel, consecrated in 1713. I visited at least one church or cathedral nearly every day of the cruise, making it a point to pay about 5 Francs for a candle to light in memory of my Catholic ancestors.

The day was quite pleasant, with sunny skies and temps around 80 degrees. We enjoyed the walk, the window-shopping and the people watching. We noticed that the women of Chalon were
Betty window shops in Chalon-sur-Soane
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not nearly as slim - nor as stylishly dressed - as were the women of Paris. That shouldn't be a surprise since it is just as easy to tell by her looks whether a woman back home is from a small, Southern town or from Manhattan. The same is true for the men. We stopped at a sidewalk bar on the main pedestrian walkway and for 51 Francs (about $7) I savored a glass of beer and Betty a cappuccino. I did OK with the ordering but couldn't understand a word of what the friendly bartender had to say.

Today, Chalon is both a tourism and an industrial center. We were told Kodak has a plant there. A claim to fame is the Niepce Museum, named after the former resident the town credits with being the father of photography. We didn't visit the collection of photographs, old cameras and postcards. We had wanted to rent bicycles for the day, but Katell and Helene found out the closest shop was a taxi ride across town and it wouldn't deliver bikes to the boat.

Notwithstanding their acceptance of dog poop everywhere, the good citizens of Chalon rejected a government proposal to remake their beloved Soane into a commercial river. Sought was authority to "Rhone-ize" the free-running Soane with locks and channel improvements to make it a major water highway, connected to Germany's Rhine River and the North Sea. The ballot measure was roundly defeated about 20 years ago, spelling the end of the plan to create a wide and deep channel for industrial shipping (and attract polluting industry in the eyes of critics). How different the outcome usually is back home, when the promise of jobs and economic growth by business interests and their government allies drown out the protests of recreational fishermen, campers and boaters.

The Soane is far from being a clear river. But it isn't nearly as murky or heavily engineered as the Rhone River to the South, which does carry a great deal of shipping. It is possibly for small draft craft like some yachts to use the Soane and the Rhine to connect with the North Sea. We saw quite a few good-sized sailing yachts - with masts lowered - making their inland way between the North Sea and the Mediterranean Sea without the long and sometimes dangerous passage through the Straits of Gibraltar. The French are great lovers of sailboats. They also love fast motorboats and even rowboats. Many of the recreational fishermen we saw on the Soane used oars only. However, we did not see a single fish caught despite assurances the river was home to many.

Betty and I had a nice lunch with two other couples who also passed on the bus tour of Burgundy. They were John and Barbara Collens of Placerville, Calif., and Otto and Kaye Jenista of Scotsdale, Ariz. John is a retired Air Force major general who piloted aircraft in three wars. His longtime friend Otto is a retired Air Force colonel who headed weather forecasting for the service. The four of them were delightful company and we ate most dinners together. The lunch was served in the ship's lounge and was quite good. The crew went out of their way to accommodate us stay-behinds, serving us chicken consume, salad with wonderfully fresh lettuce, ham and cheese on a baguette and sorbet. Like the other lunches and the elaborate breakfast buffet, the kitchen produced some very good, fresh food that was a pleasure to eat.

But so far, the six of us agreed, the Austrian chef is disappointing with his main dinner courses. The roast beef the previous night was all but inedible - too raw, too tough and totally without flavor. I've got the feeling that unless things get a lot better in a hurry, this chef's career with Grand Circle won't be a long one.

June 23, 2001, Saturday, 7 p.m. - Chalon-sur-Soane to Macon

Unfortunately, the food was uneven that evening. The smoked duck salad was delicious, as was a dollop of spinach. My choice of the baked mackerel was OK, once the butter sauce was removed. But it didn't have much taste. The accompanying potatoes were quite cold. Nobody at our table liked the meat course. But at least the wine was free and flowed freely. The best thing about dinner on this second night is that it was served as we cruised southward down the beautiful Soane River
Betty on private porch
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at dusk. The passing scenery was gorgeous, which I enjoyed even more from our private porchafter dinner. We had brought binoculars with us and I put them to good use watching the white swans bob about in the gentle wake of the boat. It didn't get dark until about 10 p.m.

We moored for the night at Macon, home of a very fine white wine called Macon Village that we drink on occasion back home. The town rises from the river like Camelot, with well-lighted, white buildings and roofs of red tile. By chance, Macon had a festival underway near the quay where we docked after dark. There were thousands of people attending a free rock concert in the town's riverfront park. There were also musicians performing in front of several bars within a block or two, giving some pretty good renditions of Bluegrass, B.B. King's blues music and American rock and roll. We were among the few Ravel passengers who disembarked to mingle among the late-night crowd of French teenagers and young adults, some with infants. It was a mellow crowd and we felt perfectly at ease amid the throng as the wine flowed, the music played and the clock passed midnight. We smelled no marijuana and admired the peaceful atmosphere that attracted so many couples with young children. This was the first time in a very long time (probably since I stopped reviewing musical performances for The Commercial Appeal in 1978) that Betty and I had attended a rock concert. It was fun.

June 24, 2001, Sunday, 5:30 a.m. - Macon to Lyon

After not nearly enough sleep, the crew unmooring the ship and getting underway at Macon awakened us. I wasn't alone in thinking that they shouldn't have had to loudly drag the metal gangplank and other equipment across the deck. In combination with other, more subtle observations, I think the dawn banging and clanging going on over the heads of sleeping passengers is a symptom of an unhappy crew.

We went to breakfast at 7:30 a.m. and I had my usual ham on baguette, bacon, fresh fruit and a glass of cold water as we cruised downstream. The boat did not serve my favorite morning beverage of TAB; indeed I saw none in France. Betty went for a croissant, fresh fruit and coffee. As the morning quickly passed under a delightfully warm and beautiful day, Betty took lots of photos. We passed under several low bridges and I had to duck under one, hurriedly diving off a deck chair to the deck. In all, we passed beneath about 50 bridges and pipelines and through 15 locks during our weeklong cruise.

One of the ship's officers gave an interesting lecture on how the Rhone was tamed after World War II with the construction of 12, huge locks and dams along with several canals. The dams that are part of the locking system contain hydroelectricity generators that produce 25 percent of France's power. France is also a major user of nuclear generators and now exports electricity to Great Britain, Italy and other EEC countries.

The Rhone River canals were built to bypass river sections where turning areas were too tight for large boats to navigate. Because of the opposition of area residents, the more natural Soane River is without canals and deeper channels although it, too, has several locks. We were told that the French language assigns the masculine "Le" article to the Rhone, while the Soane gets the feminine word, "La," aptly fitting the one's power and the other's grace.

Every lock on both rivers is exactly 39.5 feet wide, affording an extremely snug fit for the cruise ships. The M/S Ravel and its sister boats owned by Grand Circle were precisely designed and built to navigate the locks with less than six inches clearance on either side. I was only aware of one hard bump. Before the massive construction project as part of France's postwar rebuilding, the Rhone and Soane rivers regularly flooded and were unnavigable for about 100 days a year. The Rhone had flooded in the spring from the snowmelt in the Swiss Alps, where it originates, and also in the fall during France's rainy season. There are still a few times during the tourism season - in France and other countries - when the river cruise boats cannot pass under low bridges. Then, the boats moor until the water level drops and passengers are bussed hither and yon. The best time to cruise without the hassle of delays due to high water is late summer.

The Romans used the Rhone to move military equipment into Gaul. Over their centuries of rule, they built five roads into the province's capital of Lyon. Entire villages sprung up to support river commerce, mainly by providing labor to tow the boats upstream through difficult passages. Both human and animal muscles were used until 1825-1850, when steam engines were introduced to inland craft. It was a similar story in young America when Mike Fink was a legendary riverman and people sung about "had a gal, name of Sal, 15 miles on the Erie Canal. . ."

Cruising south of Macon through the Beaujolais region on this Sunday morning was a visual feast and we now fully expected the unusually favorable weather. The hilly region is famous for its light, fruity red wine that is one of my favorites.
Lewis and Betty at bow of M/S Ravel
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The official opening of the first bottles of new wine in November is a cause for celebration around the world. The Gamay grape thrives in the chalky, volcanic soil of Beaujolais, yielding highly regarded vintages such as Moulin a Vent, Brouilly, Chiroubles and Morgon. The scenery reminded me of Ireland with its differing shades of green vegetation climbing up and down the rolling hills. Vineyards are everywhere. As we approached the northern outskirts of Lyon, we saw several dozen crews out practicing their rowing in sleek, racing sculls. There were young adult males and females in singles, doubles, sixes and eights. Some were perhaps inspired by the gold medal won at the Sidney Olympics last year by a resident of Lyon, whose achievement is saluted on a sign at one of the rowing clubs on the riverbank.

June 24, 2001, Sunday, 12:30 p.m. - In Lyon

We were having a good lunch of ham and cheese on a croissant, served with French fries, when we moored at Lyon at 12:30 p.m., not far from the convergence of the Soane and Rhone Rivers. It was easy to tell the rivers apart by the color of the water, with the Rhone murky because of all the industrial use of its deeper channel plus industrial pollution. We didn't see a single swan on the Rhone, and very few people fishing. Lyon (pop. 1.2 million) is considered France's second or third most economically important city and calls itself the gastronomic capital of the world. It claims the most restaurants per square yard and boasts of having more Michelin stars than anywhere except Paris. Lyon's history stretches back more than 2,000 years. It was founded by the Romans in 43 BC as Lugdunum and later became a capital of the province of Gaul. There are ruins of an ancient arena where early Christians were martyred.

As with Chalon, our tour directors could not locate a bike rental shop within walking distance of the ship's mooring point on Quay Claude Bernard on the Rhone. Between the Rhone and Soane Rivers is a large island that holds the oldest part of Lyon and some of its most interesting museums. Even though it was Sunday, several of the places we most wanted to see were oddly closed, including the Museum of Weaving and the Silk Workshop. So we decided to take the included, three-hour bus tour led by a local guide. We learned that Lyon was a very important town in the 17th Century because of its silk-spinning and weaving, which was centered in the old section of town. Like in other French towns that have survived for centuries, there were endless photo opportunities.

Subjects and interesting angles abound in the narrow, twisting streets where ancient cobblestones contrast with the signage of modern business. Vieuz Lyon is supposedly Europe's largest Renaissance area and France's leading restored area of the 15th and 16th Century. It is very much alive today with cafes, shops, small service businesses and young adults who live in modernized structures that are hundreds of years old.

Because two rivers bordered it, the narrow town had nowhere to grow but up, resulting in the equivalent of medieval high-rise housing. Passageways through the buildings are called "Traboules Lyonnaise" and lead to interior entrances of the residences above. The traboules connected the courtyards of the four-and-five story buildings. It reminded me of the tunnels that connect Prairie Dog colonies in the American Southwest. Now lighted by electricity rather than oil lamps or torches used centuries ago, the dark passageways are still creepy even though they are a source of pride among today's gentrified residents who live in the buildings above.

Many of the stairways in the traboules and lower sections of the 400-year-old, stucco-like buildings were built with fist-sized holes for ventilation. With two rivers just a few hundreds yards away and sidewalk cafes everywhere, I thought the combination of a plentiful food supply plus gazillions of hiding places in the traboules and the old buildings they served would create a rat problem of Biblical proportions. However, our guide brushed off my question (or pretended not to understand it) by saying there is "no problem" with rats in Lyon. The woman, who appeared to be about 30 and who did not shave her underarms, was a passionate booster of her hometown. But the quality of her information was clouded when she missed the population figure by 50 percent and when she said Germans in World War II had bombed two bridges in Lyon. In fact, our new friend who was a retired major general remembered with certainty that the Germans blew up the bridges with explosives - not aerial bombs - before the Allied advance.

John Collens, now 76 and who was flying missions over Europe at the age of 19, still shakes his head when recalling that the French had the biggest army in the world but surrendered to the Germans after only 7 days of war. Our cruise passed through much of Vichy France - the southern part of the country that was governed by the French under German direction. But nowhere did we see any monuments or historic markers to the criminal collaboration that tragically resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent Jews. Vichy France is one of the dirty secrets of history that is ignored. Likewise, the Japanese deny the horrors of the Bataan Death March and the Rape of Shanghai. We Americans also have dark history, but I think that as a people we are much open and more willing to admit our terrible mistakes and try to make amends than do other nations.

We rode the bus up a high hill overlooking Lyon to the exquisite Fourviere Basilica. Two Roman theaters stood on the Fourviere hillside. Although mostly in ruins, enough stands of the largest that it is still used for concerts and plays.
Lewis and Betty at Lyon river overlook
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I would have liked to have poked around the ruins, but we were on the tour schedule, not ours. The Basilica of Notre Dame was built between 1872 and 1896 to rival Paris' Sacre-Coeur. Our guide said it was entirely paid for by the citizens of Lyon in tribute to the Virgin Mary, whom they believed had interceded on their behalf and halted the advance of a German Army. The interior of the building is breathtaking in its beauty, with an eclectic decoration of mosaics, gold leaf, stained glass and white marble statues. Another guide, obviously less of a Lyon booster, wrote that the interior decoration is "lavish to the point of vulgarity." Strangely, the basilica's floor serves as the ceiling of the much older Cathedral of St. Joseph, now a downstairs church because of the straight-up hillside on which both places of worship were built.

June 25, 2001, Monday, 10 a.m. - In Lyon

We had another gorgeous day before us and the morning free. So Betty and I walked from the boat quay across the long Pont de l'Universite bridge to poke around Veaux Lyon on our own. Unfortunately, many of the museums here (and indeed throughout France) are closed on Mondays. Some of the stores that are open on Saturdays don't open on Mondays until after lunch. So there wasn't a lot to see or do. The highpoint of my shopping was the purchase of a bottle of Gordon's London Gin in a small grocery store. But walking around the eye-friendly and pedestrian-friendly streets in French towns and cities is always a pleasure. We were never accosted by pushy beggars, by hustlers, by dogs or anything even vaguely unpleasant throughout our trip. The French are a tolerant people, but they obviously don't tolerate bad behavior in public places.

One of our favorite memories is watching a well-dressed, middle-aged woman play with her pet black Labrador Retriever in a broad, grassy park. She would throw a tennis ball for the dog to fetch on an elevated section of healthy grass and he would joyfully run after it. The dog would catch or run after the ball, then obediently return to his mistress. Wanting to play some more, the dog would gently roll the ball across the edging pavement, where she could pick it up and toss it again. The afternoon was warm, with the temperature in the upper 80s. When the dog got hot, he cleverly laid down amid the jets of a fountain a few yards away. We introduced ourselves as fellow dog-lovers by applauding his performance. In excellent English, the obviously cultivated woman told us she normally lives in Paris but was temporarily in Lyon while her husband was in the city on business.

One of Lyon's most photographed buildings is the setting for a huge trompe l'oeil fresco depicting many famous
Betty by Trompe L'Oeil on Lyon building
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residents. There are more than 150 trompe l'oeil walls in Lyon,probably the capital of the art form that deceives the eye with paintings and frescoes so realistic that they can at first be taken for the real thing. The city also has claim to a massive stone and metal fountain that was ordered by the city of Bordeaux but not paid for, giving a bargain to Lyon. I think we would have liked Lyon more if we had visited during the week or if we could have pedaled on the long promenades along the two rivers.

Back aboard the ship, we were among the 40 or so passengers who attended a pre-lunch cooking demonstration in the lounge by Christian Porntoy, of Lyon's Pam's Catering Service. He was quite a showman and entertained us with lessons on how to make Gratin Dauphinois (sliced potatoes baked in cream and milk, with a crust on top) and Crepes Suzette (a dessert of pancake-like crepes in a sauce of sugar, Grand Marnier, butter, orange and lemon) and Chocolate Mousse. We enjoyed the demonstration, especially the laughs that accompanied his instructions to a couple volunteers on how to use wrist action to flip the crepes in a hot skillet. But due to the richness of the three dishes, I doubt they will ever make it to our table.

June 25, 2001, Tuesday, 1 p.m. - To Vienne

We pulled away from the mooring at Lyon during lunch and headed downstream for the three-hour voyage to Vienne. The ship's "news sheet" posted in the lobby said the Roman historian Tacitus had called Vienne a "historic and imposing city." It was once the tribal capital of the Celtic Allobroges Tribe and occupied both sides of the Rhone River. It had become a prospering Roman trading center by 100 AD and later was later a colony for veterans of the Roman Legion, who evidently received land grants for their service. Many nations have rewarded their soldiers with land, as did the young United States with tens of thousands of acres in Tennessee and other states shortly after the American Revolution. As a Roman town, it was renamed Colonia Julia Augusta Florentia Vienna.

The Roman Wall that surrounded Vienne - built as a show of wealth rather than protection - had a perimeter of 4 miles and an enclosed area of 544 acres. It is about half the size of Republican Rome. A few sections of the old wall still stand and have been incorporated into modern buildings. Waterford, Ireland, has also proudly incorporated sections of ancient Norman fortifications into its new buildings. In contrast, developers' wrecking balls usually start swinging at structures in the U.S. after a generation or two. Outside the Vienne wall are the ruins of a "circus," which once housed a racetrack 1,492 feet long and 394 feet wide - enough for a race of 12 chariots. The center of the circus is still marked by an Egyptian obelisk 51 feet high.

Ever since reading Julius Caesar's "Gallic Wars" in a second year Latin class in high school, I've been fascinated by the Romans. One of my two majors in college was history (the other was English), with an emphasis on ancient history. In my home library are many books on the Romans, including a recently read a biography of Julius Caesar. His heroic stature for me was considerably dimmed when I learned of his cruelty and mass butchery in Gaul. I once spent several months waiting for a friendly coin dealer to find exactly the right denarius for me to give Betty as an anniversary present. She often wears the rare, dime-sized silver coin on a necklace. It is hand-stamped with the image of Augustus on one side and Mark Antony on the other. This coin, which represented a day's pay for a Roman Legionnaire, was in circulation when Jesus walked the earth and could have passed through the hands of early Christians, perhaps even the Apostles. In our videotape collection is a much-watched, complete set of the public television classic on the Caesars, "I Claudius." In short, I was pumped up about our visit to Vienne.

Like other Roman centers, Vienne had an amphitheater for public entertainment. Built on a slope overlooking the town, the structure has a diameter of 378 feet and could hold 13,000 spectators. The ruins are still used for concerts. There was a smaller public area nearby that served as a site for performances and as a forum for citizen discussion of the issues of the day. That structure, called the "Odeon," included two, massive arches that still stand. It was thrilling for me to walk among the ruins and touch the stones where Roman voices echoed nearly two millennia ago.

The centerpiece of Roman presence in Vienne is the Temple of Augustus and Livia. Augustus was the
Lewis Nolan (right), Otto Jenista at Roman temple in Vienne
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greatest of the Roman emperors, ruling from 31 BC to 14 AD. The Romans worshipped the towering couple as Gods. The temple was built to honor Augustus in the first century BC and then later rededicated to his wife, Livia, by her grandson, the Emperor Claudius. It is one of the very few intact Roman temples anywhere, spared from destruction by the distance of Vienne from Rome and the practicality of generations of Vienne residents.

The guide of our walking tour, a young mother from Lyon named Nadia, seemed to be quite knowledgeable about Vienne and its history, despite her lapse in Lyon about the bridges. She said the Temple to Augustus and Livia is the best preserved Roman building in France, having served as a Christian church, law court, library and museum. It was restored to its original condition in the 19th Century, the age of neoclassicism. The massive columns that surround the temple provided a square, open space within that was easily converted to a basilica with the erection of walls by early Christians. Less practical Christians elsewhere tore down former temples of pagan worship. By the time the French Revolution came along with its spasm of anger against the church, the centrally located structure was made into a government office at minimal expense.

Wanting to see more of this historic town, we paid a few Francs to ride a "zoo train" up the very steep Pipet Hill so we could have a panoramic view of Vienne, the Rhone and the beautiful valley. Near the top we passed by a peculiar cemetery on a small plot of level ground, with gravel covering the tightly packed graves. It looked as though every available square foot of space had been filed and the high crosses probably were erected over multiple burials made over the centuries. There was, predictably, a Catholic Church at the summit and I lighted a candle in honor of my ancestors. The view was awe-inspiring, with terrific sights of the town far below. We could appreciate the extent of the Roman ruins, medieval fortifications and the residential area across the river where affluent French now occupy sites where wealthy Romans once lived.

At dinner aboard the M/S Ravel that evening, John and Barbara Collens told us about buying a very good wine they had purchased in Vienne for $1 a bottle. But by the time we got to the wine shop at 9 p.m., the doors had closed. This wasn't Paris and it wasn't Kansas. We discovered a gem of a city park near the boat, but its caretaker was locking the gates. The park covered a small block and was the prettiest we had seen in France, containing an Eden of carefully landscaped beds of annuals, roses and fountains. We returned to the boat for the 10:45 p.m. sailing, wishing we had more time in Vienne. I'd have gladly traded a day in Lyon.

It was a beautiful, warm night and the view from the deck of passing town lights persuaded us to stay up later than usual and enjoy the topside company of some of our fellow passengers. One was Sarah Mayer of Madison, Wisc., a woman with a big laugh, quick mind and wealth of adventure travel experiences. We dined with Sarah and her friends several times and hope to see her in Memphis sometime. We also spent time visiting with Howard and Juanita Garrigan of Pleasanton, Calif., whose awful experiences with Air France were the talk of the ship. Their flights were delayed for a couple of days and their luggage was lost for six days. The Garrigans told us how Air France treated them with appalling indifference and how ineffective Grand Circle was in getting anything done about it, despite the Garrigans' constant calls and complaints. The lessons we learned from them - and from our own experience with Air France and the flight home the following week - is to always take some clothes and supplies in your carry-on luggage and try to travel a day or two early if you have to meet a boat. Never trust any airline to get you anywhere on time. And don't fly Air France.

The balmy temperature, starry sky and passing town lights kept us topside until nearly midnight. Even after we went below to our cabin, I sat outside on our porch to watch the night glide by. At first, I wasn't happy about having to pay extra for the upstairs cabin with a porch. But now I'm glad the sellout of the less expensive cabins forced my usual frugality to relax. I've spent hours on the porch. I also enjoy sitting inside and looking out through our floor-to-ceiling, sliding glass doors with my binoculars. The view is fantastic and I'm enjoying every mile and every minute.

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