Gabriella Le Breton, The Daily Telegraph, May 18, 2012
A cruise through Burgundy in France proved to be an exercise in self-enrichment for Gabriella Le Breton.
I joined the A-Rosa Stella, a German ship chartered by Swan Hellenic, in Lyon, shortly after a spectacular cloud burst. However, as the ship started to fill with animated passengers, my spirits began to lift. Indeed, I was so engrossed in conversation over dinner that I barely noticed Lyon’s attractively illuminated old town or registered our progress north to the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, joining the latter bound for Burgundy.
The next morning dawned bright in Chalon-sur-Saône. Like most passengers, I had signed up for an excursion to the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, reached on a scenic drive through Burgundy. The vines of Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Volnay and Pommard slipped past in a kaleidoscope of colour, punctuated by geranium-festooned châteaux and sleepy villages shaded by plane trees.
Beaune itself was delightful, from the spectacular 15th-century Hôtel-Dieu, with its coloured glazed-tile roof and many artistic masterpieces, including Rogier van der Weyden’s magnificent 600-year-old Last Judgement, and the town’s bijoux restaurants, celebrated wine shops and mouth-watering delicatessens.
Returning rather reluctantly to the ship, we sailed to Tournus, an ancient Roman castrum housing an impressive abbey. As we were moored in the heart of town, a short stroll through narrow medieval alleys took me to the abbey, with a few minutes for pastis in the Voleur du Temps (the Thief of Time) before a formal welcome dinner aboard A-Rosa Stella.
Our second day brought us to Mâcon, where the majority of passengers boarded coaches to visit the abbey complex of Cluny. Founded in 910, Cluny was once the religious heart of the medieval world. Today, you can still catch glimpses of Cluny’s former glory, thanks to its sensitive restoration, a well-curated exhibition and the use of one’s imagination.
Back on board A-Rosa Stella that afternoon, it was time for our first guest speaker’s talk. Swan Hellenic is celebrated for its lecturers and we were in luck in having Humphrey Burton CBE as our musicologist and Dr Penny McCracken as our arts specialist.
Both carefully tailored their talks to our itinerary, selecting composers and artists with close ties to the towns we visited. Thus, we motored down river to the strains of Berlioz’s revolutionary Symphonie Fantastique at full volume, Burton bouncing up and down with uncontained enthusiasm, shouting “Louder, louder!”
The third morning would take us from the medieval walled city of Viviers to the southern Ardèche. We had been transported overnight to a landscape carpeted with fragrant Provençale garrigue punctuated with peach, apricot and plum trees and slender poplar and cypress trees.
Climbing sharply above Viviers, sweeping views opened up of the Rhône snaking along the valley below us, before we followed winding roads above the towering Ardèche Gorges to the dramatic Pont d’Arc, one of the region’s most famous natural arches.
And so the days passed, rich with discovery yet delightfully slow in pace. I adored Arles, largely thanks to being armed with details about Van Gogh’s turbulent time here, courtesy of one of McCracken’s talks. And, despite being familiar with Avignon, our late afternoon arrival, when the famous Pont and swans paddling beneath it were bathed in apricot light, made me see it through fresh eyes.
Capitalising on our overnight stay here, I had dinner ashore and as I ate my tarte citron on the candlelit terrace of Le Grand Café, it struck me that, while I had learned much from our guest speakers and tour guides, I had my fellow passengers to thank for much of my education during this cruise.
I had discussed the pros and cons of nuclear power with an eminent nuclear physicist; gained unique insights into the book I was reading from the author’s mother, who happened to be on the cruise; and enjoyed a crash course in classical music in Burton’s music quiz.
Larger cruise lines than Swan Hellenic might offer “enrichment programmes” but genuine self-enrichment often comes when you’re least expecting it, and from surprising sources. And there can be few more picturesque or inspiring places to open yourself up to enlightening opportunities than the shores of the Rhône.
Swan Hellenic (0844 488 1051; rivercruises.swanhellenic.com ) offers eight-day Rhône river voyages from £1,725 per person, including air or rail travel, transfers, shore excursions and gratuities.
THE INSIDE TRACK
Visit the chocolatier, patissier and glacier Jean Ourvois in Beaune (8, rue Carnot) for slabs of melt-in-the-mouth nougat, feather-light macarons, rich truffles and velvety ice creams.
Don’t forget to take swimwear – the pool on A-Rosa Stella’s top deck is small but refreshing.
Bottled water is charged at €1.50 (£1.36) on board A-Rosa Stella, so take a refillable bottle to avoid the cost and waste of buying water for excursions. There are chilled water dispensers in the restaurant and by the gym.
André Meyer is a talented, imaginative painter and etcher with a small workshop and gallery in the centre of Arles, where you can purchase his framed or unframed prints and cards (14 bis rue de la Calade; 0033 490 962905; open April-October).
Despite suggestions that the dress code is informal, gentlemen are required to wear jackets and ties at dinner on four nights out of seven (including two formal evenings), so to avoid feeling a bit of a lemon, bring appropriate attire.
The A-Rosa Stella boasts a sizeable gym and wellness area, complete with sauna, steamroom and relaxation room, which have large, round windows on to the river. The last is barely used, making a tranquil bolt-hole when other public areas are busy.
What to avoid
With the exception of formal dinners, meals aboard A-Rosa Stella are self-service buffets where queues and congestion are frequent. Avoid the mêlée by taking your spoils to the small salon tucked away behind the main restaurant.
Don’t forget your binoculars for spotting the castles, mountains and wildlife.
The only toiletries provided are a bar of soap and body/hair wash. To avoid bad-hair days, take your own shampoo and conditioner.