Ever since the publication in 1989 of Peter Mayle’s runaway bestseller A Year in Provence, this southernmost region of France, its wonderful food and wine and its relaxed way of life have exerted a magnetic pull.
By river boat, you can travel through it at the best – the slowest – of paces. Drift past medieval towns and villages, sunflower and lavender fields, truffle and olive groves, vineyards and foodie markets and you’ll begin to understand the magic. I didn’t have a year but at least I had a week in Provence.
Compared to ocean-going ships, Afloat in France’s Napoléon feels like a toy boat with just three decks and six cabins for a maximum of 12 passengers. There are six crew, too – talk about personal service! This is most definitely the luxury end of river cruising – hardly surprising when you learn that Afloat in France is in the same group as the Orient Express.
We are journeying down a river that gave its name to one of France’s most famous wines – Cote de Rhone – and wine is quite a feature on this trip. Our first stop is a tasting at the Ferraton vineyard in Hermitage and several more follow, with many of the choicest bottles ending up on the table at dinner!
It was actually the Romans who planted the first vines, and they also brought lavender to scent their bath houses. Nowadays, you can buy it here fresh from the fields as an aromatherapy oil or perfumed pillow. And you can still see it ground between the same enormous millstones the Romans would have used. Its heady fragrance fills the air for miles around.
The Romans brought water, too, from mountain springs to their new cities via aqueducts. The greatest must be the Pont du Gard, a UNESCO world heritage site close to Avignon and part of a 50km stretch of a massive threestorey structure. It’s quite a view from the top.
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