From under a velvety cap of white, the creamy innards of the Brie de Meux ooze unctuously towards the edge of the plate. Next door, the Morbier – with its stinky forcefield – is slightly less enticing. But I am committed.
I hold my breath and smoosh a mouldy wedge into a cracker. This is the unofficial cheese challenge, laid down by Todor, our waiter, on board Uniworld’s River Royale cruise ship.
“Each night we will be offering three different types of cheese,” he says. “That is 21 different types over the week.”
When in France…
We are in Provence, to be precise. Floating on a seven-night epicurean journey up the Rhone River.
The trip begins in Arles, a town whose claim to fame is as the setting of Van Gogh’s recuperation back in 1889, after years of sickness and addiction in Paris.
Inspired by the local light and colour, he created a flurry of vibrant paintings, the settings of which we visit, including the Café de Nuit and the former hospital-turned-cultural centre where he was treated. Today, this vibrancy is tempered by a scruffy layer of litter and dishevelment, which adds to its bohemian character.
On this chilly morning, the boat disgorges its passengers and we split into groups linked discretely by radio headsets. This allows us to meander around the streets and still hear the guide’s commentary. Today, it’s more of a scurry than a meander, as we race to find sheltered corners out of the icy wind.
The Mistral, this famous Provençal wind, blusters down the Rhone valley from the North, bringing fine weather laced with madness. It whisks whitecaps into the olive green river, and blows relentlessly for the first two days of our trip.
They say that the Mistral will rage for three, six or nine days at a time. Until the 1950s, in Provence, if someone committed a murder on day nine of the Mistral, it was considered a crime of passion. I understand. Even after two days of it I begin to doubt my mind.
Each evening we relax in the windless sanctuary of the ship’s Renoir lounge. Over a pre-dinner glass of wine, Laurent, our cardigan-wearing cruise director, runs over the schedule for the next day, providing information about our new port and details of the organised activities – delivered with impeccably dry comic timing.
In Avignon, I sign up for one of the optional excursions – a cooking class with local chef Jean-Claude Altmayer. We meet the chef and his assistant Severine at Avignon’s market, Les Halles. They distribute wicker baskets, and we set off to select from a bountiful array of produce. Jean Claude ambles through the market, greeting stallholders and fondling produce.
At the poultry counter are ducks, chickens, quail and pigeons – all plucked, but with their heads and feet intact. On discovering that I am from New Zealand, the flamboyant proprietor launches into a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise, with a rugby ball tucked under one arm, and gesticulating wildly with a dead rooster in the other. We buy two ducks from him, wrapped in greaseproof paper and tied with string. Other baskets are filled with giant spears of white asparagus and fresh artichoke bouquets.
Back at the historic La Mirande hotel, we descend the corkscrew stone staircase to the basement kitchen. Jean Claude stokes the wood-fired oven, dropping logs into the flames, as we unload our baskets and don starched white aprons. Severine delegates tasks, and watches intently with pursed lips and an arched eyebrow, as we fumble our way through our first ineptly peeled artichokes. “Non, non, like this,” she demonstrates, showing us which parts to remove and how to hold our knives. By the end of the bunch we’ve got them nearly perfect, dropping the pared hearts into a bowl of lemony water.
Our other tasks are not quite so tidy. Under Jean Claude's supervision, Clare from Florida unflinchingly lops the heads off our ducks; we learn how to remove the innards from squid, wrist-deep in black ink; Carol from New Hampshire fillets her first fish.
It is a profoundly satisfying introduction to local, seasonal cuisine when we sit down to our hand-crafted lunch, with a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape.
After a night cruising upriver we awaken in Viviers, a seemingly deserted medieval village, still sleeping in the chill of the early spring morning. I climb cobbled streets that twist and narrow to the 12th century cathedral at the top of the hill, absorbing the serene, airbrushed view over the river valley. A bonfire wafts blue smoke into the still air, skylarks trill above me. The clock tower chimes 10 over terracotta roof tiles, as a man with an enormous lolloping dog approaches. “Don’t be afraid,” he tells me warmly in French.
I step into St Vincent’s cathedral with quiet awe. A holy space filled with absolute tranquil silence, once the huge wooden door has shut behind me with a muted thud. Candles flicker on the altar, and a shaft of morning sunlight sends bursts of colour from the intricate stained glass window. Layers of centuries and paths have crossed over these same stones before me. Thousands upon thousands of moments of love and grief and reverence have occurred right on this spot. But, for this moment, it is just me.
The Provençal colour palette here is russet on roof tiles and pale limestone walls, with splashes of cornflower blue, purple or red on wooden window shutters. Trees vibrate with fresh spring foliage or blush with almond blossoms. Tall, dark cyprus trees stand in roadside regiments – Dr Seuss style. The gnarled hands of pruned plane trees clutch at the sky.
The afternoon is warm and still, as we continue our journey up the river, slipping through the Provençal countryside. Most passengers sprawl on the sundeck as Laurent gives a rambling, anecdotal talk on the villages we glide past, laced with his
own sardonic take on the French economy. He is particularly acerbic as we pass the sinister cooling towers of a nuclear power plant, billowing huge pillars of steam into the sky.
“Don’t speak too loudly,” he jokes, “the reactor is sleeping”. Somehow, I feel the need to not breathe too deeply until we pass.
We enter a cavernous lock – the ship easing in with barely 30 centimetres of clearance on each side. Dripping concrete walls stretch metres above us. A huge metal gate encloses the stern, as water is released in from underneath and we rise smoothly, almost imperceptibly, to the new river level.
After another morning spent absorbing the twin villages of Tournon and Tain L’Hermitage – wandering cobbled alleyways and practising my rudimentary French on shopkeepers – I lie in my cabin, lulled by the soporific rumble of the ship’s engines. Views shift past outside my balcony – glassy water, intermittent villages, and geometric angles of bridges we’ve ducked under reflected back in my mirror.
Lyon is by far the biggest city we dock in – the third largest city in France – and provides an urbane contrast to the smaller towns and rustic villages we have visited further south. On this day, we ditch the guided tour option and immerse ourselves, freestyle, in the city experience. We navigate the complex metro system, enjoy a gluttonous amount of seafood at a small bistro for lunch and completely lose track of time, so that we have to race back to the boat, arriving breathlessly on board just in time to set sail.
We finish our trip at another absurdly picturesque village – Beaune. Our tour takes us through the L’Hôtel-Dieu – a hospital for the poor established by a guilt-ridden businessman in 1443 in the hope he’d redeem himself enough to gain entry to heaven. The building is remarkable, with multi-coloured roof tiles, gilded turrets and gargoyles.
Outside, the village market is a decidedly damp affair on a cold drizzly morning. I seek shelter in an indoor pavilion and discover stall after stall selling hundreds more varieties of cheese than the 21 I have consumed over the week – taunting me with their unpasteurised furry plumpness.
Jo Percival travelled courtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises
Reported by Jo Percival for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue