Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Amadagio Provence Cruise, Part 3

After our delightful morning at the truffle farm, we all boarded buses for the winding journey through the beautiful French countryside down to Avignon where we would meet our ship. Provence actually begins just north of Orange where the Rhone and a side canal meet at Ile Saint-Georges. By now, the temperature had warmed up a bit though there were still a few pockets of showers.

Avignon boasts a remarkable history. Occupied since pre-historical dates, the city played an important role in more than one period of time, but most notably as capital of Christian Europe and home to the papacy for 68 years. It’s often referred to as the “City of Popes” because of the presence of popes and antipopes from 1309 to 1423 during the Western (Papal) Schism when two different men claimed to be the true pope. The city actually belonged to the papacy for over 400 years until the French Revolution when it again came under French rule. Today the historic center is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Notable points of interest include the well preserved ramparts, built by Pope Innocent IV in 1355, and the Palais des Papes, begun by Pope Benoit XII in 1335 and continued by Clement VI.

About a two-hour bus ride from Avignon is another USNESCO World Heritage Site, the Pont du Gard (roman Aqueduct) that is considered a masterpiece of Roman engineering. Built in 19 BC, the aqueduct provided water (about 700,000 cubic feet daily) to the fountains, baths and homes of the citizens of nearby Nimes. It is not too far from it is the medieval town of Uzes that was used as location for the film The Three Musketeers. 

Chef Ben
AMA offered tours to both of the above. For first-time visitors, a visit to the historical center is a must, of course, and that’s where Ben and I headed six years ago on our first Provence cruise. We also took advantage back then of an optional tour to Pont du Gard. This time, however, AMA lured us with yet a third option as part of the Culinary Delights series: a French cooking demonstration. What a special afternoon we shared with just seven other passengers as we followed Chef Julien Charvet through the streets of Avignon to his cafe and cooking school headquarters. This delightful Frenchman lived and worked in California and North Carolina before returning to his native country to set up shop. Collectively, we made several types of hors d’oeuvres and tapenades and then celebrated by eating our creations with glasses of wine...of course!

Celebrating our Culinary Creations

That evening before dinner, the Amadagio treated us with a sunset sail by the famed Avignon bridge (Pont d’Avignon), which served the region for over 480 years before a 1668 flood collapsed a large part of the structure and finally put it out of use.

At last we headed to Arles, a true gem of Provence, for the final night of our cruise. Once a metropolis of Roman Gaul, Arles became a symbol of ardent Christianity, and her Roman roots are still apparent in the amphitheater and Roman baths. The amphitheater, now some 2000 years old, remains in an excellent state of preservation and is currently receiving another facelift. The city is also the gateway to the Carmargue region, known for horses, cowboys, gypsies and sea salt.

Through Van Gogh's Eyes
With its vibrant landscapes and vivid colors, the South of France lured artist Vincent Van Gogh in 1888 after he met impressionist artists and perhaps at the specific suggestion of Toulouse-Lautrec. Van Gogh rented a small room in Arles and threw himself into a prolific painting binge. His friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin spent nine weeks with him that same year. Though Van Gogh’s life ended tragically, it was this part of the world that provided inspiration and subjects for some of his best-loved pictures, many of which local guides continue to point out today. The touristy Cafe Van Gogh lays claim to the vantage point inspiring his popular work, Cafe Terrace at Night, and a bridge in the city bears a copy of one of his popular Starry Night paintings, with the view on the Rhone the artist likely captured on canvas. Read more about Van Gogh via Artsy.

The impressionists remain alive and well in Arles at a very special sound and light show, Carrieres de Lumieres, projected onto a 46-foot walls, pillars, and floors of a quarry at the Chateau des Baux a few miles outside the city.  Shows change over time, but currently featured is "Gauuguin, Van Gogh, Painters of Colour.” Changing photos of the artists’ works take visitors on an extraordinary voyage seemingly deep into each piece of art. Several of our group took this tour and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The chateau is actually located a few miles east of Arles in Les Baux-de-Provence, a hilltop commune set on a rocky outcrop crowned with a deserted castle. It was probably my favorite stop on our last Provence cruise and that’s where I headed to rack up some shopping time. Delightful shops and incredible views!

Of course, with the rain now completely gone, the legendary Mistral winds made an entrance. A necessary ingredient to the production of wines in Southern France, we were told, these northerly strong, cold winds can quick-dry grapes after rainfalls. Luckily, we only got a taste of Mistral that day with more milder weather prevailing on Friday. 

Our AmaWaterways Group
With the Captains

Thursday, however, was disembarkation day and time to bid farewell to our wonderful AMA ship crew and most of our traveling friends. Many passengers onboard opted to extend their trip with AMA’s optional three-day package to Barcelona. With our pre-cruise trip to Normandy behind us, it was time for our group to head home. Most flew home from Marseilles, but one couple headed to Spain independently, another struck out on a road trip to Switzerland to trace family heritage, and six of us remained in Arles another night.

Ben found the Hotel de la Muette in a great location, although our suitcases sure did seem heavier by now and this typical European small hotel had no elevator. We loved having this extra day to eat at outdoor cafes, stroll the shops, and just enjoy the beauty of this place.

French Chic!
Then it was train travel time, as we boarded the TGV for Nimes, changing trains there for the final leg by high-speed (150 MPH+) train to Gare CDG (Charles De Gaulle Station) for a final night at the Hilton. Considering travel by train in Europe? Call us for advice!

Now to shed those French pounds....

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