Cantering four abreast towards me on their creamy white steeds, a French family of manadieres (ranchers) had me enthralled, while river cruising, this wild side of France. I was visiting the Arnauds farm in the Camargue, where they raise black bulls and break in cheveux blanc Carmarguais, the fabled semi-wild breed of horses indigenous to the region. Both animals have roamed free in these parts for the past 3000 years, originating from Mongolia. Disgorging into the Mediterranean Sea, south of Arles, the Camargue is an expansive marshy UNECSCO-protected reserve and Europe’s largest river delta.
Over 20,000 breeding pairs of pink flamingos fly in from Africa to summer-over in these wetlands each year. The birds I spotted were a very pale pink, suggesting they needed to increase their shrimp intake before their feathers would reach peak colour, when they turn three. Occasionally buffeted by the mistral, the French cowboy country of the Camargue, was just one of many unexpected highlights on my CroisiEurope river cruise on the Rhone & the Saone. Traversing such evocative regions as Burgundy and Provence with CroisiEurope offered up a rolling symphony of superlatives, punctuated with indelible authentic experiences.
The family patriarch Gilbert Arnaud was the perfect hands-on guide, as we toured his venerable ranch which has played host to France’s rich and famous. Within the rambling ranch house, the walls were lined with the famous faces of visiting guests, including a photo of Gilbert alongside former President Nicholas Sarkozy. Gilbert previously competed in professional rodeos all over Europe as a bull rider, but now he rears wild Camargue black bulls, distinguished by their lyre-shaped horns. The finest specimens compete in the traditional French sport of course camarguaise, a much more humane and bloodless version of the Spanish bullfight.
As warm sunlight gilded the sprawling Camargue in a golden glow, we saluted the day from a shady porch with a glass of Sable de Camargue, a lovely local bubbly. It would be just one of a plethora of divine local wines to permeate my river cruise with CroisiEurope. Cotes du Rhone, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, l’Hermitage and other fine producers of burgundy and beaujolais were all eagerly quaffed. My 8-day round-trip journey from Lyon, was aboard one of CroisiEurope’s new generation premium ships, the MS Camargue, which was recently refurbished and has a maximum passenger capacity of 108. It has pushed the boat out on crafting an oasis of elegance, comfort and convivial indulgence.
For over 40 years, CroisiEurope has been plying the waterways as Europe’s largest and most experienced river cruise line. Not only has this French family-owned company mastered the art of delivering magical holiday experiences infused with French-style finesse, but you’ll be in the lap of remarkably affordable luxury. Savour your watery world from spacious en-suite cabins, soak up the elements from the deckchair-laden sun deck, dance the night away in the panoramic bar lounge, stay connected with complimentary wifi and enjoy all-inclusive trimmings like an open-bar, spanning the full gamut of libations.
Only the most exclusive of drinks attract a charge, like a glass of champagne. But even that was a mere 8Euro. The dining experience is another star-turn with 3-course a la carte dining for lunch and dinner, paired with sumptuous complimentary wines, to toast the region you’re visiting. French haute cuisine and European flair is to the fore, with menus crafted and executed in the exacting tradition of fine French gastronomy. Pork tenderloin, duck confit, salmon steak, Provence-style veal, venison, roasted duck breast and hake fillet were all part of the culinary package. The gala dinner included duck foie gras and a blazing Baked Alaska, topping off what had been a lip-smacking parade of onboard desserts.
Despite being a French owned and operated line, my fellow guests spanned the globe, with a healthy mix of English-speaking passengers, including five fellow New Zealanders. And the ship steadfastly operates to a bilingual English and French patter. I had great fun sharing the sparkling company of some fellow Kiwis and swapping tales over lunch and dinner. The conversation flowed as freely as the wine. Our daily adventures were vividly accentuated by the complimentary classic sightseeing excursions deftly led by local guides who vivaciously unpacked and revealed every destination’s delights with passion, flair and formidable knowledge.
River cruising on a return-trip from beautiful Lyon, my CroisiEurope local guide, Marika, jovially remarked that Lyon is ready to take over as the national capital, anytime they want. They’ve even got their own Eiffel! On our panoramic city tour we scaled the lofty heights of the old Roman forum, where Fourviere Basilica now proudly keeps guard, a gob-stopping jewel-box of a church built in gratitude to the Virgin Mary for “saving” the city from the ravages of the rampaging Prussian Army in the 1870s. Bedecked in Venetian mosaics, the decorative detail is sigh-inducing.
Lying at the confluence of the Saone and Rhone Rivers, from Lyon we sailed up the Saone first, for a port call at postcard-pretty Macon. The top-billing draw is the excursion to nearby Cluny Abbey in the Beaujolais wine-growing region, which was the Western world’s largest church until St Peter’s Basilica was constructed in Rome. Founded over 1100 years ago, the vestiges of this ancient abbey still exude enormous splendour. On the 800km-long Rhone, tamed with a staggering sequence of locks, we called into irresistible Vienne, wreathed in Roman heritage, where the Augustus Temple takes pride of place in the heart, stoutly holding its ground for over 200 years. It’s never had to be rebuilt.
Our effervescent CroisiEurope guide, Joyce, cast us under a spell in sensational Arles, where we swooned over their Roman amphitheatre, heart-achingly gorgeous houses and the multi-coloured drama of Hotel Dieu’s courtyard garden, immortalised in paint as L’espace by Vincent Van Gogh, after lobbing off his earlobe. The streets of Arles appeared to be scented in jasmine, adding to the seduction. Then there was the lost-in-time medieval treasure of Viviers, where slender lanes wend you up to France’s smallest cathedral; Tournon with its dramatic 10th century castle; plus Avignon of bridge fame with an impregnable city wall and the stately Palace of the Popes.
We raised our glasses in deep gratitude to the Greeks for bringing wine to this part of the world and to the Romans for their ravishing architecture. The leisurely pace of gliding on the river matched the laid-back culture and serene landscape, passing by medieval castles, ancient cliffside villages, rolling hills wreathed in prized vines, and infinity fields of sunflowers and lavender, before the wild Camargue yields to the azure embrace of the Mediterranean. River cruising from my languid vantage point on the Camargue’s sundeck, so much of the landscape has been unbowed by the march of time. It was only when a colossal nuclear power station or wind turbine shuffled into view, that I was reminded what century it is.
River cruising with CroisiEurope through these time-honoured arteries of Western civilisation was beyond blissful. No constantly changing hotel rooms, shuffling on and off stuffy buses, or getting lost navigating highways. Just smooth and indulgent sailing. After the farewell gala dinner, I retired alone to the sun deck, one last time, as twilight took hold across a tableau of riverside orchards, fields and terracotta-roofed villages. I gazed dreamily and longingly at the same rippled lights in the water that inspired Van Gogh’s paintbrush. Just another starry night over the romantic Rhone, river cruising a watery ribbon of wonder.
It’s the incomparable value for money which makes river cruising with CroisiEurope such a winning proposition, borne out of the fact that they’re family-owned, and unfailingly focused on delivering the best in comfort, unparalleled dining, superb staff and incredible itineraries. Offering truly all-inclusive quality river cruises at refreshingly reasonable prices, CroisiEurope prides itself in taking you away for so much less, but they still include it all. Book and pay for a 2019 CroisiEurope cruise and save up to $2000 per couple. For full details, head to www.croisieurope.co.nz