We left State College on a chartered bus on a warm Tuesday afternoon in September. Our destination: Philadelphia International Airport. Our ultimate destination? Paris, France.
Thirty-one OLLI members and friends had signed up for Grand Circle Cruise Line’s Cruising the Rhone: Lyon to Provence and Cote D’Azur. Our adventure started with an overnight flight to Paris, where we arrived to find Grand Circle representatives ready to escort us to the Crowne Plaza Republique, an IHG hotel in the Paris city center not far from the Seine River. During our two-day stay, as we recovered from the flight and adjusted to the six-hour time difference, our knowledgeable program director Jean-Pascal escorted us via the metro to the Latin Quarter, where we visited the Île de la Cité, home to Notre Dame Gothic Cathedral. We also enjoyed a Parisian Welcome Dinner at Bouillon République.
A panoramic tour of Paris highlights included the Champs-Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower. After a lunchtime cruise on the Seine River, we traveled by TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) to Lyon and our home for the next seven days, the M/S River Chanson.
A delicious Welcome Dinner allowed us to get familiar with the 44-cabin ship, an international crew of 29, and other passengers which brought the ship’s total to 81. As with many cruises, food played a big part of the French experience. On the riverboat, we consumed 37 gallons of wine, 34 pounds of cheese, and fifteen gallons of ice cream. And lots and lots of bread.
While docked in Lyon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we enjoyed the sights, visited a French market, and learned about the Resistance efforts during World War II. We also enjoyed small group visits with local hosts in their homes and practiced speaking French. On the ship, four-course dinners were followed by a piano recital, French bingo, and a trivia challenge.
As we motored downriver to Viviers at an average speed of eleven knots, many visited the ship’s bridge, took in the sights from the expansive top deck, or enjoyed a gourmet tasting of French delicacies. Others had a glass of wine and relaxed in the lounge. After we docked, a walking tour led us past the Cathedral of Saint-Vincent, dating from the twelfth century. After free time to explore, we returned to the ship and continued downriver.
Avignon is considered the “Gateway to Provence,” a region famed for its herbs. Here, we visited the impressive Palace of the Popes. The city is ringed by walls that date to the 13th century. While some took the optional Pont du Gard tour, others visited the city’s ancient neighborhoods or stopped at a local café.
Arles, a favorite retreat for Van Gogh and the location of many of his paintings, was the next stop. Here we were able to visit the Camargue region, Europe’s largest delta, for a visit to a bull farm. Gardians, mounted cattle herdsmen similar to our cowboys, ride Camargue horses, an ancient breed of horse indigenous to this area of southern France. The horses herd the Camargue bulls used in the course camarguaise, where participants attempt to grasp a rosette object tied to the animal’s horns. The annual festival is held every year at the Roman amphitheater in Arles, built in 90 AD. On this day, the gardians who greeted us, all mounted on the beautiful white horses, included the matriarch of the three-generation family operating the farm.
That evening, the multi-national and multi-talented crew showed they are more than staff who serve coffee or make beds as they entertained the passengers in the lounge with singing, dancing, and humorous skits. Who knows? One of them might end up on America’s Got Talent.
The next day, after another sumptuous breakfast, we reluctantly left our new friends on the riverboat and traveled through Provence to Nice. On the way, we stopped at the Rhône American Cemetery, a World War II military war grave cemetery. During a moving ceremony, four veterans placed flowers at the base of the chapel wall as the familiar notes of Taps lingered in the sunshine.
Lunch was enjoyed at Château d’Astros, an organic winery that has been in the same family for nine generations. At least one bottle of wine was purchased and made its way safely, via bubble wrap, back to the States.
We arrived at Nice, the capital of the French Riviera, and registered at the Hotel Splendid. Some accompanied Jean-Pascal on a tour of Old Town. Others strolled the Promenade des Anglais. Still others “dipped their toes” in the Mediterranean Sea.
Coming to the end of our travels, we gathered for a farewell drink with our program director Jean-Pascal and viewed the many pictures taken, all of which reminded us of the adventures of the past twelve days.
Many thanks to OLLI Director Brynn Rousselin for ensuring no man or woman was left behind, her husband, Fred, for polishing the travelers’ rusty French language skills, and the entire Grand Circle staff for providing our group with a fun and memorable river adventure.