Imagine going to the Statue of Liberty on the busiest tourist day of the year, with millions of people speaking every language and trying to keep up with the lines to get on the boat to cross the Hudson River.
We were in a line like that, bucking the pedestrian traffic, but we were not at the Statue of Liberty; we were at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. On our latest trip we went to France—first to Paris and then on a river cruise southbound on the Rhône and Saône rivers.
In researching this trip, I read everything about Paris and the French countryside in everything from brochures to The New York Times. I read about the exhibit in the Paris City Hall as well as about the museum at the old train station. I looked everything up on the Internet and got tickets in advance for the things we wanted to see, so we were ready to enjoy Paris in the springtime, when we would fall in love with the city all over again. We walked and walked—down the Champs-Élysées, up the Rue Royale, to the Louvre, to the Musée d’Orsay in the old train station, and to City Hall to view the exhibit of Paris haute couture. With each place we visited, we walked away with more knowledge and a sense of awe. We acquired respect for the past and the constant striving of the people for freedom. We also became aware of the various wars caused by religious beliefs and the discrimination against various religious groups, including the Jewish people.
We visited Versailles, one of the most beautiful examples of unlimited extravagances in the world. We were able to cut the lines because we had hired a guide and driver in advance. In the Hall of Mirrors I marveled at the accomplishments of the French people during the 17th century. We also went to Giverny, a small village where Claude Monet lived and painted. The gardens of his house were spectacular, and we took many pictures of the flowers. All my planning paid off for our three days in Paris; we had a marvelous time. Our journey with Tauck Tours began on the fast train as we sped through the countryside on the way to Lyon, two hours southeast of Paris.
Our riverboat was anchored where the Rhône and the Saône rivers meet. Our stateroom was beautiful and large. The view from our balcony was sensational, and all 102 passengers were set to go. There was just one problem: because of the rain, the Saône River was too high for our riverboat to go under the bridges or through the locks. We couldn’t sail up the Saône. Our tour directors did everything in their power to compensate for the boat not leaving Lyon, including drinks on them for the entire trip! So instead of sailing from Lyon to Chalon-sur-Saône to visit the Château de Rully, which has been in the same family for 900 years, we went by coach there and back to Lyon. The next day, the waters still hadn’t receded, so we jumped back on the coach and went to Mercurey in the heart of the Burgundy vineyards to Château de Chamirey. This castle was built in the 17th century, so old that we had to have a good imagination to visualize how the nobility lived. Then it was back to Lyon and our riverboat, and that night our tour guide had a surprise for us. We went for dinner at the private castle of Paul Bocuse, the famous French chef. Of course they prepared a vegetarian meal for Albert and me, but it actually was the best meal we had on the whole trip. Everyone, including the two of us, thought we would actually meet the famous 82-year-old chef, but to our disappointment, he didn’t show up.
We had another surprise that night. While we were finishing our dessert, the captain came to tell us the river had receded and the boat was outside the castle doors to pick us up. A wild cheer sounded throughout the room. But the original itinerary read that a visit to Lyon was next on the agenda, so our riverboat sailed right back to Lyon. Can you imagine the hilarity of that?
Like the rest of our stops in Vienne, Viviers, Avignon, and Arles, Lyon is a medieval city, with all the architecture dating between the first and the 19th century. Every palace and fortress has a history beyond our imagination. Every façade tells the story of when it was built and who the builders were. If a structure was built in the 13th century, bombed in the 14th century, and rebuilt in the 15th century, the different architecture was visible. During the wars, different soldiers painted over the beautiful frescoes in the palaces. Some frescoes were rediscovered in the 20th century and some ceilings were preserved, and we were able to imagine how beautiful they were in their time. It is mind-boggling trying to understand how artistic and smart the Roman and French builders were.
We loved Avignon the most. The synagogue is the oldest in the Provence area, and the Jewish people of Provence were protected by the Pope of Avignon as far back as the 11th century. I thought that anti-Semitism was highest during World War II, but I learned that the Jews had trouble as far back as when civilization started.
Traveling on the riverboat through the Burgundy and Provence countryside was totally relaxing and mesmerizing. It was impossible to remember the hustle and bustle of Paris or New York. Once we got to Nice and said goodbye to our captain and his riverboat crew, we all headed for a walking tour of the old city. The stalls of flowers, fruits and vegetables, olive oils, and soaps reminded me of a tranquil painting by Renoir. Finally we ended up in Monte Carlo, our last stop. We stayed at the Fairmont Hotel and went up to the Rock, where the municipality of Monaco is. We saw the changing of the guards at the castle and walked around the gardens. We decided to wind our way down off the Rock, walking through the streets of Monaco and weaving through the Grand Prix setup (the race was to take place later that week).
Our trip was coming to an end, and our French escapade would be just a memory—an extraordinary, beautiful bunch of memories that we will always cherish.
Francine Dweck is a community member who loves to travel.