29 MAY 2017: Spring comes early to Valence in France’s Rhone-Alpes region where our sailboat had been moored in a pretty marina just off the Rhone River for the winter of 2015-16. We had enjoyed some travels by road during the winter months, but with warmer weather promised we were keen to be on the move on the water once again.

With systems checked, cleaning done and a full fridge and freezer, we slipped out onto the river with many happy memories of our temporary winter home. But now the south was beckoning, with a cruise down the mighty Rhone Valley before we reached the Mediterranean.

It was a lovely trip, passing through gentle farmlands interspersed with craggy rock outcrops and almost unbelievable villages perched high atop soaring hills and cliffs. How the latter were built in the ages before mechanisation is truly a wonder. This is a region steeped in history as the Rhone has provided a transport link for armies and commerce between northern and southern France since Roman times.

We enjoyed a few days on the river, cautious, as it is fast-flowing and mooring in quiet lay-bys for the night. After a few days we crossed an unmarked ‘border’ and were in famous Provence.

Our first important destination here was the ancient city of Avignon where, strangely, there is no official marina for visiting boats. There once was a marina, but floods on the river destroyed it back in the eighties. Today, boaters just hope for space along the city walls or a friendly welcome to ‘come alongside’ from a boat already tethered there. But we were lucky, we managed to squeeze into a space behind a river cruise boat and soon were ready to explore the city.

It is ironic that a place so full of history, a home to seven popes, a major centre through the ages for learning and the arts that cast their influence far and wide, a city of palaces, chateaux, castles and churches is, today, celebrated by a simple French rhyme. But Sur le Pont d’Avignon certainly brings the tourists. We saw hordes of them on said bridge before we’d found our mooring place.

The famous bridge is, in fact, the Pont St-Benezet which dates from 1177. Over half of it was destroyed by floods in 1668 but visitors love to walk on the remaining two-arch span, many probably not realising that the song actually celebrates a small island that used to form beneath the bridge where people gathered to dance. Yes, the original song declared Sous … (under) the bridge we dance, and not Sur … or ‘on’ the bridge!

Lovers of history, art, architecture and all things French such as good food will be pleased if they decide to spend several days here. Not only is the surrounding region beautiful, but the city of Avignon is full of wonderful attractions. Massive ramparts enclose the town where stands the vast Palais des Papes, once home to the French popes desirous of escaping the anarchy in Rome. Here in France, for most of them, it seems ‘luxury’ rather than ‘sanctity’ governed their lifestyles in this magnificent and well-defended palace. Various other museums celebrate Avignon life through the ages, from the time of Roman occupation to modern-day collectors of 20th century art.

Place d’Horloge is the focal point of Avignon’s social life with its welcome trees, opera house, many restaurants and sidewalk cafes, ice-cream booths and a much-loved antique merry-go-round. (My husband and I enjoyed our 46th wedding anniversary at a restaurant here!)

Another highlight for us was meeting an elderly woman in the hillside gardens overlooking the river known as Rocher des Doms. Recognising her English accent we fell into conversation before she had to rush off, but not before she had encouraged us to return to the gardens later in the day for a free musical performance.

This turned out to be a ‘happy-clappy’ choir performance featuring gospel and modern inspirational songs. What was remarkable about it, apart from the audience participation, was the choir itself. It would be hard to imagine a more varied group of people. They were of all ages and religions (or lack thereof). They were all sporting some item of red or orange clothing, ranging from jaunty headscarves to full evening gowns. There was our new friend waving to us from the back row, there was an elderly man wearing a yarmulka, who stood supported by his crutches for the entire performance, while the young conductor shook his long dreadlocks and encouraged everyone in the enthusiastic audience to participate. Wine and beer was available from a nearby booth, the sun was shining and it was all a most remarkable and surprisingly uplifting experience.

The following day - a Monday - still humming a variety of songs, we pulled away from the city walls and starting off down-river once again. A great visit and a destination that should not be missed by any traveller in that region.

A few days later we were near another of France’s ‘A’ cities - Arles this time. Unfortunately, no mooring space is available for visiting sailboats here at all. There is a wharf for river cruise boats but nowhere for us. So, on we travelled, realising that if we were to visit Arles we would have to do so by public transit from another port.

That port was to be Port St. Louis in the heart of the Camargue region at the mouth of the Rhone. From there we did indeed take the local bus for a day in Arles. This city is full of Roman artefacts and is also famous, in more modern times, as the temporary home of Vincent van Gogh during a period of high artistic output. Unfortunately, none of the more than 300 canvases the artist produced while in the Arles region have remained in the city, but there is a Van Gogh centre which holds regular exhibitions of works on loan from other museums. But what there is, instead, is the real ‘Night Cafe’ and, on the outskirts of town, ‘The Bridge at Arles’ to keep Van Gogh fans happy!

The Roman ruins are outstanding here. There’s Les Arenas - one of the largest and best-preserved Roman buildings in France - as well as vaulted subterranean galleries, an obelisk and many other monuments. Our visit was confined to just one day, as so often we would have liked longer as there is a great deal to enjoy here, including quiet alleys offering pretty side-walk cafes. We hope we will have the opportunity to go again one day.

Before I close I must mention one of those ‘it’s a small world’ incidents that occurred here which I hope will amuse Travel Industry Today readers. On walking through the courtyard of Arles City Hall we spied two familiar faces.

Would you believe … it was fellow columnist Wallace Immen and his wife Lisa. At times it does indeed feel as though it’s a small world!

 

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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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