"Here is my tip for olive oil tasting," says our guide, Nathalie. "Always taste it on the spoon, not on bread, because everything tastes delicious on French bread."
She makes a very good point. We are in the medieval village of Les Baux-de-Provence, - population 450 -, one of the prettiest spots in France. As we navigate the cobblestones on hilly streets and wander past shops selling local olive oil, lavender honey and artisanal nougat, it's hard to imagine anything tasting less than magnifique here in Provence, especially when served on a crunchy baguette or buttery brioche.
As Nathalie guides us to a panoramic view of vast plains dotted with olive groves, she explains the economics of dinnertime. Straining to hear her above the chorus of cicadas, I learn that while Provencal olive oil is "at least" three times better than Spanish olive oil, it's also three times the price. Home cooks in the area might use the imported stuff for simple weekday dinners, but never for Sunday lunch. That's when the extended family gathers together to share a feast of lamb stew, rich terrine and fragrant bouillabaisse.
In the south of France, life is centred around food, glorious food and wonderful wine. Rosé, certainly, but also bold grenache-based reds and dry, full-bodied white wines.
This week, we are eating, drinking and cruising leisurely along the Rhone River from Avignon to Lyon aboard Viking Delling, one of Viking River Cruises' modern Longships. We glide past ancient fortress towns, lush vineyards and fields of lavender that scent the summer air. Corridors of plane trees and groups of men in Panama hats playing petanque appear before us like scenes out of a romantic French film.
Onboard, the aesthetic is more cool Scandinavian. The Delling is a classy vessel, with a streamlined blue-and-neutral interiors palette that's a soothing foil for the lavish extravagance of French cathedrals, museums and town halls along the route. Staterooms feature plenty of blond wood, bathrooms with heated floors and comfy beds that invite afternoon naps. There are no inside cabins, no casinos, no kids and no tacky group activities. And with a maximum of 190 passengers, the ship never feels crowded.
Viking prides itself on the quality of its shore excursions, offering a thoughtfully curated selection that really adds to the cultural enrichment experience of cruising. Many are included in the cruise fare; seven are complimentary on this trip. All guests are invited to join a walk in Avignon to the Pope's Palace and to take in a panoramic tour of Lyon.
An escorted outing to the medieval village of Viviers is included, as is a steam train ride to a scenic plateau in Tournon. Local guides are always employed and their knowledge of the areas we visit is impressive.
For those who want to dig deeper to see and do more during their time in France, the optional shore excursions present some charming opportunities. On the Unspoiled Camargue daytrip, guests will encounter the famous white horses, black bulls and pink flamingos of the region. An adventure for foodies in Beaujolais features truffle-hunting dogs, while a visit to the magnificent 2000-year-old Pont du Gard aqueduct inspires new respect for the enduring functionality of Roman architecture and engineering.
On the day I venture to Les Baux, others have headed off to Arles to see if they can unleash their inner artist. Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin lived and worked in the riverside town towards the end of the 19th century. Inspired by the light, the cafes and the Roman amphitheatre, they produced many famous works there. The day-long excursion, Arles in Van Gogh's Footsteps, includes visits to some of the artists' favourite haunts, as well as a painting class where passengers create their own memento of the trip.
Meanwhile, my afternoon has a Van Gogh encounter of a different kind. We drive past the hospital in Saint-Remy, still operating, where he had himself committed after several psychotic episodes. For solace and fresh-air therapy, he was permitted to leave the hospital and paint idyllic rural scenes of sunflower fields and stone farmhouses. Some things haven't changed much in this village in more than 130 years. We spot the same farmhouse he once gazed at for days, and snap a dozen photos of bright yellow flowers reaching up to the sun.
At Carrieres de Lumieres, an extraordinary art installation inside a former quarry, we again encounter the beauty and madness of Vincent. As images of his most famous paintings - the irises, the sunflowers, his self-portraits - are magnified on multi-story walls, I am deeply moved.
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For a spiritual experience of a different kind, the next day I sign up for a visit to the famed Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine region. Twelve kilometres north of Avignon, the commune takes its name, translated literally to "new castle of the Pope", from the summer papal residence built there in the 14th century. Little remains of the castle today, but the surrounding area is one of the most celebrated Rhone Valley wine-producing regions. Known mostly for bold, big-bodied red wines, the region also produces some lovely, fresh whites.
With just 2000 residents and 320 wine producers in "CDP", it seems everyone and their uncle is somehow involved in the grape business. We tour the vineyards and cellars of Famille Perrin winery, then settle in to taste several varieties.
Our guide, who hails from a long line of winemakers, says the best wine to buy is the one you like. With that in mind, many guests take the opportunity to buy several bottles of his family's label.
The perfect spot to enjoy a glass or two of wine is on the Delling's Aquavit terrace. Located at the bow of the ship, the space offers an outdoor alternative to dining in the main restaurant for lunch and dinner. The al fresco option is relished by many guests.
In addition to local wines served on the ship, there's an emphasis on regional cuisine. At a Tastes of Provence theme night, we feast on tuna rillettes, foie gras, roast duck, bouillabaisse and succulent rotisserie chicken. The dessert table is laden with apple and pine nut tarts, apricot pie, half a dozen flavours of nougat and a month's worth of cheese.
By the time we reach Lyon, all attempts at dietary restraint have been abandoned. The capital of gastronomy, Lyon has more restaurants per head than any other city in France. Where else would they attempt to break records for the world's longest cheese plate or the biggest praline brioche ever baked? Lyon's bakers built a special oven to produce one as long as the town square.
Considered by many to be the best chef of the 20th century, "Monsieur Paul" - Paul Bocuse - is practically the patron saint of Lyon. Though he passed away in 2018, his gourmet food empire lives on. In addition to a string of restaurants that bear his name, there's the sprawling food market, Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, where visitors can shop like a French chef. It's a feast for the eyes as much as the tastebuds, as one wanders the rows of shops displaying bright pink pralines, salty saucissons, creamy fresh goat cheese and succulent peaches.
On the Tastes of Lyon shore excursion, we gobble up delicate pastries almost too pretty to eat and handmade chocolates fashioned in the shape of cobblestones.
We learn about wine-and-cheese pairings at Bistro Martine, a typical Lyonnaise brasserie where a plaque above the door crows that author Albert Camus celebrated his wedding here in 1940. At Epicerie Abel, we stuff delicious charcuterie in our mouths and consider the merits of moving permanently to France.
But all good things must come to an end, even in a nation devoted to the endless pursuit of pleasure. I drink one last glass of Rosé on the Aquavit terrace and make a final visit to the ship's boutique for elegant Viking-inspired pendants. Next morning, as I'm driven to the airport, a late July sunrise over the Rhone River paints the sky in mesmerising shades of peach and lemon. It's easy to see why it's a vision that has inspired artists for centuries.
Kristie Kellahan was a guest of Viking River Cruises
Former President of France, Charles de Gaulle, once asked how anyone could be expected to govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese. He was off the mark in numbers - there are at least a thousand kinds of French fromage - but spot-on in his observation that cheese is a national obsession.
Any dinner party worth its truffle salt wouldn't be complete without a cheese plate, featuring at least three varieties. A foolproof combination is at least one hard, one creamy and one blue cheese. French Chevre (goat cheese) is very popular.
At a tasting onboard Viking Delling, we savour chunks of semi-soft Morbier, firm Beaufort from the French Alps, creamy Brie and moldy blue Roquefort.
While in Lyon and Provence, don't miss the opportunity to try these regional specialties.
The French obsession with fine food and wine has flavoured the language with many memorable sayings. When a situation turns to vinegar, it's going bad. If someone tells you to mind your own onions, you've overstepped.
Feeling mad? You've got mustard up your nose. Never mind making mountains out of molehills: the French would say you're making a whole cheese about it. Best avoid the man or woman who has the heart of an artichoke. And in true egalitarian style, cutting the pear in half means to split the bill.
Viking's Lyon & Provence itinerary is an eight-day Rhone river cruise from Avignon to Lyon (or vice versa), with stops in Arles, Viviers and Tournon. Priced from $2995 (per person, twin share), the cruise includes all meals, wine and beer with lunch and dinner, and one complimentary shore excursion in every port. Pre- and post-cruise extensions are available to Paris, the French Riviera and Burgundy's vineyards. See vikingcruises.com.au