Our riverboat, aptly named the Chardonnay, eased away from the dock in Arles, where Vincent van Gogh painted 125 years ago. The cheery crew handed out glasses of wine and Champagne and told details of the five-course captain’s dinner to come, including pork medallions and crème brûlée.
Ever so timely, the constant rain slowed to a sputter. Even at 9 p.m., the horizon held a band of soft lemon yellow, a color Van Gogh loved. We were promised a movie about Van Gogh on our cabin TVs that evening — “Lust for Life,” starring Kirk Douglas.
“Life doesn’t get better than this,” sighed Nanette Maurer, a retired piano teacher from St. Louis who’s 88.
Travel on the Rhône River from the Cote d’Azur through Burgundy and Provence, north toward Paris, attracts retired people with time and resources. Our group was made up of six friends in our 60s, and we were among the youngest — but not the liveliest — of the 43 riverboat passengers in late April and early May.
Back in our 20s, some of us had traveled by “Europe on 5 Dollars a Day” and held Frommer’s and Fodor’s as wise counselors. We took night trains so we could save on lodging. We ate sausage from street vendors in Copenhagen and gobbled pizza on museum steps in Florence. Our bags were on our backs or in our hands; no wheelies yet. We pitied old tourists who were led around.
Know what? Time marches on and bodies get cranky.
On this 13-day tour, we said: Wow, these riverboat cabins are roomy and comfy. We get to stay in our ship beds for seven nights straight? Honest, it’s time already for another fantastic meal? The boat’s lounge is so pleasant, isn’t it?
Even better than the accommodations and the food was the education. Our minds were opened to the wonders of France. We stepped off the boat in amazing cities and villages and were guided by English-speaking locals who know their stuff and whose pleasant accents we tried to imitate. (On a slope, “Thees street is a beet steepy.”) They gave us lessons on history, geography, art, language, botany and customs.
“We kiss total strangers on both cheeks, but do not smile in Paris,” a guide told us. “Only Americans smile so big and so much. If you don’t say ‘Bonjour,’ though, they will think you are angry.”
Dinner at local couple’s home
Our cruise line was Grand Circle, a Boston company that serves Americans and prides itself on offering more than postcard views. It wanted us to have memorable experiences, and we did. Examples:
• We visited a four-generation ranch, where bulls wander freely in the Camargue region and are raised for fights in the Roman amphitheater in Arles. Did you know that, unlike in Spain and Mexico, French bulls aren’t killed? Men try to pluck ribbons from the horns, more dangerous to the men than the bulls. As stars of the shows, the bulls’ names, not men’s, get top billing. The bulls go on to die of old age on the ranch at 23 or so.
• One evening after dinner while the boat was docked in Lyon, a marvelous pianist played music by composers with French connections, Debussy, Poulenc, Ravel, Chopin among them.
• We were sent to English-speakers’ homes near Tournon for a home-cooked dinner. Eight of us went to the home of Odile Bouyou and Gérard Poirier, who had entertained 2,099 guests over the years in their 1850 converted mill. They love to take Grand Circle guests almost every Monday from March to November, they told us. They had lilacs on the dining room table, toasted us with a Kir cocktail, and served pâté and a watercress salad from local farms, a local wine, small squares of ravioli stuffed with salmon, and cheeses for the fourth course. Not done yet! In their cabaret basement, Odile brought out berries and ice cream, and Gérard pulled out his guitar to sing French songs and some Elvis for us.
• In Lyon, François Babel, 94 years old and in great shape, came aboard to tell us, through an interpreter, about his years in the French Resistance during World War II. He was captured, sent to a concentration camp and was liberated by the Americans when he weighed a mere 76 pounds. He made it clear he doesn’t hate Germans, just the Nazis of yesteryear.
Day after dark day on our voyage, it rained and sprinkled and poured (chats et chiens, we joked), yet somehow our tour director continued to make us believe we couldn’t have chosen a better time to be in France.
The unusually heavy rain across France, and prodigious snow melting from the Alps, forced a change at the end of our riverboat trip. It became a bus ride. The Rhône River was so flooded that the Chardonnay couldn’t negotiate the last bridge in Lyon. We had to spend an extra day in that fabulous city, poor us.
The weather was rougher on new passengers on the next voyage, headed south, who sailed only a day and a half, instead of seven, because of rain. They spent nights on the boat but mostly traveled to sites by bus. After that, Grand Circle canceled three riverboat trips in Europe, which had the worst flooding since the early 1500s.
We hadn’t picked the most luxurious of river trips. Our little group’s planner, Pat Deckas Becerra, a retired Robbinsdale French teacher, chose Grand Circle because it has the smallest cruise ship on the Rhône and offers special cultural components. She knew we wanted to walk and explore on our own and have a lot of adventures. We didn’t want coddling. We did want guidance.
Of course, we did the usual touristy things, too. We were bused to the Eiffel Tower at 10 p.m., when lights twinkle for six minutes. Sure, Monet’s magnificent home and gardens in Giverny, an hour’s bus ride from Paris, astonished us with its zillions of tulips.
While riverboat travelers may have old bones, this trip wasn’t for the infirm. No wheelchairs, please. The boat moved at night and when it docked, we went ashore and walked, usually at least several miles, often on cobblestone streets and stone stairways and around Roman ruins.
But mostly, comfort was the password.
Jean Philippe Ruzé, 49, our tour’s director, speaks five languages fluently and four more for fun and has a motto of “This is not going to be any problem.”
He said that many seniors, especially widows, won’t go on trips abroad on their own. They need a sense of security in a different country, with a different language and habits. They want constant reminders that they’re away from home in gorgeous and historic places, but they freak at the thought of planning such a trip and having a medical emergency or something else going wrong. Besides, good travelers like to travel together.
Ruzé kept telling us we were an unusually fun group. “Nobody is a pain,” he declared chirpily.
With 43 passengers to keep happy, he wouldn’t have the time to devote to a grouch or boozer. He was impressed with the reading and film-viewing passengers had done to prepare, the classes we’d taken, the questions we asked, the conversations that ensued over dinner, the photographs we shared.
Fellow passengers were likewise satisfied. Several said we were given plenty to do and little pressure to do it all. Judith Laxineta of Goodyear, Ariz., said, “We couldn’t have learned this much on our own.” The guides really enjoy teaching, noted Linda Huxtable from Rocklin, Calif. All aboard concluded that the crew was unbelievably capable and fun.
Faults? Not many. French bacon is soggy. Someone’s hotel shower was puny. Maybe we were served too much good food (but not piggish amounts, as on some ocean cruises). The more one travels, we agreed, the more one learns to adjust to differences and appreciate indulgences.
Would you like another croissant? Oh, oui.
The meal presentation on the boat is so splendid, isn’t it? Oui, oui.
Would you care for another glass of chardonnay? Oui.
Oui, oui, oui, all the way home.
Peg Meier, a retired Star Tribune reporter, is the author of nonfiction books about Minnesota, including “Bring Warm Clothes” and “Through No Fault of My Own.”