SAPPHIRE On The Rhone, Part One

Knego’s recent Rhone Cruise aboard Scenic Cruises’ deluxe Star Ship MV SCENIC SAPPHIRE begins with overnights in Tarascon and Avignon and a visit to Viviers.

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All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2016 unless otherwise noted.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

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MV SCENIC SAPPHIRE, Private Balcony Suite 215, facing starboard.

Due to bad weather and a canceled flight, getting to the SCENIC SAPPHIRE at the remote Rhone River enclave of Tarascon from Amsterdam was one of the most convoluted and challenging ordeals in my recent travels. Some fourteen hours later than originally planned, I arrived without luggage at 2:30 AM, buoyed by the sight of the brilliantly lit ship.

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The all inclusive MV SCENIC SAPPHIRE has 24/7 butler service available in all suites.

Upon boarding, I was shown to 205-square-foot Private Balcony Suite 215 on starboard Diamond Deck, where an attentive butler offered to get me a sandwich and something to drink. It was a wonderful and much appreciated gesture but I opted for immediate sleep, instead.

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MV SCENIC SAPPHIRE Sapphire Lounge, facing forward from starboard.

Six hours and a few minutes later, I managed to get to the Sapphire Lounge on forward Diamond Deck for a quick cappuccino before heading off on the included 9:00 AM half day tour to Les Baux and the Olive Oil Mill. The other included tour choices (which I had recently done on another trek) were visits to either Arles or St. Remy’s de Provence, where Van Gogh spent his final days.

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MV SCENIC SAPPHIRE at Tarascon.

Some thirty minutes after our coaches rolled off into the countryside of Provence, the SCENIC SAPPHIRE would cast her lines and sail upriver to Avignon, where we would rendezvous with her at 1:00 PM.

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Les Baux portico.

It was a relatively short ride to Les Baux de Provence, which is situated on a rocky outcrop in the Alpilles mountains. Humans are thought to have first inhabited the nearby caves in 6,000 BC., while construction on the fortress at the top of Les Baux began in the 11th Century AD and was completed some 200 years later. Its peak population was once estimated at 4,000 but today Les Beaux is home to a mere 22 full time residents.

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Stained glass at The Church of St. Vincent.

Nearly 1.5 million visitors wander the cobblestone alleyways of Les Baux each year. Among its myriad attractions the Church of St. Vincent was constructed in the 12th Century and boasts some striking stained glass windows.

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Tete at Les Baux.

After touring the church, we had an hour to wander the hilltop village, which is replete with shops, museums and cafes.

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Olive garden at Moulin-St. Jean.

Our next stop was the Moulin-St Jean estate where there is a family-run olive grove and mill that produces France’s most sought-after olive oil.

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Tapenade tasting.

Moulin-St. Jean also produces a black olive tapenade that ranks among the best I’ve ever had. Two tapenades and a bottle of olive oil, please!

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Avignon walls.

We returned to the ship in Avignon, where, with no word on when my luggage would be delivered, I went shopping for enough clothes to get me through the week. A Target-ish store called Monoprix, albeit with a little more fashion sense (think France), had all I needed in terms of shirts, socks, pants, shorts, underwear and even a scarf, just in case it got chilly. After my shopping spree, I went for a jog on the banks of the Rhone, passing under (sous) Le Pont d’Avignon.

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Champagne toast.

At 7:00 PM, there was champagne for all in the Sapphire Lounge, where the captain hosted a welcome reception.

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MV SCENIC SAPPHIRE Crystal Dining Room, facing forward.

Following the reception, we headed to dinner in the handsome, blue and violet toned Crystal Dining Room. Located on forward Sapphire Deck, it features picture windows on either side and plenty of space to accommodate all of the ship’s guests in one leisurely, open seating. Breakfast and Lunch are offered buffet style (albeit with daily menu specials) while dinner is a full service affair with complimentary paired white and red wines and/or beverages of choice.

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“Tomates Braises, Farcies et Legumes D/Ete”.

For dinner, there is a daily menu featuring two appetizers and two soups, three main courses (meat, fish or veggie), a trio of dessert options and/or a cheese platter. There are also “Scenic Classic Fares” every night, including hamburgers, steak, poached salmon and more. For my main course, I went veggie, with a fantastic “Tomates Braises…”

After dinner, there was a French singer in the Sapphire Lounge but I resisted in order to catch up on some much-needed sleep.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

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Avignon side street.

Argh! I misread the program before  retiring and slept past the 8:15 AM excursion to the spectacular Pont du Garde aqueduct and the town of Uzes. Fortunately, there was still some space on the Shopping With The Chef tour of Avignon, so I donned my headset and joined a group of ardent “foodies” for a brisk walk into the historic walled town.

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Avignon Farmer’s Market.

Avignon has a spectacular farmer’s market housed in a green building in the center of town.

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Flower Market.

The market has everything, from beautiful flowers…

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Shellfish stop.

…to fresh seafood…

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Marinated garlic.

…and the most magnificent marinated garlic in the world.

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Chansons d’Accordion.

After our romp with the chef, I headed back to the riverfront with a few of the spoils (more tapenade, marinated garlic) sampled in the Farmer’s Market. On the way, I was sidetracked by the melancholy sounds of a street accordionist. His siren’s call was so hard to resist but I finally did manage to get back to the ship in time for lunch.

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MV SCENIC SAPPHIRE approaches.

Although it was tempting to stay on board for a short sailing up to the Pont d’Avignon and back, I couldn’t miss the chance to get some images and footage of the SCENIC SAPPHIRE underway.

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Overlooking MV SCENIC SAPPHIRE.

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Approaching Le Pont.

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MV SCENIC SAPPHIRE versus Le Pont D’Avignon.

I watched her approach from a nearby bridge, then chased her up past the famous trestle from the opposite shore before she backed back down the river to her berth.

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Papal panes.

Once back at the ship, I couldn’t resist a downstream jog on such a perfect, balmy afternoon. After a buffet dinner, I joined friends for the Scenic Enrich, the complimentary once-per-cruise shoreside event held in the Palais des Papes, Avignon’s second most famous attraction (after the bridge, of course).

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Approaching Palais des Papes.

 

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Palais des Papes concerto.

SCENIC SAPPHIRE’s guests had exclusive access to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which began construction in 1252 and first became a pope’s residence in 1309.  Seven popes and two anti-popes would reside in what is now one of the world’s largest and most well preserved Gothic palaces before the papacy returned to Rome in 1370. The palace was seized and sacked over the next few centuries, even serving as a military barracks and prison during the French Revolution. Its once hallowed halls are now visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year and can be utilized for conventions and special events, like our champagne-enhanced classical concerto.

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Sunset on the Rhone.

A splendid sunset was waiting for us back at the SCENIC SAPPHIRE, which quietly backed down the Rhone before heading upstream on the other side of the long île de la Barthelasse that lies on the opposite banks of the ramparts of Avignon.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

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Sycamores des Viviers.

When I awoke, the SCENIC SAPPHIRE was securely berthed in Viviers, yet another UNESCO World Heritage town that boasts some of the most well preserved and authentic Medieval architecture in all of France. After disembarking the ship, we followed a sycamore-lined street into the lower town.

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Marianne de France de Viviers.

Our guide led us through the stone alleyways of lower Viviers, which lacks the souvenir shops and bustling cafes of other Rhone hamlets. In the main square, there was a striking bust of Marianne de France, the French national symbol of liberty who was the inspiration for a particular monument in New York harbor.

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Viviers overview.

We gradually ascended the cathedral mount to the upper portion of Viviers, where there was a gorgeous view of the town’s red-tiled roofs.

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Viviers cathedral mount.

The upper level of Viviers is at the top of a fortified stone wall that offered protection from hostile attacks. Our morning tour ended with a visit to the historic cathedral, that was first consecrated in the 11th century and later rebuilt.

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MV SCENIC SAPPHIRE locked up.

We returned to the ship moments before she cast her lines and continued her voyage up the Rhone. A leisurely afternoon of river cruising lay ahead, to be followed by an evening visit to Tournon, where we were to enjoy an aperitif on the terrace of it medieval chateau….

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Protesters approach.

But as the SCENIC SAPPHIRE entered the lock at Bourgles-Valance, something wasn’t quite right. Several flag-bearing protesters from the CGT (Confederation Generale du Labor) labor union entered the lock area.

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Protesters on canal lock.

As their numbers increased, the protesters gathered on the lock gate a few feet away from SCENIC SAPPHIRE’s bow and hoisted a red CGT banner.

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CGT blocks the lock.

We were being held hostage! For the next couple hours we lay motionless, until the protesters either tired of us or got their way. Finally, they disbursed, allowing our up-river passage. The consequence of our encounter with the French labor union was that we would have to forfeit our call at Tournon in order to maintain schedule…

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Of atoms and accordions.

Later that afternoon, as we approached the imposing nuclear power station at Cruas (the CGT workers were striking on behalf of new regulations affecting power station workers throughout France), happy hour cocktails were being served on Sun Deck.  As the ship’s accordionist serenaded,it  was a memorable coda to a fascinating day on the Rhone…

End of SAPPHIRE on the Scenic Rhone, Part One

Click Here For Part Two

Special thanks: Lauren Frye

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego

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