In this blog we sometimes touch on our “other lives” in which we escort tourist groups around various parts of Europe as professional Tour Managers. It is this experience which motivated us to set up Walksweeks, but generally the two worlds – touring and sightseeing versus walking and staying at les Sarziers, do not cross over. That was until Road Scholar, an organisation for which we have occasionally worked since 2013, asked us to create a hiking itinerary to complement their excellent Provence and River Cruise programme which we have led many times.
This was an exciting project and we really enjoyed the research and planning that went into devising the itinerary. The challenge was to find interesting and varied walks which would fit around the progress of the boat as we cruised from Martigues, where the Rhône meets the Mediterranean, up-river to Lyon and then along the Saône as far as Chalon.
I have recently completed the first of these programmes with a delightful and enthusiastic group of Americans and Canadians. We started with three nights in St Rémy de Provence, discovering the Roman sites, following the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh, hiking around les Baux, tasting olive oil and enjoying the hospitality and delicious cuisine of this lovely area.
Then we headed off towards one of the most famous wonders of the Ancient World – the Pont du Gard. I have known this monument since I was a very little girl but have never approached it as we did on the hike Markus cleverly found. We discovered many more traces of the acqueduct than we had realised were still visible, and exploring the terrain really brought into focus the incredible engineering feat involved in supplying Nîmes with over eight million gallons of water daily.
And then suddenly there was the bridge itself, stunning and silent, its golden arches striding over the valley as they have for almost exactly 2000 years. Breathtaking!
After lunch and the afternoon in the bustle of lovely Uzès, the group boarded the welcoming MS Van Gogh and settled in for our delightful five night cruise.
Markus and I love this journey up the Rhône, stopping in Arles, Avignon, Viviers and even on our doorstep in Tain l’Hermitage, where the group hiked through the vineyards, before visiting Vienne and Lyon.
The two days cruising up the romantic and peaceful Saône are even more enchanting as the ship drifts past small villages, grazing cattle and fishermen seated on the banks or bobbing about in tiny little rowing boats.
What made this trip special was the opportunity to visit the various monuments, villages and sites in a rather different and more intimate manner. Walking helps one to understand the natural features of each landscape, the way that the climate influences vegetation, agriculture and the situation of settlements, giving a deeper appreciation of a “sight” than when you just roll up in a tour bus. A good example was our hike to the village and castle of Brancion in Burgundy, which dominates the fertile wooded territory which its owners controlled for centuries.
The boat is beautiful and all the staff are so charming and helpful that it was a wrench to leave them in Chalon sur Saône and head back to the real world of traffic and hotel check-ins.
But the hike from tiny Avenas on the forested northern slopes to a stupendous lunch overlooking the sunny vineyards of the Beaujolais was enjoyed by everyone and the next day we had a great time visiting the Croix Rousse area of Lyon, learning about the heritage of silk weaving and exploring the long traboules.
We always enjoy our assignments with Road Scholar, not least because of the wonderful people we meet. The participants on this programme were no exception, curious, open minded, well-informed, adventurous people who were up for the challenge, even, in some cases at a pretty advanced age (encore mes félicitations Diane!)
For me, it was a special pleasure to have had the privilege of leading a new itinerary which I had devised myself (with Markus of course, who was unfortunately unable to join us as he was valiantly leading a band of forty people All Over Italy at the time). With this project we have been able to combine our love of walking and knowledge of France with insights from our very own region and explorations of our particular interests: the silk saga, the wine saga, the Occupation, French food, traditions and customs – so many subjects that we have touched on in this blog.
The weather was glorious, the group was delightful, the MS Van Gogh and all her staff are fabulous … we can’t wait for the next one!