Vienne and Some Food Notes

Many people have asked us about the food on board. I rate it about 7.5 stars on 10, this being more of a reflection on Rob and I, not Viking. The Viking chefs and kitchen staff, thoughtfully and carefully prepare and present meals that are pleasing to 98% of the passengers — a considerable feat in light of the fact that the average cruising age is about 60 and from all over the world. The chef, always accessible, makes recommendations and visits each table at dinner to chat. In light of that, there is not a single meal that I cannot wait to get home to recreate or an item I would return to order again. Despite their use of local ingredients and menus, the food is still what Rob and I call “hotel” food. We would prefer a more rustic style menu, a slaved-over bouillabaisse, ham and cheese on excellent baguette.

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However, on this, day 5 of our 8 day cruise, we made a discovery which I hope holds out to not be an anomaly. Each day the ship serves a three course lunch and dinner but offers “lighter” fair on the beautiful forward deck. As I mentioned yesterday, we were changing to our original ship, the Hermod. After touring lovely Vienne, our cabins were not yet available so we retired to the aforementioned deck for a little sun and beer. There was a light nosh of local olives, charcuterie including local tiny sausages, whole wheat and white baguette and an excellent olive tapanade already placed at the tables on the deck. Since the light lunch was about to be served and we were comfortably seated, we decided to stay.

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This decision led to the best meal we have had on board. Memorable, delicious, and yes…I would eat here again. The chef carved up perfectly roasted herbed chickens, ducks and lamb. Sides included a rich gravy, ratatouille (of which I am generally not fond, but must say this was excellent and light on the eggplant which I find makes it bitter), whole grain baguette, a sweetish, red cabbage salad, herbed tomato, arugula, bocincini salad dressed with a light vinegar and a most excellent olive oil, and potato wedges that I think are cooked in a chicken soup base. Also on offer was squid salad, fish in tomato sauce, green salad and a tuna salad.

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Dessert, a feast for the eyes and palate, was a table of colourful, delicate, airy, melt on your tongue macrons, a local very trifle-like, specialty tart from Vienne,  mille feuilles, candied lemon and orange peel and other assorted tortes. This was exactly the kind of rustic fare we have been craving in France. This change may also be a reflection of the chef on the Hermod.

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Earlier in the day, we departed by motor coach to Tournon and headed off to meet the Hermod, our new ship at Vienne, a lovely town on the Rhone which is built into a hill and features some amazing Roman architecture and ruins.  Vienne is an hour bus ride through the Rhone valley countryside alive with the ubiquitous terracotta roof tiles, fruit orchards, rolling hills dotted with small villages and churches, steep vineyards, cypress trees which stand erect on their own rising from mixed forests and landscaped properties. Unfortunately for us we are teased by the neat, soft silver grey-green fields which will erupt in waves of glorious lavender in about a week, long after we depart.

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Arriving in Vienne we disembark and promptly board a tour tram which takes us to the top of the steep hill into which old Vienne is built, overlooking the Rhone Valley. At the top we see ancient Roman walls and quaint properties with walled gardens, a timeworn cemetery and a small chapel of Notre – Dame de Pipet, noted for its acoustic properties. Our guide says she will sing to us to demonstrate. She begins to sing Ave Maria in a mesmerizing acapella rendition, that rings through the chapel and renders the tour spellbound.

After this little treat, we reboard the tram and descend to the town square where our leisurely walking tour guides us by a Roman Temple to Caesar Augustus and Livia, Roman Forum ruins and the massive, ornate  St – Maurice Cathedral. Medieval and Roman buildings are found side by side here, an interesting view to the past history of the valley.

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Upon our return to the boat and lunch we depart for Lyon where we are to have a tour of Les Halles de Bocuse, ultimate foodie destination and what we have been looking forward to all trip. By the time we pull in to Lyon we are told the excursion has been cancelled and the reason is because it is France and that is what France does. Even though it is a “bank” holiday, this has been arranged and approved but Les Halles decided business was too light today and they were not going to wait for us to arrive. C’est la vie. We are told today that our visit to the Avignon market earier in the week was superior and that while we could go off-book tomorrow, the tour would be more fun.

For dinner this evening Rob chooses the creamed mushroom appetizer, veal tenderloin and spring pea main and a white chocolate bread pudding. I opt for the refreshing tomato, cucumber, incredibly creamy and light blue cheese salad, snapper with a cream sauce of fresh green peas and white Tuscan beans and raspberry cake for dessert. Our new Austrian chef may be a difference maker.

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Tomorrow we will walk the streets of Lyon and peruse the shops.

Easy Morning into Ardèche

No rushing about today. All activities on shore take place in the latter half of the afternoon. We breakfast at 9:30, seated at a lively table of Americans. After breakfast there are French lessons and then a chocolate tasting (Valrhona) in the lounge. So during this slow period, drifting along the picturesque Rhone River, enjoying the swans and little towns,  I will note some observations about Viking and River cruising for those considering it.

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This is a very pricey trip. There are a few ways to make it way more affordable. Book your own air travel. Viking is first class all the way and will take care of it for you. They don’t price shop and you will fly first class, the most expensive way to get to Europe. Roughly half the cost of this trip was for airfare. We are also staying in the second most expensive cabins on board. They are spacious. Other passengers have told us that their rooms are quite small. You can view dimensions online. Our cabin features a sitting room (about 8×12) with a chair, couch, desk, fridge and tv. The bedroom (about 8×10) features a second tv, closet and space to stow two suitcases out of the way. The narrow bathroom (about 10x 3) is attractive and well designed. We also have a lovely and private balcony off of our stateroom. No complaints here about space.  First class cabin all the way.

But… do you want to pay for it, when the very comfortable bar and lounge, quiet library and sun deck are merely steps away? It’s not a huge boat. I takes 30 to 45 seconds to walk to the lounge, sun deck or dining area. I would guess that the the cabins furthest away might take 2 minutes to get anywhere. There are always seats and tables available in these areas, unlike on the massive oceanliners where you have to stake a deck chair out in the morning and actual fights over said chairs erupt between passengers..

Alcohol though not complimentary in the lounge, flows freely at lunch and dinner (wine) and you have a bottle of sparkling wine waiting in your cabin when you arrive (may only be in first class). You can also purchase a premium drinks package. Depends on how much you drink. I’m fine with paying for the occasional beer or cocktail but you can bring your own as well, especially since we are in the heart of French wine country and you are in town frequently.

If you are a photographer, take the leisurely walking tours offered as opposed to the regular tour. All of the infirm or very old passengers will be in the group and you have plenty of time to duck down alleyways and explore and return to the group without missing a beat.

The only other advice I have heard and can pass on is beware of booking in the spring. Rivers run high with rain and  waters pouring down from the Alps and are unpredictable. The cruise last week remained in port at Avignon for the entire week. It did not move. Some passengers went home and received a partial discount and the people who stayed, were bussed from town to town for their excursions and then returned to port in Avignon. Very disappointing I’m sure for those imagining themselves floating serenely down the Rhone. As a result of these high waters, our ship, the Hermod did not make it to Avignon to receive us this week. Her sister ship, the Buri was sent instead. In regards to that, tomorrow morning we are meeting up with our original ship, the Hermod, in Vivviene and transferring over. Other than packing our bags and leaving them outside our stateroom by 8 am tomorrow, we are not required to do much else. Minor inconvenience.

Today our afternoon excursion took us by motor coach to the countryside of Ardèche for a steam train ride through the valley. The trip is an hour long on an open car train and the ride is quite dirty from the coal used to power the train.

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At the half way mark the engine is manually turned on a turntable and we head back. The valley is beautiful and features many ancient stone bridges over the River Doux.  Acacia trees bow with their lightly scented waterfall pannicles, and daisies, pink soapwort, white yarrow and mauve meadow rue fill out the colour palette which has considerably reduced now that spring has given way to the summer heat in Provence. Lavender is about to bloom.

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Perched high on the stony cliffs are neat rows of vineyards with a look down at nude bathers taking advantage of the cool, clear waters at the bottom of the valley.  Soon  we are returned to the station where a lovely snack of croissant and apple cider await.

The coach departs the train station and deposits us back at our ship docked at the small town of Tournon. I decide to grab my camera and take my own tour of the little village whose pastel face looks towards the steep vineyards of Tain l’Hermitage across the Rhone.

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Dinner, served a little later this evening, consists once again of many choices but the Chef recommends her coq au vin we we choose. The chicken, stewed in a rich wine sauce over two days with bacon and mushrooms does not disappoint especially accompanied by a local merlot. I however find the French onion soup appetizer thick and unappealing. Our waiter steers us clear of the orange dessert souffle, saying it is too dry, and we instead choose the mascarpone and cherries, pretty to look at but very sweet.

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Back to our room to pack for tomorrow’s transfer at Vivienne in the morning and then onto Lyon.

Morning in Avignon and Les Halles Market

This morning’s deep fog gives way to a bright sunny day by the time we depart for a guided walking tour of Avignon. Expected high, 27 degrees. One of the nice parts of the Viking walking tours (and other tours about) are the quiet boxes they supply. You tune into the frequency dictated by your guide, adjust the volume, hang the unit around your neck and put the ear piece in. The gear is very light and comfortable and as you are touring and in range you can hear the guide and therefore they do not need to shout in the streets which I imagine would be quite annoying to those living there.  It also allows you to wander quite a bit and take photographs and still get the down low. Our guide today was once again very knowledgeable and interesting.

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Avignon, so very different than Arles, offers views of exquisite architecture, ramparts, gargoyles, narrow cobble streets, tall buildings and the papal palace. The spilly floral displays and colourful shutters of Arles are absent but are replaced by tall windows and detailed wrought iron work.

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Our tour ends at Les Halles, a fabulous food mecca and one of the highlights of the morning. After spending an hour perusing the candies, flowers, spices, meats, fish, charcuterie, vegetables, bread, chocolate and ready made goodies, we choose a cafe for lunch and people watching before returning to the ship.

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We lunch at one of many little sidewalk cafes, Perigord Gourmand on Rue du Vieux Sextier. Here we eat from the Formule Plaisir — “fun menu” , which includes an appetizer, main and dessert for 16 euro.

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Rob chose the foie gras on gingerbread with fig compote and pear and I had the in season, asparagus cream soup. Both apps were light and delicious.

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For mains Rob ordered the duck with mushroom sauce and potatoes. The sliced duck was done a nice medium rare and the potatoes were roasted to a perfect crisp. I had the panfried, very thin steak ordered medium  but so thin it could only be cooked through. It came with a thin Roquefort sauce.

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Rob definitely won the round. I have to remember not to order beef in Europe. It is at best, just fine. We both opted for the very well made lemon tart for dessert.

After lunch we return to the ship to relax and look at our photos and check in with friends and family. The ship departing for Viviers at 3:30, hosts a classic French tea as we cast off. Tea includes a selection of herbal and black teas, French press, home made goodies such as madeleines, fresh apple filled donuts, apple and lemon tarts, and sandwiches of lox and cream cheese, delicate, savory ham and cheese, and egg with peppery watercress.

By 4 pm we are well underway and spend a relaxing afternoon on our private balcony, watching Avignon recede in the distance and enjoying the pretty Rhone coast while sipping sparkling wine.

Dinner on the ship this evening celebrates the spring produce in Provence. White asparagus graces each dish offered up by the chef. Our appetizer choices are delicate quail breast and leg with buttery risotto and monkfish with pesto and garlic chip.

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Main courses opted for are sole fillet with white asparagus, cucumber salad and quinoa, and pork chop with mustard crust and au jus, asparagus, roasted fingerling potatoes and apple compote.

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Apricot clafoutis and apple rhubarb cake completed our spring time bounty of Provence meal.

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We are finally feeling mostly normal after two long days. Tomorrow we have lots of time to sleep in before our afternoon excursion via steam train to Ardèche.

 

Arles, Provence

Still trying to conquer jetlag and enjoy the offerings on day 2 of our cruise. We have signed up for a leisurely walking tour through the city of Arles in classic Provence.

IMG_3503Breakfast in the dining room proffers an American style hot breakfast of omelets, scramble, sausage and bacon as well as a European selection of meat, cheese and fruit. Our breakfast companions inform me that the the coffee is excellent but I am avoiding liquid before our planned excursion as we have been told that French public toilets are scarce and…”oh la la.” Yes, they actually say that here.

Soon we board a comfortable Mercedes-Benz coach bus and we are off to explore Arles and the Roman ruins in the city. The scenic countryside of Provence unfolds outside our windows. Ditches are clotted with wild yellow iris and scarlet poppies. Cherries are just pinking up in their orchards, thorny artichokes ripen in neat rows, and bridal spirea hedgerows arch to the ground with their heavy blossom bounty. We fly past horses grazing in the morning sun, ancient terracotta roofs, giant sycamores, elegant cypress, a colour all their own.

We pull in to Arles on the Rhone river, just outside the city ramparts. The ancient stone ramparts are softened by eons of time and have given themselves over to wildflowers. Our guide says the city would like to restore them but I think they are magnificent as is.

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We enter the city beyond the ramparts and begin our walking tour through Arles. Classic Provence. Cobbled streets in amazingly good shape and lovely, colourful, shuttered windows bedecked with window boxes and planters of all kinds greet us cheerily. The ship gives us quiet box radios to listen to our guide through. We are lucky to have a most excellent and informed guide. She allows us to walk and explore at our own pace and we are guided by her voice, always knowing down which narrow alley the tour will go and when to jump out of the way of the cars which travel down these narrow streets.

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Arles is waking up this Monday morning and the small shops and cafes that dot the charming streets sputter to life.. The sun warm on the light breeze makes the walk perfect.  As we move through Arles we come to the Colosseum built by the Romans in 90 AD. The structure, largely intact serves today as a stadium where bullfights are hosted. Go Bull! Sitting on the cold, ancient stone seats brings the ghosts of another time to the fore.

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From there we head into Vincent Van Gogh territory, the cafe where he painted “Cafe Terrace at Night”. The cafe has been unfortunately completely bastardized for les touriste, but ah….stuff happened here.

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We also were treated to the spot Van Gogh was inspired to paint “Starry Night on The Rhone” and the garden courtyard  of the Hotel Dieu, “Garten des hospitals in Arles”, where Van Gogh was hospitalized after getting loose and free with a knife near an ear.

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Our walking tour through the streets of Arles is everything you could want in a brief tour of Provence. Arles and Provence define “quaint”.

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We wind our way slowly back to the coach and are transported to Tarascon where the ship has moved in the meanwhile to meet us. We board and head to the dining room for a light lunch of squid pasta and shrimp po’boys. Not quite classic but a very nice sandwich.

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After a brief nap (still recovering from the time change), we head up to the lounge for a pre dinner drink and await the briefing about the events for the following day after which we retire for dinner at the civilized hour of 7 pm.

At dinner we meet up with companions from day one who are entertaining dinner mates. Our foursome elects to abide by the chef’s choices for the evening: Poached Scallops and Avocado, Chateaubriand and Chocolate Souffle.

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IMG_3166IMG_3168Dinner was beautifully presented and accompanied by a local wine. All in all, an excellent meal. Tomorrow we do hope to take advantage of a cafe in Avignon on our free time.

En Route to Avignon!

Cloudy, humid and very warm in Ottawa. Leaving behind a city bursting to life with the first tulips and new leaves. My driveway is a carpet of tiny white petals. I will miss my azalea bloom but be back for the lilacs. Scout gave me an affectionate send off. Josie laid on the kitchen floor sighing and doing her best end-of-the-world impression. Smudge refused her treat and isn’t speaking to me. There was a single wet, black nose in the window as we pulled out. Never look back.

Our flight at the civilized hour of 4:55PM, finds people traffic light and we breeze through security. Viking Cruises has done all of the bookings. First class all the way. I’ve never flown in a first class “pod” before. Looking forward to it. Tons of space and leg room, big monitor, full sized pillow, blanket quilt and real food. We are treated to Champagne and orange juice while the rest of the plane boards. Sit back and relax. Later my pod will become a bed.

Dinner in first class includes a choice of wine, including an excellent California cab and a French red, a well presented and very nice light appetizer of a marinated shrimp, paper thin ahi tuna on a bed of fennel dotted with fresh dill, unremarkable mixed greens salad, bland beef tenderloin, distinctly untruffled truffled potatoes, carrots and green beans.

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Rob’s tandoori chicken biriyani was excellent and served with spiced okra.

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A nice complement of cheeses (yes, served chilled, truly roughing it here) grapes, water crackers and port follows the main. Sticky toffee apple cake with lightly sweet whipped cream and tea completed the meal. Much better than anything the plebs in the back of the plane are getting, and quite remarkable for coming out of that tiny galley.

I watch a little TV and then try to sleep for three hours before simulated dawn and breakfast. The pods are certainly more comfortable than a regular airline seat but alas, sleep never comes.

We land in Frankfurt. Every bit the hellhole Rob says, a total zoo. Eventually we get to our gate where we then have to board a bus to take us to our plane. And off we are to Marseille where our trip along two French rivers begins! Our flight path carries us over breathtaking views of the snow capped alps, lovely patchwork landscapes and tiny villages, emerald green pasture, meandering rivers and glacial blue lakes.

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Soon we are over sparkling blue waters and a sea of terracotta roofs. Ancient fixtures rise from the cliffs they are built in to and are visible from the air. Reunited with our luggage and placed in a taxi by Viking reps, we speed off to Avignon to board our ship, The Viking Buri.

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During the hour and fifteen minute trek over well maintained roadways, we breeze through countless roundabouts and are treated to a visual feast that is the Southern French countryside… Past fields of red poppies, yellow and blue wildflowers, sun washed stucco homes with tiled roofs and pretty shutters, vineyards, olive trees, huge, dusty, blue green agaves and sandstone hills dotted with cypress and deep green shrubbery.

Nearing Avignon we notice the ancient ramparts from the 14th century that encompass the old part of the city. Built of local sandstone and pockmarked with age and likely acid rain, they are magnificent. Joggers, moms and infants in strollers, and people catching some sun at lunch hour, carry on their business, bustling about in the ancient shadow. Can’t wait to explore…but we are exhausted. We have been up for over 24 hours now. Luckily, check in is smooth, we are shown to our lovely, spacious and very well designed stateroom, unpack and catch some shut eye. Dancing on a bridge must wait. Tomorrow our adventure begins!

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Dinner this evening will be aboard ship in the main dining room after our muster station drill and welcome orientation in the ship’s lounge. Here we met a lovely couple near in age from Britain, one via Chicago. They have cruised with Viking before and we are immediately comfortable with them. They follow us to dinner and we are seated with what must be the youngest couple on board, thirty somethings from LA. The table turns out to be a great match and conversation lively.

The wine steward has a generous hand while menus are delivered. LA immediately spills an entire glass of water and much laughter ensues. The ice, now broken kickstarts a lovely evening of good food, wine and chatter. Viking offers a surprising number of options for each course. Rob chose the salad Nicoise, determined to stay with the “when in France…” theme. Excellent by all standards.

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I chose the goat cheese souffle, light, tangy, delicious.

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Mains follow at a leisurely pace. Rob chose the lamb with potatoes, elegant with a lamb au jus reduction and deliciously French.

IMG_3152I opted for the pasta with a full, ripe tomato sauce topped with brie.

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For dessert I had an underwhelming chocolate pot de creme with pineapple gelee. Just too sweet after a long day of travel. Rob’s small taste of apple crumble with excellent chocolate ice cream was perfect.

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After cappuccinos, more conversation, the ugly lights come up and we are kicked out. Lovely ending to a loooooong day.FullSizeRender