Julie Peasgood and her husband Patrick join a luxury French cruise with a difference
This could be the most intimate cruise I have ever been on. With only four passengers on board we are outnumbered by a crew of six. In the space of just one evening, they have become friends. In fact, our first night’s meal is more like a private dinner party, with chef Wojciech discreetly putting his head round the door between courses to make sure we are satisfied.
But it’s going to challenge my waistline: the wines are the finest I have ever been served on board a ship, the food is sensational – definitely Michelin star worthy, and the bar lavishly stocked and sometimes even unmanned, with passengers welcome to help themselves. Nobody will notice if I overindulge on bubbles before (or brandy after) our superb supper or can’t resist dipping into the bowls of chocolates that temptingly set-dress the lounge. By the end of the week I may have to be airlifted off the barge.
What makes our meals even more enticing are the detailed descriptions that our tour guide, Jo, gives our accompanying wines. Chosen with care, and a high level of specialist knowledge befitting of an area steeped in viticulture, we sample exceptional vintages commanding eye-watering prices. Thankfully they are all included in our cruise and are often from vineyards literally a stone’s throw from our route along the meandering Rhône Valley. Meursault, Condrieu, Hermitage Les Miaux, Chene Bleu Rosé, Gevrey Chambertin, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and many more grace our table both at lunch and dinner and, after visiting two local wineries and a wine museum, I decide that my next career move has to be training as a sommelier in this idyllic region of southern France.
We boarded Belmond Napoleon in Lyon, after a swift and complimentary TGV from Paris’s Gare de Lyon. It’s not a set part of the itinerary, but if you’re lucky enough to have to kill time at Gare de Lyon, do make sure to allow time for lunch in the station’s palatial Le Train Bleu. Luggage is safely stored leaving you to enjoy a gastronomic gilded haven; a perfect amuse bouche for the culinary delights to come.
Our first class treatment continues when we are met from our railway carriage on arrival at Lyon and escorted to the barge, and to my surprise I have received texts from Belmond both before and during our journey, checking we are happy and secure at every step. It’s the most stylish pampering we have ever experienced, making us feel relaxed and immediately at home.
The largest canal boat in the Belmond fleet, Napoleon is all traditional teak panelling and sumptuous soft furnishings. The lounge and dining room are more like the interior of a sophisticated country house than a ship, complete with plump sofas, fresh flowers and soothing colour schemes, and the upper deck boasts a Jacuzzi, sun loungers and a shaded dining area. Cabins have beds so comfortable you could be forgiven for retiring to them early and leaving them late, and bathrooms are equipped with huge fluffy towels, soft dressing gowns and the latest L’Occitane toiletries.
But it’s the ratio of crew to passengers that makes this cruise so special, and the fact that they are all delightful. Alongside chef Wojciech and our tour guide, Jo, there are our hostesses, Becky and Sarah. Witty, generous and very attentive, they keep our cabins and every inch of the barge fresh and fragrant. They serve drinks and meals, with everything from creamy cappuccinos to cocktails. The ever-changing selection of French cheeses on board is also a mouthwatering treat. As with the wines, we learn the provenance of each cheese before tasting it, and if you’re not a turophile before boarding, I promise you will be when you disembark. Finally, sailing the barge are Julian, the dashing Captain, and Silvio the Matelot, Julian’s second-in-command.
Napoleon’s six cabins usually carry up to twelve passengers in various permutations, which might mean a party of friends, family or work colleagues commission the whole barge, or it’s a mixed group of travellers who will get to know each other over the week. Tours and excursions are therefore flexible and can be expertly tailored to passengers’ needs and interests, with no rigid timings or jarring early starts if you’d rather take it easy. There are bikes on board which can be ridden along the towpath, and if you want a round of golf, a big pool for the kids, tennis courts, water sports, a hot-air balloon ride or even just need to see a dentist, Jo will calmly and efficiently arrange it, no problem.
For our initial excursion, we opt for a city tour in Lyon, beginning with a ride in the small but steep funicular to the sacred Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, situated where Julius Caesar once set up camp. Dominating the skyline and commanding breathtaking views of the city below, the mosaics here are so magnificent we almost forget to admire the cathedral’s equally imposing stained glass – even the ventilation shafts are a thing of beauty.
Then it’s a gentle morning stroll around the historic old town, or Vieux Lyon, with its narrow cobbled streets and intriguing traboules, secret covered alleyways and staircases that wind their way through courtyards and ancient buildings. Dating back to the 4th century, these mysterious passageways were once the safest route for Lyon’s many silk workers to transport their precious wares to market. 40 of the reputed 400 traboules are now open to the public, and half the fun is finding them. I feel like a kid in a JK Rowling adventure as I tentatively push an ancient door, which slowly creaks open to reveal a shady passage with a vaulted ceiling.
Our next foray sees us downriver in Tournon, where we enjoy a walking tour of the pretty village before crossing the river to spend a gloriously indulgent afternoon.
A private tasting at Monsieur Ferraton’s winery is first on the agenda, followed by a visit to chocolate paradise – the astonishing Valrhona Cité du Chocolat, containing an interactive museum, school and restaurant, and where I manage to sample record-breaking amounts of free chocolate in the substantial chocolate boutique.
Undeterred by my staggering calorie intake, we head back on board for more culinary delights – tonight it’s seared scallops with leek ash hollandaise, charred leeks and puffed wild rice, and that’s just for starters. Our main course is meltingly soft confit duck leg with seasonal vegetables and potato puree, followed by an inspired dessert of poached white peach, hazelnut shortbread, yoghurt jelly and peach sorbet. Wojciech produces masterpieces in the little kitchen and makes every effort to accommodate each passenger’s favourite ingredients.
Fortunately, all four of us share a passion for truffles, and we are served them unstintingly, after paying a visit to one of the most famous truffle farms, just outside Grignan, a captivating Provençal village.
Lunch the following day is in the rose-filled garden of a local restaurant, before exploring Grignan and its splendid 12th century château, but it’s the truffle farm I am most excited about, and it doesn’t disappoint.
We witness the owner’s dogs, still in training, proudly snuffle out truffles before our eyes, and discover that a kilo of black truffles, those precious jewels of the food world, recently fetched 1,500 euros. It’s understandable that the farm has up to twelve ‘truffle police’ on watch throughout the night, protecting these ‘black diamonds’. The highlight is being able to taste them within minutes; offered just with fresh crusty bread and aromatic oil, it’s a memory that I am sure I will savour always.
Another wonderful experience is our visit to the medieval town of Viviers, blessed with the most picturesque streets and the smallest active cathedral in all of France. Built in the 13th century and perched on a rocky outcrop at the very top of this enchanting village, the ancient walnut organ is ringing out as we walk around, and it is magical. So too is the lavender farm we are treated to afterwards, high in the hills above Viviers. Our transport on land is door-to-door in a roomy, air-conditioned minibus (which Jo drives) and in the late afternoon sunshine we learn about the healing properties of this extraordinary plant and get a glimpse of the workings of the farm, entirely organic and producing lavender delicacies from pillow sprays and perfumes to lovely biscuits and cordials.
We end our cruise in spectacular Avignon, where we are given a private tour of the imposing Palais des Papes by an entertaining and informed local guide. Jo, whose own guiding constantly strikes just the right mix of culture and fun, tells him our ideal timings and he fulfils the brief to the minute – and we realise that’s what this cruise is all about. It offers a bespoke, intimate, luxurious service, that is, quite frankly, second to none. There is always the opportunity to go off the beaten track and avoid the usual tourist traps, and if you mention a food or wine in passing, the next day you’re more than likely to find it on your plate or in your glass. All the crew seem to anticipate our needs, and nothing is too much trouble. They naturally strike a balance between easy informality and making passengers feel nurtured and valued.
Our barge has sailed through sleepy French villages, flowed past effortlessly beautiful châteaux, navigated some impressive locks and enabled us to relish the peace and serenity of the waterways. We were promised a ‘snail’s pace’ and that’s what our journey on the Rhône has delivered. It has been the perfect antidote to everyday stresses and strains, a totally different kind of cruising, and we have loved every single blissed-out minute of it.
For a six-night journey on board Belmond Napoleon on the Lyon to Avignon itinerary, prices start from 6,127 euros per person, based on two adults sharing a double cabin. This includes first class TGV transfer from Paris to the boat, all meals and drinks on board and all shore activities outlined in the itinerary.
Price based on September 2018 journey. To book call 0845 077 2222 or visit belmond.com.