Michael Edwards takes a Provence river cruise on a luxurious hotel barge.
There is another Provence, south of Peter Moyle’s Year in Provence, lavender, and sunflower territory. From Arles to the Mediterranean, a unique delta fans out into the remote but beautiful Camargue. Traffic on roads and rivers thins, visitors can hear the birdsong.
Initially, there are still olive trees and vines with a distant backdrop of the Alps. Soon, there are shimmering pools where pink flamingos wade and storks nest in the rare trees. On the marsh-reed thatched cottages, weather-beaten shutters of pale blues and greens are a reminder that the cool winds of the Mistral rampage across this flat terrain.
A river cruise on CroisiEurope’s hotel barge, the MS Anne-Marie, is an appropriate way to explore the Grand Rhone, the Petit Rhone, and the Rhone-to-Sète Canal. Departing from either the inland historic town of Arles or coastal town of Sète on the Mediterranean, the MS Anne-Marie provides six night / seven-day cruises from early spring to late autumn. Sailing through the vibrant Van Gogh colours of blues and yellows
A hotel barge, with just eleven cabins for a maximum of twenty-two passengers, looked after by six staff, is an intimate experience. The restaurant is waiter service. Excursions are small-scale with every guest able to hear the guide and to ask questions.
The MS Anne-Marie named after a member of the family who run CroisiEurope, has the feel of a small French hamlet. Beneath the sun-parasols towards the bow, pink geraniums sit on the tables of the barge’s cafe / bar. Though few French villages have a jacuzzi. When the barge moors up, the purser gets out the boules set for a pre-dinner game.
A strong culinary theme runs through the cruise. Before the barge sails from Arles, the first excursion is to the Moulin de Coquille. Two thin cypress trees by the entrance bestow a traditional Provençal welcome to a farm of over 10,000 olive trees. In this region, olive oil, like wine, has protected designation of origin. As with wine, guests enjoy a tasting, but unlike wine olive oil does not improve with age. During the harvest, 5,000 olives are processed every day as a total of 10,000 litres of oil are bottled.
Back on board, chef Jonathan Nicoise, adapting to seasonal sourcing, creates a menu that represents the cuisine of the region. Seafood comes from Sète, France’s largest port, providing the swordfish for his skewers and scallops for his Coquilles St Jaques. A sea food cassoulet with crab, mussels, prawns, and scallops is another of Jonathan’s signature dishes.
Though this is also surf ‘n turf terrain. The black bulls that graze on the Camargue’s pasture are rounded up by France’s cowboys. Les gardian, riding the region’s famous white horses, provide the French take on the Wild West. Gardianne de taureau, a beef casserole with full-bodied red wine, bay leaf, tarragon, onion, and orange peel, is another regional speciality that appears on the menu. As the paddy fields of the Camargue produce 5% of the world’s rice, it is no surprise that rice is the usual accompaniment. An excursion to the “manades” shows how the bulls are bred.
Way south of Paris, they do things differently around the Camargue. Every May, Romany folk from across the continent undertake a pilgrimage to Saintes Maries del Mar. But their pilgrimage is not to pay homage to the two Maries who gave the seaside town its name. They visit to take a statue of their patron saint, Sarah, from the town’s fortified church to the water’s edge to celebrate her original arrival in France. Along the way, they may whisper a wish into her ear as she is believed to have the powers to make wishes come true.
Aigues-Mortes, the departure port for 13th century Crusades to the Holy Land, has a rich history too. Well-preserved ramparts, 1.6 km in all, circle a town centre that is largely pedestrianised. Though the most spectacular view of the town walls comes from across the salt flats. When its waters silted up, the town acquired its “waters dead” name. Although now five kilometres from the sea, a man-made canal provides access to the Mediterranean.
Perhaps the excursion which represents both the spirit of this culinary Provence river cruise and also the region’s gourmet culture best is a visit to an oyster farm at Étang de Thau, a large lagoon located along the coast. Though, on board, every lunchtime provides a tour of France’s best cheeses, with the purser introducing two of the nation’s greatest cheeses. In true French style, the cheese is served before dessert.
Cruisers soon slip into the slow travel rhythm of excursions and relaxation as the MS Anne-Marie cruises into the Camargue. With an aperitif promptly served at 12.30 and 6.30, prior to lunch and dinner, it soon becomes a very sociable Provence river cruise.
Tell Me More About Croisieuropes’ Charming Provence River Cruise
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Departing 15th October 2022 or on various dates between March and August 2023, prices for the seven-day Provence river cruise between Arles and Sete start from £2,380 per person for the cruise with all meals and drinks, all excursions, use of onboard bicycles and port taxes. Price excludes flights.