Exploring France is always something I enjoy doing. I think as people we just connect with some places over others, and France is high on my list of countries I truly enjoy exploring. That’s why when Uniworld Boutique River Cruises invited me to join them on their weeklong cruise through Burgundy and Provence, I really couldn’t say no. There’s no bad area to visit in France, not really, but the southern and southeastern regions aren’t just amongst the most beautiful, they’re also what many of us think of when we think about France and French culture. As always, while traveling I shared a few special photos and moments from my trip on Instagram. Usually these are the most important, so for those of you who may have missed them, I thought I’d share the photos here with more of the backstory behind each one. Together, they don’t just tell the story of my experience cruising through Burgundy and Provence, but I think they’re representative of what most travelers experience.
Believe it or not, but this most recent trip was my third time in Avignon. One of the great cities of southern France, it seems like it’s always been important. From the Popes who once lived there, to modern times with a vibrant student population, industry and of course the sights and sounds of the old town, Avignon is just a great place to visit. Since I had already been there a couple of times, this time I skipped all the tours and official everything and just spent my time doing the things in Avignon that I enjoy doing the most. Like so many other cities in France, and around Europe, café life reigns supreme, especially in August when the weather is warm and almost always sunny. Although it’s extremely touristy and overpriced, I couldn’t resist this café immediately in front of the Pope’s Palace itself. Sitting there, watching people from around the world walk by and enjoying the benefits of a perfect French summer’s day was as wonderful an experience as any. I nearly topped it the next day though when I decided to go on a picnic. Stopping by the city’s market early in the morning, I bought all of the simple ingredients for a light picnic lunch, which I took up to the top of a nearby lookout to enjoy, as I admired the views of the river and the surrounding countryside. If you haven’t been to Avignon, absolutely do the tours and learn more about the city, but also take the time to experience what life is like there and I think that you too will fall in love.
Some first time visitors to Provence may be a little surprised by the extremely Mediterranean landscape with the sandy soil, scrubby bushes, and rocky hills dotting the landscape. But these conditions also give us some of the foods we love most from the area, including olive oil. Located in Fontveille, a small village in France’s Alpilles, is a generations old olive grove where the Sourdon family has been producing some of the world’s best olive oil in the old ways for decades. Led around the farm by the current generation, Magali Sourdon told me the story of her family and the love for her work radiated in her smile. While walking through the olive grove we stopped in front of this chapel and paused. She said in this 11th century chapel every member of her family has been married, baptized and eulogized and it’s also where she goes to pray for the yearly olive crop. It’s not an easy life she leads, but tasting the fruits of her labors I can attest to the fact that it’s well worth every ounce of work she and her family put into it.
Pont du Gard
This 2,000 year old Roman aqueduct is a world treasure; recognized by UNESCO as one of the best preserved in the world. Seeing it is great, but visiting it from the perspective of a kayak was on of the best experiences I’ve done on any trip. An excursion offered by Uniworld on their river cruise, guests enjoy an active afternoon out on the water, paddling about 8 kilometers down the river and through the arches of the Pont du Gard itself. Anytime I get to visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a treat, but floating through it is without a doubt one of the most unique ways I’ve visited a famous site.
Pont du Gard isn’t only the highest Roman aqueduct bridge in the world, it’s also the best preserved and kayaking under it was absolutely a once in a lifetime experience. I expected a lot from my Uniworld river cruise experience, but I didn’t necessarily expect some of the active excursion options offered in several ports, including this one. Without a doubt, the afternoon I spent kayaking wasn’t just a highlight of my trip, but an experience I know I’ll remember for a long time.
Italian Room in Viviers
I think that sometimes when we travel it’s hard to imagine the life behind old buildings and rooms. Not just to read a sign that talks about the past, but to feel these beautiful places in an emotional way. I had the chance to experience the life behind this room while on a special tour of Viviers.
The tiny village of Viviers is home to only about 4,000 residents but it has a long and proud history, including being home to France’s smallest cathedral. The bishops of that cathedral were of noble birth and not wanting to abandon their great wealth, one such bishop built the large mansion known simply today as the Bishop’s Palace. A grand estate, this room in particular spoke to me. The so-called Italian Room thanks to the artists who were originally invited to design it in the 18th century, today it’s just another room in a quiet estate in a quiet town. But then the unexpected happened, one of France’s top dancing duos shared a few of their favorite steps – whirling around the room like spinning tops. It was then at that moment when the room sprang to life for me and I could instantly feel the beautiful weight of the centuries and the people who also twirled their way around this room so many years ago.
Vineyards of Tain l’Hermitage
The twin towns of Tournon and Tain l’Hermitage sit across the river from each other in France’s famous Côtes du Rhône region. This was my third river cruise and one thing I like most about this style of travel is the access to great little communities like these. Rolling hills all vibrant green with row after row of decades old vines surround Tain; grapes that will produce what is some of the best wine in the world. One morning I walked through these vineyards, up to the hills high above to get a better view of the area and to enjoy a wonderful summer’s day. This is the version of rural France that most of us think of and to see that it actually exists is a magical experience. Walking back towards town I passed by the endless rows of Syrah grapes that grow on the steep slopes lining the river. In a few weeks the grapes will be harvested and will eventually find themselves in bottles with names like Côtes du Rhône and Crozes-Hermitage. Some travel experiences are educational but many others are just a lot of fun, which is what my morning in Tain and Tournon was all about.
It’s been a few years since I’ve been able to visit several smaller towns and cities around France and I remembered what it is about the country that I love so much. It’s not one place to see or one bite to eat or even one friendly smile but it’s somehow just a general sense of being here. The whitewashed Mediterranean buildings of the south, the long lunches with plenty of meats, cheeses, olive oil and wine and of course the wonderful people no matter where I go – it all comes together and it transforms into a certain sense that is French rather than just a country that is France.
I took this photo in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, a small town just 20 kilometers from Avignon. My time there was brief but within an afternoon it encapsulated everything I love about France. Quiet alleyways that meander to nowhere in particular, whitewashed buildings with splashes of color, beautiful cafés sitting in the nooks and crannies of the city just begging you to visit – it’s all wonderful, it’s all France and all make this country just a wonderful place to visit.
Chateau de Rully
In what was definitely one of the most unique lunch experiences of my life, this stunning castle set amongst the rolling vineyards of Burgundy is where I spent one sunny afternoon. Unlike so many other lofty properties around the world, this French chateau still has people living in it – descendants of the same family who built it in the 12th century. 26 generations have passed since the first stone was laid at the Chateau de Rully, and the affable Comte de Ternay is absolutely proud of his heritage.
The castle is open to the public and walking around the large country estate with the Comte was an education not only in his family history, but just how rare it is for a family to keep such a castle for so very long. Tripping over the toys left behind by his young kids, I was instantly reminded that although it’s impressive, the Chateau de Rully is still a house, just as it always has been. Enjoying a country classic for lunch – boeuf Bourguignon, potatoes au gratin and a lovely tarte aux pommes for dessert – the owner poured more of his winery’s Pinot noir into his glass and we shared a few laughs in what is one of the most storybook-perfect regions of France. It was a delicious meal, but the camaraderie and of course the setting made it a lunch that I’m unlikely to forget anytime soon.
Over the next few weeks and months I’ll be sharing the individual stories and experiences about my most recent trip to France, but I wanted to start by sharing these simple moments. While we would all love to remember every second of a trip we just can’t and instead, moments like these are the ones that we carry with us throughout our lives.