Fred and Kathy's Trip to France
April 2003

We have long been interested in taking a river trip in France, and we finally did so in April 2003.  We signed up for a tour with Grand Circle Travel (see box at right), and it was just fabulous:  4 days in Paris, 7 days on the Rhone River, and 3 days in Nice (description).  We hope you enjoy this mini photo album of some of the sites we visited during our two weeks in France.  Below is a map of our trip.

Map of our trip

We chose Grand Circle Travel for several reasons:

1) the price was reasonable (they deal direct, so there is no travel agent commission to pay); 2) they have been in business for many years (they were started at the same time and by the same person who started AARP; 3) their claim of return travelers was very high (and we confirmed this on our trip); and 4) unlike another trip we considered, they included time in the French Riviera at the end of the trip. 

Their primary clients are age 50 and up, and none of the many returning passengers we spoke with had ever had a bad experience.  If you are interested in booking after visiting the Grand Circle website, you can use my name (Fred Brack) and customer number (547767) number for a referral, which could save you $50-$100 per person!  They have land, sea, and river tours all over the world.

Paris

Ah, Paris!  You just can't get enough, and there is no place in the world like it.  This was Fred's third trip to Paris and Kathy's second.  Like the rest of France, essentially all the buildings are made of stone.  There are many very old buildings, and so many unique places, like the Eiffel Tower, the Pompidou Center (Beaubourg), the Louvre, and Notre Dame. 

Below:  The Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame.

The Eiffel Tower. Notre Dame.

Below:  the largest painting in the Louvre (which contains art prior to 1848), and one of the ornate side rooms in the Musée d'Orsay (which features modern art, meaning post 1848).  The three most famous items in the Louvre are the Venus de Milo statue, the Winged Victory statue, and the Mona Lisa.  When we visited, the Mona Lisa was displayed in temporary quarters (and behind bulletproof glass), making it rather unimpressive.  The Musée d'Orsay is housed in an old but ornate railway station and is definitely worth a visit.

A room in the Louvre. A room in the Musee d'Orsay.

We also took a side trip to Versailles (below left).  Many of the rooms inside seemed to have every inch of the wall and ceiling covered in paintings and ornamentation (below right).  There were also many gardens and fountains to see outside, as the property stretches for hundreds of acres.

Outside view of Versailles. Walls and ceiling of ornate room in Versailles.

A friend who lives in Paris recommended an out-of-the-way restaurant in Montmatre called Le Perroquet Vert.  We dined there one night and had a great meal, including an outstanding pumpkin soup with escargot floated on toasted French bread.  We had a far less good meal at The Moulin Rouge, but the entertainment was spectacular!

The Rhone River Trip

We took a high speed train (called TGV and so smooth that you hardly knew it was moving) from Paris to Lyon and boarded our river boat, the MS Ravel, our floating hotel for the next seven days.  The boat was 363 feet long by 38 feet wide and held 120 passengers and 32 crew (though there were only 82 passengers on our cruise, due to cancellations by Americans scared of something or other to do with the war in Iraq -- we had no such fears, and differences in opinions on the war between our governments had absolutely no effect on the great relationship we all felt with the French people we encountered).  There was an upper sun deck (with a covered section available); the main deck, which consisted of a beautiful lounge up front, dining room aft, a reception area and small library, and cabins with small balconies; the lower deck, which held the remaining cabins, each of which had two large windows.  The cabins had TV's, and we watched the European version of CNN at times.  Here is the boat docked at the end of the trip at Arles and us in the lounge.  (Though I have a jacket on in this photo, dress for all meals was casual and table seating was unassigned.)

The MS Ravel docked at Arles. Fred and Kathy in the ship's lounge.

We piloted north along the Saône River to Chalon-sur-Saône, where we docked and took a bus to Beaune in the heart of the Burgundy wine district.  The scenery was magnificent!  We visited the Hôtel Dieu or Hospices of Beaune (below left, a magnificent former hospital for the poor built in 1445), plus had a wine tasting at the Chateau Savigny (below right), which also houses a collection of race cars, motorcycles, and old aircraft.  Along the way we saw plenty of vineyards, all of which had been cut back, ready for the start of a new growing season (we look forward to their output!).

Inside the Hotel Dieu. Vineyards. The Chateau Savigny.

We returned the next day to Lyon where we toured.  It is a beautiful city, one worth returning to.  We visited the magnificent Our Lady of Fourviere  Basilica (spires to the right of the tower in the picture on the left below), and saw a fascinating mural (a technique called Trompe l'Oeil) painted on the side of a building (notice even the steps and car are painted in the photo on the right below; and only the tiny out-of-place openings are real windows).

Lyon from the Rhone. A Trompe l'Oeil, or mural, on the side of a building.

From there we headed south to Tournon, where we were pleasantly surprised to find that Grand Circle had added a new feature to the tour:  home visits.  We broke into small groups, were picked up by local families, and were taken to their homes for tours, talk, wine, snacks, and small gifts.  What a magnificent experience!  Our host (below on the right in the first picture) didn't speak English, so she invited a friend who teaches English (on the left), plus three other friends.  The teacher's brother owned a winery, and she brought two bottles of fabulous Crozes-Hermitage Blanc by Olivier Dumaine.  We had wine, chocolate, and cake!  We walked over the picturesque bridge in the second picture.

Madame Andre's home and her friends. Bridge at Tournon

The next stop was the small town of Viviers, with a scenic walk from the boat through a long row of Plane trees (similar to our Sycamore) to the center of town.  As is typical in France, the trees had been trimmed back and were just starting to grow new leaves.  The picture on the left was taken where the road curves in the picture on the right.

The town center of Viviers. View of Viviers from the hill.

Next was Avignon, which was of fairly good size and the home of the Palace of the Popes.  The picture on the left below was taken from the boat shortly before arriving at Avignon, and the one on the right was the main square when we walked into Avignon.  Note the colorful tiles and the huge Plane tree.

A view near Avignon. Main square in Avignon.

Our last stop was Arles, home of Vincent Van Gogh in his later years -- another very scenic town.  Below:  the ancient arena, where they were holding a "bull game" (the bull was not to be killed) and the café which was painted by Van Gogh as "The Café Terrace at Night" in 1888 (a reproduction of the painting is in the lower right of the photo, and you can click the link to see the painting).

The arena at Arles. The café used as the basis for Van Gogh's "Café Terrace at Night."

On to Nice

We left the boat and took a bus to Aix-en-Provence (Aix is pronounced Ex).  After touring there, we headed to Nice in the area of France known as the Cotes d'Azur, for the color of the water.  Outside France it is called the French Riviera.  Nice is a fairly large town, with a huge waterfront area and pedestrian walkway (below left).  Surprisingly to us, the beach is not sand, but rocks.  They call them pebbles, but they were large round rocks, some as big as a child's fist. Nevertheless, brave souls, some of them topless, were stretched out on towels in the less-than-70°F windy weather! We climbed a hill overlooking the area and the view was magnificent.  There was a long strip of shops and cafés and some very attractive buildings (below right) in colors typical of the Provence area of France.

The beach at Nice. Buildings in Nice.

From Nice we took two bus tours:  one to the Principality of Monoco (Monte Carlo) and one to a village called St Paul de Vence.  We also had an outstanding meal at the Flo Brasserie, which is a restaurant in an old but magnificent theatre, with the kitchen up on stage behind glass.

Summary

This was an excellent trip.  We are exceedingly pleased with our experience with Grand Circle Travel, and we will  be using them again.  The air connections were fine, the two program directors (Dominique and Mary-Pierre) were marvelous, the individual tour guides did an excellent job, the boat was great, the food was superb, the "hotel" (boat) manager (Pierre) was multitalented (he sang to us each evening), and the itinerary was terrific.  What more can we say!  We look forward to returning to take a trip from the Netherlands by boat all the way to Vienna, and then maybe taking another trip on the Seine from Paris to Normandy.


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