You left us last week having boarded Uniworld’s SS Catherine, for what would be the second part of our honeymoon adventure. We have already gone through Sorrento, Capri, Kotor and Venice with Crystal Cruises and you join us now in the south of France, preparing for a week of lazing around on France’s waterways, or so we thought.
After boarding in Lyon, our ship was due to sail north that day, to Macon and Beaune, before travelling back south for a longer stay in Lyon. It would then be on towards the French riviera, finishing in the medieval town of Avignon.
Lyon sits at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers. While the bigger Rhone would be the one to take us south, our first full day would be spent on the Saone, heading north.
As we sailed up towards Macon, a town around 80km away, I was reminded of everything I love about river cruising. Despite the fact that Crystal Serenity could hardly be described as a small ship, compared with the Catherine it was like Oasis of the Seas. OK, it doesn’t have all the choice when it comes to bars, restaurants and outdoor spaces but instead of that there is a far friendlier intimacy, a camaraderie, between guests. Equally, and perhaps more obviously, I like nothing better than sitting on deck and watching the scenery go by. Whether it’s the Irrawaddy, the Yangtze or indeed the Saone, get a good vantage point on a river ship, and a cool beer, and you find yourself barely dipping into the stack of books you optimistically brought with you. Sitting on deck on an ocean ship and watching the sea is extremely calming, but to watch life on a river is fascinating.
We pulled into Macon and boarded a bus for Beaune. On our way to the town we get our first glimpse of the vineyards that make this region famous around the world. They stretch as far as the eye can see. Luckily we arrived during harvest season and gangs of grape-pickers are dotted around the landscape, congregating around the unlucky soul who has volunteered to carry the huge container on his back. The pickers throw their fruit into the vat furiously as they try and get through as much of the vineyard as possible. The work is seasonal and attracts people from across the EU as well as economic migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, who are now paid the same rate as French workers.
We are now in Burgundy. A region famous for its pinot noir and chablis, and many of the vineyards we pass through have been awarded the exulted ‘grand crus’ certification, which is the highest rank possible. These aren’t bottles you can pick up in Aldi for a Friday night in.
Beaune is a small town with a population of hardly more than 20,000 people. Nestled among some of Burgundy’s best vineyards, it is hardly surprising that the town is known as the wine capital of the region. However, Google Beaune and it isn’t the wine that comes up, but the beautiful 15th century Hospices de Beaune.
Built in 1443 as a hospital for the poor, the building is one of the finest examples of medieval French architecture in existence. Its roof – now a replica – is decked with colourful tiles that are unlike anything I can remember seeing. We are given a tour of the building and taught about its fascinating history. The hospital pioneered sanitation and treated its impoverished patients remarkably well, when there was no other form of state welfare available.
Over the centuries the hospital received donations and inheritance from wealthy patrons including a substantial number of vineyards. It has held an annual charity wine auction since the 19th century, which is now ran by Christie’s.
Before we head back to Lyon we pick up a couple of bottles (unfortunately not of grand crus) as well as a jar of mustard. Our guide tells us that while you would assume that Dijon mustard was from the region – and it originally was – it is yet to gain protected status. We are advised to buy Burgundy Mustard instead, and who are we to argue with an expert?
Next it’s Lyon and then further south.