It's Sunday night, late, and on the Princesse de Provence, a 142-passenger riverboat cruising from Arles to Avignon, we're in the midst of the nightly six-course dinner extravaganza. Menus reflect typical cruise ship pretensions of grandeur tidbits like red mullet with capers, poultry consomme with almond-egg custard, and veal in basil sauce, accompanied by a bottle of local Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Somewhere between the main course and the coffee eclairs doused with apple sauce, our vessel, a dollhouse compared with today's 2,000-plus capacity mega cruise ships, gently veers to the bank of the Rhone. Spotlights point to a flat-topped, curved wall ringing the city of Avignon. In medieval times, it protected the town from bandits.
We dock so gently that diners don't even realize the ship has stopped until we hear the gangplank scraping against the concrete sidewalk. We're not tied up at a pier, exactly; a couple of ropes anchor us to a riverside walkway that meanders alongside a boulevard.
Our waiter, pouring the last coffee, suggests we go ashore to see the Palais des Papes, the medieval headquarters of nine 15th-century popes who aimed to create a papacy to rival Rome's. It's the city's best-known attraction, often dubbed the Versailles of Avignon. The palace is beautifully lit at night, the waiter says, confessing that, when he's off work at 3 a.m., he sometimes wanders into town to see it.
And I'm thinking, Now? After all, we'll be docked here all day tomorrow. Who knows if Avignon's safe this late? Who knows just how far it really is from the ship? But I'm intrigued, so I wander out, crossing the highway and cutting through a ghostly commuter parking lot before entering Avignon under an arched gateway through the wall. And in two minutes I'm in the center of the city, walking up narrow, winding Rue St. Agricol where the Christian LaCroix and Ralph Lauren boutiques are dark, the art galleries shadowed. Even the cafes on Place de L'Horloge, the town's main plaza, are on last call.
For a traveler who frequents cruise ships from which hordes of passengers descend into a port at the same time, often facing mobs of persistent taxi drivers, trinket merchants and numerous local ne'er-do-wells, this lovely non-welcome is just one distinguishing characteristic of a riverboat cruise. The passengers never overwhelm the ports of call and, happily, prove to be of little interest to hucksters.
On this midnight stroll through Avignon, I crisscross paths with a sprinkling of other cruisers; we wave hello and continue on our separate ways. When I reach the Place du Palais, the plaza at the Palais des Papes, there's not a soul around. Its towers and turrets are illuminated by spotlights that somehow do not wash out the stars in the sky. The plaza, full of throngs by daylight, is magically empty. I have my own private audience with the ghosts of popes past.
My seven-day cruise aboard the Princess de Provence, which sails weekly from April to early November, explored France's provincial heartland. The normal itinerary departs from Lyon, France's second-largest city and self-proclaimed gastronomic capital and where the Rhone and Saone rivers meet. The ship heads north on the Saone, which leads to the regions of Burgundy and Beaujolais, then turns south on the Rhone, where it stops in Provence and the Ardeche.
This being my first small ship, and a non-ocean-bound cruise, I was a little nervous about the riverboat concept. What I've enjoyed most about mega-ship cruising was the onboard experience the pampering of cabin stewards, swim-up pool bars, libraries and gift shops and spas. Itineraries were secondary. Here, would I miss the extras, like alternative dining, 24-hour room service, casino gambling, after-dinner theater, lounging by the pool, the restorative (and meditative) laps around the deck? Would familiarity with fellow passengers breed contempt?
As it turned out, I didn't miss the comforts and extravagances. Fewer choices, I found, meant a simpler life onboard. Mealtimes were the high point of social activity; other onboard "events" included afternoon tea and an occasional cocktail hour. Dining tables were small; you really got to know your tablemates. The room was big enough and the number of passengers small enough so that everyone ate at the same time. Each night, before and after dinner, "musician Julius" played a portable electric piano. Occasionally, couples waltzed.
Because people tended to cluster on the sun deck in good weather and in the lounge at night, there were natural opportunities for passengers to mingle, resulting in a pleasant camaraderie. By the end of our week, it would take me 15 minutes to wend my way from dining room to lobby because people stopped to chat, inquire about the day and exchange invitations for excursions.
On this kind of ship, ports of call truly matter. Our itinerary was altered by heavy rain that had fallen over the previous two weeks. River levels on the Saone in particular prevented our low-slung boat from passing under even lower bridges. Amid much grumbling, the visit to Burgundy was eliminated. A one-hour port stop in the Rhone Valley town of Vienne was extended to a full day. And our planned return to Lyon for one overnight turned into three.
Still, as we progressed along the Rhone, there were more interesting moments like the one in Avignon visits to villages so obscure they weren't even included in "France: The Rough Guide"; plus stops in such well-trodden magnets as Provence's Les Baux, St. Remy and Arles. The mix was pleasing. It meant you could alternately laze away an afternoon at a sun-drenched cafe table drinking local rose and eating steak au poivre and creme caramel, or engage in idle shopping fantasies at places like Herve Baum's antiques, a favorite of Avignon society matrons, where an old marble-topped table could be yours for 125,000 francs (just over $22,000). The extended schedule gave us enough time in Lyon to hit the major sights the Basilique de Fourviere, the Renaissance facades of Vieux Lyon (the old city) and its funky boutiques and antiques stores.
Other highlights included the Textile Museum, which traces the history of the city's famed silk trade, and the Centre Histoire de la Resistance et de la Deportation, whose exhibits commemorated efforts of French patriots to undermine the German occupation during World War II. There was also time to spend on less official touristing. One highlight was 45 memorable minutes in a Lyon wine store where the proprietor, conversing in halting English and brandishing a dictionary, introduced me to the region's white Beaujolais as if he had all the time in the world and cared little if I actually bought anything. When I left, carrying a couple of $8 bottles of Beaujolais, he walked me to the door like an old friend.
KD River Cruises of Europe claims to be the oldest passenger line in Europe; its ships began cruising the Rhine in 1827. But river cruising, says KD's Carol Zaiser, is really a 1990s phenomenon, growing in popularity as Americans become more frequent and sophisticated overseas travelers. "This is a trip for people who have been to Europe before and want something different," she says.
Since the early 1990s, both KD and Peter Deilmann, another cruise line, have added new ships, and created itineraries (most notably voyages on the Elbe River, which became viable when the Berlin Wall tumbled down). Another seismic change was the completion of the Main-Danube Canal, which connects Amsterdam, on the North Sea, to Passau, in southern Germany and on the Black Sea a project that took a century to build. Right now, the big trend is that the newest crop of ships is incorporating luxurious amenities: Deilmann's Mozart and KD's Heinrich Heine both have indoor swimming pools; some have solariums and saunas and more are adding in-cabin TVs.
But they can't mimic ocean liners too closely, because riverboats will always be limited by size. Most are no more than 38 feet wide in order to pass through locks that control many European rivers (the Rhone has 12 between Lyon and Arles). The majority are just three decks high, which enables them to squeak under low bridges. Passenger counts range from 50 to 200. The oceangoing cruise ship Sun Princess, a giant by comparison, holds 1,950 passengers and is 83 feet wide and 856 feet long.
Europe is a popular locale because many of its countries Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, France, the Netherlands, Ireland, the United Kingdom are laced with interlocking rivers and canals. Since pre-auto and pre-train days, these waterways have connected the Continent's major cities Vienna, Budapest, Paris, Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam and London. The routes are dotted with cities that have long been key provincial powers interspersed with historic villages that are of less importance today. Consequently the river tours offer easy access to many wonderful cities and towns off today's mainstream tourist itineraries.
After seven days among 115 passengers, most of whom, save the German speakers, mixed and mingled easily, I got lulled into a feeling of bonhomie. There were numerous passenger bonding experiences, from sipping kirs (white wine mixed with homemade creme de cassis, a liqueur consisting of black currant and brandy) a little too bright and early at 10 a.m. in a tiny village in the wilds of the Ardeche to numerous impromptu hikes with fellow cruisers to hilltop cathedrals (every town we visited seemed to have one).
But while the ship's officers always seemed to be around, the camaraderie didn't extend to them. There seemed to be an odd us-against-them rivalry between crew, most of whom hailed from Germany since Deilmann (which owns the Princesse) is a German-owned company, and passengers, the majority of whom were American, with a handful of Germans and British. Ultimately, though, what was troubling about a cruise that otherwise really delivered on the small-ship promise was a strange hostility that somehow always seemed to involve money. A steady undercurrent of stinginess gave an unpleasant odor to the experience.
The least of it was the pricing of bottles of wine at dinner; there were few, if any, below $25 on an itinerary where every gas station and grocery store was selling quality Rhone Valley wines for $5 a bottle. Onboard purchases from wine at dinner to a toothbrush at the tiny gift shop to shore excursions were billed in German marks, which caused problems for American travelers who'd mastered conversion of the French franc but hadn't thought to memorize the mark as well. The crew made little effort to explain the difference. A lot of us got stung on the first night when we took the wine steward's recommendation and bought a bottle of Chablis priced at "69,00" in francs, it would have cost $12.15; in marks, it came to $40.75.
During one dinner, our wine steward (who doubled as bartender in the Mephisto Lounge downstairs), approached my table and accused me of walking out on a bar tab the night before. As though on this very tiny ship where everybody, save crew, really does know your name, he had caught me! Pulling a fast one! He was wrong, of course, but that's not the point. It was one of the most repulsive acts of customer relations I've ever witnessed, and I was on the receiving end. He continued his humiliating tirade (capped by presenting the bill with a dramatic flourish) as my tablemates were seated by a maitre d', who was oblivious to the drama unfolding before him.
On the last night, all the passengers gathered in the lounge for the captain's farewell party, and Jurgen Timmerman, the hotel director, held aloft a glass of champagne as he thanked the passengers for a wonderful cruise. "We will miss you," he intoned. It was a standard speech, meant to communicate a sense of warmth and camaraderie that simply never existed, at least for me. Having cruised exclusively on larger ships, where you don't expect to bond with staff and crew, I'd wrongly surmised that the small ship atmosphere would be a cozier experience.
In fact, by the end of the cruise, I was thinking that maybe there were some advantages to the more anonymous and, in a corporate way, more sophisticated big ship experience. Maybe no one but your companions calls you by name, but at least you're not subjected to the rough-around-the-edges culture of a small operation whose staffers, nonetheless, expect a handsome tip.
On the last morning, I fled with unusual haste. As much as I enjoyed the other passengers, in particular my hail-from-Ireland tablemates, I was eager to plunge back into the impersonal big city where I was spending the night at a hotel. I wandered around Lyon alone that Saturday, pleased to be out on my own, free of the strange, hostile tension of the angry bartender and the rest of the crew.
At dinner time, I stopped at a Petit Casino market in Old Lyon, where I picked up some bread, sausages, cheese and wine, dreaming of a cozy picnic alone in my hotel room. On the way back, I peered into a cafe and there, sipping coffee, were my Irish tablemates, Anne and Anthony. Having spent less than 12 hours indulging in my cherished independence, I abandoned all thoughts of a solitary feast and plunged into the cafe to join them.
I'd missed them.
River vessels vary slightly. The Danube, whose channels and locks are wider than most other rivers, can accommodate larger boats; as a result, these are often more luxurious, featuring amenities such as indoor pools, elevators and gyms. Conversely, boats that ply the Rhone will never get too fancy because the river's low bridges and narrow canals limit their size.
For a seven-day cruise, expect to pay from $1,300 to $4,620 per person ($2,000 per person is the average; air fare's extra). River cruisers operate pretty much like the mainstream lines the price includes all onboard meals and entertainment. Tipping is extra (guidelines are provided). Liquor, shore excursions, beauty shop treatments and gift shop purchases are also extra. Fares are lowest during shoulder seasons (early spring and late fall), but beware: Cruises are cheaper because weather can be rainy and cool.
Important factors to consider include the staff-to-passenger ratio, cabin size and amenities (only a handful come with extras like in-room TVs and VCRs, swimming pools, elevators and health clubs). Cabins, which range from 125 square feet to 200 square feet, are generally smaller than those on a mainstream vessel.
River cruising is not limited to Europe. Regal China Cruises (1-800-808-3388) sails the Yangzte with three 270-passenger vessels. Abercrombie & Kent (1-800-323-7308, www.abercrombiekent.com) offers up-market cruises down the Amazon and Nile rivers along with European itineraries.
River cruising has also taken hold in the United States. The American West Steamboat Co. (1-800-434-1232) sails year-round from Portland, Ore., on the Columbia, Willamette and Snake rivers. Its three modern vessels, each of which holds 146 passengers, recall the stern-wheelers that operated in Northwest more than 150 years ago. The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. (1-800-543-7637, www.deltaqueen.com) specializes in Midwestern cruises, via the Ohio and Mississippi. Its boats are among the largest, with passenger capacity ranging from 174 on the Delta Queen to 436 on the American Queen. New on the scene is RiverBarge Excursions (1-888-GO-BARGE, www.riverbarge.com), whose River Explorer is a paddle-wheeler that travels the Mississippi and Columbia.
To book a cruise, you can try a travel agent, but I had little luck in finding one who was knowledgeable about this type of trip (although agents who specialize in Europe may have some experience booking river voyages). You can also book directly with companies like Peter Deilmann (1-800-348-8287, www.deilmann-cruises .com), Abercrombie & Kent (see above) or KD River Cruises of Europe (1-800-346-6525, www.rivercruises.com). You might also check with tour operators like Grand Circle Travel (1-800-955-1034, www.gct.com) or EuroCruises (1-800-688-3876, www.eurocruises.com), which represent numerous vessels. Currently, Blue Heart Tours (1-800-882-0025, www.blueheart.com), a tour operator based in Alexandria that offers numerous river-cruising options, is booking eight-night Rhone River cruise/land packages on the Princesse de Provence, in conjunction with Swissair. Total cost per person, including air, starts at $2,089 for shoulder season voyages; prime months of May and October begin at $2,279.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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