My husband, Charles always says, “this is the travel chapter of our lives. Let’s just go for it.” I love planning trips and booking flights. So when I decided we should take a river cruise during a few weeks in April, a pretty miserable month in Toronto weather-wise, it was an easy proposal.
I looked at different cruise companies, read cruise critic, and spoke to my travel consultant at Tully Luxury Travel in Toronto to learn a bit about river cruise companies, and decided to try Uniworld in France from Lyon to Avignon. How wrong could I be choosing a trip in France, and as it was somewhat last minute, I was delighted with my choice.
a fellow traveler in Air Canada’s Signature Suite Pearson Airport Toronto
Whenever we travel overseas, I usually have a down day booked when we arrive at our destination while we adjust to the time difference, and just relax after a long flight or in this case flights. The big surprise for us was the new Air Canada Lounge in Pearson Airport in Toronto. We were flying business class lowest fare, and were invited into the brand new Signature Suite. What a delight. David Hawksworth, who has the esteemed Vancouver restaurant, Hawksworth, in the Rosewood Hotel, designs the food. We were seated at a lovely minimalist table, given a menu for dinner, and offered champagne. We chose tuna tataki and seared fois gras. This is in the airport. What a way to start a trip!
The flight was uneventful albeit late in starting, and we had to rush in Frankfurt to catch our connection to Lyon. Frankfurt is a rather unattractive and large airport, okay- ugly, and they still use buses to take you to the planes. I have noted to avoid this one in the future, however, because our entire flight was booked on Air Canada we felt a sort of protection in making our connection. Best to use same airlines when transferring if possible. This is also good for baggage. We made it, and so did our luggage.
We arrived in Lyon and went to our charming top of the hillside hotel, Villa Florentine, which was once a convent, and there were many reminders on the walls, with the art, As well there was a silk weaving machine in the lobby, and a small bar at the end where we were invited for a welcome glass of bubbly. Our room was small, but delightful, and the window viewed the rooftops of Lyon.
entrance to Hotel Villa Florentine in Lyon
silk machine in lobby of hotel
view over rooftops from hotel window in Lyon
lobby bar at Villa Florentine
I had booked the restaurant in the hotel for the following night, as we never want to eat fancy after a long flight, and a discombobulated day. So we asked for a recommendation in the old town and ended up walking to a Bouchon or local rustic restaurant for a simply delicious dinner, this one was called Daniel et Denise. The tradition of bouchons came from small inns visited by silk workers passing through Lyon in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The food is simpler and often revolves around duck. I had quenelle, or very smooth ground up fish, usually pike, with a sauce nantua, often made from crayfish. Charles had a lamb shank with Lyonnaise potatoes. The wines from the region were delicious and inexpensive like St. Joseph and Cotes de Rhone. We sampled a Brouilly.
jarret d’agneau or lamb shank, and other diners at the Bouchon
230 and counting
We walked back to the hotel up the 230 steps, breathing at various stops and watching the locals tramp on in front of us. We were getting into Lyon shape because the next day we headed off up another hill to see the famous Fourvière Basilica. And what makes a church a basilica? When a pope decides so. This one, built in 1870 was where pilgrims prayed and is today spectacular in its size and beauty. I, although Jewish, always light a candle in front of a Madonna in memory of my daughter, Carrie when I visit cathedrals, and churches, anywhere it is possible. This gives me great solace. It was April 14, and the anniversary of Carrie’s death many years ago, so the lighting of the candle was particularly poignant.
Before we headed off on our trek I went for a swim in the outdoor, slightly heated pool. It was drizzling, but I was not the only crazy person swimming. Charles went to work out in the gym. Then we had a delicious breakfast, visited the Basilica, and the aqueduct and a museum with a very smart exhibit, called Aqua, about the lack of water on earth. The Romans were very sophisticated about aqueducts and water handling. It was extremely well put together with taped stories that you listened to through a shower head.
listening to the tape of the Aqua exhibit
exhibit of Martin Luther King in pictures
We also viewed a photo gallery with a tribute to Martin Luther King on display. The ruins of the Roman amphitheater looked incredible, and apparently there are concerts there in the summer. Lyon was a city of Gaul and there are lots of ruins everywhere, also many hills. After more walking and a search for a small bistro for a cold drink, we weakened and took a taxi back to the hotel for a nap.
silk weaving in Lyon
the amphitheatre, museum filled with artifacts, and view of hillside
bistro lunch in Lyon
store window in food obsessed Lyon
We went to the fancy, one Michelin star restaurant in the hotel for dinner, Les Terrasses de Lyon, and although we started in a table mid way back from the glorious view, we were moved during the dinner to a better one. Their offer, not my insistence. The lights were sparkling over Lyon and despite a bit of attitude from the servers, the meal was very good, as well as very expensive. The lobster cigales and the cheese chariot are especially memorable, as was the fois gras in consommé. I love the large chariot of cheese and a chance to choose samples of each. Every so often we see one that is by Christofle, the famed silver designer, even better than the cheese.
my thoughts exactly: to eat is a necessity, to know how to eat is an art
Before we left to meet up with the boat, we went for lunch in the old town and wandered around looking in store windows, and watched a wonderful silk demonstration in a scarf store. We found an outdoor bistro called Café-Épicerie and had a glass of rosé, some yummy smoked salmon and delicious vegetable soup. The weather was clearing and although a bit cool was getting perfect for our river cruise. We walked back up the 230 stairs at definitely a better pace than the first time, gathered our bags, and took a taxi to the river where we saw our ship/boat the S.S. Catherine , named for Catherine Deneuve.
Now Charles has always adored the French film star even to copying her accent when she said, “Zese are some of my favorite tings” in an old television ad. However, she stayed at the hotel where we were ensconced and didn’t exactly cover herself in glory. She was there to inaugurate her namesake ship with champagne, and left everyone waiting for 2 hours before she appeared. She also smoked so much in her non-smoking room that the hotel had to purchase a special ionization machine to get rid of the smell. Apparently she smokes everywhere all the time, and manages to give the title prima donna a new meaning. Ah yes, fame will make some people very arrogant and egocentric.
The Catherine is very new, and shiny and small if you compare it to a cruise ship like The Seabourn, our favourite, that only takes 350 passengers. I believe there were about 140 guests aboard. We had booked a category 1 room that was on the top deck. Ours near the stern and over the engine, but we only felt the rumble when we were in the bathroom, and that wasn’t a problem. All was cleverly designed, with a place for our clothes, I travel fairly lightly, and our shoes, not so lightly. It was really incredible how there was a place for everything. We just had to not stand together in the bathroom or the bedroom, as we couldn’t pass each other. There was a tiny terrace attached to the room and a large large window that opened electrically, so you felt you were outside. Very clever. As you cruised past the scenery it looked like a series of oil paintings framed by our window, quite lovely and relaxing.
That first afternoon we were all required to meet in the lounge for a safety briefing, and we stayed to have a drink. Everything was included, even shore excursions, except a few very special ones. The only concern we had at that first gathering was a large group aboard of 80 people. They were all connected in one way or another to the US Naval Academy Annapolis, and this was a 50th reunion trip. They took over the lounge, were very noisy, and we worried that the trip would become about them, but as you will learn in my next blog, this wasn’t the case. They turned out to be very friendly and inclusive.
Before dinner we were introduced to the cruise director, a charming young woman, Emmanuelle, who gave us a run down about the following day, introduced us to the sommelier or wine steward, Laura, who seemed very knowledgeable about the wines from the region, and had a delightful dry sense of humor.
Emmanuelle the charming cruise director
Laura, the wine steward
At dinner we joined a table with a pleasant couple from Sacramento. The food was good not great, but yummy wines, and excellent conversation. We were getting excited about this cruise from Lyon to Avignon and some of the excursions, anticipating the following week on the rivers Saône and Rhône, and the adventures waiting for us.
We met our cabin attendant, Magdalena, and she seemed very eager to please. We like lots of water, and in this little perfect suite there is no mini bar. All the water onboard though was filtered and drinkable. We settled in memorizing where we were in the room for those middle of the night visits to the bathroom, opened our kindles, and cuddled in.
We have been at home now in Toronto for a week. When we travel I keep copious notes, many of which I can’t always interpret because I write in point form, and do this at the end of a busy day. But you will always get the highlights.
It has been an interesting spring in Toronto punctuated by a violent windstorm that felled many trees in our neighbourhood, and a power outage that lasted 10 hours. Some of my friends who live quite close by still don’t have their power back. On my Sunday morning dog walk I saw many massive 100 plus year old trees sprawled across some of the nearby streets. Even though it was Sunday, work was in progress to move these.
Our opening day for the ladies at Islington Golf Club was yesterday, and it was great to see old friends and to play on a beautiful day, despite the fact that the trees on the course still are pretty bare, and our creeks are under repair. There is always a theme and yesterday’s was Tickled Pink. So you could see a mass of pink when you looked out on the course, and the dinner afterward is always a riotous affair with excellent food and some some very creative costumes.
As a look out my window at my desk I can see the buds on the maple tree just starting to form. Spring is here.
I can’t wait to tell you about the cruise, and especially about our culinary experiences, which are always a highlight for us.