Our AMA Waterways tour of Provence and Spain started one day prior to departing Paris for Lyon and embarkation on the Amadagio.
See link for information on this wonderful ship.
We wanted to arrive one day early to recover from jet lag and as insurance not to miss the cruise. Our flight from the US on Air France was good. Air France is a good airline. We arrived in Charles de Gaulle Airport in the morning, made our way through passport control, found an ATM, collected some Euros, then signed up for the Air France Bus number four that took us to the Montparnasse Rail station, which was across the street from the Hotel Pullman Paris Montparnasse, the hotel we had booked with AMA for the one night. The Air France bus is a great deal for us at 16.50 Euros per person.
The bus did take a little over two hours to arrive at the hotel, but Paris traffic was heavy.
We could have saved some money on booking our own hotel, but we had to be at the Hotel Pullman at 7am that morning. That would have let to a difficult morning, so we signed up for the one night at the Pullman. We didn't want to do Paris, since we lived in Germany for four years and had been to Paris before.
We checked out of the hotel, and AMA's busses took us all to the Gare de Lyon train station to board the TGV high-speed train. The train was nice and our second class tickets were not bad. The train goes up to 190 MPH, but we were able to see some of the countryside. After arriving in Lyon, we had lunch (our bags were put on the bus so we only had to carry our important light bags with us. We then met in the main square of Lyon (Place Bellecour) for a short walk for a cooking demonstration. The demonstration was interactive and we had to assist in the cooking. We enjoyed the event and were able to sample our dishes. We were transferred to the Amadagio, where we had a welcome dinner.
We found the ship to be more spacious than on our previous river cruise in Russia. The cabin was almost as large as some ocean cruise ship cabins. The ship looked very new, even though we knew it was built in 2006, but we discovered that it had been refurbished just two months ago. The Captains (Husband and Wife team), crew and staff were very nice and responsive. Many of the staff was from Hungary and Bulgaria. Service was excellent. The ship had a spacious dining area, separate, also spacious bar/lounge area, as well as the top deck. There was a beauty shop, small exercise room and small shop as well as a nice library.
One of the advantages of river cruising is meeting a lot of people. There were 150 passengers and we got to know quite a few of them, much better than we would have on an ocean cruise. On the train down from Paris, we met Sue and Gary from LA and enjoyed their company during the cruise, especially at meals. Sue and Gary had travelled quite a bit and we were able to compare notes on places. I became more familiar with one of Gary's legs after he fainted during the cooking demonstration in Lyon and one of the passengers (a physician) told us to hold is legs up. Gary quickly recovered and seemed to have a good cruise.
We found the cuisine on the boat to exceed our expectations for a river cruise. We had three choices for an entree, but frequently a waiter brought around more of the entrees and vegetables if you wanted more. Dear Wife, Ginny indicated that we seemed to eat every half an hour. That was not quite true, but eat we did, and eat well. Also, AMA provides free wine with the dinner meal and a waitress was constantly making the rounds of all 150 passengers, filling up partially empty wine glasses.
On another point, this cruise should be called a wine cruise, not just due to the free dinner wine, but because we visited so many vineyards and wineries on our cruise. We enjoyed the wine; after all, it was France.
The next day we had a tour of Lyon that included a drive around the city and visit to the Basilica of Notre-Dame, as well as the ruins of a Roman theater. Lyon was called Lugdunum when controlled by the Romans. Emperor Claudius was actually born in Lyon. The views of the city below were worth the trip to the top of the hill alone. Lyon lies between the Saone and Rhone rivers (Saone is a tributary of the Rhone, but runs parallel to the Rhone for some distance. Lyon is the third largest city in France, and has spilled over both banks of both rivers. Also, walking we were taken to the "traboules" or houses in the old city that originally were workshops for silk workers. Later converted to homes, many of the homes (like interconnected townhouses with interior courtyards and passages) allowed resistance fighters to avoid capture by the Gestapo during WWII.
After the Lyon tour, we returned to the ship and enjoyed a lecture on wine on our way to the small village of Trevoux. The city is on the East bank of the Saone, and was independent of France until recent centuries. We enjoyed going to a small village with its medieval ramparts and hillside Chateau. We were to discover several wonderful villages, towns and cities on our way down the Saone and Rhone to Arles. Also, in Trevoux we learned about the Provencal game of petanque (Bocce). The game is played with hollow balls the slightly smaller than a softball on a flat sandy surface. A player tries to place his balls close to the small target ball. I was one of the volunteers that played an abbreviated game.
The next day, our bus tour departed from the ship at Trevoux through the beautiful Beaujolais wine region, often called the land of golden stones, after the limestone of the houses and villages. After a visit to a winery, where we sampled the Beaujolais wine and learned more, first hand, about its wine, we wound through the hills to the medieval hilltop village of Oingt. Oingt was like a mini-Rothenberg (walled city in Germany). The city was one of many historical walled or not cities that we visited on this trip. We returned to the ship and continued downriver past Lyon toward Vienne.
Vienne was one of my favorite cities on this cruise. It was loaded with Roman history and medieval sites as well. We visited the Roman Temple of Augustus and Livia, the ruins of a Roman theater and the medieval churches of St. Andre-Le-Bas and Abbey St. Pierre (the ancient abbey was loaded with Roman sculptures, mosaics, amphorae, etc. ) and rode on the mini train to see a wonderful panorama of the city, river and surrounding areas.
After the Vienne tour, the ship departed for Tournon, where we visited another winery. The wine from this winery was better than what we had in Beaujolais. The wine from this region is named after the region: Cotes du Rhone. We had another wine lecture on this ship that helped us to understand the different regions of France.
The next morning we visited Tournon and its 16th Century castle, which is now the town hall. Tournon was another French town with character. We returned to the ship and sailed to Viviers. We had the choice of a nougat tour or the ghost tour of Viviers. The "ghost walk" through this the medieval town, was enjoyable, due to the setting and the acting of the Day 10. We learned of the story of Nol Albert, who was beheaded when he ran afoul of the authorities. His ghost still lives in Viviers. The tour was interesting, but we were not able to enjoy the city very much at night. Still, when you consider all the cities and villages that we visited, I can see why a night visit was in the works. Viviers was another remarkable stone medieval city. It only has about 3000 residents, one it had more than ten times that much. Still, we were told that the city fills up in the summer.
The next day, we visited a farm that cultivated truffles. We learned that truffles take over ten years to grow. Trees are planted with truffle seeds in the roots. Dogs are used to find the truffles (pigs were once used, but they ate the truffles). We sampled some shavings of truffle, which were very tasty and watched the dogs (two blonde labs) in action. Then we visited Grignan, a village perched upon a hill surrounded by lavender fields, including a Renaissance castle. Again, we had a great view of the beautiful countryside.
In the afternoon, our bus arrived in Avignon. After lunch, we visited the ancient Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard, which is the highest in Europe and you can find its image on the five Euro bill. We chose the aqueduct rather than the walking tour of Avignon, since we were coming back to Avignon on an excursion from the Norwegian Epic (another cruise we were to take after the AMA tour ended in Barcelona). The aqueduct was awesome; it was made of stones fitted together. Apparently, it had survived some massive river flooding until modern times the river was controlled by a dam.
Later, the ship's Captain took the ship past the partially destroyed bridge connected to Avignon's walls on a short mini cruise. Avignon's walls still surround the old city and are quite impressive, even though there are many modern building inside the walls.
The next morning, we arrived in Arles, our final port. Our morning excursion first visited an olive farm, where we learned about how olive oil is made, as well as how it once was made. Then we proceeded to the village of Les Baux de Provence. This village was a fortress and Protestant stronghold during the French Wars of Religion until destroyed by Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu in 1633. Some took the "Van Gogh" tour which took them to the Saint Paul de Mausole Asylum. Later in the afternoon, took a walking tour of Arles that started with the Roman Amphitheater that is still used for many events, including occasional bullfighting. Also, we saw the Romanesque cathedral, site of the old Roman Forum and places frequented by Van Gogh, including the site of the house in which he once lived. The house was destroyed by bombing in WWII.
I haven't mentioned much about the entertainment on the ship. AMA provided entertainment every night. We had a piano player in the bar/lounge area that provided entertainment, but we also had special shows most every night. We had a classical trio; French cabaret singer; 50s/60s music with got us all dancing; and a Latin singer with a limbo contest, which Ginny won
The next day, Thursday, we disembarked the ship in Arles and loaded up on three busses for Barcelona. About three-fourths of those on the cruise were along for the post-cruise three day trip to Barcelona. We had a guide on the bus, on our way to Perpignan, France (near the border with Spain). We left the bus and our luggage, carrying our important hand baggage (not suitcases) and had a nice lunch in Perpignan. We did not see much of the city, but an old gate, built by the Count of Catalonia. At one time this small part of SE France was a part of Catalonia. The people there still speak Catalonian (a Romance language similar to Spanish and Italian). Some persons sat nearby and did not get their food into to meet the busses. We just had time to eat and pay our check in a two hour time period. The food was great, but eating in this part of the world is not a fast food exercise. Our trip to Barcelona brings us another interesting item. Our busses from Arles switched our luggage with the busses from Barcelona that brought up the next river cruisers from Barcelona. We switched busses. It seemed a bit strange that our French busses did not take us all the way to Barcelona, but I suppose it was a cheaper for AMA to switch. It could be something to do with paying overtime for the bus drivers for an overnight. The trip to Barcelona was somewhat interesting, since we could see a little of the Pyrenees mountains in the distance. We saw the high speed train line that was partially complete from France to Barcelona, but also the incomplete portion. Our Spanish guide told us that the new Government in Spain said there was no more money to complete the project.
Upon arrival in Barcelona, we checked in to the Grand Marina Hotel, which was a five star hotel close to the cruise port, Las Ramblas and the Bari Gothic area (old town).
The next day, we had the option of a full city tour, or a short tour that included a tapas and boqueria excursion. We chose the tapas excursion, since we had been to Barcelona in March 2011 and seen all the sites on the city tour. The tapas excursion took us back to the Bari Gothic area, which included the old Roman area, Cathedral, palace and historical area. Closer to lunch, we visited two tapas restaurants for tasty dishes. We had 3 or 4 tapas at each restaurant, as well as wine. One of the restaurants is located on the corner of a large market about 100 yards east of the Cathedral Square, across the street from the Gothic area. The name of the restaurant was Cuines Santa Caterina.
After our tapas excursion, we left the group and found the hotel where my Son Jack and his friend, Jason were staying, while in Barcelona, prior to our next cruise on the Norwegian Epic in a couple of days. They had just checked into the hotel and we arranged to meet them at a restaurant later than evening. They wanted to nap, due to jet lag, so we departed and visited the City Museum in the Bari Gothic area prior to walking back to our hotel to change clothes.
The City Museum is a must see in Barcelona. It is located close to the Palace and Cathedral. The museum largely displays underground ruins from the Roman era, along with some centuries later. The museum had an audio hand set that opens up the history for visitors, as well as a show movie that rotates in several languages. After walking back to our hotel, we had to hurry to meet the guys for dinner, so we took a cab, even though it was a short distance. The cab ran about 8 euros, due to all the red lights and circuitous manner of getting to a hotel on Las Ramblas.
Jason had been in Barcelona on business for 9 days within the last year and was familiar with restaurants there. We had dinner at ATN, which was located close to a Roman excavation of tombs just off Las Ramblas on Canuda Street. The restaurant was open, even though it was about early by Spanish dinner standards. We had a wonderful meal with great service. Separate checks were not a problem with a party of six and credit cards were accepted. The next day, we had dinner at small tapas restaurant near the Plaza Sant Just on Palma De Sant Just. That restaurant, Bodega LaPalma, was not modern like ATN, but small and rustic. The tapas were excellent, with large servings for very reasonable prices. I highly recommend both restaurants.
On the Saturday prior to our Sunday embarkation on the Epic, we had a free day of tours from AMA. We decided to take the train to Tarragona. That city was once the Roman capitol of Eastern Spain. I could have purchased the rail tickets prior to leaving the US, but was not sure which train we would take and different trains had different prices. We took the Metro to the rail station and on arrival there located several ticket booths serving those buying tickets. We waited about half an hour get to a booth and were told we were at the wrong counters and to go to ticket counters 1-7 at the other end of the station. We did so and found a line twice as long as the one we had waited for half an hour. We decided to give up our plans and walk back to Las Ramblas, which was about 3 miles away. We walked off our frustration. We had lived in Germany for four years and ridden European trains in Germany, Italy, Austria, etc. encountering nothing like this kind of delay. I love Spain, but this kind of thing would not happen in Germany. After reaching Las Ramblas, we walked down to the sea coast and found another great museum, The Museum d' Historia de Catalunya. It provided artifacts from different periods of Catalonian history with explanations in some depth. We spent about 2.5 hours there and only got up to the late 18th Century.
The next day was Sunday, May 27th and time to check out of our hotel and board the Norwegian Epic with Jack, Jason, Nick and Joel for our seven day cruise of the Western Med. That story to follow.