Saturday, 19 July 2014

In Search of a French Experience

I favour particular style of travel, small group grassroots experiences. You have the camaraderie of a group of like minded travellers, the experience of a local tour guide and the free time to explore and discover on your own terms. It may not be for everyone, different styles of travel suit different people for different reasons. You can read more about style of travel in my article “what style of travel suits you”.

In 2013 I took up a very enticing deal on offer to travel agents and a travelling companion to go on a French River Cruise with one of the big brands advertised heavily here in Australia (whose name I will not mention in fear of a defamation lawsuit). I knew from the start that this particular product was not aimed at my age group but in order to sell a product you need to know it well, so I went anyway and took my mum for good measure.

Unlike many travel agent familiarisation trips we were not only with travel agents we were on a cruise sold to the public so we received a genuine travelling experience.

Sailing from Tarascon and ending in Chalon-sur-Saone over the duration of 7 nights the itinerary was magnificent and really took you into the heart of Southern France, the mode of transport on the river cruise boat was unique and convenient and with only unpacking once it was a nice change from the usual fast paced travel I undertake. The crew onboard were so wonderfully accommodating. In those respects I couldn’t fault the trip at all and the fact that the clientele resembled a floating nursing home was something I was expecting so I can’t complain on that front.

Views of Avignon from the river

There were faults with the ships design and decor which I won’t go into that I felt did not live up to it’s “luxury” branding but with an open bar all day I could easily forget about the glaringly mundane decor. Where I was left bitterly disappointed was that there was no effort at all made to connect with our surroundings and the country we had come to see.

I can make up excuses for them, I am aware it was this particular company's first foray into the French market having previously plied the rivers of Eastern Europe. It was also the first departure of the season and maybe the kinks were not ironed out but for those on board who had paid upwards of $10 000 for a cabin I felt even more disappointed for them than myself.

Travel is all about exploration, new experiences and connection with the unfamiliar. It doesn’t need to be overly energetic or adventurous, I understand the elderly clientele aren’t going to be swimming in rivers and hiking mountains but there needs to be that connection with the country you are travelling through.

Mum at the castle of Tarascon

Me at Les Baux

With my love of exploration through the local cuisine the food on the ship was the most upsetting aspect of the trip for me. Was it too much to expect to have some French food onboard whilst we cruised the rivers of France. There wasn’t a Macaron, Bisque or Eclair to be seen for the whole week. Instead we were served up primarily Eastern European cuisine which after our tour of the kitchen with the Eastern European chef this came as no surprise. The other disconnect was that the specialty restaurant onboard the ship was Italian. The food was of varying standards. I enjoyed the degustation menu served up at the specialty restaurant but the general buffet style meals on offer were not befitting a “luxury” brand and no amount of Moet at breakfast can make up for bready pastries and stodgy stroganoff.

At most meals if you didn’t want to partake in the buffet you could order a la carte from a small menu that didn’t change for the whole cruise. The swordfish I tried was overcooked and unpalatable but this menu provided a dish they did produce very well, steak and chips. Not exactly what I was hoping for in France but based on the number of people ordering steak and chips on a nightly basis I know there were others who felt the same way about the food.

The other aspect that missed the mark as far as offering a connected cultural experience were the day tours. Aside for the odd interactions with locals like on the Olive Farm visit we were mostly subjected to inane walking tours that I am certain I saw a snail overtake us on. The commentary provided by the local guides via our little headsets was incessant and dull. There is an attention span that a single human being is subject to and after the 5th hour of non stop drivel most people had tuned out and were following each other around like mindless drones.

The places I felt most connected to were the ones where I opted out of the day tour on offer and me and mum spent our own time exploring.

Never let it be said you can get a good Foodie down. Oh no I wasn’t letting another serve of watery goulash stop me from finding out how the French really eat.

Our prayers were answered in Lyon, we docked here on a weekend and it was market day! The local producers were selling vast arrays of everything from sweets and breads to vegetables and fresh flowers. As we wandered through the chilly winter air along the banks of the Saone we purchased bagfuls of local delicacies cheeses, croissants , macarons, bread. Deciding we still didn’t have enough we found a local patisserie whose stunning window display could not be passed by and we stocked up on flatbread flavoured with olives and tomato.

Like little kitchen mice in the night we nibbled away in our cabin back on the boat delighted in our cunning ability to foil the chefs plans to convert us to oppressed tourists. Full of our Lyon fare we felt buoyed by the experience of sourcing our own food and that led us to the highlight of the trip.

In Cluny we carefully selected from the cabinet of a patisserie two pert looking raspberry tarts, golden pastry topped with creme patissiere and juicy plump raspberries dusted in icing sugar. They looked divine. Not having a fridge in our room we left them out on the balcony of our cabin to chill in the winter air till we were hungry. Food never lasting long around me I tucked into my tart first. My first bite was a revelation. The pastry was crumbly and buttery, the filling rich, smooth and creamy and the raspberries sweet with no hint of bitterness. I ate it with noisy abandon exclaiming that mum better hurry up and eat hers or I was going to have it too. Her enthusiastic consumption of the tart confirmed my beliefs that is was the best tart ever made. As our river boat chugged downstream I knew there was no way to get another tart with Cluny back in the past behind us and I trudged disappointedly into the dining room shoulders slumped  for another lackluster dinner.

With a little effort on our own part we had managed to redeem what was on track for being a very dull cultural experience indeed. It highlighted to me the importance of choosing the right style of travel for the right person but even then I can’t imagine the elderly are also looking for a culturally vapid holiday either.

Never fear, if you want to undertake a river cruise there are companies out there who have a better reputation for offering a more rounded experience, one of my personal favourites is Uniworld Boutique River Cruises the unique European styling of their ships won 11 ships in their collection a place in the Conde Nast Travellers top 40 river cruise boats of 2013. This along with their 6 star status,  “go active” and “do as the locals do” tour programs onboard you will find that there is a river cruise experience on offer to satisfy even the most whiny of travellers like me.

Have you ever experienced cultural disconnection whilst on tour or holiday?

Originally posted on Saturday, 19 July 2014 by


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