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How was my trip to France? It was fantastic! Perhaps the most amazing trip I’ve ever been on just because traveling with my sister-in-law Jenelle was totally different from any previous trips. She had done a good deal of research and had in mind a number of places she wanted to see in depth.

Now this meant walking and walking and walking. It meant being in unfamiliar places, mixing with folks who didn’t speak my language, in huge cities where I had no landmarks, couldn’t read the signs, had no idea what direction anything was, didn’t know where we were going or how we would find it. Jenelle didn’t know either but that didn’t faze her. Armed with a map and a will we forged on, tried our luck on the subway, and obviously arrived but how? God’s grace is all I can say.

In Paris we walked along the Seine River. Found Notre Dame, the Louvre, beautiful gardens and palaces. Explored streets so narrow there was hardly room for a car, between buildings so tall I felt like an ant.

Of course we saw the Eiffel Tower. Following a magnificent welcome dinner at one of France’s renowned brasseries we were transported by coach for an illumination tour of nighttime Paris and saw the tower in all its twinkling glory.

The next day we boarded the “fast train” for Lyon, the third largest city in France located about in the center of the country, where we did a repeat of our Paris adventure.

At Lyon we boarded The Swiss Emerald, a magnificent riverboat, for seven days on the Rhone River, traveling to Arles, nearly to the Mediterranean Sea. There we turned around and went back up the river visiting towns we’d missed on the way down. When we arrived in specific towns, the names of which I can neither spell nor pronounce, three handsome coaches waited to take us on excursions of our choice. Or we could strike out on our own.

Fortunately for my poor bloated feet, we mostly went by coach. It was mind-boggling to travel among Roman ruins built before Christ side by side with today’s residents going about their daily lives surrounded by the natural beauty of the countryside. We saw miles and miles of vineyards crawling up the hillsides. Visited wineries, sampled a variety of wines. Towns looked much the same to me. Buildings were made from some sort of sandstone-looking material and had red tile roofs. They looked perfectly suited to the landscape. Some nestled right on the riverbanks and some up on the hills.

We learned to enjoy the French way of dining. I hope that bit of information has followed me home with full intent of putting it into practice. Set a lovely table. Prepare fresh from scratch as much as possible. Eat slowly. Savor each bite. Slow down. Lots of luck. After writing this I realize I won’t do it either, at least most of it.

According to information provided by Tauck, the tour company that arranged our riverboat journey, dining in France is one of the great pleasures of visiting this remarkable country. The French have a different way of approaching their meals. Eating is the heart and soul of French culture. It is common for stores to close so that everyone can take a couple hours to have a leisurely meal, maybe a glass of wine and enjoy themselves. It is an art.

In restaurants patrons are never rushed to turn a table. The position of waiter or waitress is not a temporary job, it’s a career. We were advised to look our waiter in the eye and say “bonjour monsieur or madame” or whatever phrase appropriate for the time of day. Servers do not introduce themselves nor stop by the table to see how things are going. They do not bring the check until asked. Dining in France is a social affair and not to be rushed. Can you imagine that in our highly-charged, get-things-done society?

That food is highly regarded is obvious with every meal. The buffet on the boat was always spectacular — morning, noon and evening. But if anyone wanted something specific it could be ordered separately. Tables were laid with crystal, china and silverware, precisely arranged. Guests did not sit at a table that wasn’t ready. And the food was wonderful. It was fresh, widely varied and well prepared. When served it was beautifully plated in reasonable to small portions. But more was only a request away.

Bread was baked several times a day and always available. Same might be said for wine and cheese. Brochures claim there are some 300 varieties of cheese in France so please don’t ask me what I liked best. We went to several wine tastings. Years ago I had a friend who was a wine connoisseur. She did her best to teach me the fine art of drinking wine but I have no palate. However on this trip at one tasting, I actually for a moment discovered the magic of a bit of cheese and a sip of the right wine at the right time.

Unfortunately in spite of all the sniffing, swirling and tasting, I doubt I can duplicate the experience here at home. Not that that will discourage me from practicing.

There were 106 travelers on the riverboat, mostly couples from the Eastern states, Florida, Texas and California. There were three from United Kingdom, four from Canada, two from Australia, two from New Zealand, one from Oregon, one from Oklahoma and one from New Mexico. In addition there was the cruise director and three tour directors. The crew numbered about 40 and were mostly from Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, a few from France. Most spoke some English, and were attentive and friendly.

There were no seating arrangements. Guests could choose to sit alone or with their traveling companions, or with those they hadn’t met. Cocktail hour before dinner was lively as was a sort of unstructured gathering earlier each evening on deck to experience going through a loch or passing a small town or watching the swans swim by or looking at a nuclear plant or bridges built by the Romans or campgrounds full of RVs (or caravans as they are called there) or discussing what wonderful places the coaches would take us to tomorrow.

Obviously this article is not intended to be a travelogue but rather a recounting of impressions, feelings and memories of a marvelous experience in a lovely country traveling with congenial people and seeing for myself things that previously were only photos in travel magazines.

  • A friendly baker getting her goodies ready for the day.

  • The lowest bridge of the several we passed under. Watch your head!!!

  • Enjoying the view including modern windmills only miles from Roman ruins.

  • The Swiss Emerald taken upon arrival from inside the coach. Beautiful inside and out.

  • One of the RV camps along the river.

  • Portion of Roman wall that still protects this small town we visited.

  • One of the lovely wineries we visited. Notice the way the shrubs are sculpted.

  • (Daily Press Photo)

  • Grape pickers beginning harvest at one of the many wineries we saw.

  • (Daily Press Photo)

  • Remnants of Roman bridge.

  • Modern cargo barge passing remnants of Roman bridge in background.

  • The light fixtures made from eating utensils at the cooking class we attended.

  • (Daily Press Photo)

  • Our napkins artfully folded for our farewell dinner.