Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 08.09.16
Just Outside Washington

All photos courtesy the author and Kathy Cavanaugh

Vienne to Tournon to Avignon

VIENNE | Midafternoon the Viking Heimdal casts off from Vienne and down the Rhone to Tournon. I decide not to join the group activities but to do a bit of reading and to watch the scenery go by. There was a lot to see. It was the perfect place to read about the German occupation of France during WWII, when the Rhone valley was part of the Free Zone or French State. The French State government was established after the surrender to the Germans in 1940 and was headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain. It was based in the spa and resort town of Vichy, located about 100 miles northwest of Lyon.

The Rhone is one of Europe's great rivers with lots of commercial traffic. Conditions can be difficult when the Mistral blows and the water is high when alpine melt-water feeds into the river, which we had seen in Lyon. The river has been tamed by the big locks and their canals sections, which regulate the flow and current.


Between Lyon to Port St. Louis on the Mediterranean, there are 12 ecluses (locks) all of which are large and deep, plus a final lock from the river into the harbor at Port St. Louis. Viking boats are designed to just fit through the locks see photo. Please keep hands in the boat while in the locks.


Each lock has a hydro power station to produce electricity and the river is the location for a number of wind farms and power stations (we past a large generating station before Tournon that burned both coal and wood delivered by ship). Europe burns a lot of wood pellets (biofuel), which are supposed to be carbon neutral but this is in dispute. France still generates 75 percent of its electricity by nuclear power.

The Heimdal docked in Tournon at about 8 p.m. We had a quiet evening; there was a majority-rules quiz game in the lounge for those who wished to play. We were still docked in Tournon in the morning, and after breakfast we had a walking tour of the town that assembled at eight. Tournon dates from Celtic times and is built on a narrow level area along the river right up against granite hills. In the 11th century a wealthy family of nobles, the Counts of Tournon, built a fort/castle on the granite rock overlooking the Rhone Valley. The castle is above the fortification in the picture and contains a museum, open to the public.


In 1308 the area was annexed by the Kingdom of France after being land of the Holy Roman Empire since the eleventh century. The Lords of Tournon enjoyed a great reputation throughout the region and spent lavishly. The town had many medieval buildings including the church; Kathy is there in front. However, we saw very few inhabitants on the streets; it was Sunday so they all must have been in the church.


Later we were treated to a ride on Train de l'Ardèche, a narrow gauge steam train, ride through the Gorges du Doux; as the picture shows, the cars were open, and we did get a an occasional whiff of coal smoke.


The Doux river valley is a wild preserved area without a road, but is available to hikers. I was told that the river Doux is a very good trout stream. The railway was completed in 1891 to provide the only access to the town of Gouyet, which we didn't see because we only went as far as Saint Barthelemy le Plain. There the engine turned around on a manual turntable with help from some passengers. All told, this was a four hour round trip.


We were back on the Heimdal for lunch, and she cast off and headed on down the Rhone toward Viviers. Viking does not like to have its tourists bored so Chef Andrej did a cooking demonstration making Chocolate Fondant; this was followed by a tour of the ship's galley; followed by a presentation entitled Provence and the Painter's Muse. Needless to say the discussion touched on many big names: Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, Signac, Matisse, Braque, Derain, and Dufy. But, then it was time for cocktail hour, which featured the French 75.

The French 75 in named after the French 75-mm field artillery piece, which was commonly used in World War I. As a famous bartender said: A French 75 is a Tom Collins made with champagne instead of club soda. Vive la difference!

After dinner the Heimdal docked in Viviers and some of our fellow passengers enjoyed an evening walk through the town. At about 11:30 p.m. the lines were cast off again, and we headed for Avignon -- I missed that event because I was snug in my bunk.

The Heimdal docked in Avignon at 6 a.m. on quay right across the street from the old city wall. After breakfast we were guided on a walking tour of the city including a visit to the Palace of the Popes.


The Pope is the Bishop of Rome and the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church. The primacy of the Roman bishop is largely derived from his role as the traditional successor to Saint Peter. Scholars have disagreements about when the first Pope was the Bishop of Rome, but they seem to agree that it was in the 1st or 2nd centuries.

All was fine until Clement V, a Frenchman with support of the French crown, was elected Pope in 1305. Clement refused to move to Rome, and in 1309 moved his court to the papal enclave in Avignon. A total of seven popes, all French, reigned at Avignon until 1377 when Gregory XI abandoned Avignon and moved his court to Rome. This officially ended the Avignon Papacy.


But wait, there's more. Gregory started a fight with cities in Italy called the war of the eight saints and then died in 1378. Things got worse with Gregory's successor, Urban VI, who caused the Western Schism. This started a second line of Avignon popes, which lasted until 1417 when the Council of Constance declared the final Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, an antipope and threw him in jail. At one point, there were three competing popes.

Needless to say, we had to see the Palace of the Popes in Avignon. The palace remained papal property until the French Revolution during which it did not fare well. During Napoleon's reign it became an army barracks and prison. It has essentially been under restoration ever since.


After the Palace of the Popes, the tour ended in the old Jewish Quarter at the synagogue about three blocks away. Currently there are about 1000 Jews living in Avignon. Kathy, Ruth, Ron, and I were on our own to wander around Avignon.


It was almost lunch time, and there were now lots of people on the streets. In the main square the cafes were open and the carousel -- at the end of the square in the picture -- was operating. The main square was too busy, so we wandered and found a small square where La Pause Gourmande had tables set for lunch. It was fate. The picture shows Ruth and Ron at our lunch.


After lunch we did some shopping, naturellement; one must support the local economy. Then we rendezvoused back at the quay to meet the coach, which was taking us to the wine tour to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This provided us with a great view of the Avignon city wall and the bridge famous in the song: Sur le pont d'Avignon.


Châteauneuf-du-Pape is an area, a town, and a group of famous wines. All three derive their names for the summer palace of the Avignon popes. The area is the Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Appellation Contrôlée, which designates the area, about 7,000 acres, that can use the name on their wines. The warm dry climate and the rocky soil contribute to the unique wines made with primarily Grenache noir, Syrah, and Mourvèdre grapes. The photo shows the rocky soil and the Grenache vines trimmed as low bushes and not trellised.


The town is in the middle of the area and has about 2200 inhabitants. More important, it is the home of Maison Bouachon, which has vineyards and produces and markets a wide range of wines from the Southern Rhone Valley, not just Châteauneuf du Pape.

We visited Maison Bouachon for a wine tasting a white wine and three reds, including a very nice aged Châteauneuf du Pape, and cheese and crackers to cleanse the pallet between wines. We were served and instructed by our sommelier, Marie, and her assistant. As instructed: we looked at color, swirled, looked at tears, we sniffed and we sipped. And we rolled the wine in our mouths and brought air in with the sip (now there's a trick). Marie spit into the buckets provided; we novices just drank the wine. On our last and very best wine, Marie drank also. After the tasting we toured the facility and were invited into Maison Bouachon's shop to purchase as many wines as we wished.

Six happy travelers in the aging cellar of Maison Bouachon. If the picture looks a little fuzzy, it is because someone had too much wine but what can you do; when in France...We boarded our coach in a very happy mood.


(To be continued...)