It’s never too late to learn, I realise, as French chef Fabirne Morreale deftly chops, slices and marinates vegetables during a cookery class on Scenic River Cruises’ ship Scenic Sapphire. I confess that watching chefs at work is not something I do at home, never mind on holiday. But I have broken my unwritten rule just this once to try out Scenic Culinaire, an innovative new feature on Scenic Sapphire where just eight people at a time can learn from one of France’s finest culinary whizz kids.
I’m so glad I did. Not only did we have a close-up view of Fabien at work, which meant plenty of opportunities to ask questions, but we then tucked into what he had prepared. Namely, zucchini wraps stuffed with goats cheese and served with marinated radishes, red onions, cabbage and croutons. All very simple but bursting with flavour.
The cookery school was added to Scenic Sapphire last winter along with two super-size Royal Owner’s Suites and a Salt Room, which is said to be good for those with respiratory problems as well as being a peaceful place to relax.
Scenic Sapphire sails the Rhône and Saône rivers in France from Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy to Tarascon, a small town in Provence just south of Avignon. Unusually, at the end of the cruise, she returns north empty because Scenic reckons it’s better for passengers to travel from north to south, from potentially colder weather towards the Mediterranean sun.
Having cruised both directions I have to agree. Just to prove the point, a few brave souls who went on a 38 km guided bike ride from Tournus to Macon in Burgundy were caught in a hailstorm. By the time we reached Lyon two days later and for the rest of the trip, the mercury was nudging a very lovely 35°C most days. Ideal because a lot of the action on this itinerary is outdoors, with walking tours most days as well as guided canoeing and cycling trips. These are all included in the cost, as indeed are all drinks, tips, flights, transfers and speciality dining. In fact, the only time you need to open your wallet once on board any Scenic river cruise is if you want a massage or to eat or drink ashore.
I passed on the long bike tour but pedalled 22km from Tournon to a little town called Glun and back, which is not quite as impressive as it sounds because all Scenic’s ships carry electric bikes. That means if you’re flagging, you can flick a switch and extra power kicks in. I’m proud to say I actually only had a quick zap of the electric a couple of times during the whole ride.
We listened to an organ recital in Viviers, a sleepy place with just 1,000 inhabitants and the smallest working cathedral in France. And those of us who opted for a tour to Grignon, a small hilltop town with a grand chateau that looks like a mini Versailles, learned about truffle hunting and the many uses of lavender. We also admired Hermitage Hill while imbibing sundowners on the terrace of a castle in Tournon - the hill is behind the town of Tain L’Hermitage and revered by oenophiles as the birthplace of Syrah - and sailed right up to the Pont St. Bénézet in Avignon.
Never heard of it? How about if I told you it’s known as the Pont d’Avignon? It’s only half a bridge these days because it was washed away so many times they gave up rebuilding it. But, along with the Pope’s Palace, it is one of the top attractions in the city. You can walk on what remains (it costs €6 per person) but we definitely had the best view, surprising those on the bridge as we got really close, with the song ‘Sur the Pont d’Avignon’ blasting out of the top deck speakers.
The palace dates back to the 1300s when the popes moved to Avignon to escape civil wars in Italy and built themselves a very grand residence that is actually more castle than palace. On a tour inside the next day, guide Marie told us banquets back in medieval times took five hours and guests sat with their backs to the walls for security and with dogs under the tables to est the food for poison.
Not sure we needed to know that because guess where we were eating that evening? Dinner in the Popes Palace (with a string quartet to entertain us and happily no dogs in sight!) is one of several exclusive events Scenic offers on this cruise; the sundowners in Tournon was another and we also had a fun evening of cabaret in a Big Top near Lyon with slapstick, singing and scantily-clad dancers sporting giant feathers. And, of course, you can’t have a French cabaret without the can-can complete with frilly knickers and whoops of joy. Formidable, as the French would say!