Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2017

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The historic centre of Lyon, France's second-largest city, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Coast the Rhône

From Provence to Burgundy, glide past France's most memorable landscapes on a river cruise

The Rhône is a wayward river, rushing out of the Swiss Alps, ambling, rambling and meandering through the south of France and exiting into the Mediterranean through the lagoons and marshlands of the Camargue.

Barges used to spend three weeks making the journey from Lyon to the sea. Now a network of 10 locks reduces that time to as little as three days. But who would want to do such a thing when the river's ports include Arles, Avignon, Viviers and Lyon? And when its abundant charms are Roman ruins, medieval villages, vineyards of Syrah and the incredible quality of light that so captivated Van Gogh?

Not us. My sidekick Carol Clemens and I found a riverboat and signed on. Our boat was the Avalon Scenery, a typically sleek river cruiser accommodating 138 passengers in considerable comfort. The leisurely 282-kilometre voyage through the Rhône Valley lasts a week, but the 11-day package also includes an overnight in Monte Carlo and two in Paris. Fine with us: we'll never have enough of Paris.

A night in Monaco

In Avalon's view, hotels in Nice don't measure up. This explained our night in Monte Carlo, which plainly had nothing to do with the Rhône. It involved a vexing taxi ride of €90 from the Nice airport. And a three-hour bus ride to Arles, where the river voyage actually begins. But Monte Carlo had its moments. It has not forgotten its "three Graces" — Grace, the glamorous and accomplished movie star of the 1950s; Grace, the fairy tale Monaco princess; and Grace, the people's royal, with her common touch and support for public causes.

I was an adolescent and a movie lover in the 1950s. I can still hear Grace Kelly applying that honeyed voice to Cole Porter's "True Love" in the 1956 musical High Society. But, we were told, young Americans arriving in Monte Carlo nowadays have never heard of her. It is well-documented that young Americans have little use for the past.

The Monte Carlo hotel was the Fairmount, the first European address for the Canadian-based hotel chain. Arriving early, there was time to dine at its al fresco Horizon restaurant overlooking the Côte d'Azur. A tartare of sweet blue shrimps from New Guinea was exceptional. Swordfish grilled on a skewer and served with the Middle Eastern accents of hummus and tabouleh seems equally at home in the seaside setting. Both contributed to an auspicious beginning. The frozen McDonald's-style frites, did not.

A day in Provence

Arriving in Arles two days later, it was a relief to board the Scenery. The surroundings were decidedly luxe, with spacious hotel-style staterooms, an outdoor top deck, panoramic windows in public lounges and a handsome restaurant. The friendly Romanian and Filipino crew spoke English. A briskly efficient cruise director kept things moving. Not all riverboats have cruise directors these days: discounts are sizeable in tough economic times, but so are sly cutbacks that diminish the overall experience.

Our Rhône itinerary included complimentary walking tours of ports-of-call. These tours, helmed by knowledgeable local guides, proved consistently excellent. Side trips came à la carte, but were more vastly more substantial than the bottom-line tours that pick passengers' pockets aboard seagoing megaships.

The boat moored in the centre of Arles, as it would in Avignon and Lyon. There was generous time for exploring on our own. In the second and third centuries, Arles had been the greatest Roman city in Gaul. Its towering monument is its splendidly preserved amphitheatre, which once drew crowds of 26,000 to chariot races and gladiatorial slaughter. Now it holds bullfights, but with no blood spilled: the object is to snatch ribbons from the bull's horns.

For us, Arles remained the carefree, golden city of Provence. The familiar Provençal fabrics festooned streets and squares. Cafés and patio restaurants proffered garlicky Provencal specialties at honest prices. I photographed shutters the colour of iridescent lavender, the ultimate herbe de Provence; they almost blinded me.

We made our way to the Hôtel-Dieu, the mental hospital that housed Vincent van Gogh in 1888, two years before his suicide. Filling the courtyard of the cloister is Espace Van Gogh, a garden much as it was when the depressed artist painted Le Jardin de l'Hôtel-Dieu. We sat on its circular stone bench and did our best to let it sink in.

On the bridge at Avignon

We walked Avignon. Its monument was the Palace of the Popes, which dated from 1354, a period in which the papacy fled Rome for a secure base in France. The popes remained in Avignon for 68 years, but claimed title to the city for almost 500 years before French revolutionaries evicted them in 1791.

Carol and I had a history of pizza in Avignon going back more than 25 years, so we found the restaurant Le Verso (3 Place Saboly) near the city centre. We ordered a flagon of copper-coloured Provence rosé. We ate pizza from the massive brick oven. Its thin crust draped with mozzarella and studded with black olives, anchovies and capers, its freshness was nothing short of Provence on a plate. It was also, tellingly, the most delicious meal of the trip.

In the village of Viviers, our guide led us along an exquisite avenue of plane trees — such a French image — and through narrow, twisting streets. The guide rhymed off small fascinations. Did we know that the French of medieval times painted their doors blue and green to ward off mosquitoes? No, we hadn't a clue.

In the upper village, Avalon had arranged an organ concert in the 14th-century Romanesque cathedral that looms over everything. A lover of neither cathedrals nor organ music, I broke away and used the time to explore the village nooks and crannies with my camera. My wife stuck with the concert and loved it.

Viviers was a magical village. Like so many hundreds of others in the French countryside, its preserver was poverty. And like those others, it was a ghost town. The sad thing is, the French have long abandoned their villages for life in the cities. Wandering the cobblestoned streets, we could feel the magnitude of their loss.

We were near-overjoyed to find the village bakery open. We grabbed up croissants, real croissants made by French bakers in France with no skimping on butter. The croissants aboard the Scenery, had been trucked in from Germany.

A table in Lyon

We departed the parched terrain of Provence, and the banks of the Rhône turned verdant. A soft veil of mist hung over the river. We spotted a ruined keep, part of the medieval footprint that defines the French countryside. The river was never more beautiful.

Our principal port-of-call before departing the Rhône was Lyon, France's second city. The city`s Old Quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains the finest Renaissance architecture in France. It was beguiling in spite of the tourist swarm and carnival atmosphere.

We were eager to escape the boat food and sink our teeth into something that tasted French. A friend had recommended Brasserie Georges (30 Cours de Verdun Perrache; brasseriegeorges.com), an institution that had been feeding the local bourgeoisie since 1836.

Brasserie Georges is a sprawling Art Deco temple of proper dining. Multi-generational families packed its banquettes. The waiters were snooty. The diners were happy. But its boudin, blood sausage, an exiguous portion, betrayed a thrashing under the heat lamp. Sea bass with summer pea risotto was merely pleasant. And zee frites: McDonald`s struck again, the frozen potatoes tasting of oil, salt and cardboard. Any decent bistro in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver would have left Georges in its gastro-dust.

A little Burgundy

We pulled out of Lyon in the late day, departing the Rhône and cruising the Saône upriver. The Saône was the deep blue that reflects a cloudless sky. Lyon's classy structures turned gold. A dozen bridges lay ahead. The crew took on ballast. The top viewing deck disappeared like a magician’s assistant: the railings folded flat and the wheelhouse descended like an elevator into the boat’s structure. We barely scraped our way out of town.

In Chalon-sur-Saône, we disembarked and boarded the bus for Beaune in the Burgundy wine country. We passed a statue of Nicéphore Niepce, the town's most famous citizen, without pausing. Had I had my wits with me, I might have jumped out of the bus and kissed its feet in gratitude: Nicéphore Niepce was one of the inventors of photography. He'd produced the world's first photographic image in 1825. He'd named his process heliography, "sun writing" from the Greek, as photography translates as "writing with light."

But first came the trauma of exiting the floating cocoon. I swear I heard a collective sigh of displacement. Goodbye to Florica, our endlessly cheerful Romanian maid. And Giwah from the Indonesian island of Lombok, who perfectly understood my request for incendiary red chillies in the breakfast omelette. And Antonia, the Filipina server who scored me an extra lamb chop on one of the kitchen's better nights. You aren't my friends, but for a while you behaved as if you were, and did it so well. What more could I ask?

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