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We woke up this morning to another beautiful sunrise. This time, docked at Viviers in southern Ardèche, we had the beautiful Viviers Suspension Bridge in full view from our balcony. We’ve had the most wonderful weather in southern France!
We decided ahead of time to join our friends for a morning walking tour of Vivier.
Our small group entered town, enjoying a relaxing walk under the canopy of ancient Plane trees before reaching the town’s center. We then slowly made our way to the upper town, as our guide gave us some history and noted points of interest along the way.
The small commune of Viviers, dates back to the 5th century. Today, it has less than 4,000 residents. It is a medieval town that has largely escaped the ravages of time. Scenes from the 2000 movie, Chocolat (Johnny Depp), were filmed here.
One of the buildings tied to an interesting piece of local history is the Maison des Chevaliers, or the House of the Knights. The age of the actual structure of the building is unknown but the fascade was constructed between 1545 and 1560. Several houses were combined to create what was to become the House of Knights for Noel Albert.
Albert, a rich merchant– had converted to Protestantism, opposed the king– and as a result, was tried and beheaded in 1568. As bailiff of the bishop of Viviers, he was believed to have been skimming money from the taxes he collected as well.
We visited the shop of Jean Luc Allonneau, Atelier 3 Ceramiques where he has been handcrafting functional ceramic pieces since 1981. After a tour of his workshop, he gave us a brief demonstration at the potters’ wheel.
Independent craftsmen like this are finding it more and more difficult to stay open and competitive with the accessibility of mass produced goods– priced much lower but of inferior material and design.
Jean Luc still hand selects his materials and completes each piece entirely on his own. The process for each, takes more than a month to complete with drying, firing and glazing to be done. He produces pots and dinnerware collections in addition to some pieces created from handmade molds.
Viviers is the birthplace of the Society of Lime and Cement Lafarge. Naturally occurring hydraulic limestone is mined here. The lime is burned to create a product that is used in mortar for construction.
I was particularly interested in this because the brick in our own 1889 house– is held together with a lime-mortar that has to be specially mixed for tuck-pointing (repair). It is seldom used today in new construction– now, mostly Portland Cement. The advantages of lime include a slow drying process and a much stronger, resilient, finished product.
On our way back to the ship, we stopped for a photo op with our friends before returning to the ship for a late lunch. We had a few hours before we would walk back into town for a special concert Playbill had arranged for us.
Viviers Cathedral aka St. Vincent Cathedral. Earlier in the day, we didn’t have a chance to go inside the cathedral but we saw the exterior from virtually every angle. I suppose, aside from the fact that we saw the performers entering to rehearse, when we passed in the morning– the main reason was: we’d return for our special concert in the afternoon.
St. Vincent Cathedral, built in the 11th century, is the smallest, if not the oldest, medieval cathedral in France that is still active today.
During the French Wars of Religion between the Catholics and the Protestants in the 16th century, the vaulted ceiling was destroyed. It was not rebuilt until the 18th century.
Concert at Viviers Cathedral. This was a first for Playbill Travel. Not only were we getting a concert in a beautiful venue– they were doing a second concert for the entire town, after ours. So you might say– ours was the dress rehearsal. (Wink.)
The concert truly was special. Having the chance to hear some of the great music of Broadway, resonating through this beautiful cathedral was breathtaking. The performances were great and the setting gave it an added magical touch. James Barbour, Liz Callaway, Rebecca Luker, John McDaniel and Paulo Szot all received a well-deserved standing ovation. A truly memorable event.
We found out later, that after our concert, several of the performers thought they’d get a bite to eat in town between shows. Only one problem– everything had closed down because everyone was going to the concert! The whole town attended, including the mayor. Some said they didn’t know what to expect from the concert. Very quickly they were drawn in, thrilled when they recognized some of famous Broadway tunes. The crowd loved it and it was a huge success.
Bravo, Playbill Travel!
Travel Date: May 24, 2017, Wednesday (Day 12)
Tarascon. Today was our first full day of the Broadway On the Rhone (BOTR) river cruise. The S.S. Catherine had docked last night at Tarascon, Halte Fluviale (river stop). We had sailed south on the Rhone to get here, while the rest of the cruise will be traveling north, up the river, ending in Lyon.
Today, we had the choice of two excursions: a walking touring of the beautiful town of Tarascon or taking a coach bus to the city of Arles, for a walking tour there. Both excursions were included in the cost of the cruise. Time not allowing us to do both, we chose to visit Arles. (There was a third option scheduled for the afternoon– visiting an olive farm– for an additional fee if you chose to participate.)
Fortunately, we were able to see parts of Tarascon on our way to Arles. The most prominent structure being the Chateau de Roi René. The castle was built in the 1400s and later served as a prison up through the late 1920s.
As with so many small towns, Tarascon appeared to be a lovely place to wander and enjoy the mix of modern and historic preservations. The commune of Tarascon-sur-Rhône has a current population of only 13,500 residents.
Arles. We arrived in Arles, perhaps most famous as the temporary home of Vincent Van Gogh. Just outside the remains of the fortress walls, is the location of where the famous “yellow house” where Van Gogh lived between 1888 and 1890, once stood. Small modern shops now occupy the site.
We proceeded to enter the center of the ancient town of Arles. The commune (city) is the largest (land area) in France! It only has a population of 52,000 but its recognized land covers 293 square miles. The city center is much smaller and quite easy to navigate.
The Roman Arles Amphitheatre, completed around 90 AD, was used for chariot races and hand to hand combat. As many as 20,000 spectators would witness these events at any given time. Today the amphitheatre is used for bullfighting, concerts and other performances.
The area of town around the amphitheatre is built up with tightly nestled homes and businesses dating back many centuries. This was another spot that Van Gogh frequented, people-watching and gathering inspiration.
In very close proximity was the Theatre of Arles. Completed around 12 BC., it is one of the oldest Roman stone theatres. Back in its day, this theatre featured grand presentations of tragedies and comedies featuring actors, unlike the amphiththeatre. It is still used as a concert and performance venue today.
We spent some time at Place de la Republique which features an Obelisk and the town hall, Hotel De Ville. There was a large gathering for a funeral outside the Church of St. Trophime so we were unable to go in it. The Romanesque Catholic church was built between the 12th and 15th centuries.
The Obélisque d’Arles was erected by Roman Emperor Constantine II in the 4th century. It eventually fell and broke into two pieces, was lost for years, rediscovered, and re-erected in 1676 and placed here on a pedestal. Place de la Republique is a beautiful square in the heart of Arles.
Vincent Van Gogh in Arles. At the age of 35, Van Gogh left Paris and spent a good part of 1888 and 1889 in Arles. Here, he further developed his signature style, sketching and painting an astounding 300 pieces of art. Van Gogh was so taken by the city, he had hoped to build an artist colony in Arles. Unfortunately, he suffered from severe depression- leading to repeated hospitalizations and the infamous incident when he cut off his left ear– sending it to a prostitute. Leaving Arles, he committed himself to a hospital in St. Remy and then Auvers-sur-Oise. In May 1890, he shot himself in the chest, dying two days later from his wounds. Ironically, none of his original work remain in Arles but can be viewed in major museums all over the world.
Our next stop was L ‘Espace Van Gogh, formerly, the Hospital at Arles. Van Gogh checked himself in to the hospital’s psychiatric ward, voluntarily in 1889.
While staying at the hospital, Van Gogh painted, Garden of the Hospital in Arles or, La Jardin De La Maison De Sante A Arles (1889).
We soon reached the Van Gogh Café famous for the painting, Café Terrace at Night on the Place du Forum. Of all the spots, this is probably the most recognizable (today) of Van Gogh’s work here in Arles.
The plaza, or square, is probably one of the more charming locations in Arles. Most frequented by tourists, the plaza retains its unique, small town vibe– in spite of the outside attraction. Or in other words, it doesn’t feel touristy.
We were really enjoying the relaxing walk through the winding streets and getting a memorable, yet brief glimpse of Arles.
On our way back to our starting point, we stopped at the ruins of the Baths of Constantine (4th century).
We arrived back at the Rhone river, to see the final Van Gogh inspiration spot we’d visit– that of La Nuit Etoilée Sur Le Rhône (1888), his first Starry Night. He painted another, more famous Starry Night, a year later. The view we had today, especially with the overcast sky, was not exceptional- just historic in art context. It’s interesting to see and wonder how in Van Gogh’s head, his vision translated from life to canvas.
From there, we left to go back to our ship and had a relaxing afternoon until it was time to get ready for dinner.
Prior to dinner, we met in the lounge for our daily briefing of news and the breakdown of following day’s excursion options– all provided by our Cruise Manager, Tania– full of humor and enthusiasm.
Then we headed directly to dinner to save seats. With a party of eight, we had to get to the dining room promptly at 7 pm since most of the seating was for six or less.
At dinner, we enjoyed stellar conversation, many laughs, a great meal and wonderful service from the staff.
Broadway On the Rhone- First Concert: Liz Callaway.
Liz Callaway is a Tony nominee and Emmy Award-winning actress, singer and recording artist. She made her Broadway debut in Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, received a Tony Award nomination for her performance in Baby, and for five years, won acclaim as Grizabella in Cats. She has also starred in the original casts of Miss Saigon, The Three Musketeers, and The Look of Love.
Once again, Liz gave Playbill travelers a wonderful, heartfelt concert. We enjoyed her performance as much this time, as we did on the Southeast Asia cruise. For me, highlights included Chanson and Meadowlark from The Baker’s Wife.
For those that might be wondering– since there are performers that have entertained on multiple cruises–Liz gave a fresh new concert, with the (expected) exception of her signature song from the musical Baby, The Story Goes On. It was a beautiful first concert to start off this Playbill cruise.
Travel Date: May 22, 2017 (Day 10)
Southeast Asia Travel -11/14 – Day Sixteen: We woke up early to the news of the Paris attacks, as they were in progress; and we were instantly glued to the TV. Outside our balcony door, we could see our ship was cruising closer to the peaceful, sparsely populated island of Tioman, Malaysia… our destination for the day.
In the marketing materials for the cruise, Playbill touted (what other sources have as well) that Tioman was the island used to represent Bali Hai in the movie South Pacific but this isn’t true. Those scenes were actually filmed in Hawaii. Nevertheless, this beautiful island was here waiting for us.
The chaos playing out in Paris was diametrically opposed to the serenity before me. It just wasn’t right.
We broke away from the TV and headed to breakfast. Only a few people had started straggling in. Of course we wondered if anyone else knew what was going on in France. Our ship is French—did the crew know yet?
We checked the news again after we ate, and then decided to catch the first tender, figuring it was only going to get more crowded if we waited for a later one. We got down to the deck only to find out it had temporarily been postponed. After an hour, the temporary delay had become a questionable, permanent decision. No Tioman.
The story of what actually happened will probably always be a mystery. We were told that the resort we were supposed to visit (and use their beach)– suddenly went bankrupt overnight. This was odd as we were also told that as of the night before they were excited we were coming. I should also note that the population of Tioman (in 2008) is estimated at 432. So to believe this story, you’d have to believe that a small beach resort, knowing a ship was bringing over two hundred customers for the day– suddenly decided to close shop and not even wait an extra day, collecting whatever income it could. It makes no sense.
Add to this, there were two other resorts visible from our ship and no one could be reached at either of them. From our viewpoint, the coast was completely deserted. A rumor started on our boat, early on, that initially I didn’t give much credence. A few people were suggesting that because of the Paris attacks and because our ship was French; the islanders were afraid to let us come ashore. Later I had no choice but to believe it, especially after seeing movement on shore as soon as our ship started drifting further away. A few small fishing boats also started to appear. It was curious to say the least.
At noon, the crew organized a brief gathering on the rear deck to remember the people of France and lowered the French flag to half-mast. Yes, all over the world- even on a small ship floating in the South Pacific– people were touched and solidarity ruled over despair.
It was announced that at 2 PM the Broadway performers were rallying together to put on a variety show to entertain the ship. This thrown-together event turned out to provide some pretty exciting moments. All the performers (except Liz Callaway whose concert was scheduled for tonight) performed; giving us a wonderful show. For many of us, it was probably a better way to spend the afternoon than basking in the sun anyway.
This was our last night on the ship; tomorrow we’d dock in Singapore.
Liz Callaway’s show was moved up to an hour before dinner. She pulled out all the stops and gave us a terrific show. I was especially thrilled because her final song was, The Story Goes On, from the musical Baby. Particularly poignant for many reasons. Liz is another of the many Broadway performers that gives her whole heart when she sings. It was a perfect last concert among so many great performances we received.
Following the concert, we had the introduction of the ship’s crew and our final toast to the end of a great cruise. Michael and I just happened to be sitting in front of Hunter Foster and Jennifer Cody, so we got to clink our glasses of champagne with them.
I regret not getting to say goodbye to a lot of people after dinner. I really wasn’t thinking about the unlikelihood of seeing many of them in the morning. We were smart enough to get most of the email addresses exchanged early though, so we’d be able to stay in touch.
We spent the last couple of hours before bed packing and dealing with the reception desk. The cruise has gone way too fast and I’m just thankful for all the wonderful memories. Luckily, we have a full day in Singapore tomorrow before we start the long journey home.
Southeast Asia Travel -11/11 – Day Thirteen: We had a much-needed day at sea today. Very few people were up and about during breakfast after yesterday’s whirlwind day in Bangkok. Michael and I tried to catch catnaps in between the scheduled events.
I forgot to mention before that due to a previously scheduled engagement, Norm Lewis left the cruise yesterday in Bangkok while Kerry Butler and Rachel York joined the cruise there.
At 11 AM, the second and last autograph session was held. We got our posters signed and chatted a bit; then enjoyed watching the stars interact with the guests. Today featured Hunter Foster, Jennifer Cody, Kerry Butler and Rachel York.
Mid-afternoon, John Fahey hosted a talk called, Being a Broadway Mom with Kerry Butler, Liz Callaway and Christine Ebersole. Towards the end Rachel York was brought in to the conversation. It was interesting to hear how they try to balance family with career and fun hearing how Broadway casts so warmly welcome the children into their show families. There were many touching moments as these moms expressed their love (and a few regrets) for their children.
Kerry Butler and Seth Rudetsky opened the concert tonight with Suddenly from Xanadu. It was the first time I’d heard Seth sing that way – he’s really got a nice voice. Usually when he sings, it’s in his Seth-schtick voice. If you’ve listened to him, you’ll know what I mean.
Together they basically did part of a recent concert they performed at 54 Below. Seth interviewed Kerry and she sang up a storm. One of her songs, A Change In Me, was not in Beauty and the Beast when she was Belle on Broadway. It was added later for Toni Braxton. It was a great concert and many wonderful stories were shared.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Nine: Michael and I woke up this morning just as we set sail, leaving the port in Ho Chi Minh City at 5:30 AM. We sailed along the Saigon River heading out to sea. Little did we know that for the next hour we’d be part of some craziness that would be the talk of the ship.
As the Le Soleal was maneuvering through the river, we’d feel the ship slightly tilting as we sailed. I had jumped in the shower while Michael was dressing. The ship rocked a bit tilting to the left and I heard a loud rushing sound like someone dragging something across the floor. When I came out of the bathroom Michael explained the sound– and our morning adventure began.
It seems that when they were getting the ship ready for boarding, someone forgot to lock the wall adjoining our cabin to the one next to us. (With the wall open it is reconfigured as a suite.) So every time the ship tilted to the left, the wall would slide open revealing our neighbors who were sleeping in the next room. I emphasis WERE sleeping.
As the wall opened, Michael was staring directly at them and said he couldn’t think of anything else to say besides, “Good Morning!” Luckily, it was a couple (Peggy Sue and Champ) we’d already met and toured with, so they weren’t complete strangers.
After an hour of repeatedly shutting the ‘wall’ (and trying to hold it shut) and four phone calls, three men finally showed up at our door to fix the problem. I’d been sitting there working on my computer and holding it closed while Michael finished getting ready.
Phil Birsh, President and CEO of Playbill, stopped us in the hall later in the day, apologized and asked us if it was okay if he used it as a funny story to tell that night before the concert. We said ‘yes’. He, of course, embellished the story and had everybody laughing. He added that Peggy Sue and Champ and Michael and I had already booked Italy (BOTHS7) and had requested adjoining rooms. It was pretty funny.
A day at sea is a little more relaxed than an excursion day but full of programing with the Broadway stars. First, Seth Rudetsky hosted a talk about Miss Saigon with Liz Calloway who played Ellen in the original Broadway company (and had a baby a month before it went into production), and Norm Lewis who played John later in the run.
That was followed by a talk, later in the afternoon, with the legendary Tommy Tune– who’d been a surprise guest on the cruise, talking about his career.
Before dinner, Michael and I went up to the deck that overlooks the pool and found a bat hanging in the corner, just inside door. We had to get a crew member to come remove it because we thought it might scare someone, or God forbid, start flying around inside the ship. Yes, these things happen to us.
The concert that night was with Lindsay Mendez. Of course it was wonderful. We were thrilled to finally see her performing live for the first time.
The finally event of the night was Playbill After Dark. Seth Rudetsky hosted a Broadway trivia game and we won a 2016 Playbill calendar. It was quite an adventure for the first full day aboard ship.
Southeast Asia Travel Day Seven: We were fortunate to be staying at the beautiful Intercontinental Asiana Saigon. We got a good night’s sleep and enjoyed a breakfast at leisure to start the day. This morning everyone boarded buses for an all day tour of Ho Chi Minh City. The older population and those in northern Vietnam still refer to it as Saigon.
Our first stop was at Notre Dame Cathedral. While an overwhelming majority of the population is Buddhist (over 90%), the Catholic cathedral is still a popular location for wedding photos because of the beauty of the building as a backdrop.
Near the cathedral is the historic Saigon Central Post Office. We met an 85-year-old man that goes there daily to help anyone that needs assistance translating letters. He offers his time as a free service from the goodness of his heart.
Next, we visited the Reunification Palace. Formerly known as Independence Palace, this was the location of the final assault during the Vietnam War; where a tank crashed through the gates at 11:30 AM April 30, 1975.
This spot was of personal significance to me– linking history to my childhood memories of a war I was well aware of; but didn’t understand, while I was growing up.
Following lunch in a large garden restaurant, we visited a small temple, tucked peacefully into the chaos of the city.
I have to say I was a little disappointed in the tour. Even though we visited a variety of locations, I didn’t feel like I’d gotten any real feel for the city. You can’t absorb everything in such a short time but it’s nice when you can get enough of a taste to feel the essence of the city and its people.
Michael and I were both amused by the way electric service was maintained. Need power? Just run another cable… and another and another. Throughout the city you see large bunches of tangled wire stretching from pole to pole.
After a break back at the hotel, we were bussed out to Binh Quoi Village for the big welcome dinner. Everyone (200 plus) on the Broadway On the High Seas 5 cruise were together for the first time, celebrating the kick off of the actual cruise. The ‘village’ is a beautiful park and pavilion decorated with Chinese lanterns and colored lights. We were greeted with drinks and appetizers as we strolled down a path past a wide variety of artisans demonstrating their crafts, a clever puppet show and Chinese dragons leading the way to the center of the village.
As part of the entertainment, we were treated to two numbers from the musical Miss Saigon as teasers for what we’d see on board. Liz Callaway, the original Ellen (Chris’ wife) in the Broadway production; was joined by Lindsay Mendez on the wonderful duet, I Still Believe. Then Norm Lewis who played John on Broadway, energized the audience with his dazzling performance of the anthem, Bui Doi.
Local talent filled the rest of the evening; a pleasant backdrop as people mingled and relaxed under the stars.