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Traveling to new places can certainly be a mixed bag of experiences. I learned a long time ago not to let expectations get in the way of the experience itself. Even if you’ve spent a lot of time researching a destination in advance, there are always surprises along the way. Something might be closed. There may be a new exhibit or a festival that suddenly draws your attention. It could be overcrowded or timing may play an important role. Weather may also be an important factor. Whatever the situation when you arrive, flexibility is the key.
During our stop in Avignon, we had six optional excursions to choose from. Four were included- a walking tour of Avignon, a walking/tram tour (for gentle walkers), the Pont du Gard Aqueduct, or kayaking on the Gardon river. Two offerings, for an additional charge, included: A cooking class with a master chef at the Hotel la Mirande, or Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine tasting.
I was interested in seeing the Aqueduct but that meant sacrificing a visit to Avignon and the Palace of the Popes. So it was hard to choose. Michael and I ended up deciding we wanted the adventure of exploring Avignon on our own. I thought to ask our Cruise Manager Tania, if there was an admission ticket to the Palace of the Popes, which there was. She had a few tickets on hand, for those not taking the tour that wanted to explore on their own. Good thing I asked!
One other thing– in each city we docked, Uniworld had maps available to take with us, whether we went with a guided group or not. Taking one today was especially beneficial.
We crossed the main road that runs along the Rhone river and entered the fortified walls of Avignon.
Avignon dates back to at least the 6th century BC under Greek domination. Naples and France each had their own piece of early history here. By the 1300’s, it became the residence of the Popes– seven in all would make Avignon their home before the Papacy returned to Rome as the permanent residence. In addition, multiple plagues had a big impact on the city over the centuries. While the current city population is about 90,000, only about 12,000 live with the ancient city center that is surrounded by looming medieval ramparts.
We walked through narrow streets, into the city, finding ourselves in the Place de l’Horloge. Not only is it considered the city center, it is one of the most perfect squares (I’ve seen so far) in Europe. It was still early in the day when we arrived. The hour was reflected by the activities of the merchants and restaurateurs busily preparing to open up shop. What made it so perfect was the blend of colorful shops, historic buildings and an old world atmosphere that hadn’t been completely modernized or commercialized. It still had so much charm.
Just a few blocks away was the Square Below the Palace of the Popes (Place du Palais). Not quite as charming as Place de l’Horloge but still historically beautiful and well preserved. There we found an artist was setting up to sell his work. Across the square, an accordionist played his squeezebox; busking at the steps of the Palace.
Palace of the Popes. The Palais des Papes is one of the 10 most visited monuments in France. It is the largest Gothic palace in Europe. Built in the 14th century, it was first home to Popes, then Legates, and finally Vice-Legates up until the French Revolution. Six papal conclaves were held here.
The majority of the palace was constructed in less than 20 years.
Over 20 rooms can be explored during your visit. Most of the ornate embellishments that were the finishing touches of later Popes, are now gone. One of the most interesting areas of the palace are the Popes’ private chambers– with original frescoes painted by the Italian artist Matteo Giovannetti. (No photography allowed.)
The palace was first opened to the public in the early 1900s. Today, exhibitions and performances are held here year-round. It is interesting that the palace has not been turned into a museum house in the way that many historic places have been. Here, the focus is on the magnificence of the building and architecture itself.
From the Palace, we wandered through the streets of Avignon, passing many shops and small theatres on our way to the Rocher des Doms Garden overlook. We strayed from the main path, discovering some unique passages and paused a moment to watch a sculptor at work.
After winding our way around, climbing many steps, we found ourselves at the top of the Rocher des Doms Garden Overlook. The gardens and panoramic views were nothing short of spectacular. It was just incredible up there. I couldn’t help but wonder if our cruise mates were going to miss out on all this beauty, or be rushed through, to stay on schedule. We had all the time in the world.
I think we found the best view of the famous bridge- Pont d’Avignon or Pont Saint-Bénézet. Originally completed in 1185, it crossed the Rhone, only to be destroyed 40 years later by Louis VIII when taking over Avignon. It was rebuilt with 22 arches but river flooding repeatedly damaged the bridge. The surviving sections of the bridge are believed to have been constructed around 1345, with the Chapel of Saint Nicholas at the middle of the four remaining arches. The bridge is considered an important representation of the city, as well as the inspiration for the song, Sur le pont d’Avignon.
We took a break, grabbing a drink from a small cafe on the hill, and continued to enjoy our beautiful surroundings. We had perfect weather. It was hard to leave this place but we needed to start making our way back down the hill.
We reached the bottom of the hill, once again passing the palace and finding ourselves back at Place de l’Horloge. It was a little busier now, the carousel was in motion and tourists were beginning to fill the streets and shops.
We’d only covered about a third of Avignon but felt like the experience had been totally fulfilling. It was still early afternoon and we could have spent more time but I was anxious to get back to the ship.
Lighting Paulo. I ended up volunteering (getting volunteered) to try and help improve the lighting for tonight’s concert. After the daily briefing in the Van Gogh lounge, while everyone else headed to the Cezanne Dining Room for dinner, I stayed and helped the staff transform the lounge into a makeshift theater.
On all the previous Playbill cruises the ships had actual theaters (or performance spaces) with a stage. Being a much small ship, specifically designed for river travel, the S.S. Catherine had only the large Van Gogh Lounge (with no stage) that could accommodate all the guests at one time.
I’m not sure I was able to improve the lighting that much– but at least music director, John McDaniel would be lit. (The night before, he was totally in the dark.) The ship staff seemed grateful for the assistance and asked if I’d hang around for sound check.
A Private Moment. There really wasn’t time to go join our group in the dining room– so I went to our regular spot, which coincidentally was just off the lounge– on the front-lower deck of the ship. I got out there just in time to watch as our ship passed through one of the river locks– the first one I got to observe from start to finish. It’s fascinating how it works, moving from different water levels– and the fact that these locks help prevent most of the flooding that could occur along the river is pretty incredible.
After the lock, we were back in open water. Mostly natural, undeveloped land drifted by– with the occasional building or the remains of some ancient building coming and going from view. The sun was still quite hot as it was slowly starting it’s late afternoon descent from the sky. It was peaceful, quiet, and really a beautiful moment. How lucky I was to be experiencing it!
Paulo Szot In Concert. What a voice! Strong, rich, resonant– a joy to listen to. Paulo treated us to a wide variety of songs that included selections from his Tony Award-winning performance in South Pacific to Sondheim. I think the audience favorite had to be his rendition of Stars from Les Miserables; performed in many different languages and ending in English.
Paulo Szot is one of the most acclaimed and versatile baritones in the world, having garnered international acclaim as both an opera singer and actor. Born in Sao Paulo to Polish immigrants, Szot has appeared in leading roles with many major opera companies throughout the world including the Metropolitan Opera, Paris Opera, La Scala, Dutch National Opera, San Francisco Opera, Rome Opera and Opera Australia. In 2008, he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Emile De Becque in the Broadway revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theater, for which he also won the Drama Desk, Outer Critic’s Circle and Theater World Awards. Szot was the first Brazilian actor to receive such honors. In the recent 2016-2017 season, Szot appeared as Don Alfonso in a new production of Cosi fan tutte at Opera National de Paris and presneted a solo recital at Teatro Royal de Madrid as a salute to Frank Sinatra’s recordings of Antonio Jobim’s bossa novas. He also originated the roles of Alexander Hamilton, Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney in the world premiere of Mohammed Fairouz’s The New Prince at the Dutch National Opera. — Playbill
Going Through the Locks. After the concert, the gang gathered on the deck and we were treated to quite a show. We went through probably the most unique of the locks on our trip– passing under, and then watching the massive gate drop behind us closing our ship in the lock, creating what felt like a medieval dungeon. It was dark and eerie, the ship’s floodlights reflecting off the dark, glistening walls as the water level changed before releasing us back out into the river.
It had been quite a day! I always tell people that doing the Playbill cruises is like getting two vacations in one. You enjoy traveling to, and exploring, fascinating destinations– and then you have the wonderful Broadway concert experience on board. Today was the perfect example of the best of both worlds.
Travel Date: May 23, 2017, Tuesday (Day 11)
Transport to train station: 8 AM. What?!? No! This can’t be! But alas, that was indeed the schedule.
No Sunday in the Park with George…. and Jeff and Michael and Mary.
As I’d posted before our trip, I had hoped we’d be able to spend a little of our Sunday morning on the l’Île de la Grande Jatte– where Georges Seurat spent much time sketching and painting. I guess it was just an art/theatre geek thing. I’d hoped we wouldn’t have been leaving Paris before noon– 10 am at the very earliest. I guess that moment just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe next trip. (You hear that George and Mary?)
The night before, Michael and I somehow managed to pack our large and carry on suitcases inside each other so they would go on the truck ahead of us to the ship. (They told us we could send one bag ahead.) This way we didn’t have to lug a big suitcase on the train.
Everything actually worked out perfectly. We got up, had breakfast, and then it was time to head to the train station. No waiting around, killing time.
We arrived at the Paris station, Gare de Lyon, with plenty of time to look around the beautiful, building before boarding the high speed TGV train to Avignon.
It was hard to believe that after the whirlwind adventure we’d had so far– the ‘main event‘ was still ahead! Broadway On the Rhone! This would be our fourth cruise with Playbill Travel but our first-ever river cruise.
We arrived in the south of France (Avignon) in just under three hours. Even though there wasn’t a lot of unique scenery to speak of, it was a relaxed, comfortable trip.
We were warmly greeted and welcomed aboard the S.S. Catherine by the crew and encouraged to visit the buffet. The rooms wouldn’t be ready for a couple hours so we ate and explored. We saw a number of people had arrived that hadn’t gone to Paris first– so we said our hellos and ended up camping out on the top deck.
It was empty up there– a beautiful sunny day and little hot. We guessed most were choosing to stay inside where it was cooler.
After a bit, we saw people coming up the stairs. It was none other than Grammy and Emmy Award winner, John McDaniel and his niece! We made introductions, had a nice conversation and then they were off to explore around the ship some more.
A crew member came around and told us we could check in and go to our rooms but our bags might not be there until later. When they arrived, we had enough time to unpack and take a short nap before the security/excursion briefing in the lounge.
The ship set sail, unceremoniously, while the meeting was going on. That was followed by cocktails on the upper deck and the introduction of our cruise’s entertainment: Liz Callaway, Paulo Szot, James Barbour, and Rebecca Luker; with music director, John McDaniel.
Our ship, the S.S. Catherine, is a small ship, specifically suited for river cruises. It only accommodates 159 guests and 57 staff in 6 suites and 74 staterooms. It has to be short enough to fit under the many low bridges. We would also be passing through 17 locks on the Rhone river from Avignon to Lyon.
The ship has most of the amenities of a larger ship, just scaled down. There’s one large dining room (most ships have three or more) and a big lounge that can hold everyone at one time. There’s also a smaller bar with a ‘pool’ that would be better described as a large hot tub. The only things missing are a gift shop and casino.
One of the first things I noticed, after the Murano chandelier in the lobby, was the beautiful modern art lining all the hallways. Tasteful and appropriate.
At 7 pm we met our friends for an enjoyable dinner and then retired early. I always feel exhausted on travel days, I’m not sure why. Looking forward to a new adventure on the day ahead!
Travel Date: May 21, 2017 Sunday (Day 9)