Lyon is known for its silk and cuisine. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Pont du Gard bridge dates back to Roman times. // © 2016 Collette
In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway once accompanied fellow author F. Scott Fitzgerald on a trip from Lyon to Paris, traveling through the Beaujolais and Burgundy wine countries to retrieve a topless Renault the Fitzgeralds had abandoned in the rain. Hemingway recounts the trip in his memoir, A Moveable Feast, in which he describes Fitzgerald’s hypochondria and inability to handle his liquor. Any positive words and descriptions in the chapter are reserved almost entirely for the food, drink and countryside of France.
“We had a marvelous lunch from the hotel at Lyon, an excellent truffled roast chicken, delicious bread and white Macon wine and Scott was very happy when we drank the white Maconnais at each of our stops,” writes Hemingway. “At Macon I had bought four more bottles of excellent wine which I uncorked as we needed them. I am not sure Scott had ever drunk wine from a bottle before …”
Hemingway, of course, is not the only person to love France. Despite recent atrocities committed by ISIS and reports from suppliers and media that travel bookings to France have been soft, the country remains a luxury travel darling.
In August, Virtuoso revealed that France is the No. 2 top-booked destination for 2016 fall and holiday travel, up from the No. 7 slot in 2015.
“Earlier this year, we surveyed select advisors about their Paris and France bookings,” said Albert Herrera, senior vice president of global product partnerships for Virtuoso. “They reported that it was business as usual, and that they hadn’t noticed any significant shifts.”
Currently, France is the No. 2 most-requested country for Abercrombie & Kent’s (A&K) Tailor Made product line, and France is Avanti Destinations’ No. 3 best-selling country in Europe.
“The majority of agents tell me they are still booking France but have seen a slight decrease,” said Pascale Theurier, northwest regional sales director for Avanti.
Both Theurier and Herrera agree: Novice travelers are more nervous, but experienced travelers are visiting France no matter what.
“Having lived through several tragic events, most have decided to continue living their lives as they see fit, which includes travel,” said Marion Fourestier, director of communications for Atout France - France Tourism Development Agency. “This is the world we live in right now, and no one knows that better than Americans.”
Avanti, Collette, A&K and others are continuing to add France product to their portfolios, especially in regard to food and wine. A&K, which had only offered France as a Tailor Made program or through river cruises, is adding several group journeys in areas outside of Paris for 2017.
“This was an expansion of France and a signal of our confidence in the long-term durability of the market there,” said Liam Dunch, product manager of Europe for A&K. “France is a key luxury destination, and we needed to build up our journey possibilities.”
Visiting France beyond Paris — deep into the vineyards and farm-filled countryside — offers a behind-the-scenes look into the country’s culinary traditions and cuisine, declared a “world intangible heritage” by UNESCO in 2010 and “a combination of national sport and high art” by chef Julia Child years before.
“The South of France is a foodie paradise,” said Paul Vieira, product manager for Collette, on why the company has added a new tour in the area.
Operators aren’t the only ones seeing growth. Travel from Burgundy to Provence is a growing trend for Cathy Moha, a luxury travel advisor for Coastline Travel Advisors and a Provence native. Moha says that the region’s experiential food, culture and history offerings are inching out the French Riviera, which is known for its beaches and parties.
“American people like to eat and drink and love good food and wine, but the main difference is that in the U.S., food and wine is not related to history, whereas in France, these regions — Provence and Burgundy, for sure — are completely rooted in the past,” Moha said. “The way you’re going to eat the special local dish is the same recipe you could have found in the 14th or 15th century.”
Among overnight (land) stays, Atout France notes that Provence is No. 2 among Americans after the Paris region, followed by the Rhone-Alpes/Lyon region — and these numbers don’t even count river cruisers. Of course, many Americans are also visiting Provence and Lyon, along with Burgundy, when cruising on the Saone and Rhone rivers, which remains a healthy market.
And while they’re traveling, they’re seeing production firsthand, eating and drinking. Following are some of the memorable wine, cuisine and farm experiences available just in the slice of France accessible from the Saone and Rhone rivers.
Tasting the Earth in Burgundy and Beaujolais
Before boarding a river cruise, I sought to enjoy France a la Hemingway: with wine.
Beaune, the center of Burgundy, used to look like the Bahamas. That’s how Cristina Otel, owner of Burgundy Wine School, started out her 3½-hour lesson on Burgundy. It wasn’t for shock value or just an interesting fact, but rather the foundation of my involved lesson on Cote d’Or, the slope of Burgundy I was visiting — and only a two-hour train ride from Lyon, where most river cruises begin.
She followed up her declaration by producing several fossils and rocks to show me how the landscape of the region changed in the Jurassic Era. Like a smashed layered cake, the soil composition collapsed unevenly, producing Burgundy’s special terroir — defined as “the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced.” Here, small differences in soil and vineyard placement produce great distinctions since all Burgundy wines are single varietal (either made from pinot noir for reds or chardonnay for whites).
Otel’s detailed paper map of the vineyards of Cote de Beaune came to life on a drive that highlighted just how small and nuanced the region is.
“See that blue car in the distance?” she asked. “That’s where the wine changes from a Village to a more prestigious AOC Bourgogne classification.”
As we passed the precious, small vineyards of Beaune, I noticed how rocks could be porous or solid and red or white. And back at Otel’s house, I tasted — 12 times — the effect of these differences.
I was again put to the terroir test (my favorite type of test) in Beaujolais, my first stop with Viking River Cruises. Though the wine region of Beaujolais is administratively a part of southern Burgundy, it’s a distinct wine region based on the gamay grape, a different soil, a warmer climate and a unique winemaking method in which grapes must be handpicked and vatted in whole bunches.
After whizzing past bucolic, Tuscany-like landscapes characterized by hills, rows of green corn and shaggy, blond-green canola, we arrived at Chateau des Ravatys, located under the grace of Notre Dame aux Raisins, a chapel for Our Lady of the Grapes. The former proprietor left her estate to Institut Pasteur in the 1920s, and since then, all profits from the chateau are used to fund medical research. We examined the picturesque vineyard and cellars, tasted elegant Cote de Brouilly wines and experienced the only-in-France pleasure of doing it all for good health and faith.
Cuisine and Agriculture
Very few suppliers dare visit France without strolling through a vineyard, but wine is not the only product produced and exported by the French — nor does it sit alone at the dinner (and lunch) table. Indeed, UNESCO explains that an important element of the gastronomic meal of France is “the purchase of good, preferably local products whose flavors go well together.”
France is one of the most dominant agricultural forces in Europe, and a simple drive through the countryside reveals just how much surface area farms cover. Though these days there are a growing number of farm managers overseeing industrial farms, tour operators and river cruise companies have done a great job scouring the land for traditional purveyors.
At Chevrerie la Trufiere in Chissey-les-Macon, for example, I was invited to crash a luncheon of shrubs and hay. In addition to being lively chewers, the farm’s troupe of goats are tasked with creating some of the area’s excellent cheese. At the farm’s tasting room, thick wedges of unpasteurized aged and fresh goat cheese are offered with white wine alongside goat cheese caramels and the local specialty, peppery bouton de culotte.
Thirty minutes after leaving the goat cheese farm, I found myself in a yoga squat witnessing the process of foraging that otherworldly fungus — the truffle — at Les Cos-Piguet organic farm in Malay, also in southern Burgundy.
Though I wasn’t visiting during truffle-hunting season — usually from winter to early spring — truffle farmer Olivier and his trusty 12-year-old sidekick, Chinook the dog, modeled the hunt for me with immature truffles that weren’t yet deep in the soil. I watched, spellbound, as Chinook methodically zigzagged through a maze of European hornbeams, oak, linden and hazelnut trees before pawing a specific spot and unearthing a dirt-caked truffle.
Olivier’s truffle butter, saffron products and white wine were an appetizer for my next stop: Lyon, the second-largest metropolitan area in France and the country’s so-called gastronomy capital.
Part of this designation has to do with the Oliviers of France producing wine, meat and produce nearby, as well as the sheer number of Michelin-starred and casual restaurants serving regional French cuisine. Travel agent Moha recommends that her clients head to Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon) for a meal at Comptoir Brunet, one of Lyon’s traditional bouchons, casual eateries serving heavy dishes such as quenelle — an egg-shaped mixture of breadcrumbs, creamed fish or meat — and pork in all its possible iterations.
Hands-on cooking demonstrations have also become increasingly popular. Passengers on Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s themed Connoisseur Collection Burgundy & Provence cruises can take part in a cooking demo and tea party at Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, while Avanti clients can make local specialties during new chef-led private pastry and three-course cooking classes. Whether or not you take a cooking class, don’t miss Lyon’s pink praline pastries — particularly the face-size, rose-studded brioche at Maison Pralus.
And no visit to France is complete without a visit to a marche (market), such as the indoor Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse or the outdoor market in Vienne. Though a small town, Vienne offers the second-largest outdoor food market in France on Saturdays. The city’s sprawling shrine to food and community is a feast for the eyes, with countless stands hawking stinky cheeses, crusty breads, buttery pastries and seasonal produce.
In this part of France, fresh abundance overflows in cities dating back to the Romans and vineyards once controlled by dukes and monks. And no area is more of a microcosm of this than Provence, with its Mediterranean climate, olive oil, aioli, stews, herbs, pope-approved wine and generally rustic cuisine.
Arles may be famous for artist Vincent Van Gogh, sunlight and sunflowers, but Moha likes to take her clients off the beaten path to a farm in the Camargue, where she once witnessed farmers castrating bulls.
“This farm is not doing things for tourists,” she said. “They have a cuisine that is very traditional, based on bulls and charcuterie — it’s the way people eat there and nothing more or less. If you like it, great. If you don’t like it, there’s nothing else to eat.”
Fortunately, no one goes hungry in France. In nearby Avignon, foodies can visit Les Halles d’Avignon, another marche couvert (covered market), take a Provencal cooking class or visit wine region Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which has a legacy tied to the papal history of Avignon.
Though it was a difficult decision, I chose to take a break from the reds in search of purple.
In the summer, lavender is in bloom in Sault and other towns in Provence’s rolling countryside.
Strolling through the rows of wild lavender against a chalky Mont Ventoux and a bright blue sky, it was clear that my companions and I couldn’t handle our lavender as coolly as Hemingway inhaled his wine. In true Fitzgerald fashion, we were drunk on France.