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Cruising In Three - Quarter Time




                                                                         By  DOMINICK A. MERLE

                                                                 Photos by SUSAN MERLE



Sometimes, if you abandon your comfort zone and go against the flow to discover sights and sounds unknown, nice things happen.


               I had never cruised on the Rhone, classical music was not my cup of tea and what about those strange-sounding towns and villages, many of which I had never even heard of before?


               Nonetheless,  fully unprepared, here I am embarking on a Rhone land/cruise, specifically themed to classical music and, aside from the bookends of Lyon and Barcelona, would be visiting a number of places I couldn’t even pronounce.


              But after 13 days, 12 concerts (half on land, half on water) and visits to at least 15 charming hamlets in Provence en route to Barcelona, nice things did happen.


              Oh, I wasn’t quite ready to buy a harp and head for the Australian Outback, but my comfort zone just added some new and interesting layers. I was beginning to appreciate the classical music---ranging from the solo guitar to the string quartets to the full symphony orchestras---and looking forward to my next

surprise village.


               The bulk of the credit for my pleasant transformation, aside from the musicians themselves and those mystery stops along the Rhone, would go to our program director, Gery Valtiner, and our musical director, George Zukerman.


                While their backgrounds and personalities have almost nothing in common, they make perfect harmony together. 


                Gery started work as a tourist guide in his native Austria, emigrated to Canada as a young man and founded Special Travel International (sticanada.com) some 25 years ago in Vancouver. He’s a no-nonsense, no-pretense guy who patiently tends to all his clients’ needs, seemingly able to be in three separate places at the same time.


                 It pays off.  STI offers about ten theme cruises a year and at least 25 percent aboard are repeaters.  The land/cruises are scheduled primarily in Europe and Asia with themes ranging from gardens to nature to safaris to bird watching and whatever else Gery sees as promising.  The next classical music cruise will take place in April 2017 in Portugal and Spain.


                George Zukerman is a world renowned musician and impresario who was often described as the “High Priest of the bassoon.”  While he retired  in 2013 after a 60-year career on the international concert stage, music runs deep in his veins.  And flows melodiously from his lips, as he is a gifted orator,  regaling the audiences with brilliant anecdotes before each concert.


                 “Gery’s a good listener and George’s a good talker,” as one member of our group aptly summed up.


                   There were about 125 of us on our cruiser, the AmaDagio of AmaWaterways, which included two lounges, a sundeck and fitness area. Standard cabins were about average with other cruise lines.  Food, however, was well above average, as AmaWaterways is the only river cruise line inducted into La Chaine des Rotisseurs, one of the world’s most prestigious culinary organizations.


                    So, with beautiful music, interesting stops, Gery, George and good food, what’s to complain about?  Not much, so on a scale of one to ten, the 125 of us got along just fine at about an 8.5 (except for the woman who near-demanded the front seat on every bus tour and the gentleman who snored loudly at least once a concert).


                     We began our tour in Lyon, arguably the gastronomical center of the world.  And it did not disappoint in that respect.  We stayed three nights in the Marriott Hotel in a complex known as Cite International, which contained other hotels, shops, a casino, restaurants, novelty and gift shops…just about anything you would need under one roof.


                      Cite International, while functional, is pretty drab looking from the exterior (think Leavenworth).  But we had dinner at a restaurant there simply called 33 (its address) and it turned out to be our most memorable meal on the entire trip, with all due respect to the AmaDagio.  I had calf liver Lyonaisse and my wife had a beef tartare.


                       We took several tours from Cite International to Lyon’s historic old city with its cobblestone streets, quaint shops and “bouchons,” casual restaurants specializing in sausages, duck pates and pork.  The bouchons are pretty formulized, but I dare you to walk along those cobblestone streets and not get hungry for meat!


                        We also visited some Roman ruins and attended the first three of 12 concerts---a string quartet, a sextet with wind and string instruments and a full-blown  Brahms concert by the National Symphony Orchestra.


                         Now it was time to board the AmaDagio for our cruise down the Rhone.  These were some of the highlights of the stops along the way:


                         ANNECY---This town of about 50,000 inhabitants is one of the most charming spots in the French Alps.  It’s crisscrossed by Venice-style canals, flower-covered bridges, medieval houses and arcaded streets.  Simply strolling is its biggest tourist attraction.  One park near a lake seemed to me like a modern-day version of Georges Seurat’s famous painting “Sunday In The Park at La Grand Jatte” come to life.


                          OINGT---Now we enter the Beaujolais wine region, also known as the Pays d’Or.  We visited  a medieval hilltop village and the home of a local vinter for a wine tasting and vineyard tour.  Returning to the AmaDagio, our concert featured a harp and violin.  There was a light drizzle as we cruised slowly down the Rhone, creating a magical moment with the string instruments.


                           AVIGNON & ARLES---Seven French Popes reigned from Avignon instead of Rome during the 14th Century.  We visited the Papal Palace and walked around the preserved medieval walls surrounding the historic center of town.  At Arles, we passed by the home (now a brasserie) of Vincent VanGogh and where he cut off his ear, and later visited the Saint Paul de Mausole Asylum, the madhouse where Van Gogh was confined by choice for a year.  There was a reproduction of his room, precise in every detail.


                             And now, to our final destination, Barcelona.   We stayed at a boutique hotel near the base of Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s world-famous pedestrian boulevard.  The walking street, once a bustling area with no game plan but loaded with open air markets, restaurants and shops, has now evolved into trendy boutiques and typical tourist traps.  But it hasn’t lost its bustle.


                               The next day we visited  Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s still unfinished masterpiece for well over a century.  It’s now scheduled for completion in 2026.  Perhaps.  Tourism officials are privately concerned that after they finish it, the crowds will start to drop off. 


                             We also visited Gaudi’s other masterpiece that doesn’t get as much press, Parc Guell, a colorful and bizarre public park that was designed to be a housing development but never made it.


                              Our final three concerts also took place in Barcelona, highlighted by Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, a three-act opera, at the Grand Teatre del Liceau.


                               On our way back to our hotel on Las Ramblas, a Marilyn Monroe look-alike, her white dress blowing upward like in that famous photo, was perched on a balcony,  suggestively waving to the walkers.  She was not an exhibitionist, but advertising for a sex boutique and museum on the first floor.


                                Like Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everybody wants to get in on the act!”



                                (Dominick and Susan Merle are travel writers based in Montreal.  Dominick is co-founder of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Assn.  Email: dmerle@videotron.ca)

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