Eating myself to death on a French River Cruise!

Arriving in Avignon after our mammoth train journey from London, the warm Mediterranean climate was very much appreciated after the cold of northern France and the UK. We boarded a coach to take us to the port city of Sete and arrived at the MS Anne-Marie about 2100.

As it was late, we had a quick Champagne reception and sat down to dinner at 2120. The MS Anne-Marie is operated by Croisi Europe and was built in 2014 so it’s quite a modern ship. The dining room and bar force you to speak to the other passengers and sitting for dinner was a nervy affair; like not being picked for PE at school! I was more tired than hungry but the gazpacho, duck and roast potatoes followed by ice cream went down pretty well! Helped by a generous amount of delicious French wine. Plans for a quiet evening went out of the window as me & the other half sat on deck in the warm night air getting to know our shipmates until past midnight!

The cabin on the boat was small but had 2 very comfortable twin beds and was nicely decorated. I loved the space saving cupboards hidden in the walls and a deep drawer to store your toiletries under the sink. The bathroom had a shower cubicle, not a wet room like on some ships and the water maintained a constant heat and pressure. It was weird that the waterline of the river was just below the window which meant that when you lay on the bed, you were technically under water! Even when sailing, the boat was so quiet and smooth that you only knew you were moving by looking out of the window.

Our first excursion gave us a little introduction to the port city of Sete, famous for octopus, red tuna and water jousting! It has a picture postcard port, the biggest in the French Mediterranean as well as an 8th century fortress which is now an open-air theatre. The little canals stored the jousting boats with blue ones for married men and red ones for singletons! We visited Mont St Clair for a stunning view over the city and out across the Mediterranean Sea, just a shame that the clouds hadn’t lifted yet and the sky was still grey. The little church at the lookout had a fascinating mural painted inside, not like anything I’d seen in a church before.

Coming back down to sea level, we visited a museum about the area and its fishing heritage. A lot of it was in French but our guide translated and gave commentary in English. The museum showed different methods of oyster and mussel farming since the 1920s, which I found really interesting. Most of the farms in the area as still very much small, family run businesses, but like most things nowadays, it’s a dying trade not attractive to younger generations. After the museum, we went to a local restaurant to sample some oysters and mussels. It’s been years since I’ve had oyster and I’m still not sure what all the fuss is about. I tried them anyway!

We went back to the boat for lunch and the Cocktail of the Day. Our onboard chef, Pierre, couldn’t have been any less of a typical French chef! His food was incredible and he had great wit. Lunch each day was very much a performance and the biggest meal of the day – starter, main, cheese course and dessert. Tiffany, the Hotel Manager, gave an explanation and information about the cheese each day so it was educational as well as tasty! Good, French wine was also a big part of the meal service, but that did make it hard to stay awake in the afternoons!

After a lunch of pork and quinoa followed by cheese and a scrumptious pear tart, we were back on the coach to visit the UNESCO world heritage Devil Bridge. The original bridge was built in the 8th century but a more modern crossing across the gorge was built next to it in the 1930s.

The bridges overlooked a stunning lake with lovely warm water which was so inviting as the temperature hit 31c. We didn’t stay long at the bridges and carried on the short journey to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, one of France’s most beautiful villages. Built around the 12th century Benedictine abbey, it’s a stunning little village; all cobbled streets on steep hills with little shops, cafes and restaurants. As this was the end of the September, the village wasn’t overly busy and we could take time exploring its hidden streets.

Back onboard, dinner was mackerel with polenta rosti followed by crème brûlée accompanied with lots of wine!

After a very long day travelling and a full day excursion, I was ready for a more relaxed start to the day and as we were due to set sail for our next port at 0900, that forces us to chill on the sundeck and watch the world go by. The boat has a top speed of 4 knots, about 4mph, so we didn’t feel rushed! The sun was hot but there was a cool wind from the sea so I sat with a jacket on whilst reading my book!

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At 1200, Tiffany brought the Cocktail of the Day but it was quite medicinal and not to everyone’s taste. The base ingredient was Aperol but I’m not sure what it was mixed with, as I usually like Aperol. Nonetheless, the alcohol whets our appetite for the salmon wellington and tiramisu. The obligatory few glasses of wine resulted in a quick nap on the bus to a local bull farm.

Not unlike matadors, we learnt how the Razenteurs race with bulls in a ring and try to retrieve rosettes attached to the bull’s horns for a prize worth up to €4000. The bull isn’t killed or hurt but is clearly stressed so I’m still not sure I approve of the pastime. The game is big business in the Camargue area of France with bull owners earning up to €6000 for hiring a bull for the 15-minute game.

The Camargue is not only known for its bulls, but also its white horses. It used to be that the horses were wild but most are owned nowadays. We were given a tour of the farm on the back of a trailer and met some horses and foals. The horse’s fur starts off grey and turns white by around 4 years old. After the ride on the trailer, were given a demonstration of bull sorting but it wasn’t as high octane as I wanted!

These weren’t the only animals we saw during the cruise; we also spotted the area’s famous flamingos, herons, storks and multiple other birds! It was so quite sailing down the canals and watching the wildlife, I could have sat there for days!

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The amuse bouche before dinner this evening was a frog’s leg which didn’t go down well with everyone! I gave it a go, but there’s so little meat on it the parsley sauce was all you could taste!

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The buffalo mozzarella salad and crayfish with vegetables were much more enjoyable! The dessert was floating island but it didn’t have much flavour and had the appearance of whale blubber!

The next day, we had another chilled-out morning as we sailed to our next port, the delightful walled city of Aigues-Mortes. After we docked, the Cocktail of the Day was again followed by an amazing lunch, this time roast lamb and chocolate mousse. I was starting to wonder if I’d ever feel hunger again! The food was so delicious it was impossible not to eat it all but I definitely felt like I was getting a bit rounder around the middle! The lamb was beautifully cooked, even if a little on the rare side but it just melted in your mouth!

Walking off lunch, we headed into the centre of town which is surrounded by the 2-meter-thick fortress wall. Built in the 13th century, it was used as a jail for protestant women for nearly 2 centuries! We then visited the little church built around same time which had some interesting stained-glass windows representing sponges. It was pretty random and none of us knew what to make of it! The work was commissioned in the 1990s so it maybe made more sense then!

After exploring the town, we boarded the coach to take us the short distance to the salt marshes. The marshes cover an area about the same size as Paris and use a cleaver filtration system from the salt and fresh water. The water is pink from algae, but there’s no flamingos here like there are elsewhere in the Camargue as there’s no shrimp for them to eat. We saw huge mounds of salt, grey for roads and white for table. You can taste the salt in the air and on your lips as the little train takes you around the site.

Making the best of our most picturesque port so far, we had dinner of guinea fowl and sorbet on the sundeck. The sorbet was served with a schnapps which completely overpowered it and was inedible. I think the boozy lunches and dinners were starting to catch up with us all and after being attacked by bugs, we all retreated inside for an early night!

After a fitful night, I decided to have a full day on the boat to chill in the sun and read my book. After a lunch of bull stew and a local cake which I can’t remember the name of, the other half went on the excursion to the little town of Saint Marie on Sea with his new found friends.

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The amuse bouche that night was snails on toast which was chewy and garlicy but the main meal of anchovy salad, duck in blueberry followed by apple crumble was one of the best meals so far!

I didn’t get out of bed until 1000 the next day, I was finally starting to relax and then got a little bit annoyed when I realised that we go home tomorrow! We arrived at our last stop, Arles, and the Cocktail of the Day was served at 1130! Who doesn’t want a pina colada for breakfast?! Well, I guess its fruit!

Arles is the biggest city in France, it covers about 70,000 hectares! After a tour of an olive oil producer, we spent the afternoon wandering its little streets and roman amphitheatre. The olive farm and factory were arguably more interesting, but that’s personal preference. I enjoyed learning about the 4 varieties of olive and oil that they produce and their protected statuses. We were on the farm during harvest, which doesn’t usually start until mid-October but it was starting early due to the hot weather. I loved how the trees are shaken with machines to release the olives which are then washed in a jacuzzi. The olives are crushed and oil is extracted from the paste by centrifuge. The oil then sits for 2 weeks before it is filtered and has flavours added. Fascinating!

Back to the ship for our Gala Dinner, I declined the starter of foie gras and had avocado instead. I’m not really a fan of avocado but it was pretty good with the balsamic glaze. The main course of rib eye steak was incredible, cooked perfectly to each person’s individual specification – mine medium and the other half’s well done. The melt in the middle chocolate sponge was the perfect ending to a special meal.

On the whole, the food was fantastic but I guess we should have expected that, being in France and all. The other half was quite nervous of the food as it is a set menu and he is quite fussy. The staff on the ship were great though and our waitress, Gabby, made sure that he was happy with each dish or provided an alternative. I had made them aware of some (not all!) of his dietary requirements before we arrived! Whenever we had fish, he generally had a vegetarian option although he did eat the salmon wellington!

Lunch was always a bigger meal with larger portions and the cheese course which I thought was a better way to serve the meals. Dinner portions were smaller but we were never hungry! In fact, it was a good thing that breakfast was simply fruit, toast, cereals and pastries with a small selection of eggs to order as it stopped the boat from capsizing with all the extra weight we were carrying!

The crew were amazing all throughout our stay and we loved Pierre & Tiffany’s humour. Whilst I was nervous about being in a small space with 20 strangers, the group were all lovely people and it was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to spend a week with them. I think the crew genuinely enjoyed having us on board as Tiffany gave us all big hugs as we boarded the coach to leave.

As we made our way to Nimes train station, I reflected on how much me and the other half had moved out of our comfort zones that week and thoroughly enjoyed it! I guess that’s what travel is all about!

 

Date of trip: September 2019 (late posting due to an error on WordPress)

Price paid: this trip was provided by Great Rail Journeys

Points earned: None

 

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