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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Intimate Charm of Cruising Europe's Rivers




It's Sunday night, late, and on the Princesse de Provence, a riverboat cruising from Arles to Avignon, we're in the midst of the nightly six-course dinner extravaganza. Menus reflect typical cruise ship pretensions of grandeur - tidbits like red mullet with capers, and poultry consomme with almond-egg custard, accompanied by a bottle of local Chateauneuf-du-Pape.


Somewhere between the main course and the coffee eclairs, our vessel - a doll house compared with today's 2,000-plus capacity mega-cruise ships - gently veers to the bank of the Rhone. Spotlights point to a flat-topped, curved wall ringing the city of Avignon. In medieval times, it protected the town from bandits.


We dock gently. Our waiter, pouring the last coffee, suggests we go ashore to see the Palais des Papes, the medieval headquarters of nine 15th-century popes who planned to create a papacy to rival Rome's. It's the city's best-known attraction, often dubbed the Versailles of Avignon. It's beautifully illuminated at night, the waiter says; when he's off work at 3 a.m., he says, he sometimes wanders into town to see it.


I'm thinking, now? After all, we'll be docked here all day tomorrow. Who knows if Avignon's safe this late? How far is it, really, from the ship? But I'm intrigued, so I wander out, crossing the highway and cutting through a ghostly commuter parking lot before entering Avignon under an arched gateway through the wall. And in two minutes I'm in the city center, following narrow, winding Rue St. Agricol where the Christian LaCroix and Ralph Lauren boutiques are dark, the art galleries shadowed. Even the cafes on Place de L'Horloge, the town's main plaza, are on last call.


This lovely non-welcome is merely one distinguishing characteristic of a riverboat cruise - a pleasant respite for a traveler who frequents mega-cruise ships from which hordes of passengers descend into a port at the same time, greeted by mobs of persistent taxi drivers and trinket merchants. Riverboat passengers never overwhelm the ports of call and, happily, are of little interest to hucksters.


On this midnight stroll, I cross paths with a few other cruisers; we wave and continue on our separate ways. When I reach the Place du Palais, the plaza at the Palais des Papes, its towers and turrets are illuminated by spotlights that somehow do not wash out the stars. Full of throngs by daylight, the plaza is magically empty. I have my own private audience with the ghosts of popes past.


My seven-day cruise aboard the Princess de Provence, which sails weekly from April until early November, explored France's provincial heartland. On its usual itinerary, it departs Lyon, France's second largest city and self-proclaimed gastronomic capital, where the Rhone and Saone rivers meet. It heads up the Saone, which leads to the regions of Burgundy and Beaujolais, then turns south on the Rhone, stopping in Provence and the Ardeche.


I was nervous about the riverboat concept. What I've enjoyed most about mega-ship cruising was the on-board experience: the pampering of cabin stewards, swim-up pool bars, gift shops and spas. Itineraries were secondary. Would I miss the extras, like 24-hour room service? Would familiarity with fellow passengers breed contempt?


But I found that fewer choices meant a simpler life on board. Mealtimes were the high point of social activity; other "events" included afternoon tea and occasional cocktail hours. Each night, before and after dinner, "musician Julius" played a portable electric piano. Occasionally, couples waltzed.


Because people tended to cluster on the sun deck in good weather and in the lounge at night, passengers mingled naturally, resulting in a pleasant camaraderie. By the end of our week, it would take me 15 minutes to wend my way from dining room to lobby because people stopped to chat and exchange invitations for excursions.


Ports of call really matter on this type of ship. Our itinerary was altered by heavy rain from the previous two weeks. River levels on the Saone prevented our low-slung boat from passing under even lower bridges. Amid much grumbling, the visit to Burgundy was eliminated. A one-hour port stop in the Rhone Valley town of Vienne was extended to a full day. And our planned return to Lyon for one overnight turned into three.


Still, as we progressed along the Rhone, there were more interesting moments like the one in Avignon - visits to obscure villages, as well as such well-trodden magnets as Provence's Les Baux, St. Remy and Arles. The mix was pleasing. It meant you could alternately laze away an afternoon at a sun-drenched cafe table, drinking local rose and eating steak au poivre and cr?me caramel, or engage in idle shopping fantasies at places like Herve Baum's antiques, a favorite of Avignon society matrons, where an old marble-topped table could be yours for 125,000 francs $22,000). The extended schedule gave us enough time in Lyon to hit the major sights - the Basilique de Fourviere, the Renaissance facades of Vieux Lyon (the old city) and its funky boutiques and antiques stores.


Other highlights included the Textile Museum, which traces the history of the city's famed silk trade, and the Centre Histoire de la Resistance et de la Deportation, where exhibits commemorated efforts of French patriots to undermine the German occupation during World War II.


After seven days among 115 passengers, most of whom, save the German speakers, mixed and mingled easily, I was lulled into a feeling of bonhomie. There were numerous passenger bonding experiences, from sipping kirs (white wine mixed with homemade cr?me de cassis, a liqueur consisting of black currant and brandy) to numerous impromptu hikes with fellow cruisers to hilltop cathedrals (every town we visited seemed to have one).


But while the ship's officers always seemed to be around, the camaraderie didn't extend to them. There seemed to be an odd, us-against-them rivalry between crew - most of whom hailed from Germany since Deilmann, which owns the Princesse, is a German-owned company - and passengers, the majority of whom were American, with a handful of Germans and British.


Ultimately, though, what was troubling about a cruise that otherwise delivered on the small-ship promise was a strange hostility that always seemed to involve money. A steady undercurrent of stinginess gave an unpleasant odor to the experience.


During one dinner, our wine steward approached my table and accused me of walking out on a bar tab the night before. As though, on this tiny ship, he had caught me pulling a fast one! He was wrong, but that's not the point. It was one of the most repulsive acts of customer relations I've ever seen. He continued his humiliating tirade, capped by presenting the bill with a flourish, as a maitre d', oblivious to the drama, seated my tablemates.


On the last night, all the passengers gathered in the lounge for the captain's farewell party, and hotel director Jurgen Timmerman raised a glass of champagne as he thanked the passengers for a wonderful cruise. It was a standard speech, meant to communicate a sense of warmth and camaraderie that simply never existed. Having cruised exclusively on larger ships, where you don't expect to bond with staff and crew, I'd wrongly surmised that the small ship atmosphere would be a cozier experience.


I fled that last morning. Much as I enjoyed the other passengers, I was eager for the impersonal big city where I was spending the night at a hotel. I wandered around Lyon alone that day, free of the crew's strange, hostile tension.


I stopped at a market in Old Lyon where I picked up some bread, sausages, cheese and wine, dreaming of a cozy dinner alone in my hotel room. But on the way back, I peered into a cafe and there, sipping coffee, were my Irish tablemates, Anne and Anthony. Having spent less than 12 hours indulging in my cherished independence, I abandoned all thoughts of a solitary feast and plunged into the cafe to join them.


I'd missed them.