This article appears in Aug. 8 Weekly Travel Page.
Where there’s a castle, there’s a tale of a dragon, and it didn’t take long for me to find both.
On a windswept stroll through the medieval city of Tarascon, in the far west of the Bouches-du-Rhône department of France in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) region, I came across Chateau de Tarascon and a statue of a mythological hybrid legendarily known as Tarasque, the fire-breathing water dragon of the Rhône River. This quasi-religious creature is celebrated throughout southern France and most commonly referred to as half-turtle/half-man, guarding a castle built as a fortress in the 1400s by King Louis II.
My adventurous spirit was stoked by the time I boarded the Scenic Sapphire river cruise ship, which was docked on the Rhône for the night. We were en route from Tarascon, with stops in Avignon and Lyon before reaching Chalon-sur-Saõne.
By early morning, passengers had the choice to disembark and board buses to explore either St. Rémy de Provence, including St. Paul de Mausole, or Les Baux de Provence for an olive mill visit and tasting, or to Arles with an arena visit to learn about Roman and Van Gogh history. It was a difficult choice, but I decided on the St. Rémy tour.
We drove through streets lined with towering platane trees (like sycamores) and over the limestone hills of PACA. Our destination was Saint-Paul de Mausole, to the clinic where artist Vincent Van Gogh recuperated after his infamous ear tragedy. The clinic itself is still in use and stands at a respectful distance from tourists’ eyes, but an on-site museum allowed us to view an exact replica of his room, complete with some personal possessions. The walls and stairwell leading to it were lined with copies of his works. I stood transfixed, wondering how it was possible that this bold and tortured talent sold only one painting in his entire life. Who wouldn’t be driven mad by such disappointment?
We left the lush landscape of lavender and headed back to the ship for our departure to Avignon, and lunch. Along the way, I sat in on a culinaire, or lecture, with the ship’s executive chef, 24-year-old Aghiles Idrici of Toulouse. As he diced and chopped, he shared his experiences working 17-hour days at Michelin-starred restaurants in London.
My small group of foodies gathered at the bow of the ship to its open kitchen to watch Idrici in action as he prepared his version of Piperade Basquaise — basically, a ratatouille with red wine, mushrooms and prosciutto, served with sautéed bread. Idrici flamed through the recipe like the fire-breathing man/turtle Tarasque, handling multiple pots and pans that would have scorched mortal hands, and juggling ingredients quicker than a river boat cruise along the Rhône.
Charlene Peters is a travel writer who lives in the Napa Valley. She can be reached by email: SipTripper@gmail.com