Tournon-sur-Rhône and Tain L’Hermitage

Last night we left Chalon-sur-Saône, heading south to Lyon, then leaving the Saône and joining the Rhône, where we will spend the rest of our time in France. We spent the late afternoon and evening with friends we’ve met on the ship, so I rarely paid attention to what was happening along the riverbanks.

We had a ‘Name that tune’ music quiz show in the evening, which was lots of fun. They split us into two teams and essentially our team captains had to be the first to name a song and an artist, or answer a question about a particular song, to gain a point. You’d think that a group of people who can afford to fly to Europe and take a river cruise might not get too excited about a contest where the winning team gets to share a packet of biscuits, but the truth of the matter is we’re all big kids at heart, so each time a tune was played there was lots of excitement and whispering and we’d cheer like crazy if our team leader got to the front of the room first with the correct answer. When the scores got tight, we all leapt out of our seats and raced out the front to perform the YMCA dance to the Village People just because we wanted the extra points. Anyhow, there were lots of laughs and we interacted with a whole lot of new people and, even better, WE WON! Yay! And, as I said, the prize was a packet of biscuits, which were so bland we each took one and then handed the rest of the packet over to the losing team. I hope they liked them.

We all retired for the evening, but the ship continued to cruise south all night. Occasionally I would wake because I became aware of a different noise or because the motion clearly stopped still. I knew what this meant – we were going through another lock. Nothing to worry about. Soon I was sound asleep again.

By 10am, we were docking at the small commune of Tournon. We’d been told we would arrive there by 2pm, but we got there four hours earlier. Tournon was once a walled city in medieval times. Today the remnants of the wall and a sentry tower remain in a prominent position above the little town.

Directly across the Rhône from Tournon is Tain L’Hermitage. From our ship we could clearly see the hillside vineyards that produce the world famous Hermitage wines. They cover every available square metre of the hillside, making me ponder about the technology and harvesting methods they might use to gather the vintage each year. High on one of the slopes, I did spot a man with a horse walking slowly back and forth among the rows of vines. To cross from Tournon to Tain, we would need to walk across a historic suspension bridge which was only available to foot traffic and cyclists.

Our ship, meanwhile, was slowly reversing into a docking position and, at the same time, inching closer and closer to another river ship that was already moored at the dock. Eventually the two ships were parallel to each other and close enough that a gangway was extended across the gap, allowing passengers from our ship to cross the other ship and walk through it to the dock on the other side. It’s something we got used to on our last river cruise. There are often places where there are more ships wanting to dock than there is space available, so they berth two-deep against the dock and allow people who need access to the shore to treat their ship as a thoroughfare. It’s all done with a great spirit of cooperation between rival cruise companies and their crews.

As we had arrived so early in the day, and because there was still a couple of hours until lunch would be served, Marg and I left the ship and walked through the town for just over an hour. The first landmark we encountered was a monument to the engineer who designed the suspension bridge across the river. Beyond that was a large public space, featuring a beautiful stand of massive plane trees. They were originally planted on Napoleon’s orders, as he wanted to provide shade and shelter for his men on one of their exhausting military campaigns.

Today is another public holiday in France. May 8 is Victory Day to commemorate the end of WWII in Europe, and of course the end of the death and destruction that France and its people had endured. So it’s a very special day, and we were told that nothing would be open in Tournon. That turned out to be partially true, although because it’s a tourist stopover, the odd cafe and bar were open and doing good business.

Tournon is a historic town. As well as the remains of the city wall and its towers on the nearby hillside, it also features a medieval church and a former castle which more recently was a prison. Today it’s connected with a museum and visitors can wander through its rooms. We were there before it opened for the day, so unfortunately we never had a chance to look inside. On one wall is a large memorial to the people of the town who died in 20th century wars. Floral bouquets had been placed there for V-day commemoration only hours earlier.

After our walk around the town, we headed back to our ship for lunch. At 2.30, our activity groups left the boat for our Freechoice activities. A group of cyclists departed for a 20km round trip of the neighbouring district on e-bikes. Another group walked just a couple of blocks to a wine tasting. And our group went on a guided walk, first of Tournon, and then across the suspension bridge to Tain L’Hermitage, where the guided walk continued.

Our walk through Tournon covered much of the same ground that Marg and I had walked earlier in the day, but of course this time we were able to listen to the stories behind the history of these places. We saw the building where the man who gave Tourette’s Syndrome its name lived. We came across the first secondary school in all of France. We had a closer look at the building styles of some structures that date back to the 1600s and beyond.

From there we crossed the suspension bridge over the Rhône to Tain L’Hermitage on the other side. Although the suspension structure remained, the foot surface of the bridge had been deliberately destroyed during the Second World War to slow down the advance of the enemy German forces. In a prominent position on the slopes behind Tain are the vineyards that produce the grapes that make the world famous Hermitage wines. But we hadn’t come to learn about wine today. We had come to learn about chocolate.

In order to reach the chocolate factory, we had to walk through a flea market. That was a challenge, as with all the activity buzzing around us at the market, it was quite easy to lose contact with our guide. Thankfully she hung around at the far end of the market until all of us stragglers finally made our way out of the swarm of people. She then took us on a slight detour to show us a ‘beautiful garden’. It was so downright ugly and unappealing, I did not bother with a photo. But rest assured there are some pretty good gardeners here in France and many gardens are well designed, appealing and well maintained. The most interesting thing in that garden in Tain was what she called the statue of the symbol of the town, the Human Nose! The story behind it is that the nose is the champion of the wine, chocolate and cheese industries here in this small commune

Our guided walk brought us to the Valrhona Chocolate factory, which apparently is well known around the globe. We were handed discount cards and a sample chocolate on our way in, but then, for some inexplicable reason, we ENTERED the building through the gift shop. In Europe the gift shop is usually associated with exiting a tourist attraction. So we entered the building and immediately found ourselves standing still at the back of a long line of people jammed into the aisles of a chocolate shop, virtually going nowhere. We couldn’t escape from the traffic jam by going forwards or backwards, so we were stuck in this painfully slow moving line until eventually we got near the cash registers and managed to slip inside the museum.

We were taken to a room and sat through a very enthusiastic presentation on the ways our taste buds and our nostrils work together to get full benefit from the chocolatier’s product. She worked hard, and some of it was interesting, but it probably went on about ten minutes too long. We were eventually rewarded for sitting through the presentation, however, because we were each given a bar code when the session ended. In the museum section, we were able to scan different machines and receive sample chocolates – 11 in total if you could successfully work all the machines. Marg ate hers there and then – I packed mine in my bag, brought them back to our room, and ate them all while working on this post!

We walked back towards the bridge through the back streets of Tain, doing our best to avoid the flea market. From this side of the bridge we had beautiful views across the river to the hills behind Tournon, where vineyards had also been planted. We arrived back at the dock to discover that the other ship had departed, so our ship was now docked right at the water’s edge.

Marg and I did not have long back in our room before it was time to dress (a little better than usual) for dinner at L’Amour, the place at the front of the ship where everyone is invited to dine one time during the cruise. Tonight it was our turn. We sat with an American couple and chatted while we were served a special fine dining six course meal paired with regional wines. The crew go out of their way to make you feel a bit special. We enjoyed it. At 10.30pm tonight, our engines started up again and now we are cruising south overnight. In the early afternoon tomorrow, we will dock at Avignon.


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