Burgundy and Provence in France are full of small towns that date back to Roman times.
Despite their common legacy, each has carved out its own identity with unique characteristics that leave plenty for adventurers to discover.
Here are some of the places that my shipmates from the SS Catherine and I explored.
Pronounced as “Boone”, this place is said to be the birthplace of chardonnay, where Benedictine monks grafted the pinot noir with a now-extinct grape variety, both indigenous to the Macon region.
Wine is intrinsically linked with the biggest landmark here, the Hotel-Dieu. It is not a hotel in the English sense of the word, but a refuge for the sick and a palace for the poor in the olden days.
The plain outer wall belies a beautiful inner building with polychrome roof with varnished tiles. The tiles are a relatively new addition, just about 100 years old.
The hospital operated in this location for five centuries until it moved to a new building in the outskirts of town.
The annual charity wine auction on the third Sunday of November still raises funds for Le Hospices de Beaune.
Chateau de Rully
This is not a town, but a castle in southern Burgundy. Uniworld’s bespoke experience includes visiting the castle’s cellar and tasting wines from its vineyard, a lovely home-cooked lunch, and a tour of the 12th century castle.
Hosting us was the count himself, Comte Raoul de Ternay, from the 26th generation of the family. He had studied and lived in Paris before he returned in 2010 with his wife and young sons, to take over the management of the castle.
It is dubbed the “double city” because of its two rivers – Saone and Rhone – and two hills.
Lyonnais (the people of Lyon) love nicknames: the two tallest buildings in the city are known as “crayon” (pencil) and “eraser” because of their resemblance to the stationery items.
The sought-after products in this third biggest city in France are the exquisite silk scarves, which are still being weaved and printed in the Old Town.
The Old Town is also where the two hills are found – “the working hill” (La Croix-Rousse) where the silk weavers are located, and “the praying hill” (Fourviere) where the imposing Basilique Notre-Dame de Fouviere church commands a panoramic view of the entire city.
Another two things that you’ll discover are the traboule, which is Latin for “to cut through”, referring to the secret passages that make for short-cuts to the next street, and trompe l’oeil, which literally means “tricking the eye”, are the 3D wall murals painted by a group of artists known as The City Creation.
Lyon has 350 of such murals, hence its reign as the French capital of trompe l’oeil, and around 500 traboule!
This town, on the left bank of the Rhone river, is usually mentioned in the same breath as its twin city Tournon.
Its legacy began when the Romans settled here.
It is home to a few famous vineyards, and the Hermitage wines.
Also famous here are Valrhona chocolate products, reputed to be the choice ingredient among world-renowned pastry chefs and prestigious restaurants.
We also crossed over to Tournon. The walking tour in these twin towns is combined with wine tasting complemented by goat cheese and bread.
On a windy day, those of us who joined the walking tour found ourselves strolling down narrow main roads that were formerly underwater as the area used to be a fishing pond for the Romans, until a bishop decided to build his castle on top of a hill rock and the town consequently grew around the base of the hill.
Colourful pastel-hued wooden windows and hanging pots of blooms on house facades bring a quaint, whimsical quality to the sleepy hollow (it really is!).
According to our guide for the day, Frances Vandy, this is goat cheese and olive country. And she backs up her claim by serving us tasty hor d’oeuvres made with those two ingredients at her home.
Its claim to fame is the Pont du Gard, an aquaduct built by the Romans that has survived and remained practically intact until today. It is now a Unesco Heritage Site.
For a short time, the bridge was even used by vehicles to cross the wide, raging river that it straddles, and it is still functional today albeit strictly open to foot traffic only.
We toured the visitors’ centre first to better understand the breadth and depth of the massive ancient building project.
It poured – rain from the sky, not water from the 2,000-year-old aquaduct – as we huddled under umbrellas and trudged across the very sturdy and broad three-level bridge.
The bad weather continued as we ventured deeper into Provence.
This town is full of Van Gogh landmarks – places featured in the Dutch painter’s works. Case in point is the L’Espace Van Gogh, a cultural centre that had been a hospital where the artist was treated for his injury.
You can see the courtyard garden that was the subject of a painting he did during his recuperation. Then there is the Cafe van Gogh where he painted one of his most famous pieces. And to think poor Vincent was unwelcomed by the 19th century townsfolk who saw him as “a problem”.
The most popular attraction here is the farmer’s market where you can get the freshest foods.
What the townsfolk takes pride in is its legendary red rice of Camarque, which, according to our excursion guide Maria Amparo, has a nutty flavour.