We’ve sailed on to the port of Viviers (not so much ‘port’ as ‘boat ramp’), another picturesque medieval village in the Rhone valley. The village is vertical and mostly free of automobiles, but the real attraction here was our tour guide, Frances. Picture Catherine Deneuve combined with Juliet Binoche and the tiniest bit of Helen Mirren tossed in and you have Frances. She could have read the phone book in French and we would have been captivated.
Frances trotted us around to all the requisite sites: the smallest cathedral in France (where a short organ recital had been staged for us – there’s only so much to do in this tiny town), the tiny alleyway with the picturesque cat,
the bush that, when boiled, will quiet stormy husbands (many women tore off branches for ‘souvenirs’), the roof that was blown off due to a faulty barbecue propane tank. Highlights, all. But the coup de gras (not that we’d been suffering, but you get it) was Frances’ announcement that we’d be going to her home ‘at the top’ (and it was!) for refreshments.
In 1790, the house that Frances inherited from her aunt was begun and her family has lived in it since that time. It was five stories high with the kitchen at the top and the dining room on the ground floor (which explained her extraordinary level of fitness). As we entered, she exhorted us to “look everywhere, see everything!”. For a ‘voyeur interieur’ (I just made that up. Pretty proud of myself!), being able to go inside a stranger’s home and poke around is like winning the lottery.
And poke around we did. All 40 of us – squeezing into the narrow tunnel she unbricked when she learned her home was used to hide American soldiers during WWII;
discovering the squirtguns she hid in the garden for her grandchildren, stroking the beautiful saddle that sat on the railing at the base of the stairs, imagining the tunnel she’d yet to unearth that led directly to the Bishop’s palace (one can only imagine why). In the garden we found local bottles of wine and a gorgeous repast from the local epicerie – French sausage, cheeses, baguettes. My bucket list is nearly empty now.
Many of us swooned over the story of the cruise passenger who got left behind and HAD to spend the night in Frances’ home, drinking ‘pails of wine’ (her words) and ‘missing his wife’ (HA! My words!) til she was able to drive him to Avignon the next morning to rejoin the ship. (I would have sabotaged her car in similar circumstances.)
Everything else is denouement. But, I continue. To the truffle farm, where specially trained dogs learn to ferret out (hmmm…. ‘Doggie’ out? Perhaps dogs don’t mind being compared to ferrets?) truffles from among the roots of French oak trees. You all know that pigs no longer do this work (you did know that, at one time, pigs hunted truffles, right?) because the pigs would eat the truffles. Dogs will eat the truffles, too, but they’ve been trained to settle for a doggie treat because dogs are rarely gourmands. Pigs are just opportunistic. We saw these two pooches in action:
Even though it’s only May, the ‘summer’ (white and less expensive) truffles are what they were snuffling out. (The farm was probably rife with exotic black truffles – and they all look black when they’re dug up, but I’m pretty certain the truffle farmer was not about to shave a few pounds of black truffles onto baguettes so that we could gorge ourselves on the ‘free’ samples.). Here’s what the newly dug truffles look like:
This box is probably worth $5000. (Oh, for heaven’s sake – I don’t know anything about truffles. I just make this stuff up.).
Back on board the SS Catherine, we passed through another set of locks, trusting the ability of the captain to guide our floating-football-field-sized-ship into a sleeve that, at best, would fit a floating-bus-sized-ship. I’ve expertly used my hand to demonstrate the amount of clearance we had.
Episode 3 of TYDSIA:
Happy us (actually, you can see this in America almost any time!)