Longing to explore France's waterways for a while, I recently had the opportunity to cruise the Rhone on an itinerary from Avignon to Lyon. The three major rivers in France offer very different experiences, and this one intrigued me with the combination of Roman history, scenery and wine country.
The itinerary did not disappoint.
Idyllic: happy, peaceful, picturesque - a perfect description of the Rhone River. Having sailed on the Danube and the Rhine, one of the first things I noticed was how quiet it appeared, despite being one of Europe's major rivers. Not as many ships along the way, fewer towns dotting the banks and a lot more forested areas. Not a positive or negative - just a pleasant surprise.
Historic, scenic and quaint, a perfect description of the ports of call. Here are the highlights of my itinerary:
DAY 1: AVIGNON
The top attraction by far in Avignon is the Palas des Papes - Palace of the Popes. The city itself dates back to the 12th century, and 1309 saw the start of a seventy year period when 7 popes resided in Avignon. After the popes left and returned to Rome, the buildings were used as military barracks and even a prison. In 1906 it was saved and tuned into a national museum. We spent a few hours on a guided walk through the palace, learning all about the fascinating history. Today, small concerts are held in the courtyard. I imagine the acoustics are pretty nice.
Amazing too are the city walls that are still mostly intact. We also walked on the ancient bridge Pont d'Avignon - so legendary there is even a song written about it.
I had hoped to explore more of this city and see the market during our free time, but the heat was so overwhelming (over 110 degrees) we went back to the ship. Next trip!
DAY 2: ARLES AND PONT DU GARD
Overnight we sailed from Avignon south to Arles. In the morning we set out on a guided tour of town, taking in all the rich Roman heritage that dates back to 123 BC. This city provided military support to Julius Caesar and was well rewarded with treasures. The fact that these buildings are still so well preserved is mind boggling. In fact, the Roman amphitheater is still used today for events, including bull fights.
Vincent Van Gogh lived in Arles in 1888-1889, where the Provence landscapes and colors inspired his paintings during this time. I immediately recognized the cafe from one of his famous paintings.
In the afternoon we had the opportunity to visit the Pont du Gard - an AMAZING piece of history and incredible engineering. To think this was built around 50 AD. WOW. This section is what remains of what was once a 50 km long aqueduct that supplied water to the city Nimes, starting in the town of Uzes. Pictures don't do it justice.
Despite being over 110 degrees, I just had to climb up this pseudo path to get these views. Worth every step. There were a number of us with really red faces! I wish I could have actually seen the inside of the aqueduct (the top section) but was told they no longer allow this to preserve what remains. Videos on Youtube are my backup.
At the park entrance there is a cafe, museum and movie theater which continually shows a short film on the history. The displays in the museum are equally interesting.
DAY 3: ARDECHE GORGES
Today we took a coach tour to the Ardeche Gorges. I had no idea what to expect, and in all truth, had never heard of this region before. Scenic, stunning, absolutely beautiful. I applaud the bus drivers as the roads were very windy and quite narrow, especially when another bus was coming from the other direction! Not a good route for fainthearted drivers. I did learn that this is where John F. Kennedy's sister, Kathleen Kennedy Cavendish (Marchioness of Hartington) died in a plane crashed in 1948.
We ended the day at a wonderful little lavender farm before heading back to Avignon to pick up the ship.
DAY 4: VIENNE
The morning was relaxed mode as we sailed from Avignon to Vienne. It was a nice change of pace. In the afternoon we were on our own to explore Vienne, a former Roman town established under Julius Caesar and a major urban center on the Rhone. Roman ruins in the old city are still visible, and new buildings have incorporated some of the ruins. To be honest, this was my least favorite stop. Maybe because this day too was incredibly hot. We found a lot of people from the cruise sitting at cafes with cold drinks.
DAY 5: CHALON-SUR-SAONE, BEAUNE AND WINE TASTING
Overnight we sailed past Lyon to Chalon-sur-Saone, on the Saone River. We had a few hours in the morning on our own to explore the town that also dates back to the Roman days and was once a busy port distributing Burgundy wines. Chalon is also the birthplace of photography. The Photography museum was closed that day, but with over 2 million photographs I bet it is interesting place to visit.
The Old Town was lovely and quaint, filled with timbered houses and shops. A perfect spot to meander for a few hours.
The afternoon had us heading into wine country and the city of Beaune (pronounced like "bone"), the wine capital of Burgundy. We traveled through a number of wine villages and stopped to get a closer look at the vines. Vineyards cover less than 2% of France's landscape but I never would have guessed that here. Vineyards as far as one could see. Because of the cooler climate, the vines here grow closer to the ground, and after 2-3 years never get watered other than by Mother Nature herself.
Any trip to wine country must include a wine tasting, which we did in Beaune. Most houses in the city have cellars perfect for storing wines, and we sampled wines in a shop that offered a number of varieties from different vineyards in the region. It was nice to get different tastes, though I missed being at an actual vineyard.
DAY 6: LYON
Our last day included a half day tour of Lyon, with the afternoon to explore on our own. The highlight was most definitely the Basilica. While Lyon is France's third largest city, I never realized how expansive it is. The Basilica provided an incredible view to take it all in.
Staying in Lyon an extra day after the cruise, we chose to visit Old Town on our own the next day and relax on board ship in the afternoon. We wanted to explore Old Town at leisure. With Lyon being France's food capital, we wanted to find some good escargot and of course a crepe. Mission accomplished!
This cruise solidified why I enjoy river cruising. Although I am an independent traveler, waking up every day in a different city meant the captain was driving, leaving me to enjoy the experiences and tours, the scenery, wonderful dinners and conversations with like minded people . No fighting for a parking space, not searching for my hotel, packing up every morning or finding a decent place to eat.
I may be a bit biased, but I highly recommend the river cruise experience.
Note: I sailed with Riviera Cruises, a company based in the UK that is now marketing to North America. A wonderful experience. Be aware that itineraries vary between companies and ports of call may be different than my itinerary.
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