River Cruising: The Rhone
By Sue Bryant | 4 Jan 2012
The evocative names of Burgundy, Avignon, Lyon and Macon, all of which are visited on a Rhone cruise, conjure up all kinds of delicious images, from fields of yellow sunflowers and purple lavender to ruby red wines, truffles, rich cheeses and plates of charcuterie.
The Rhone flows right through the gastronomic heart of France, carving its way across some of the most beautiful wine-growing country, as well as historic Roman towns like Avignon and Arles.
Most Rhone cruises operate from Lyon to the river’s delta at Arles, or the reverse. Lyon, foodie capital of France, is actually one of the country’s best-kept secrets, with a wonderful old centre, its narrow alleys packed with cafes, bistros, delicatessens and cake shops with spectacular window displays. On a more cultural note, the collection at the Musee des Beaux Arts is ranked second only in France to that of the Louvre in Paris.
An easy day trip from Lyon is Macon, surrounded by chestnut and wine forests, and the rolling Beaujolais vineyards. The highlight here is the vast, 10th century Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, although all visitors should take time to enjoy a kir (crème de cassis mixed with Aligote, the local dry white wine), as it’s here that the aperitif originated.
Rhone cruises also provide an opportunity to explore Roman Vienne and later, Tournon, one of France’s most beautiful cities, nestling on the river bank and overlooked by a 10th century castle, built into a rock. Don’t miss the scenic nostalgic steam locomotive ride from here to the Ardeche region, a wild, limestone upland of craggy cliffs, gorges and caves, with red wine and lavender its main products. It’s offered as a shore excursion by all the cruise lines.
From Viviers, there’s a further chance to explore the Ardeche, visiting the famous gorge, known for its dramatic rock formations, the most impressive of which is a giant rock arch, the Pont d’Arc.
Avignon, though, is the jewel in the crown of Rhone cruises. The scenery flattens out as the river broadens and nears its delta, passing fields of dazzling yellow sunflowers and ranks of purple lavender scenting the air.
Avignon itself is totally encircled by medieval walls and known as the ‘City of Popes’; in the 14th century, this was the residence of the Popes for 70 years. The ravishingly beautiful medieval Palais des Papes at the centre is one of the great wonders of France. Nearby, look at the remains of the famous Pont St. Benezet, which juts out across a branch of the river, and is the subject of one of the most famous French nursery rhymes, Sur le Pont d’Avignon.
There’s an exciting and romantic edge to the Roman city of Arles, gateway to the salt lagoons, rice fields and cowboy country of the wild Camargue beyond, where herds of white horses roam wild and black bulls are raised for the bullring. Gypsies from the surrounding village still gather here to keep their traditions alive, and the town has a magnificent artistic heritage; it’s here that Vincent Van Gogh began to lose his sanity, capturing the dazzling colours of the Provencal countryside on canvas in hallucinogenic swirls. Pick up a Van Gogh walking tour leaflet from the tourist office, or look for the panels around town depicting scenes that inspired some of his most famous paintings.
Fancy a river cruise? Find out which cruise lines travel to The Rhone.