Vibrant late fall colors painted across the trees and hillsides, the worn exterior of ancient stone buildings, spectacular views from medieval walled cities, seemingly mystical white horses on the plains of the Camargue, a steam locomotive laboring along the worn tracks overlooking the river gorge, and enticing aromas wafting along the city streets on market day in the land of fine wine and cuisine, are just a few of the remembrances from our cruise along the Rhône River in the South of France.
Watch this brief overview video of our river cruise on board the Viking Buri.
Romance, beauty, and passion are words that come to mind when I think of France. Anyone who’s been to the country comes away with a special spot in their heart for the places they visited: such as walking the streets of the City of Lights at night in Paris; seeing the spectacular jagged cliffs along the coastline of the Côte d’Azur; driving past the fields of lavender in Provence; watching the fast moving dramatic skies with their white billowy clouds against the backdrop of brilliant deep blue over the shores of Normandy; or seeing Monet’s paintings come to life in the gardens and at the home of the famous painter in Giverny.
This recent trip, with Viking River Cruises, took us on a journey from the gastronomic capital of Lyon and its well-preserved medieval old town with fabled alleyways known as traboules through the historic region of the French countryside along the Rhône. Bursting with spectacular history, art, architecture, breathtaking scenery, not to mention fabulous food and wine, our final destination on the itinerary was Avignon. A place we had visited before, we were excited to return to this beautiful walled city in Provence and once again walk the impressive rooms and hallways through the majestic Pope’s Palace, the largest Gothic structure of its time (dating back to the 14th century) in what is known as the “City of Popes.”
Viking River Cruises
One of the best ways to travel throughout many parts of the world is by a river cruise. These ships are able navigate the most significant waterways around the globe and can dock in smaller cities or villages where you can get off the ship and walk into the center of town to see the sights and attractions, immerse yourself in the local culture, and enjoy the food and wine of the region. Viking River Cruises provides a wealth of information about each destination as part of your cruise, from an overview of all of the ports of call in your cruise documents, to nightly port discussions, and the included guided excursions or optional tours.
With the intimate guided tours, we learned about each port of call and the surrounding area, so that we could fully appreciate the importance of the history, art, architecture, scenery, and food and wine of this special region of France. Looking back at the photographs, it was a magical journey. Several of the excursions, particularly the trip to the Camargue, with its beautiful ruggedness, and a visit to a local manade to see the famed wild horses and Camargue bulls and have lunch with the cowboys, was extraordinary, and one of the most memorable tours we’ve been on.
Embarking on the journey
We knew Lyon would be a fascinating city to begin this cruise with its ancient old town and notoriety of being the Gastronomic Capital of France and the world, but it proved to be so much more with the largest and most amazing outdoor market we’ve ever seen, one of the best meals we’ve had in our travels at a local bouchon, and the aromas of citrus and hearty French food throughout the streets and traboules. It was the perfect gateway (and one we’ll be writing about more in the future) to begin this journey that would take us through the wine regions of Burgundy, Beaujolais, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and to the famous historic cities of Cluny, Tournon, Viviers, Arles, and Avignon.
Beaujolais and Cluny
From Macon, which is considered the border between the northern and southern wine regions of France, we were able to visit both Beaujolais to see the vineyards and taste recent vintages as well as visit the impressive Abbey de Cluny in the town of Cluny in Burgundy.
The vineyards and hillsides in Beaujolais in late fall were awash with gorgeous reds and yellows following the harvest and offered a very different scene than seeing the vineyards in late summer when the vines are filled with dark green leaves and the plump grapes waiting for the right moment to be harvested. We tasted the fruity red wines this region, along the Saône River, is known for, and learned about what is perhaps the most well-known and celebrated wine produced here, Beaujolais Noveau. Produced yearly and released around the New Year, this seasonal wine is easy to drink.
The picturesque town of Cluny, with its Gothic and Romanesque architecture, is dominated by the impressive ruins of the Benedictine abbey, the Abbey de Cluny, which was known as the most influential church in all of Chistendom. Dating back to the 11th century, this monastery was home for as many as 10,000 monks and the abbey’s rich history is fascinating to explore.
Today the halls, the ruins, and the newer structures surrounding the Abbey, are filled with students attending the European College of Cluny, which focuses on current major issues, such as climate change, sustainable development for agriculture, infrastructure, and digital technology. The intrigue and honor of attending a university with so much medieval history must always be present, as we saw a number of the students dressed in period garb wandering the campus.
One of our favorite places we visited (and certainly one of the most picturesque) was the fortified village of Pérouges. Dating back to the 12th century and classified as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France or Most Beautiful Villages in France, there was a photo opportunity at every turn in the winding cobblestone streets of this charming village. Located in the Rhône-Alpes, it lies just 25 miles northeast of Lyon. We have so many photos to share, so look for an upcoming piece on this quaint medieval village.
From the city of Tournon, we traveled to the Doux Valley to take a ride on the Train de l’Ardeche, old-fashioned steam train, which is listed as a French historical monument. Venturing into the forest on wooden tracks set in steep hillsides along the gorge and crossing over stone bridges (in an area not accessible by road), we were afforded panoramic views of the quiet and pristine countryside and valley and saw several of the ancient aqueducts that were built in Roman times.
As we came to the end of the track, we deboarded the train and watched, fascinated as children, as the engine came chugging down the track, spewing steam, and reversed its direction so that it could turn around and pull us back in the opposite direction to return to the station.
It was market day when we visited the ancient city of Arles, so we were able to visit another bustling Provençal market the region is famous for, replete with its amazing smells, sights, and flavors. Arles is also the home of Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. A number of Arles’ historic sites and street scenes are included in the works of this famous artist exhibiting the unique golden light that casts over these timeworn and sun washed structures and ancient buildings. The captivating light, beautiful scenery, and brilliant colors have called many artists to the region.
A walk through the former capital of Roman Gaul during the Roman Empire, revealed many well-preserved buildings and ruins from Gallo-Roman times, including the Amphithéâtre d’Arles, a 20,000-seat open-aire theater. Looking at this impressive structure, dating back to the time of Augustus (27 BC–14 AD), which is still used today, I imagined scenes from movies with gladiators battling or chariot races in the arena surrounded by thousands of clamoring fans. It was fascinating to see these wonders of ancient times as a significant part of today’s city.
As we left the busy city center of Arles and headed to the area between the Mediterranean and two sections of the Rhône River Delta region, known as the Camargue, the landscape transformed dramatically to wide-open spaces with nature preserves, marshes, rice fields, and glimpses of the legendary wild horses of the Camargue. The oldest living breed of horses in the world, they are indigenous to the wetlands of Camargue along this coastal southern region of France. Born either brown or black, they change to their greyish white color between two to four years of age.
The cowboys of the Camargue, known as Gardians, rely on these white horses to herd the native Camargue bulls that are also born on the manade, which is a natural breeding area for both the horses and the cattle. Our visit to this intriguing region included a ride in a tractor-drawn carriage to watch the cowboys and their majestic horses round up the bulls. Quite a display, it was fascinating to watch them at work performing a centuries old tradition. Afterward, we enjoyed an aperitif in the sun-drenched courtyard followed by lunch, which featured a Provençal specialty, Gardian, La Camargue or “Cowboy” Beef Stew with Black Olives.
A full-day excursion, which began in Arles, our last stop was Aigues-Mortes, an imposing walled medieval town with four corner towers, that appears to rise up out of the flat coastal marshlands of the Petit Camargue. Located 56 miles northwest of Marseilles, the town was founded in 1240 by Louis IX, the first king of France, as a Mediterranean port from which he later launched his Crusades.
Highlights of this city include a walk around the rampart walls to view the layout of the town with its unique linear streets and a visit to Constance Tower with its spectacular pinnacle view. The center of activity is Place Saint-Louis, the main square, which is lined with the usual mix of restaurants, cafés, galleries and boutiques, and cobblestone streets. Beyond the walls, in the summer, you can see the eerily red salt lagoons of the Camargue, with their glistening white salt piles that seem to bloom from the water. Fleur de Sel de Camargue is a prized salt that’s been harvested in this region for over a thousand years.
Back on board the Viking Buri
After full days of sightseeing and taking in all of what this region has to offer, we were glad to return to the ship and relax back on board the elegantly designed Viking Buri, where the staff and crew were always attentive.
Chef Dimitris Sidiropoulos and his culinary staff did an outstanding job with the cuisine served on board the ship. As part of the immersion into the region, the dishes were inspired by this region of France and served with wines produced along the Rhône and Saône river valleys.
There is still much more to share, so stay tuned for future articles covering our travels from Lyon to Marseille.
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Disclosure – We were guests of Viking River Cruises. The opinions expressed regarding our experience are our own.