A leisurely cruise along the tranquil rivers of France with Riviera Travel

Marion Ainge shares a secret, savours French wine and sings a school song. 

Reputed to be the world’s oldest woman, Jeanne Calment died, aged 122, in Arles, in 2017. It’s no secret that every day she drank red wine, smoked cigarettes and ate two pounds of chocolate a week. Wine and chocolate? No problem for me, so the future’s looking good.

William Shakespeare river cruise boat exterior

Arles is one of the ports of call on this Rivieria Travel river cruise along the Rhône through Burgundy to Provence. A UNESCO site and seven times bigger than Paris, Arles is situated on the banks of the Rhône in south west Provence. Culture vultures flock to this city of festivals, art and history. In Arles, Van Gogh painted several pictures including one of his favourite café. Julius Caesar made Arles a Roman colony in 46BC. During a walking tour, we pass the 12,000-seater amphitheatre which staged the Roman games. Today, bull runs are held in the area. Other Roman architecture includes the Baths of Constantine and the nearby, mighty Pont du Gard aqueduct.

My journey starts at Manchester when I take the flight to Geneva then travel via an escorted Riviera Travel coach to Lyon. The night time lights of the city twinkle a welcome as we board the specially-designed and commissioned, five-star William Shakespeare. It’s beautiful. There are no long corridors to negotiate and you don’t need a map to find your way around. My spacious, upper deck cabin features a full-width sliding patio door, enabling enchanting views of ever-changing scenery along the route. The Globe bar and lounge is spacious and stylish with comfortable chairs and sofas.

The Riviera team organise fun quiz nights, games and dancing in the evening. There’s also a resident pianist. In the main restaurant, passengers enjoy high-quality, 5-star dining. Breakfast and lunch is buffet-style with lots of hot and cold options. It’s silver service in the evenings with a superb choice of dishes. The top deck is a great place to relax on a sunbed or settle down in a chair to read a book from the library as the boat glides gently by. There’s also a fitness studio and hairdressing salon. Friendly, helpful staff do all they can for guests, on this cruise, a lively, enthusiastic group of 130, the majority of whom are possibly in their 60s and 70s. Access is generally easy to small ports, there’s a new one to explore every day, sailing is smooth and there’s a view from each side of the boat.

The next morning we enjoy a walking tour of Lyon. Situated at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône, it’s the third largest city and gastronomy capital of France. In Vieux Lyon, we wander through Les Traboules, the old, secret, narrow passageways or couloirs, accessed by a door to slice through courtyards and to connect one major street to the next. Originally, they were traders’ short cuts to and from the river, but during the Second World War, were a stronghold for French resistance, when many of these enabled people to escape Gestapo raids. The stunning La Tour Rose pink-hued traboule, once an impressive house in the Middle Ages, is now a hotel. Others are private apartments. Stop if you can for a look at the artistic graffiti and trompe d’oeil wall murals in the city. Eat at one of Les Bouchons. Unique to Lyon, they are rustic restaurants which offer honest, hearty, home-cooked food.

During lunch, we begin to cruise upstream to catch our first glimpse of the Beaujolais hills, passing pretty villages in one of the world’s most famous wine-producing regions. From Chalon-sur-Saône, we travel to Beaune, Burgundy’s wine capital to sample Chablis, Pinot Noir, Côte de Beaune and Mersault at a local winery. A pleasure for us, but not, of course, an experience for Captain Valentine, who has to negotiate around 50 locks along our watery route, some of which offer only a 30cm or 12 inch width gap on each side of the boat.

Known for its history, music and festivals, and revered for its food, wine and second largest market in France, a gourmet’s paradise with 5km of stands, held on Saturdays, this is what’s to like about Vienne. With limited time, I step on to the petit train, located just outside the Medieval Roman Catholic cathedral of St Maurice. The train twists and turns to negotiate the tiny, undulating streets of this lovely town, passing colour-splashed stalls, pretty houses, gardens, churches and open areas with wonderful views. After lunch we cruise along the most picturesque section of the Rhône Valley to moor at Tournon.

I’m excited to board the coach at Le Pouzin for an excursion to the Ardèche Gorges, an impressive canyon with steep cliffs of up to 300 metres in the Auvergne-Rhone Alps. It has taken more than one hundred million years for the pounding, torrential waters of the Ardèche river to carve out a channel in these deep gorges which cover a route of 23 miles. The 30,000 years old, famous, natural Pont d’Arc is the natural entrance to the canyon. Fringed by a sandy beach, it’s a popular spot for picnics, canoeing and swimming. We peer into Madeine Cave – but unfortunately, there’s no access on this day. The nearby nearby Chauvet Cave contains some of the best preserved, prehistoric figurative paintings in the world.

St Bénézet Bridge, Avignon

When we cross Avignon’s famous bridge, I can’t help singing the children’s song ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon’ (learned in a school French lesson) to myself. Almost everyone in our group is doing the same! The four-arched St Bénézet bridge was built around 1180. A small city in south eastern Provence, Avignon is set on the Rhône River. From 1309 to 1377, it was the seat of the Catholic Popes, until it became part of France in 1791. The huge Palais des Papes is surrounded by medieval stone ramparts. The bohemian quarter is frequented by artists and musicians. Lively, little Avignon’s tiny cobbled streets, flower and flea markets, festivals, wine bars and museums make it a year-round attraction.

This was my first river cruise and, thanks to Riviera Travel, it won’t be my last.

Find out more

Visit Riviera Travel to discover more about their river cruises in France and across Europe. Call 0800 412 5678 to get a quote and book.

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Marion Ainge

Freelance travel writer & member of the International Travel Writers’ Alliance

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