A river awash with contrasts
The Rhone’s route through eastern France links the country’s capital of gastronomy Lyon with sun-drenched Provence. It’s a journey full of flavours and rich in historic sites – a good menu for a river cruise, says Pat Richardson.
Every river is different, and not just in terms of its route and the scenery that offers; as well each has its own unique and distinctive character. The Rhone’s is that of a rebel tamed – perhaps because the route from its Swiss glacier source it must flow through restrictively narrow gorges until, at Lyon, it turns sharply south, merges with the calmer waters of the Saone, and races to the sea. Historically its widely variable volume of water, shifting channel and rapid current presented shipping with an enormous challenge. The answer was rope-hauling, even for early steam-powered vessels; later one required specialised construction in order to cope with its surging flow. Locks and canals tame that flow today, so cruise passengers experience smooth sailings; but if you watch the Rhone’s ripples and eddies you can still detect impatience. And whilst this may not be the most scenic of rivers, the southern wetland and hilly northern landscapes that it flows through contrast dramatically.
Sail from south to north and you’ll be following the route the Romans took in the 2nd Century when they came – on foot because the river was so robust – saw and conquered. Today you can see the remains of numerous structures dating from the time when this area was part of their first Provincia outside Italy.
I recently made this journey on Scenic Emerald, one of river cruise line Scenic’s earliest ships – although that didn’t show. In a 2013 fleet refurbishment she received an extensive upgrade and was like all Scenic’s ‘Space-Ships’ light, airy and spacious, with clean lines and strikingly contemporary styling. These features, plus good food beautifully presented, an inviting casual dining alternative, a wide choice of wines and bar drinks, well-paced itineraries and an impressive range of excursions enrich the river cruise experience.
After flying to Marseille, our voyage began in Tarascon, where we shopped for colourful Provencal fabrics produced in a local factory; and discovered that the forbidding exterior of the town’s 15th-Century fortress-style chateau hide an interior with storybook appeal. On Day 2, an excursion took us high on a rocky plateau to visit one of France’s most beautiful villages, Les Baux – which gives bauxite (aluminium ore) which was first mined here, its name. On the way back to the ship we stopped at an olive farm for some tastings. Other excursions had taken fellow passengers to St Remy or Arles.
We docked in Avignon on Day 3 and, having been to its famous Palace of the Popes on previous cruises, I opted to go to Pont du Gard, the awe-inspiring 2,000-year-old aqueduct built by the Romans. The next day, we made two port-calls. First, we walked through Viviers, with its modern-day lower town and walled medieval high town. Later, in Tournon, after a walk through the town, we enjoyed a signature event: Scenic Sundowners. Once on every Scenic river cruise, this line’s passengers toast the day’s end in a memorable location – and for us that location was the terrace of Tournon’s hilltop feudal castle. Cue wine, canapes and great views of the river ribboning far below.
Another signature experience offered on every cruise is a private and exclusive Scenic Enrich event. So, after a morning tour of Vienne to view its wealth of Roman remains, on the evening of Day 5 we were taken to a cocktail reception and classical concert at Chateau de St Trys.
We reached Lyon the following day. I’ve been here many times before, but there’s always another facet to discover: this time I chose to visit a silk factory. Although today silk-weaving is a dying industry, this city’s wealth was built upon it, and the intriguing story behind was told over the course of this visit. On Day 7 we sailed along the gentle Saone to Macon. Rather than the excursion including a Beaujolais wine-tasting, I chose to go to Cluny and marvel yet again at the now-ruined Benedictine Abbey that dominates this small town. Built on a scale which defies belief, it was once Europe’s most important religious centre, and its abbey church Europe’s largest until St Peter’s was built in Rome. Today, we see it as a computer-aided virtual reconstruction – one that never fails to take my breath away.
Rewarding as time spent ashore is on this cruise, evenings in the flower-adorned lounge bar with its resident pianist; and lazy daylight hours spent on the sun deck or (in some suites) your private outdoor balcony, which can be converted to an indoor sun lounge at the touch of a button, are also what good cruise memories are made of. So too is the waiter-service, five-course, wine-paired menu, prepared by a dedicated chef for just 32 guests, by appointment (to every passenger at least once during their cruise) in the intimate alternate dining venue.
Pat travelled with Scenic Cruises on this northbound Tarascon to Lyon Rhone cruise. In 2017, this 8-day itinerary and an 11-day version will be offered on recently refurbished Scenic Sapphire and Scenic Diamond, with departures from April until October.
For more information visit www.scenic.co.uk or call 0808 102 1335.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Scenic