A cruise along the Rhone River is a wonderful way to discover the delights that France has to offer between Lyon and Marseille.
CroisiEurope operate beautifully appointed river boats that cruise along all the major rivers and waterways of France and beyond. Along with my husband Clive, I was invited to sample their five-night tour of Provence.
Our boat, the aptly named ‘Van Gogh’, sailed from Lyon so we discussed our options to travel from our home in Sussex. I wasn’t keen on flying so we explored taking the ferry and driving, but sadly didn’t have the extra time this would take. We finally settled on booking the Eurostar from St Pancras via Paris. This turned out to be thoroughly enjoyable and we successfully negotiated changing stations from Gare du Nord to Gare du Lyon, on the RER Metro, without a hiccup.
After spending the night in Lyon, we had a relaxing morning to look around before boarding at 3pm. Lyon is a fascinating city and as time was short, we hopped on a city open top bus tour to see the sights.
Once onboard our first impressions of the ‘Van Gogh’ were of space as the décor is light, modern, and airy. The ship carries up to 105 passengers and was completely renovated in 2019. Our cabin was spacious with a large bed that faced the windows giving a perfect river view as I enjoyed my morning cuppa.
As CroisiEurope is a French company the passengers tend to be mainly French and that equates to fabulous food. A buffet breakfast, three course lunch and four or five course dinner each day including house wines. Portions are sensible and the dishes we enjoyed were superb. There is one mealtime, so everyone dines together on set tables. We were paired up with the only other English couple who had travelled independently and enjoyed getting to know them.
Travelling in late August the weather was as expected; deep blue skies and brilliant sunshine which attracts artists to Provence from across the world. Van Gogh had an expansive top deck which was a glorious place to while away the hours when we were cruising between destinations. There were plenty of sunbeds as well as seating under a shady canopy.
We sailed through the night and found the boat smooth and quiet, arriving after lunch the next day at the historic town of Arles. Our first excursion was to what must be one of the most iconic and beautiful towns in the south of France, Les Baux de Provence. Perched high on a plateau in the Alpilles Mountains with far reaching views to the Camargue and beyond. Our guide led us through small and winding lanes leading uphill to the ruined castle where a welcome breeze gave us some respite from the intense heat. We strolled back down to our coach with plenty of time to browse the inviting shops that line the narrow streets and bursting with local products.
Back onboard Van Gogh and we welcomed the air conditioning. After dinner we took an evening stroll around Arles where the streets were buzzing with cafes, restaurants, and live music.
We had an early start for a visit to a typical ‘manade’, a farm that breeds the local black bulls and iconic white horses of the Camargue, followed by a stop in the seaside town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer. Time for a stroll along the Mediterranean beachfront and a wander around the pretty streets. Our journey back to the boat showcased the beauty and extent of the Camargue area and we were lucky enough to spot flamingos feeding on one of the vast lakes.
After lunch we relaxed on deck as the Van Gogh sailed along to Martigues. Here we had time to explore on our own and came across pretty canals and backwaters. The town is often referred to as the “Venice of Provence’, and I could see why with small boats moored up outside brightly painted houses.
If you visit Provence a tour of Avignon is a must and of course it was on our itinerary. This amazing medieval city is famous for the iconic Saint Benezet Bridge, inspiration for the charming song we all know so well. The bridge and the historic Palais des Papes, Popes Palace, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites attracting over half a million visitors a year. We were grateful to our guide for ensuring our group got an early entrance time to the walled city, before the crowds arrived.
During the afternoon our coach took us along steep and winding roads deep into the famous Ardeche Gorge, stopping at the beautiful Vallon Pont d’Arc; a perfect photo opportunity and chance to stretch our legs.
My favourite tour was on the last day when we travelled from our mooring in La Voulte into the vast Vercours Regional National Park. We came to the tiny village of Vassieux-en Vercors where we were told a very moving story. The village had been one of the centres of the French Resistance during WW2 and in July 1944 the Germans landed in gliders and destroyed the village and killed most of the inhabitants. The village was rebuilt and there is now a museum and memorial telling the story of the fighting that took place. Today it is a quiet and serene location, surrounded by mountains and with beautiful views across the valley, a beautiful place to sit and contemplate.
I found our excursions varied and enjoyable and always very well organised. We had different guides at each stop, and they were all exceptional. They made sure that our small group from the UK sat at the front of the coach so they could translate to us with ease.
Our last night on board was celebrated in true French fashion with a sumptuous Gala Dinner ending in the traditional ‘baked Alaska’ parade.
A five nights cruise goes all too quickly and by morning we were back in Lyon. Time to bid adieu to our French companions and take a taxi to the station for our high-speed connection home feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.
Find out more
In 2023, CroisiEurope’s six-night Rhone cruise round trip from Lyon calling in Arles, Port-Saint-Louis, Martigues, Avignon, Viviers and Tain l’Hermitage costs from £907 per person (based on departures on 26th April and 20th October). Price includes all meals and drinks, travel assistance and repatriation insurance and port fees. Call CroisiEurope on 020 8328 1281 or visit www.croisieurope.co.uk