See a new side of France – from the waterways

Steve Newman rounds up the river cruise options around France, from the well-known waterways to the smaller hidden gems.

It’s always a good idea to look around a country before you book, and visiting the smaller lesser-known rivers can reap benefits and memories that can last a lifetime.

Nowhere is this truer than France. A short ferry, train, or plane ride lets you explore the Chateaux of the Loire and the wonders of Paris on the Seine whilst the Rhone brings you Van Gogh’s favourite café and you can indeed dance “sur le pont d’Avignon”.

The trouble is of course that all of these come with the crowds – so although they are worth doing, looking beyond the obvious cruise for a future occasion is always a good idea. I defy anyone to look at the roof of the Hospices de Beaune on the Saone and not be mesmerised by its geometrical beauty, or walk in the streets of Strasbourg on the Ill and not believe you’re back in Medieval times.

Sail the great rivers but don’t forget the others; they’re just as wonderful and sometimes more memorable.

The Seine

The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the highlights of this cruise and you do get incredibly close to it with a personal commentary explaining all as you move along its length. The Cathedral in Bayeux is also worth a visit as is that of Rouen, the ancient capital of Normandy.

A visit to the D-Day beaches at Arromanches is complemented by walking around the harbour at Honfleur with its narrow five story houses that seem to have been squashed together like the keys on a piano. Do try the local calvados!

Riviera Travel has the 8 day ‘The Seine, Paris and Normandy River’ cruise calling at Paris, Giverny, Rouen, Caudebec. Departs 2024 23rd September.

The Gironde, Dordogne and Garrone

Bordeaux is a world capital of wine, so as you might expect names normally associated with supermarket shelves, such as St Emillion and Cabernet Sauvignon, are all part of this cruise. Entered through one of its seven gates medieval gates St Emillion has a charming medieval village where fine wine and beautiful architecture are a perfect match. Similarly, part of the central square in Lilbourne is surrounded by the traditional arcades and is especially lively on market days. At Blaye why not visit the Citadel, Vauban’s 17th century military masterpiece and explore the village streets and ramparts?

Scenic has the 8 day ‘Bordeaux Affair’ cruise calling at Bordeaux, Lilbourne, Blaye, Cadillac, Bordeaux. Departs 2024 11th October.

The Rhone, Saone and Seine

Exploring France by travelling on three of its rivers with extended stays at ports of call to explore their hinterland is a great way to truly experience and discover the country. This cruise offers a private concert at night in Rouen’s cathedral and a visit to the Normandy beaches. Or perhaps the towering 2,000-year-old Roman Aqueduct the Pont du Gard, or the private rooms of Versailles as Marie Antoinette knew them. Taste camembert as it should be eaten and stroll through Monet’s garden.

Uniworld has the 15 day ‘Grand France’ cruise calling at Arles, Avignon, Viviers, Lyon Macon, Rouen, Paris. Departs 2025 23rd March.  

The Ill

Strasbourg is one of the forgotten delights of France perched on the German border. The city’s River Ill divides into several branches, forming the UNESCO World Heritage site of “Grande Île”.

Along the banks of the river Ill, you will find the red-sandstone Gothic-style Strasbourg Cathedral with ancient murals and its fascinating astronomical clock and the picturesque district Petite France with cobbled streets and Medieval half-timbered houses. Moreover, canals branching off from the main river course create additional scenic walkways and bridges, adding to the allure of the ancient cityscape even more.

Avalon Waterways has the 11 day ‘Rhine and Moselle (Southbound)’ cruise calling at Amsterdam, Cologne, Kobelenz, Speyer, Strasbourg, Breisach, Basel. Departs 2024 9th October.  

The Yonne

Fontainebleau
Fontainebleau

The waters of the Yonne above Paris are too shallow for the bigger boats, so this cruise lets you experience a quieter slice of French history and life. The Cathedral Saint-Etienne in Sens was the first gothic cathedral built in France whilst Melun lets you visit the grandeur and magnificence of the palaces of Vaux-le-Vicomte and Fontainebleau. 

Barbizon has a fascinating museum of the famous school of artists who lived here including Rousseau and Millet.

Great Rail Journeys has the 7 day ‘Waterways of The Yonne, Paris and The Petite Seine by Barge’ cruise calling at Paris, Melun, Barbizon, Moret-Loing-et-Orvanne and Sens. Departs 2024 4th September.

The Rhone

There is something magical about Arles. Not just that you can sit in the café where Van Gough watched the world go by then walk a few yards to explore the virtually intact Roman amphitheatre, but the slow pace of life is all around. 

At Avignon you can walk on the bridge and dance if you wish, for a small fee, and explore the Palace of the French Popes as well as the fascinating, huge indoor market that has several food stalls selling traditional Provencal snacks and cuisine.

Newmarket Holidays has the 7 night ‘Rhone, Burgandy and Provence cruise’ calling at Chalon-sur-Saone, Macon, Lyon, Avignon, Arles, La Voulte-sur-Rhone. Departs 2024 14th September.  

The Saone

Passing through Burgundy, a region of France rich in history and wine, this cruise lets you visit walled towns including Beaune with its staggeringly beautiful 14th century tiled Hospices roof.

Tournus in turn offers its remarkable abbey Saint-Philibert church, a true gem of Romanesque architecture whilst you berth at towns that reverberate with the names found on sought after red wine labels such as Macon and Chalon-sur-Saone. Finally arriving at the culinary and architectural magical box of delights that is Lyon.

AmaWaterways has the 7 night ‘Flavours of Burgandy’ cruise calling at Dijon, Seurre, Chalon-sur Saone, Tournus, Macon and Lyon. Departs 2025 27th March.

The Loire 

The Chateaux of the Loire will always be a draw and this cruise has an all-day excursion to discover them, but Nantes is a jewel in its own right with the castle of the Dukes of Brittanny, giant mechanical elephants and do take a coffee in La Cigale the wonderful 19th century Belle Epoch Brasserie.

Explore Angers with its Terra Botanica, a plant-themed amusement park or the museums of St Nazaire.  The 96 guest MS Loire Princess adds to your experience as she is a luxury paddle steamer specifically designed for the river.

CroisiEurope has the 6 day ‘The Loire Valley, a Royal Legacy’ cruise calling at St Nazaire, Nantes, Anciens, Challonnes-sur-Loire, Nantes. Departs 2024 23rd July.

The Rhone and The Ill

This cruise offers something special. The chance to experience and compare the Provencal lifestyle of Arles with the Franco-German culture of Strasbourg. In essence a cultural journey along the Rhône and the Rhine. Taste complex red wines and crisp whites grown on terraced vineyards rooted in the Roman Empire. Explore Avignon’s grand Palace of the Popes and Cologne’s majestic cathedral, both UNESCO sites. Savor Lyon’s rich culinary traditions and the Rhineland’s hearty flavours and admire the landscapes that inspired van Gogh in the Netherlands and Provence.

Viking has the 14 day ‘Lyon, Provence and The Rhineland’ cruise calling at Avignon, Arles, Viviers, Tournon, Vienne, Lyon, Burgundy, Basel, Breisach, Strasbourg, Speyer, Rudesheim. Departs 2025 21st May.

Next Steps

For more information on any of these fantastic river cruises, and to book your river cruise holiday, call Silver Travel Advisor on 0800 412 5678.

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Steve Newman

Eco Adventure Cruising writer & photographer

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