On the 29th March 2017 my wife Chris(tine) and I flew to Marseille and were coached to Avignon for a 7 night cruise along the River Rhone, finishing in Lyon. This is my review of that cruise.
Here are links to my photo albums of the cruise :-
The Ship :- https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10211844771622133.1073741930.1455576213&type=1&l=e07306589f
The Places we visited :- https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10211931378987263.1073741932.1455576213&type=1&l=94337218a6
29/03/17 Fly from London Heathrow to Marseille then coached to Avignon to embark on “Viking Heimdal” for 7 night cruise to Lyon.
30/03/17 Moored in Tarascon and coached to Arles.
31/03/17 Return to Avignon.
02/04/17 Tournon and Vienne.
05/04/17 Disembark ship and fly from Lyon to London Heathrow.
The “Viking Heimdal” is one of Viking’s new Longships and first entered service in 2014, so is quite new. She is 443 ft (135 metres) long, is designed to just fit in the Rhone’s locks and has 4 decks (but only an elevator between decks 2 and 3). The Ship is a very comfortable base for 190 passengers in 85 cabins and has a crew of 51. Diesel-Electric Hybrid engines provide ample whisper quiet propulsion with extremely low emissions. Heimdal was the name of the guardian of the Norse Gods.
I would estimate that vast majority of passengers were either North American/Canadian and British, with a split of around 50/50. The age profile was very similar to most of our sea cruises, with a large percentage of senior citizens. Many of the North Americans were going on to Paris after the cruise, either by air or by train. It was a very amiable cruise and we didn’t witness a single serious argument or notice any over indulgence of the included wine or beer.
The crew were mostly European with the majority of the housekeeping and dining room staff being from Eastern European countries. Having experienced many sea cruises, we have never had a better or more (professionally) friendly crew than on this ship. Nothing was too much trouble for them and they always had a smile on their faces.
The Hotel Manager, Englishman Chris Harrington, was very professional and had a very good sense of humour. He was able to transfer us from our cabin on deck 1 to a cabin on deck 3 when some passengers did not turn up. My wife Chris had a very painful left knee and negotiating the stairs between decks 1 and 2 several times a day would have been very difficult and painful for her. We had asked Veronika Etenyi of Guest Services if this would be possible and together with Chris Harrington they made the cabin on deck 3 available to us. We were very grateful to them both for this.
The Programme Director, Christine Couper was an excellent organiser and kept us well informed of the following day’s programme at a pre-dinner talk in the lounge each evening. Although originally from England, Christine now lives in France. Like most of the crew she seemed to be busy from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.
There were two dining areas on the ship, the Main Dining Room on deck 2 aft and the Aquavit Terrace Buffet on deck 3 fore. We thought that the Main Dining Room was very elegant and had tables for 4 and 8 people. The Aquavit buffet had tables for 2 or 4 and had an inside section and an outside section. The UPVC sliding doors separating the 2 sections could be opened right up in warm weather. We ate all our dinners in the Main Dining Room but had some lunches in the Aquavit Buffet – it was very pleasant to sit and eat outdoors in the sun when possible.
Rather stupidly I had expected the standards of the meals on a river cruiser to be somewhat below that of the big sea going ships we had sailed on – how wrong could I have been? Greek Executive Chef Daniel Papadimus and his small staff (a sous chef, 8 chefs and two dishwashers) produced meals that would have graced the table of any top restaurant. We were given a conducted tour of the galley by Chef Daniel and were surprised how small it was – about 4 times the size of our kitchen at home. Gas cooking is not allowed on these ships so induction hobs are used instead. Some of them very powerful. There are only 2 ovens in the galley, but they are computer controlled and state of the art, each costing more than a BMW car!
The choice of dishes for each course was perhaps smaller than some of the bigger ships, but there was always a good choice. For guests who did not like anything from the main courses on the menu there were always alternatives that were available every day :- Caesar’s Salad, Chicken, seared salmon fillet or prime rib eye steak.
The daily soup was unbelievably good and a lot of the passengers congratulated Chef Daniel on producing the best soups that they had ever tasted (and I wouldn’t argue with them, they were superb). The dishes were all very well seasoned and it was rare to see people using the condiments on the tables. On the top sun deck, aft, there is a very healthy looking herb garden which ensures that only the freshest herbs are used in the galley.
Wines and beers were complimentary during lunch and dinner in both eating venues and were of a very acceptable quality and the waiters were very generous in their topping up. I like red wines and the complimentary red wines during the week were Argentinian Malbec, a French Shiraz and a French Bordeaux – I was not disappointed.
The Maitre D’, Imre Kalmar, was first class and ensured that all guests enjoyed their meals to the full. He would put many of the big ship Maitre D’s to shame, he was always available and happy to give advice when asked. It was very clear that he was well respected by his staff.
On the 3rd April, our penultimate day, we were treated to a ‘Taste of Provence’ lunch with typical Provence dishes, bouillabaisse, various breads and cheeses. It was absolutely delightful and was enjoyed by everyone, including the staff who dressed up in French costume. Just one small negative – it was on the same day as our lovely ‘Farewell Dinner’ – there is only so much food I can eat in one day!!!!
There was a well tuned grand piano in the ship’s lounge and very talented pianist Daniele kept us entertained with a wide range of music. Together with Christine Couper he also did some musical quizzes on some evenings. On the second evening a local man playing a piano accordion played tunes for us and we saw him the next day playing outside the Palace de Papes. On another evening a group of four musicians/singers (a male pianist/singer, a female saxophonist/singer a male singer and a female singer) gave us a concert in the lounge. They were very good and were much appreciated by us passengers.
The ship is far too small to have any production shows like the big ships but, to be fair, we didn’t find that we missed them. By the time we had showered and changed in the early evening, attended the 7:15pm briefing by Christine, eaten a very leisurely and enjoyable dinner, sat for a while in the lounge, we were ready to retire to our cabins, tired but very happy. Most excursions started at 9:00am, one at 8:30am, so we didn’t have any late nights.
Virtually the whole of the top sun deck (deck 4) is available to passengers and has a good selection of seating and sunbeds, many under a shaded awning. At the rear of this deck there are 2 small putting practice greens and a floor shuffle-board game. Between them is the chef’s herb garden where a good variety of herbs are growing, allowing the chefs to collect fresh herbs as necessary. There always seemed to be ample seating on this deck for passengers.
All equipment on the top sun deck including the seating, railings, awnings and parasols has to be collapsible in order to allow the ship to pass under certain very low bridges. Even the wheelhouse is lowered to the deck below, with a sunroof for the crew to be able to see to navigate. During these (very infrequent) times passengers are obviously excluded from this top deck.
The front of deck 3 has the Aquavit Terrace Buffet Restaurant with tables and chairs, half being outside at the very front of the ship and the remainder being under a glazed roof, so very airy. Between the two sections are UPVC sliding doors that can be fully opened up to allow fresh air into the whole area. Outside of mealtimes these areas are available to passengers to relax in or out of the sunshine and there are even some rocking chairs available. At the very front of this area is the ship’s bell and this is surrounded by flowering plants and shrubs, making a it very pleasant area.
Behind the Aquavit Terrace is the ship’s lounge which is very light and airy due to the large picture windows and light, modern décor. There is a well stocked bar here, with the bar wood built in a clinker fashion, like the original Viking longships. There is a variety of comfortable chairs and tables which seemed to accommodate most if not all of the ship’s passengers. A baby grand piano, played by excellent pianist Daniele provided music in the evening and occasionally during the day. Each evening, at around 7:00pm, the Programme Director, Christine Couper, gave a brief talk about the following day’s programme and excursions and this lounge was also the venue for performances by visiting local entertainers.
Self serve coffee and tea stations are provided on decks 2 and 3, two per deck and had machines dispensing various types of coffee, hot chocolate and hot water (for tea). Cookies and madeleines and occasional meringues were available at all times at these stations.
A small library on deck 3 amidships had a selection of books, most of which covered the areas that the ship would be visiting, i.e. Provence and the Rhone River areas. They were excellent if anybody wanted to learn a lot more about any of the places we would be visiting.
Below the library, on deck 2, is the reception desk , manned 24 hours a day, and a small shop which sold mainly “Viking” branded goods including polo shirts and jackets.
29/03/17 – Avignon
By the time that we had embarked on the ship we were very tired. We had left home at 3:00am, Chris had managed a couple of hours sleep the previous afternoon, but I had not slept at all. Because of this we decided to stay on the ship and relax.
30/03/17 – Tarascon (for Arles)
Today we were booked on the included ‘Arles City Walk’ which involved a short coach journey from Tarascon where we were berthed to the ancient town of Arles. Veronika of the ship’s Guest Services had told us that ‘Leisurely Group’ tours were available for the walking excursions, designed for people who had reduced mobility. These were ideal for us, as I walk with a walking stick and so was Chris who had a very sore knee. These tours visit most of the sights of the main tours but have their own guide who makes sure that steps, steep hills and uneven ground are avoided where possible. We signed up for the ‘Leisurely Group’ for all our walking tours.
The town was captured by the Romans in 123 BC and turned it into an important City, with a canal to the Mediterranean being constructed in 104 BC. It is famous for its well preserved Roman remains.
Our coach dropped us near the centre of Arles and we divided into two groups, our ‘Leisurely Group’ being led by our excellent guide Anna. We made our way to the Amphitheatre (aka the Arena) which reminded us very much of the one in Rome. Built in 90 AD the Arena was designed to seat 20,000 spectators. In Medieval times it was turned into a defensive fort with four towers although only three remain today. It still hosts bullfighting, although it would certainly not appeal to us!
From the Arena we moved on to the Church of St. Trophime which has an amazingly ornately carved frontage. Built between the 12th and 15th centuries it is in the Romanesque style. The carvings on the frontage represented a lot of stories from the Bible and Anna was able to explain what they all represented. After leaving the church we passed the Hotel de Ville (the Town Hall).
We then moved on to the former Arles Hospital (now offices and shops) where the artist Vincent Van Gogh was hospitalised for a period after he cut his ear off. The gardens were very recognisable from a couple of paintings that Van Gogh did whilst there. We also passed the famous ‘Yellow Cafe’ also made famous in one of his paintings.
After we had met up with the other group and been transported back to our ship at Tarascon by coach we had lunch in the Aquavit Buffet restaurant. Chris was rather tired, so decided to rest her knee in the afternoon, but I decided to go out and take some photographs of the castle in the town. The castle, built in the 15th century to protect Provence from attack is a very strong castle built on solid rock to prevent undermining during a siege. We left Tarascon at around 6:45 pm to return to Avignon, arriving between 9:00 and 10:00 pm.
31/3/17 – Avignon
After breakfast, at 9:00 am, we left the ship and met our guide Isabelle for our included leisurely walking tour of Avignon. We entered the city by going under the busy road via an underpass and then through a small gate in the city walls. Our first stop was at the Place de la Republique where we saw the beautiful Hotel de Ville building. We then continued on to the huge Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) which was an amazing sight. Construction began in 1252 AD and the Papacy was relocated here in 1309 by Pope Clement V when life became rather dangerous in Rome. It housed a total of 7 Popes, not all officially accepted, until the Papacy was returned to Rome in 1377. The Palace was sacked by the revolutionaries during the French Revolution and was further damaged when it later became a prison and military base. The amazing huge and defensive palace is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is slowly being repaired and renovated. We were glad that we were on the leisurely tour as the other tour had to negotiate around 120 steps on their visit to the interior of the palace.
Our next stop was to the Basilique Saint-Pierre, rebuilt in 1385, has magnificently carved 4 metre high twin walnut doors. From here we moved on to a large indoor market with stalls selling almost any type of food or spice that you could think of. We left the rest of the party there and made our way back to the ship, stopping only for coffees, as we were booked on an afternoon tour.
After lunch on the ship we went on the optional Pont du Gard Aqueduct Tour led by a guide name Mary who had a trainee named Camille shadowing her. We had a very pleasant coach drive of about 35 minutes through some very pretty countryside. Arriving at the complex we had to wait for a short time whilst Mary purchased 38 tickets and then visited the site’s museum which was very interesting. We then walked to the aqueduct which was an amazing structure.
The aqueduct, built in the 1st century AD was part of the 50km (31 mile) water supply to the city of Nimes from a spring at Uzes, requiring just a gradient of 1 in 18,241 over the distance. Although mostly underground the system required to span the Gardon River and so a bridge 160ft high with 3 tiers of arches was built without concrete, the stones fitting precisely where needed. The water supply delivered 200,000 m³ (44,000,000 imp. gallons) of clean water to Nimes every day! In the 18th century a road bridge was added to the structure and it still used by pedestrians today.
Close to the bridge are some very old olive trees that were planted in 908 AD and are still very healthy today. Amazing to think that these trees were 158 years old when the Normans invade England in 1066. We had some free time to get drinks/snacks, visit the gift shops or revisit the museum before we had to climb back into our coaches for the drive back to our ship.
01/04/17 – Viviers
This morning we had a bit of a lie in as our included Viviers Leisurely Walking Tour did not start until 9:30 am. Our guide was a very amusing chap named Pierre who was also a ballroom dancing teacher. Together with his wife they had been ballroom champions and, during the tour, he mostly walked backwards, which I thought may have been useful in his dancing days.
Viviers proved to be a most delightful Medieval town with many old buildings and narrow streets. There is the ruins of a castle and city walls together with the smallest Cathedral in France in the town but these were up a very steep hill, so our tour did not include this. However, us leisurely walkers were more than happy exploring the little medieval streets with a very knowledgable and amusing guide. It rained twice during our tour but we had our own umbrellas (the ship also supplies them if required) and we still had a very good time.
We spent the afternoon on the ship, watching the lovely countryside and watching the ship pass through 2 locks. On this journey we would rise up 120 metres via around 11 locks.
02/04/17 – Tournon & Vienne
We got up this morning to persistent drizzle which was a shame as we were going on a steam train ride through the unspoilt Doux Valley where there are no roads. After a 20 minute coach drive we got off at the Gare de Tournon St-Jean where we had about 20 minutes to visit the gift shop or visit the toilets whilst the engineers prepared our Mallet locomotive. These locomotives are articulated in order that they can negotiate the tight bends of the 1 metre gauge track. Our locomotive, No. 403, had been running on this route since 1903! The track runs from Tournon to Mastrou with a length of 33 km, but we would just be going from Tournon to Colombier le Vieux and back today. Our guide was named Phillipe and was a doppelgänger for Jeremy Corbyn, but had a much better sense of humour!
Our group had been allocated the last carriage, No. 8, which had rather small windows which could be lowered with a leather strap (like the trains of my youth), but we kept them closed as the rain was still falling. The journey was quite interesting but would have been much more so had we been able to open the windows to take photographs. The countryside was beautiful and at one stage a canal, designed just to deliver water to a hydro-electric power plant, ran alongside the track. This had been built by German soldiers during World War 1.
When we arrived at the Columbier le Vieux station we got out whilst the locomotive was uncoupled, run onto a turntable and manually turned through 180 degrees by the footplate man. There was a rather wet stall where a local farmer was selling goat’s cheese and honey products and a rather elaborate hen house, resembling a child’s doll house. When the locomotive was re coupled to the train we found that we were now the first carriage, directly behind the locomotive.
We sat on the opposite side of the carriage on the way back to Tournon, so that we got a somewhat different view from our little windows. Once back at Tournon we re boarded our coaches for the drive to Andance – our ship had repositioned whilst we were on our train tour. It had been a very enjoyable morning’s excursion, but could have been much better had it not been so wet.
The ship stopped in Andance just long enough to take all the excursionists on board and then set sail towards Vienne whilst we enjoyed lunch. At 2:30 pm the ship made a brief stop at Chavanay to discharge the passengers, including us, who were going on the included Vienne walking tour. Our coach took us into the small city of Vienne. Our guide for the Leisurely Tour was named Lytse (pronounced Litsee). Fortunately the rain had stopped.
Our coach dropped us alongside a tractor unit, disguised as a train, pulling 3 carriages and, once aboard, we set off through the town and then started to climb up a steep hill to Mont Pipet. The road was very narrow, with extremely tight turns and we could see why the coaches would be unable to take this route.
On top of Mont Pipet we stopped to visit the chapel there and also to admire the fantastic views over the city and the River Rhone from a large viewing area, Directly below us was a Roman semicircular theatre built into the hillside, which could seat 8,000. We re boarded our tram unit and were taken down the hill back into the town and were discharged close to Temple Square, where we went on a walking tour.
We visited the Temple of Augusta and Livia, a rectangular building of the Corinthian order, which was erected by the emperor Claudius (10 BC to 54AD). The temple is in amazing condition, mainly due to its being converted to a church in the 4th century. It looked as if it would have been more at home in Rome or Athens.
Leaving the temple we made our way to the huge Gothic Cathedral of St. Maurice which is a French Heritage site. Work on the present building started in 1130 AD and it now has 3 aisles and an apse. We spent quite a lot of time inside the Cathedral and Lytse was a very knowledgable guide. The Cathedral is currently being renovated whereby half of it was bright and clean whilst the other half still had the grime of centuries. After this visit we joined up with the other excursion party and we boarded our coach for the short ride to a quay at Vienne where our ship, having relocated, was now waiting for us. A very busy day, but very enjoyable.
03/04/17 – Lyon
Our ship had departed from Vienne and we were able to watch her sail into Lyon whilst we had breakfast. The plan had been to moor at the quay and another Viking ship would be mooring alongside us. However, when we got to the quay, we found that the other ship had beaten us to it and we had to moor alongside them.
We were booked on the Lyon City Tour and, as we exited our ship, we had to pass across our sister ship, the “Viking Delling” to reach the gangplank to the quay. It was rather odd to be passing across another ship that was exactly the same as our ship (in design and décor etc.) but with different staff.
Our coach took us up to the top of a hill where the beautiful Fourvieres Bascilica was situated. This minor Basilica was built between 1872 and 1884, so not as old as most of the religious buildings that we had visited on this cruise. There were a lot of steps to reach the entrance but our guide, Celine, took us to a doorway on the side where there was an elevator to take us up into the ground floor of the Basilica. The interior was amazing, with a myriad of small mosaics depicting scenes from the Bible, one of the most beautiful interiors that I have ever seen.
Close to the Basilica there is a metal tower that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Eiffel Tower of Paris. The Tour Metallique de Fourviere was erected between 1892 and 1894 and is 85.9 metres high, weighs 210 tons and, at 372 metres, is the highest point in Lyon. During the Exposition Universelle of 1914 it had a restaurant and an elevator taking 22 persons at a time to the summit. It was used as an observation tower until 1953 but is now just a television tower.
In front of the Basilica there is a viewing site that gives amazing views over the city of Lyon and the River Rhone. After a few minutes free time there we re boarded our coach to continue our conducted tour of Lyon. We stopped for a photo opportunity at a high rise building that’s side had been painted with windows and balconies with figures from Lyon’s history on show. These figures are repainted every few years and most are aged to show them a little older.
We then went on a walking tour of the older parts of the city with our guide Celine which mainly consisted of large blocks of high Renaissance apartment buildings with very narrow streets between them. Celine pointed out that some of the doors in these buildings, identified by small seals, could be opened to reveal passages that ran right through the buildings to the other sides. Spiral staircases along these passages gave access to the apartments above them. These ‘secret’ passages were used by silk merchants to go to and from the markets safely and were called ‘traboules’. During World War II the French Resistance members used these traboules to harass the Nazi occupiers and escape from them when chased. Only a few of these passages are open to the public nowadays, but I found these passages to be very interesting and was very glad to have been able to visit them. We then had some free time to further explore the old quarter before we boarded our coach for the short ride back to our ship.
We found that another ship, the “Swiss Corona” was moored where we had been on the quay and our ship was now moored alongside her. Both ships were very different in design and so we couldn’t get across to our ship by walking through the other. As all the river ships are the same height, we had to climb up the stairs to their sun deck, pass across to our sun deck and then go down the stairs to deck 3 on our ship. Great fun (but not if you have a sore knee!).
04/04/17 – Lyon
This morning we were up fairly early again as we were booked on the Beaujolais Wine excursion leaving at 08:30 am. We boarded our coach and met our guide, another Phillipe and we started driving off into the hilly Beaujolais countryside which was absolutely beautiful. We passed through some lovely little villages and everywhere looked well cared for and neat, a pleasure to visit.
After a really enjoyable ride we arrived at the Chateau de Chasselas Winery which was just stunning. A beautiful four storey house was within a rectangular walled courtyard with four towers with turrets and several outbuildings. We were met at the entrance by the owner Jean-Marc Veyron la Croix who showed us his vineyards and explained how the grapes were grown. Jean-Marc produces a very high quality wine and only one branch of each vine remains unpruned and this is looped down and tied. Fewer grapes will result from this method but they will be of a higher quality and produce better wine (this is not the inferior Beaujolais nouveau wine). Jean- Marc explained that he had not started life as a winemaker, he had been in the fashion business, but had bought the chateau and business in 1999 after a previous owner had partially renovated it. He had spent a year studying winemaking but had found that there was no substitute for hands on experience.
After visiting the vineyards Jean Marc took us into a tasting cellar where we sampled 4 separate wines – a red, two whites and a champagne type wine – and they were delicious. We were also given some nibbles to eat with them and I only saw one person use the ‘spit bowls’ that were provided, most of us quaffed the lovely wine down.. After the tasting Jean-Marc led us to his little shop where he had various wines, wine drinking accessories and books etc. for sale. I would have loved to have purchased some of his wines but we were flying home the next day, so it was impossible. (The passengers on the next cruise, from Lyon to Avignon,would have been able to buy wines to consume on the ship, Viking do not charge any corkage fees).
We were a little reluctant to leave the chateau and its interesting owner, but at least we had some more lovely countryside to look at on our way back. Back on the ship we learned that other coaches on our Beaujolais Wine Tour had gone to other wineries and ours seemed to be the best, I think we were rather lucky.
A couple of days before we were due to leave the ship we were allocated a leaving time and suitcase labels, we were to put our suitcases outside our door at 5:15 am and would be leaving the ship at 6:15 am. The previous evening I settled our account by credit card and paid gratuities for the crew. The following morning we were up early, packed our nightclothes inside our suitcases and then put them outside the cabin door. We went to the Aquavit Buffet for a continental breakfast and then, at 6:15 am, said farewell to the lovely ship and headed for a waiting coach on the quay. We identified our luggage which was then put on the coach and we boarded it for the journey to Lyon Airport.
At the Airport we were met by two local Viking representatives who guided us to the check-in desk for our British Airways flight to London Heathrow which was scheduled to take off at 10:00 am. Unfortunately the check-in did not open until 8:00am, so we had quite a long wait. After standing for some time we decided to find a seat where we could still keep an eye on our queueing luggage (most passengers did this). The check-in opened on time and we were soon issued with boarding passes for an aisle and middle seat in row 22.
Again, the flight was not fully booked and we found that we had all 3 seats to ourselves. We took off on time and had a very pleasant flight, arriving at Heathrow Terminal 3 on time. As usual, it seemed to be miles and miles of walking before we reached Immigration, but once there we were fast tracked through because we both had walking sticks. We then passed through to the baggage reclaim area and I could see both our cases already on the carousel. We phoned our taxi and he picked us up from outside the Arrivals Hall after a few minutes wait.
This was our first river cruise and, in the main, it exceeded most of our expectations. The ship was very well designed and maintained and the staff very friendly, but always efficient. Compared with our sea cruises it seemed a little expensive but, when you factor in the included excursions at every place we visited, the complimentary (and generous) wine or beer with lunch and dinner, tea and coffee (with cookies and other biscuits available 24/7) and free Wi-Fi, then you begin to realise that the cruise is actually good value. There were a lot of small things which, although of no great importance in themselves, nevertheless increased our feelings that this was a quality company and product. Complimentary bottled water in our cabin was replenished as necessary and, each time we left the ship to go on an excursion, complimentary bottles of water were handed out by the staff, Similarly, if the weather looked to be possibly inclement, Viking umbrellas were also available for all passengers.
The excursions were all well organised, ran to time and had excellent and very knowledgeable guides. Viking use mainly their own coaches and they were always very comfortable and clean and driven by excellent drivers.
But it was the staff that really made our holiday. Captain Scheen has a great team with Programme Director Christine Couper, Hotel Manager Chris Harrington and Maitre d’ Imre Kalmar heading a very happy and efficient crew.
We did not find river cruising as relaxing as sea cruising, perhaps due to having no ‘sea days’ and the fact that we did at least one excursion each day and two on some. We did however love visiting so many different places in such a short time.
Will we continue river cruising? A big resounding YES! The River Douro in Portugal looks very tempting, so that might be our next adventure.