Cruises on the Rhine and Danube may still be favourites, but trips along France’s southern rivers are growing in popularity, not least because of the near-guaranteed sunshine. We boarded the MS Lord Byron for a cruise through Burgundy, the River Rhone and Provence.
The Burgundy, Rhone and Provence cruise of the growing British company Riviera Travel started in Lyon, under a radiant sun even in mid-April. The Rhône, having left Lake Geneva, joins the Saône as both flow through the city center.
The journey heads north into the Burgundy wine region before cruising south past countless vineyards and through cities like Vienna and Arles, ending in Avignon, all steeped in Roman history – and all with free walking tours and other excursions included.
Ship – Miss Lord Byron
MS Lord Byron, launched in 2013, carries 140 passengers. The elegant exterior is tempered inside with polished wood, marble floors, copper, and rich blue fleur de lys carpets. The midship entrance opens into the saloon and bar, adorned with blue and gold trim, which runs forward. The restaurant is located on the associated ground floor.
The cabins are on three levels, two with glass walls, half of which slide back to turn the room into an airy space; the lower level simply has head height windows.
The sundeck, which runs the length of the ship, features a large Jacuzzi and putting green. Downstairs is a sauna, steam bath and hairdresser.
Breakfast includes fried favorites, cereals, fruits, and cold cuts and cheeses; the lunch buffet includes salads and hot and cold options; afternoon tea includes a variety of sweets; dinner is five courses with meat, fish and vegetarian options, and salmon and chicken are always available.
Music from house pianist Kirill in the evenings, quizzes and occasional guest appearances – we had a ballroom dancing duo and a lovely Gallic accordion.
We join the barge on the downtown riverbank, in the sky of the Seine in Paris, with joggers, cyclists, even yoga enthusiasts, and a backdrop of elegant buildings. It’s time for lunch and we go for a walk, cross the Rhône, pass the headland between the two rivers, then cross the Saône and disappear into the bustling old town. On the way back we follow the river where it meets the Rhône at Confluence Park where there are shops, apartments and restaurants.
The next day a bus ride takes us to the ridge above the old town, where we visit the magnificent 19th century Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, which dominates the skyline from almost every point.
Back on board, we have lunch – I made a delicious artichoke tuna salad – on the aft deck and sunbathe as we visit Confluence Park and cruise along the Saône through the city, sneaking under low bridges, one of which is only 10 cm wide. Clearance height also with the wheelhouse down, so land.
We get up early, have a croissant and walk between the markets that open, the lush gardens of the Parc George Nouelle and the historic river island of this city. Then to Beaune, a town in the heart of wine country, where we will have a wine tasting after a walk on the cobbled streets.
It’s only nine thirty, but we’re sitting under the medieval stone arches below the wine bar, drinking reds, whites and the most delicious cassis and blackcurrant liqueur I’ve ever tasted. Then a walk around and we find La Moutarderie, the Edmond Fallot mustard factory (we are 30 miles from Dijon); no time for a tour, but enough for a free tasting and provisioning – the cassis mustard is divine – before cruising back through the iconic vineyards.
A lovely little town in the middle of the hills. Our city tram tour, a mini-train, winds through small streets lined with Roman walls to the Belvedere de Pipet viewpoint and the tranquil and imposing 19th-century Notre Dame de Pipet church. We look down on a Roman Theater that entertained 13,000 spectators’ two millennia ago – and where now 8,000 sit on stone benches for the two-week Jazz à Vienne festival that takes place each July. Crawling downhill, brakes screeching, we arrive at the village square for a walking tour. There is the Saint-Maurice Cathedral, with its wild facade of sculptures and its simple and unadorned dizzying arches, the massive columns of the Temple of Augustus and Livia, like something from the Acropolis, the Jardin de Cybele, part of the former Forum, and the Pyramid, the stone belisk around which the chariots raced.
After an afternoon cruise from Vienne, amidst storks in their nests in trees, and in the enclosures north of little Andance, with gulls with their chicks, we arrive at the heart of yet another part of the wine country. Tournon, a small hilltop town with castle ruins, lies across the river from the wine town of Tain-l’Hermitage, behind which rises a nearby hill of vineyards.
We borrow the ship’s bikes for a sunset bike ride along the small 800 kilometer ViaRhôna route that runs from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean, crossing the bridge built by the inventor Marc Seguin in 1849, the world’s first suspension bridge. Steel cables (and on a wooden road).
After waking up in Tournon, we slide south along the hills and limestone cliffs, arriving at the tiny Le Pouzin at lunchtime (although we had already eaten lunch by then). Quickly begin the five-hour hike into the canyon, albeit via a lavender farm (and lavender gift shop).
The canyon is a whole other world, a deep riverbed winding through the wilderness, similar to the Grand Canyon. We follow winding roads to the river, past the Pont d’Arc, a 55 meter high rock arch; at the bus parking lot, we enjoy the slow, scenic ride back and stop at the top to take photos. Later we visit the Belvedere Lookout, a hideaway with a cool cafe overlooking the canyon and the high Cathedral Rock.
Our southernmost destination, a completely Roman city and a full day expedition organized. A morning walk through the narrow streets past the looming stone amphitheater and the dark medieval church of St. Trophime.
This is also where Vincent van Gogh painted many paintings, including the iconic Sunflowers, so we pass the sunflower-hued Van Gogh Café (immortalized in the painting Café Terrace at Night) and visit Espace Van Gogh, the light-filled courtyard of the former hospital. He was closed after having his ear cut off. Then travel by bus to the Pont du Gard, a three-story Roman aqueduct that is one of France’s greatest historical sites. The warm Provençal weather gave way and we walked over the great structure and jumped over the Gardon River and its gorge in the pouring rain…
Tucked behind the remains of the famous Pont d’Avignon, the bridge is the first stop on our final tour. The remaining medieval arches are a must see and we walk to the river. But as impressive as it is, the city itself, with its 4.4 km of Roman walls, is even more impressive.
The Palace of the Popes, where a number of popes enjoyed the good life, is a monumental stone place, more a castle than a palace, where you think you’ve seen the biggest room, but find yourself in a smaller, bigger room. Glorious. And the cathedral of Notre-Dame des Doms, with its 14th-century Gothic mausoleum of Pope John XXII, and the peaceful Jardin des Doms on a ridge overlooking the river and bridge: the perfect end to a week of wine, Romans and beautiful scenery.