Touring France with Viking River Cruises
Article & Photography by Michael Morcos & Natalie Ayotte
Viking River Cruises have taken all the guess work and hassles out of cruising and they create a comfortable, new way of travelling for many North Americans, and it is a truly perfect way to travel. From the pick-up at the airport to destination debarkation, the trip is seamless.
We enjoyed the first leg of our trip and after two wonderful days of visiting Lyon, we continued sailing along the mighty Rhone and enjoyed a short trip to Macon and then southwards towards Provence and the beautiful Mediterranean region. This would bring us to Vienne, Tournon & Viviers, Arles and finally Avignon!
Set in the beautiful Burgundy region, Macon is surrounded by chestnut forests and pine trees, with rolling Beaujolais vineyards, renowned for its fruity red wines and its soil, ideal to grow the Gamay grapes, which produces the lighter, fruitier wine found in Beaujolais. There are many breathtaking views, and the Viking tour visits many wonderful locales. The renowned Chateau des Ravatys was one such location, and there we got to see some spectacular wine cellars and got a few wine tasting lessons with the chateau’s famous burgundy wines.
Sadly, there were days where we had to choose between multiple options. On this occasion, it was a choice between the Abbey of Cluny, known for its magnificent medieval abbey ruin, and a Truffle and Goat cheese Farm. We chose the latter tour as we are fans of all such irresistible French Delicacies!
Our knowledgeable guide explained how France has become a major exporter of Goat cheese while we enjoyed the scenery driving to the farm. Once there, it was a pleasure to taste some of the prized cheese from a local farm. We then headed to a nearby truffle orchard for some amazing treats and were personally greeted by the current proprietor of this century-old family-owned property. The experience was topped off when our host took us through his prized truffle orchard!
In Vienne, the Viking guides took us to admire Roman Architecture. About 32 km south of Lyon, Vienne was a major center of the Roman Empire, dating back to 47 BC under Julius Caesar. Still standing are the old Roman city’s ramparts, the magnificent Roman Imperial Temple of Augustus and Livia, remarkably preserved from the 1st century, and the Plan de l’Aiguille (Pyramide), a truncated pyramid resting on a portico with four arches. Finally, our tour wound up with a lovely ride on a train up a steep hill to enjoy a view of Mount Pipet and the beautiful Chapelle of Notre Dame de la Salette.
Tournon is tranquil and peaceful, but is also known as the Tain l’hermitage wine-producing region, famous for port-like wine and stellar whites, and history explains that it became famous when a Hermit started planting vines in the region after returning from the Crusades. After breakfast, our tour rode the train de l’Ardèche, a meter-gauge steam train and engine whose route leads into the Verdant Doux Valley for the most beautiful panoramic views.
After a wonderful supper, we found ourselves in the quaintest setting of the town of Viviers. Founded in the 5th century, this little mountain town will charm you with cobble stone streets, and middle-ages homes. As we walked up the hill towards the 12th century St-Vincent Cathedral, we were thrilled with the view it offers. If you are lucky, you will enjoy the last vestiges of the sun setting in the mountains while the city below is illuminated by its nighttime lights. The night brought its own magic as we set out on our own and absorbed the quiet of this lovely historic town.
Arles is known as the «little Rome of Gaul» and is blessed with a Mediterranean climate. There are many things to see, including an ancient 1st century antique theater and an amphitheater that seated 20,000 people, still used today for bullfights and plays. Arles is also recognised through famous paintings by the impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. While touring the city with our guide, we walked the Rue de la République where Van Gogh was known to have stayed in a local hospital at the time and has now been replaced by a cultural center. We saw the square and café that inspired the painter and shopped in little stores with the Provence-ial flair of olive oils and lavender!
As before, we had to choose from 2 optional tours. There was a visit to «Les baux & Carrières de Lumières», a breathtaking art show set in a charming hilltop village, or visit the unspoiled Camargue. We opted for an afternoon in France’s protected Rhône River Delta Region, the Camargue. Home to a huge array of birds, including pink flamingos, it is also known for its wild horses and is one of Europe’s most carefully preserved natural parks. We enjoyed a ride in a tractor drawn carriage through a cattle filed then enjoyed a delicious lunch before heading back to our ship.
Our next adventure on this journey brought us to Avignon, an incredible city surrounded by churches, medieval buildings and of course, its famous “Pont D’Avignon” built in 1177. Avignon is a charming city, and was the base for the Catholic Church for 70 years, evidenced on our tour by our visit to the massive church-fortress Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes). You can’t help but feel the magnitude and the influence the Catholic Church had in those times, and the riches in the Pope’s private rooms are a sight to behold. After lunch, we continued visiting Avignon that afternoon.
The final Viking offer for their passengers is one of 3 optional tours in this region. The first one is a « Taste of Provence », where you will spend the afternoon indulging in tasting and learning to prepare French specialties with local produce. The second choice is a visit of the «Pont du Gard Aqueduct», a majestic three-tiered structure built without mortar by Romans 2,000 years ago. And finally as a last choice, the one that we selected, was a wine tasting tour in the famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape region. This tour began at the Maison Bouachon for some wine lessons and some exquisite Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine tasting. Our host gently guided us to see, smell and taste the gentle fruits of three different wines, a once in a lifetime experience. Next stop was the city of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, where only wineries of this region are allowed to have a crown label (Popes label) on their bottles. We were hypnotised by the hills and vineyards along the Rhone Valley. Unique to the region, the vineyards grow in an arid climate, quite windy, and the vines are covered by natural stones to keep them cooler during daytime and warmer at night.
We highly recommend these marvellous Viking river cruises!
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