By Ted Scull.
River cruising has developed into a delightful way to travel Europe’s waterways, and for jolly good reasons. The riverboat serves as your hotel and restaurant while cruising through some of the Old World’s finest scenic river valleys and tying up adjacent to great cathedral cities, winsome small towns and UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
While the following feature was taken aboard a riverboat no longer in operation it nonetheless serves as a fine example of what cruising French rivers might be like.
Embarkation began at Lyon, easy to reach by air and by TGV trains to both Lyon Part Dieu and Lyon Perrache stations. I connected to the ship from London’s Waterloo Station, taking Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel to Lille and transferring to the French TGV for Lyon — a comfortable, fast five-hour journey with speeds up to 168 miles per hour on ribbon-smooth tracks. From Part Dieu railway station, it is a 10-minute taxi ride, (while Perrache station is just a five-minute walk for those traveling with a rolling suitcase), to the riverboat moored at Quai Claude Bernard. From the airport, a dedicated bus service departs every 20 minutes for Perrache station. Some cruise lines provide transfers to and from the airport and railway stations.
Heavy spring rains and high water on the Saone caused our itinerary to be reversed, with the first part of the cruise heading south along the Rhone towards the Mediterranean, and the second half would be north along the Saone when the water level was expected to drop. Everything was swiftly rearranged, and a new itinerary and shore-excursion program printed before we left Lyon. While we had the tour program well in advance, we, like most passengers, made our final choices following the first evening’s orientation.
The central part of Lyon, often considered the gastronomic capital of France, is flanked by both the Rhone and Saone creating an almost island city fringed with waterfront promenades. Nearly everything of interest is within walking distance of the quay, including Vieux (Old) Lyon districts with 16th-century Gothic and Renaissance houses and covered walkways and Notre Dame de Fourviere Basilica reached via funicular.
Sailing from Lyon
Departing Lyon, we sailed overnight south through the Rhone Valley to Viviers, a small fortified town well marked by a cathedral perched high on a promontory with the medieval residential district cascading downward to the river. We chose to visit on our own and climbed the steeply sloped streets to the cathedral where a Sunday family service was in full swing. We then enjoyed a walk along the ramparts with views over the surrounding countryside.
The boat docked at the city of Arles, and the first excursion went out to the Camargue, a wilderness nature reserve spread across the Rhone Delta and known for its roaming herds of white horses and black bulls. The friendly, gentle horses that we walked up to are born brown and gradually change to white over five years. The not-quite-so-approachable bulls arrived in France along with refugees from the Spanish Civil War. We also spotted white ibis and blue herons, plus hundreds of pink flamingos sitting on brackish lakes and then swooping up into the sky.
Returning to Arles, we took a city walk to the first-century Roman amphitheater, the Romanesque cathedral, and sites connected with French impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, including the famous café depicted in one of his paintings. We lingered there with a glass of Pernod.
Avignon presented a dazzling sight during an after dinner arrival. The great walled city was bathed in spotlights as our boat tied up adjacent to a welcoming open gate. Built upon an existing Roman town, Avignon was the papal seat in the 14th-century, and the Papal Palace, with construction beginning in the 1330s, remains the largest Gothic building in the world (and where some 10,000 people once worked). From the terraces, there are stunning views down to the remains of the Pont d’Avignon (famous in song), the Rhone, Fort of St. André and distant mountains. The city streets and lanes are alive with cafés and shops and the great produce market pavilion at Les Halles displays all manner of fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, and fresh Mediterranean fish.
Our guide was an ex-patriot from England who married the Frenchman who came to fix her refrigerator. That afternoon we visited the stunningly symmetrical Pont du Gard, built by the Roman commander Agrippa in 19 B.C. as an aqueduct to provide water for the nearby city of Nimes.
Cruising back north and into the Saone Valley above Lyon, the Beaujolais region was a scenic delight. Much of the hilly countryside was covered in vines while clusters of stone houses gleamed with a golden hue. We stopped at the fortified town of Oignt, dating from the Middle Ages, to visit the 13th-century keep, fringed by tall stands of purple iris. Wine-tasting took place at Callandras, a family-owned vineyard, prior to our return to the boat at Macon. Here we learned that one bottle of wine in 250, consumed worldwide, comes from Beaujolais.
At Tournus, we toured the Romanesque former abbey church of Saint-Philibert, resembling a forbidding fortress on the outside but with charming inner cloisters, and a church interior featuring striped columns reminiscent of Spain.13th-century mosaics, and beautiful stained glass windows dating from 1960s, replaced those blown out during WWII bombings.
For some, the most important visit came with a drive through Burgundy to the abbey at Cluny, which by the 14th-century was the largest church in the world. At its height, it ruled over 10,000 monks resident in 1,450 abbeys. Cluny’s story may be more interesting than what actually remains to be seen, as much of the religious complex was largely destroyed during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era.
On the final evening, we sailed back into Lyon, a beautifully lighted sight, taking in an on-deck commentary as our boat threaded along the Saone to then make an 180-degree turn up the Rhone to tie up at Quai Claude Bernard where we had embarked a week ago. The next morning, I boarded a double decker TGV for Lille and a Eurostar connection to London, within minutes traveling at nearly 15 times the speed of the riverboat.