Explaining the difference between ocean and river cruising, the respected author Douglas Ward commented that with ocean cruising the ship is the destination, with river cruising the destination is the destination.
The destinations of the Rhône and Saône rivers in southern France provide an ideal cruise location for those looking to enjoy historic buildings, vineyards, lovely scenery and a relaxing atmosphere and I was keen to check them out.
After a short afternoon flight from London to Marseille, a coach transfer took me to Avignon where I boarded Riviera Travel’s M/S William Shakespeare in time to unpack and enjoy dinner. My compact cabin was well equipped and included tea and coffee making facilities, even though there is a 24-hour tea and coffee station in the nearby lounge which also offered light lunches. The dining room was on the deck below.
Before leaving Avignon, we were treated to a guided tour. Much of the old city wall remains and I had a ring-side view from my cabin. The Popes Palace, one of the largest medieval gothic buildings in Europe, is in its centre. The grand exterior is better than the interior which is almost bare with just a few visible wall paintings.
However, the best-known structure is the Pont d’Avignon, a stone bridge built in 1234. Regular flooding washed away a number of arches so that today less than half of it remains. The bridge is the inspiration for the traditional 15th century French song Sur le Pont D’Avignon.
The following morning found us in Arles. There is a well-preserved Roman amphitheatre which stages concerts and more controversially, bullfights. It was here in December 1888 that Van Gogh famously cut off his left ear and allegedly sent it to a local prostitute. He painted two self-portraits after the event, but these showed a bandaged right ear. Puzzled experts finally realised that the reason for this discrepancy was that he was looking in a mirror.
Arles was also the starting point for a trip to the Pont du Gard, part of a two-thousand-year-old aqueduct built to take water from a spring near Uzes to the Roman settlement in Nimes. Although only twelve miles separates the two, the nature of the terrain meant that the aqueduct stretched for 31 miles with a barely noticeable drop of 1:3,000. How on earth did the Romans do that?
A coach tour of the Ardeche Gorges, France’s answer to the Grand Canyon, were a highlight of the next day and the following morning I arrived in Vienne. A walk around town was followed by a train ride to Mont Pipet Hill from where there were excellent views of the town, countryside and winding river.
Sailing through Lyon in the evening was a memorable experience as we joined the river Saône heading north to Chalon-sur-Saône. It’s a delightful town, stylish and full of characterful buildings and lovely shops. It is also here in 1822 that Nicéphore Niépce invented what we now know as photography.
Then it was back to Lyon, a large modern city at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône, dominated by Notre Dame de Fourviere on a hill overlooking the centre. Another claim to fame is the Place Bellecour, a large open central space and the third biggest square in France.
In complete contrast to the historic buildings we had seen so far, that evening the ship moved to Quai Rambaud. A new development, it consisted of a few small stylish apartment blocks in different colours overlooking a river inlet. Shops, bars and restaurants completed the attractive develop whilst a lovely riverside walk revealed more unique accommodation and boats moored along the bank, a number of which appeared to be boutique restaurants. Lyon is generally recognised as the gastronomic capital of France, so eating out is a national pass-time.
Back on board, a celebratory dinner rounded off the day and the cruise. The next morning I headed off to the airport and my flight home.
Tel: +44 (0) 01283 523431
Ship: M/S William Shakespeare
Number of Facilities On Board: Two restaurants, fitness room, massage, hairdresser, tea & coffee station
Passengers: 140 and 35 crew
Price Band: Medium
Insider Tip: Riviera offers flights from a number of UK regional airports but check transfer times to the ship. Passengers who prefer not to fly can travel to and from the ship by train. Cruises can also be extended with pre and post cruise hotel stays.
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10
Factfile: Riviera Travel offers a Burgundy, the River Rhône and Provence River Cruise with prices from £1,929 per person based on two sharing a middle deck cabin. That includes return flights and transfers, full board, excursions, Wi-Fi and Cruise Director and Concierge throughout.
Mike Pickup is an award-winning travel journalist and photographer who writes for UK national newspapers and magazines as well as travel trade titles.
Photographs by Mike Pickup