By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, European Destination and River Cruise Expert www.dreamdestinations.com
Imagine sailing on the Rhône River through the legendary wine growing regions of Provence, getting the chance to sample Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône! So let’s sail together on the Rhône from Arles to Lyon on the AMADagio—a cruise we have done twice and will sail again this April (2016)—it is that good!
While this description is from Arles to Lyon, you should realize that one week starts in Arles and the next week starts in Lyon and the sights and experiences remain almost identical regards of whether you sail north to Lyon or south to Arles.
Your First Day of the Cruise
Your wonderful cruise starts in Arles. First up is a visit by motor coach to the hilltop village of Les Baux de Provence. The town was founded by King Balthazar, one of the 3 wise men of the Bible. The village’s castle has a fascinating exhibit of medieval siege weaponry replicas. These big war machines are cool—it is said to be one of the best collections in the world—you will be surprised how large these weapons are! Les Baux has had a stormy past and because of an unsuccessful Protestant revolt, the castles and its wall were destroyed in 1632, but the ruins and views are magnificent! Great, old village—well worth the trip. Want to see more—we have 32 pictures on our Pinterest site board Les Baux de France.
Later, visit an olive farm, which is family run by a brother and sister, to learn about this age-old Provençal farming tradition. The tour includes tastings of olive oils made at the farm. Anne bought some olive oil here and really like the tour and olive farm. As an alternative, take the “Impressionist Experience” tour to the Saint Paul de Mausole Asylum, where Vincent Van Gogh painted such well-known works as The Irises and Starry Night. You will also visit the Carrieres de Lumieres, a stone quarry that projects European artwork on its walls, including many of Van Gogh’s famous paintings.
In the afternoon, there is a walking city tour of Arles. You will see the Romanesque cathedral and the Roman Amphitheater. The Roman Amphitheater is well preserved (it could hold about 25,000) and there are other Roman ruins in the town.
Early in the evening, we cruised to Avignon, arriving late at night. We docked near a famous bridge that spans only half of the Rhone—it is the illuminated Avignon Bridge made famous by the French children’s song “Sur le pont d’Avignon” (“On the Bridge of Avignon”).
After docking overnight in Avignon, you have 2 great tour options. First, you can tour the Papal Palace, which is part of a city walking tour. The tour starts off by entering the town through the well-preserved medieval walls surrounding the historic center of town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Seven popes once resided in the magnificent Gothic Papal Palace. My favorite room was the huge banquet hall, where at one end is the fireplace used to communicate to the people outside a new Pope had been elected. Again, to see more about this interesting palace, we have 30 photos on the Pinterest site.
Another cool alternative, is a motor coach ride to the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct that is a masterpiece of engineering and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking on the aqueduct was an experience I will never forget–it is huge and up close, you will really understand how talented the Romans were at building things—how did they get the water to flow with gravity alone by such minute changes in slope?. Your tour will also visit Uzes, a lovely Provencal town known for its castle (still occupied by the Duke of Uzes and his family), medieval streets and picturesque town square. There is free time for shopping in Uzes before returning to the ship.—I was there on market day and this is always a fun way to see how and what Europeans shop for, especially the food stalls.. I have done both tours and really enjoyed them—this is one of the many highlights of this cruise.
Although there are really good tours, Avignon also has some great shopping and Anne took advantage of this to buys some gifts for family back home. One of the great things about a river cruise is the chance to do what you want, since you dock right in the heart of the cities and can go off on your own easily since AMAWaterways provides port maps of each docking location with key sights clearly marked.
After sailing overnight to Viviers, you next adventure is a visit to Grignan, a magnificent hilltop village surrounded by lavender fields. The village’s Renaissance castle provides a commanding view of the area’s beautiful countryside. We enjoyed the free time to explore local shops for confections, home-made lavender soaps and other crafts—Anne bought a snappy beret. You also get to see a truffle dog in action—really cool! That dog really got after those truffles and he was a true favorite of our group.
The ship sails to Tournon and there is a really good chocolate and red wine pairing in Tournon’s castle—we had 3 different chocolate candies paired with 3 different reds. I thought they were all good and went well together. Next morning, there is a visit to Cornas, Tournon’s “twin” town located across the Rhône River and linked by a 19th-century suspension bridge. The fertile soil and ideal climate of the region has made Cornas the premier producer of Côtes du Rhône wines. We stopped at a vineyard, and then the best part was sampling some good local wines. After lunch, the ship sails to Vienne, situated between the wine regions of Burgundy and Beaujolais, arriving early evening. The ship moors overnight in Vienne.
Next morning, I took a guided walking tour of Vienne (it starts with an open-air tourist train ride up a big hill for a good view of the Rhône) and then our group see the 1st-century Roman Temple of Augustus and Livia, the ruins of a Roman theater, and the medieval churches of St. Andre-Le-Bas and Abbey St. Pierre. For me, the best part was the Roman museum—there is a good collection of items used in this former Roman colony. As an alternative, you could choose to visit the Chateau Roussillion and Pottery but I have never been on this tour.
It is then off to Lyon. Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France. There is a visit by bus to the historic section of town known as Vieux Lyon (“Old Lyon”). Lyon is fun, we really enjoyed the old town area and its narrow streets and colorful bouchons (small bistros) with their trademark red and white checkered table cloths. Sometimes this cruise offers a choice of tours. You can visit Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse market place and sample gourmet food & wine in around 70 stalls (highly recommended by us—another great tour we enjoyed very much). On a wine cruise, we also got the chance to have a champagne tasting—it was awesome!
Another option is a sailing on the Saône. The ship departs after noon and cruises to Collonges for an excursion through the Beaujolais wine region, the Pays d’Or (“land of the golden stones,” named for the ochre limestone used to build local homes and castles). It stops at the medieval hilltop village of Oingt and the home of a local vintner, where, of course, you will get to enjoy a wine tasting and vineyard tour, and learn about the history of wine production in the region. Rejoin the ship in Belleville and return to Lyon, arriving late tonight. You will stay overnight in Lyon.
Sadly, the cruise is over the next morning but what a wonderful experience that will make memories of a lifetime. As with all river cruises, the option for pre-cruise or post cruise stays either offered by AMAWaterways or arranged by us is a great way to extend your vacation a few more days. We always extend on our trips—Lyon is a particular favorite and you could visit Nice or other French towns—we are happy to help with suggestions and to make arrangements as necessary.
My Final Thoughts
This is a trip that should be on everyone’s bucket list, in my opinion. Please let us know if there is anything we can do to help you to start this or any other river cruise trip.
We have a wealth of free information about all Europe river cruises and really useful river cruise tips on our website www.dreamdestinations.com, so check us out—you will be glad you did.
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