I admit it: my husband I are hooked on river cruising. Once upon a time we thought it was fun to schlep our suitcases around by underground and walk for miles in search of unique destinations. Now we've discovered the joy of being met at the airport by a friendly face and having our suitcases taken to our room where we can unpack them for a whole week. A small floating hotel will take us to those unique destinations while we sit on deck and enjoy the scenery. And when we arrive, we can just walk off the boat and new delights are right at hand. We've discovered Viking River Cruises.
Take, for example, the point of embarkation for our most recent cruise: Avignon. The cruise was named "Portraits of Southern France" and Avignon was a perfect starting place. We arrived in the morning and our room was not yet ready, so we decided to go out and explore. This was easy to do because our boat was docked directly across from the old city walls and quite close to the famous bridge. After visiting the bridge (though not dancing on it), we headed for a small museum which was not on the official itinerary but which has an excellent collection of medieval and early Renaissance art. Then we returned to the boat for a nap and a general introduction. After dinner we were free to go ashore again, because we did not sail until midnight. We happened to be there during the theater festival so the whole city was bursting with activity, and we strolled happily past mimes and jugglers and dancers, a beautifully illuminated carousel, and a multitude of cafÃ©s doing a lively business. There was even a giant Ferris wheel set up across from our boat. What a wonderful welcome!
Southern France is very beautiful, truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. We had several half days when we were just cruising past vineyards and farms and villages. You could work on your tan or read a book in the shade and soak up the peace and tranquility. On one excursion in Burgundy we passed through ancient towns which looked little changed by the years. We saw dark forests and private chateaux and fields of sunflowers. I dream now of spending a vacation in a little cottage or B&B in Burgundy or Provence and getting to know the whole area better.
Then there are the wine and the food. We had several opportunities for wine tasting and enjoyed learning more about the different wine growing areas we passed through: Provence, the Rhone Valley, Beaujolais, and Burgundy. I even brought a bottle of crÃ¨me de cassis home in my suitcase.
Naturally the boat had a French chef and what joy she was. Every evening before dinner, Magalie would lovingly describe the food she had spent the day preparing for us, especially the desserts. In Lyon, a small number of guests were given the privilege of accompanying Magalie to the market while she did her shopping. Also in Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France (so they say, the Parisians would beg to differ), we were given the option of having dinner at one of the famous restaurants.
One of the things we love most about Viking is the mix of the well known and the not so well known that they provide. We saw the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, the cafÃ© in Arles made famous by Van Gogh, and the remains of the abbey at Cluny. But we also visited places that I never would have expected and certainly never would have found on my own.
In the town of Tain l'Hermitage we visited one of the wineries and tasted some of the wines. Then we stopped at the showroom of Valrhona chocolates. I had never heard of Valrhona, but now I know what my friends will be getting for Christmas! Our final stop, though, was a very special treat. The daughter of the painter Pierre Palue has purchased a lovely old house in which to display the paintings left to her when her father died. She welcomed us personally to this small museum and talked to us about her father and his work. We had never heard of this painter, but felt so honored to find out about him in this way.
Then there was the little town of Viviers. We visited it at night, starting off down a shadowy tree lined avenue. And then we climbed, all the way to the overlook and church at the top, up and up the narrow twisting cobblestone streets, under the glow of golden street lamps. We could hear a party behind closed doors and we met a few cats out hunting, but mostly it was quiet, as our wonderful guide shared her stories. She lives there, in the oldest part of the town; she pointed out her house to us and gave us a little glimpse of a private life in southern France.
All our guides were outstanding. Viking works with local guides who live in the places we visited, so they know more than the facts about the history and culture. They know the inside jokes and the local color. Several of them had come from other countries and married locals and stayed. Their enthusiasm for their adopted country was contagious.
We joke that we actually took two trips in one, the one Viking planned for us and the one we planned for ourselves. France included three important Roman provinces, so major Roman ruins abound. Of course, the very biggest ones were on the official agenda: the impressive amphitheater in Arles and the Temple of Augustus and Livia in Vienne. But we wanted more, and because of the way Viking arranges the schedule, we could have it all. At almost every destination there are both a guided tour and some free time. They always tell you that you can use that free time for shopping or to stop for some pastry with coffee or a glass of wine. What they don't tell you is that you can run off at the first opportunity and see Roman ruins.
The city of Arles has a wonderful antiquities museum and they even provide a free bus to go there, so that's where we spent our free afternoon. (I even found time to purchase a Provencal table cloth for our back porch.) In Vienne archaeologists have discovered a Roman suburb of villas and shopping districts. When we asked our guide if we would have time to go there, he looked at his watch and said, "If you hurry!" We hurried. We did not have time to visit what looked like another outstanding museum, but we did tour the well presented site. And finally, in Lyon, there is an amazing museum built into the hillside adjacent to a well preserved Roman theatre and smaller odeon. You can take a funicular up the very steep hill and visit both.
But our biggest do-it-yourself adventure was the Pont du Gard, the massive bridge-cum-aqueduct near Avignon. I was a bit shocked to discover that this was not included as even an optional tour. It is one of the outstanding Roman achievements in the area. But I do understand that it is not possible to include everything and Viking has very strict timetables they must follow because of the locks on the rivers. Nevertheless, we were not going to get that close and not see it, so we booked a taxi ahead of time to pick us up and wait for us there. It was absolutely worth every euro, even in the nearly 100 F. heat.
Our Roman ruin fixation, however, did mean that we were not able to participate in most of the optional tours, another Viking feature. Realizing that not all travelers want to be on the go all day, they provide some optional excursions. Among the ones we missed were the Chateauneuf du Pape vineyards, Lyon by night, and the villages of Les Baux and Saint Remy. And we missed out on a lot of pastry eating and coffee or wine drinking too. So I have told my husband that we should just do the same trip again. It would be more restful and we would get to enjoy more of Magalie's superb cooking. What more could anyone want?