Rhone River Cruise Port Highlights

View of Lyon city from Fourviere, France

For bon viveurs, a Rhone sailing is quite simply a trip to heaven and back. This river provides a magnificent introduction to all that is great about la vie Francais, from the fine wines of Beaune, Macon and Chateauneuf-du-Pape to the spicy mustards of Dijon and the fabulous maritime cuisine of southern France. Here's what to expect in its ports.

Avignon: The glorious City of the Popes -- the medieval heart of Christendom -- is as important a call on the Rhone as Lyon. Must-dos in Avignon include a stroll around the city's medieval ramparts and a tour of the multiple galleries, chapels and chambers of the magnificent Papal Palace. (There's an excellent multilingual audio presentation to go along with your tour.)

A visit to the 12th-century Pont St. Benezet (which inspired the charming French nursery song Sur le Pont d'Avignon) is another highlight, and Avignon itself is worth exploring for its quaint cobbled alleys, offbeat shops and stately squares.

For repeat visitors (or those who prefer the Great Outdoors to history trails), alternative tours offered from there include kayaking expeditions along the nearby Gardon River.

If you have the time, don't miss a visit to nearby Chateauneuf-du-Pape, home to the world-famous wine which has been cultivated there since Pope Clement V, former Archbishop of Bordeaux, relocated the papacy to the city of Avignon in 1308 and decided to develop viticulture in the surrounding region.

Viviers: The 5th-century walled town of Viviers -- gateway to the picturesque Ardeche Gorge -- is a popular call en route to Avignon or on excursions out of Lyon. Carved through rock over millennia by fast-running river water, the spectacular gorge is a limestone canyon spanned by the Pont d'Arc, a natural stone bridge that offers thrilling views.

Viviers itself is equally worth seeing. Its narrow lanes are lined with medieval stone houses, and sights include the imposing Renaissance Maison des Chevaliers (House of Knights) and the 12th-century Cathedral of St. Vincent.

Arles: Often the next port call after Avignon -- and gateway to France's spectacular Camargue region -- the pretty town of Arles is famed for its Roman heritage, but even more so as the place which most inspired Vincent van Gogh. Enchanted by the magical light of Provence, van Gogh produced more than 300 paintings during his 15-month stay there (including the famous "Sunflowers" and "Starry Night"). More than 180 of them featured Arles itself.

A walking tour around Van Gogh's haunts is the obvious highlight, and it also takes in the Roman Amphitheatre and Baths of Constantine, which were built in the 4th century AD for the emperor's personal use.

If you've done that, another option is a tour to nearby Tarascon, a charming Provencal town that is home to a fabrics museum, a well-preserved Renaissance palace and a fine medieval church.

Macon: This picturesque Burgundy wine town is a popular call with gourmets and lovers of fine scenery, as it lies in verdant countryside that's rich in vineyards and spectacularly turreted fairytale chateaux.

Main excursions from Macon include visits to local vineyards and to a Burgundy wine museum to sample local vintages. Other excursion options include a visit to the famous Hospices de Beaune; since the 15th century, the monks there have funded their charitable works by making fine wine for auction.

Also worth visiting is Cluny Abbey, a now-ruined Benedictine monastery that was the largest in the world in medieval times.

Chalon-sur-Saone: Chalon-sur-Saone is gateway, via the Burgundy wine route, to the historic wine capital of Beaune -- home to the well-preserved Hotel-Dieu, a 15th-century almshouse. Other excursions include visits to the medieval villages of Brancion and Cormatin, with access to the lovely landscaped gardens of the Chateau de Cormatin.