It's not the longest or the widest, but of all the rivers coursing through France, the Rhone is a marquee star, one of only three major European rivers emptying into the Mediterranean. Since the time of the Greeks and Romans, the Rhone has served as a route for trade and transportation between the Mediterranean and the French city of Lyon. Those early traders left their marks along the river, at ports like Arles, Avignon and Vienne, where ancient theaters and temples stand proudly.
The Rhone has always been a fierce waterway. Originating in the Swiss Alps, the torrent becomes navigable by larger vessels once it reaches Lyon, but still the river's strong current made the journey from the sea a rugged, demanding one. Following World War II, 12 locks were constructed to elevate vessels 200 miles upriver from the Mediterranean to Lyon, 485 feet above sea level.
Fortunately, those locks also serve as gateways, allowing us to enjoy the French countryside from the inside out, with stops along the way to take in the history and culture, the food and wine. Here's a port-by-port guide to the classic Rhone River cruise through Provence and the rest of France.
France's third-largest city was founded by the Romans in the first century B.C. The old city, Vieux Lyon, is UNESCO World Heritage site listed for its medieval and Renaissance houses and architecture, including some 300 "traboules," odd little public passageways through private property. Lyon is also renowned for its gastronomic cuisine, and just north lies the wine region of Beaujolais, which Viking's included tour visits.
Don't miss: The original center of Lyon was Lugdunum, built on the slopes of Fourviere, a hill descending into the city. You can wander up footpaths from Vieux Lyon or opt for the funicular ride that departs from just above the Vieux Lyon metro station. At the summit is the Grand Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere, built in the late 19th century and commanding a superb viewpoint overlooking the city and its rivers. Inside are exquisite mosaics, and up above, 90-minute rooftop tours allow you to have Lyon at your feet. The tours are conducted Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays for most of the year, and daily in summer (fourviere.org). If you wend your way back to the city on foot, take a right on Montee Saint-Barthelemy and you'll pass by the old Roman theater built around 15 B.C. to serve an audience of up to 10,000.
Independent meanderings: While it's not the Louvre, the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon contains one of France's best art hordes outside Paris. The permanent collection ranges from a trove of Egyptian antiquities to contemporary artworks, with paintings by Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir and Tintoretto represented. An English-language audio guide is available, and recommended; closed Tuesday. At the tip of Presqu'ile is the Musee des Confluences, worth discovering both for its striking, modern architecture of metal and glass as well as its collection focused on science and natural history. Four permanent exhibitions -- Origins, Species, Societies and Eternities -- and excellent temporary shows are offered. Don't miss the rooftop terrace with its sweeping panorama of Lyon, with the Alps and Mont Blanc as a backdrop.
Active pursuits: Lyon is defined by two fabled rivers, the Rhone and the Saone, and Lyon Canoe provides guided canoe and kayak trips down the latter, which hugs the old city. Choose from a 5- or 7.5-mile route, or try a stand-up paddle-board cruise down the Rhone. Suitable for beginners, the guided tours end at La Confluence, the tip of the peninsula where the Rhone and Saone meet.
Insider tips: Bouchons, small bistros typically started by women cooks (known as the mothers of Lyon) are synonymous with Lyon and found nowhere else in France. In Vieux Lyon try Aux Trois Maries, one of the oldest. You'll find traditional Lyonnaise cuisine based on seasonal produce and dishes such as chicken flambe in cognac, pike quenelles or pork sausage sauteed with pistachios, served in an unpretentious setting with tables facing the lively square. The restaurant is at 1 rue Trois Maries in the St-Jean district.
Even before the Romans founded Lyon, in 47 B.C. Julius Caesar transformed Vienne into a strategic outpost of the Roman Empire. Monuments of the era are still extant in the city today, including a 13,000-seat theater dating to the fourth century, home to an annual jazz festival in July. On a hill overlooking town sits the ruins of a medieval castle. On Saturday mornings, the town center blossoms with parasols sheltering the second-biggest market in France, with more than 350 stalls extending 3 miles in length.
Don't miss: What a great surprise to encounter the Temple of Augustus and Livia. Rising from the heart of town, the monument is one of the best preserved Roman temples outside Italy, in large part, because it was converted to a church in the fifth century. In the 19th century, it was restored and converted into a library. Several cafes face the monument, inviting visitors to appreciate the grace and symmetry of this 2,000-year-old temple in a relaxed setting.
Independent meanderings: If Viking's walking tours are too ambitious, the tourist office next to the port sells tickets for the Vienne City Tram, offering one-hour tours every hour on the hour.
Active pursuits: Viking provides walking tours at three different speeds, with the fastest attaining the top of Mount Pipet, revealing a great view of Vienne and the Rhone River Valley. A small church, the Belvedere de Pipet, is adjacent to the viewpoint. You can strike out on your own using the walking itinerary developed by the local tourist office, which hits all of the major sites in a two-hour circuit (plus stops). Be sure to stop by the Roman theater, built in the first century A.D. and snuggled into the base of Mount Pipet. Also warranting a look is St. Maurice Cathedral, a medieval Roman Catholic church where Archbishop Guy of Burgundy was crowned pope in 1119. On the edge of town, about a half-mile downriver from the port, lies the Pyramid, a stone obelisk that marks where the old Roman circus (chariot racetrack) was located.
Insider tips: The Rhone River Valley immediately south of Vienne is particularly fertile ground for fine wines. Just downriver you'll find several villages famed for the appellation (AOC) Cote Rotie, an elegant red wine made predominantly from syrah grapes. Seven miles south of Vienne is the town of Condrieu, an AOC dedicated to white wines made from viognier grapes. Both are within a 15-minute drive out of Vienne, and vineyards commonly offer a degustation (tasting).
Two small communities flank the Rhone here, connected by a footbridge replicating the original 1825 crossing, the first suspension bridge constructed in Europe. On the left (east) bank is Tain-l'Hermitage, home to a number of celebrated wineries and Valrhona's Chocolate City. On the right is Tournon-sur-Rhone, a village dominated by an imposing castle against the banks of the river.
Don't miss: The vintage Train de l'Ardeche is a treat, a train line that opened in 1891 to connect the Rhone Valley with the Loire Valley. Until 1968 the trains carried agriculture, mail and passengers before eventually shutting down as a commercial operation. Revived by rail enthusiasts as a tourist venture, the train travels the beautiful Doux Gorges, utilizing authentic steam engines with articulated frames that allow for the line's tight turns. Onboard, other than a communication system for guides, you'll find no electronics. The measuring instruments and pressure control are original, and the coal is still shoveled into the furnace by hand, all adding to the authenticity of this historic transport. The station for the train is located 3 miles outside town, but the transfer and train trip is one of the included excursions on Viking's Rhone cruises.
Independent meanderings: Chocoholics will delight in the Cite du Chocolat, a museum dedicated to the history and production of the beloved cacao seed. Premium chocolatier Valrhona has been making the confection in Tain-l'Hermitage since 1922 and converted its original factory into a museum with a mouth-watering tour (don't worry: tastings are included). The factory is across the river and 1 mile from the cruise dock in Tournon-sur-Rhone, and the self-service cafe features entrees subtly infused with chocolate.
Active pursuits: The cobblestone streets of Tournon-sur-Rhone invite a casual ramble. It's a short walk to the Garden of Eden, former grounds of a monastery dating to 1654, now home to ponds, bridges, footpaths and boxwoods -- a great hideout on a hot day. The gardens are located just a few minutes' walk from the town center.
Insider tips: Tournon-sur-Rhone is known for several agricultural products including sausage and picodon, a very mature goat cheese. Chestnut cream, sold in metal tubes, make for great gifts to take home -- look for La Creme de Marrons.
Tarascon and Arles
Although he only spent 15 months here, Van Gogh's stay in Arles represented one of the artist's most prolific periods -- he created some 200 paintings, plus drawings and watercolors in 1888–1889. But, the city also contains some of the most important Roman ruins in France, and as the gateway between the Rhone River Valley and the Mediterranean, it maintains much of its Provencal aura. Viking's Longships dock in Tarascon, a smaller town 12 miles upriver from Arles. If your visit takes place in early August, the drive to Arles will treat you to fields of sunflowers at the peak of bloom. And, if coming on a Wednesday or Saturday morning, be sure to check out the traditional Provencal market in Arles.
Don't miss: The Arena in Arles is smaller than Rome's Colosseum, but more intact and a stirring reminder of the sprawl of the Roman empire at its peak. Built in A.D. 90, just a decade after the Colosseum, the arena could seat more than 20,000 spectators for gladiator games. But, during the Dark Ages, the entire town of Arles was moved inside to guard against the bubonic plague. The arena is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with other Arles monuments including the Baths of Constantine, the theater and forum.
Independent meanderings: Although none of the artist's works are in a permanent collection in Arles, the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation regularly shows his work as part of larger exhibitions. The architecture of the museum, adapted from a 15th-century townhouse, is stirring and includes an entrance gate by Bertrand Lavier and a glass piece above the bookshop by Raphael Hefti; the lovely terrace offers a view of the city, the Rhone River and Montmajour Abbey. The tourism office offers a guide and itinerary to the sites around Arles where Van Gogh set up his easel.
Active pursuits: A short walk from the dock in Tarascon is an imposing castle that rises abruptly from the banks of the river. Completed in 1411 by Louis II, Tarascon Castle was built to reinforce the Provence border, though by the 17th century the sentinel served mainly as a prison. Allow an hour to explore this rugged outpost.
Insider tips: The optional Viking tour to Les Baux and the Carrieres de Lumieres is a tantalizing two-fer. Les Baux-de-Provence is a tiny village sitting atop a spectacular rock outcrop, located 10 miles east of Arles. The village is crowded with day visitors in summer but car-free and intoxicating for an hour or two. Nearby, the Carrieres de Lumieres is an immersive sound and light show conducted inside former limestone quarries, on 50-foot-high walls. The theme of the one-hour show is different each year -- past editions have featured the works of Gaugin and the Renaissance; the current edition is Van Gogh.
The "City of Popes" was home to seven pontiffs during the 14th century, a tumultuous period for the Catholic Church. During that time, before there was a Vatican, a Gothic palace of the popes was built in Avignon. Today, this UNESCO World Heritage site is surrounded by a medieval wall which shelters a surprisingly inviting city.
Don't miss: The largest Gothic palace built, the Palais des Papes is the focus of Viking's included tour, and it is well worth a visit -- even though, when the seat moved back to Rome, the church took every book, every rug and every piece of silverware with them! Yes, the palace is almost bare today. But, the imposing, immense chambers speak to the power of the church during the medieval era, and you'll get a glimpse of the naturalistic, secular frescos in private apartments where popes lived, an anomaly for the period.
Independent meanderings: Several museums are worth exploring, including the Musee Angladon showcasing Italian and Provencal paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries. In addition to works by Picasso, Degas and Cezanne, "Railway Carriages," the only Van Gogh in Provence, can be seen here. The Musee Louis Vouland is a decorative arts museum that features furnishings, tapestries and a horde of porcelain from the 17th and 18th centuries, along with themed exhibitions.
Active pursuits: Provence is made for cycling, and although places like Mont Ventoux demand Tour de France-worthy thighs, much of the area around Avignon offers gentler riding. South Spirit Bike offers guided two- and three-hour tours of Avignon or to the nearby village of Villeneuve, or you can rent road bikes, mountain bikes or e-bikes by the half-day or longer, for trips to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Taval or the Frigolet Forest, about 30 miles round trip.
Insider tips: Located just a stone's throw from the Palais des Papes, the Restaurant Christiane Etienne is housed in a building that's at least a century older than the pope's place, oozing with a history of chamberlains and queens. Today, it's a Michelin-starred gastronomic splurge, and although dinner will set you back about 100 euros (around $110 per person, plus drinks, the three-course lunch, perhaps on the cool terrace following a tour of the palace, is a worthy fine-dining experience for 38 euros (around $40). Book your reservation before leaving home.
*A native of San Diego, David Swanson has sailed on all of the big-ship cruise lines, but most enjoys the undiscovered ports and offbeat journeys of smaller cruise vessels. His writing and photography has been featured in the pages of National Geographic Traveler, American Way and the Los Angeles Times for more than 20 years, and he has served on the board of directors for the Society of American Travel Writers since 2009.
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