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Aigues Mortes and the pink salt flats of the Camargue (Photo: Rebecca Toy)

9 Wonders You Wouldn't Expect to See Cruising the Rhône

Aigues Mortes and the pink salt flats of the Camargue (Photo: Rebecca Toy)
Cruise Critic contributor
Rebecca Toy

Aug 31, 2023

Read time
6 min read

Sponsored by Viking

Provence is known for culinary delights. Yet beyond the region's famous food scene, there are wild wonders, ancient ruins, and captivating but less visited landscapes. Ancient Rome left its mark all along this river with enduring architecture and engineering. Protected salt marshes, untouched forests, canyonlands, and windswept citadels bring a wilder side to France. And preserved villages capture life in France before it was a country.

Viking’s river voyages create opportunities for curious travelers, and the line is ready to take you to both the iconic and the unexpected destinations beyond the standard river cruising itinerary.

On the eight-day Lyon & Provence itinerary from Lyon to Avignon, Viking offers excursions to these surprising sites with knowledgeable local guides to enrich the exploration. Get ready to experience why empires and kingdoms have desired Southern France for thousands of years.

On This Page

1. From Lyon to Avignon, See the Roman Empire Ruins Along the Rhône

Roman ruins in Vienne France (Photo: Rebecca Toy)

Rome is the go-to destination when you think of ancient amphitheaters, colosseums and temples. Yet southern France has one of the largest concentration of well-preserved ruins outside of Italy scattered along the Rhône. The Roman Empire used the river to spread commerce and culture and half-day tours in Lyon, Vienne, and Arles take Viking's guests to the lasting remnants of Rome.

Roman temple in Vienne (Photo: Rebecca Toy)

The Trek Vieux Lyon visits a 1st-century Roman theater and museum as one of its stops. In Vienne, Viking’s complimentary half-day tour explores the Temple of Augustus & Livia and an amphitheater built into the hill that still hosts a renowned music festival in the summer. The Garden of Cybele has Roman ruins used as park space in Vienne's center.

Roman Ampitheatre in Vienne (Photo: Rebecca Toy)

Arles, where the Rhône fans out towards the Mediterranean, was a key port for Rome's expansion. Viking's complimentary half-day tour includes the remains of an Antique Theater that once seated 10,000 people and a square that incorporates the ancient Circus before it. The real star is the Arena. Reminiscent of the Colosseum in Rome, the old gladiator arena still can seat 20,000 people for modern events.

2. Perfectly Preserved Pérouges is a Delightful Medieval Village

Pérouges, forty minutes northeast of Lyon, is one of the serious contenders in the "most beautiful village in France" discussion. This village is also one of the first and best-preserved reminders that this landscape was a network of feudal Middle Age kingdoms with distinct characters before France was a nation. Red-tiled roofs and 13th-century stonework perch on a hilltop; it's easy to see how this fortified city kept its independence for centuries. Modern Pérouges is a Hollywood star, most famously the setting for the Three Musketeers.

A half-day Viking tour takes you to Pérouges and starts with a guided walk along cobblestone streets. Stories of the lives of medieval farmers and weavers accompany your stroll, along with a 50-foot-high tower view and free time to explore. Just don't miss your meeting time; you'll want one of the town's coveted sweet pastries, the Galette Pérougienne, at your last stop before you go.

3. Only a Historic Train Can Reach the Depths of the Doux Valley Gorge

The Doux River, a tributary of the Rhône in the Haute-Loire and Ardèche departments (Photo: © Christian Martelet/Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Tourisme)

Just outside of Tournon-sur-Rhône, France, is a rugged wilderness reached only by a historic steam train, the Train des Gorges. The Doux Valley stretches through the French region of Ardeche, and much of it has been developed into reservoirs and farmlands. This gorge, however, is protected land. The open-air (in the summer; closed cars in the winter) train chugs through untouched forests and above the craggy boulders cut by the Doux River. The meter-gauge steam train is a French Historic Monument, a piece of tradition and nostalgia for when trains connected the mountainous countryside.

This exclusive rail access into the Doux Gorge and valley is Viking's complimentary tour during the cruise's half-day stay in Tournon. This peaceful and scenic ride has a surprise in store: the turn-around of the engine is a feat of human-powered engineering. Take a jacket even on a warm day–the breeze along the river cools everything down.

4. The Ardeche Region is Known for Lavender Fields and the "Grand Canyon of Europe"

The dramatic Chassezac Gorge in the Ardèche, France (Photo: © JL. Rigaux/Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Tourisme)

The Ardeche River snakes off from the Rhône south of Viviers, France, and creates a beautiful landscape of natural wonders. The region is known for its lavender harvest, planting soothing purple fields between the hillsides. Beyond the cultivated land, Ardeche becomes a paradise for canoeing and kayaking, with blue-green waterways snaking through remote white-walled canyons. The Ardeche Gorge, almost 1,000 feet deep and 18 miles long, is known as the "Grand Canyon of Europe." At its most picturesque, the Ardeche River runs under a 200-foot-long bridge–the Pont d'Arc.

A full-day-long excursion with Viking takes travelers between Tournon and Viviers. Stops include visiting the Lavender Museum and its distillery of essential oils and botanical gardens. The tour continues and takes in views of the Gorge and natural bridge before heading to the village of Vogue tucked into the cliffs by the river. Have your camera ready for this one.

• Interested in learning more about first time river cruising? Check out our comprehensive guide.

5. The Oldest Cathedral in Use in France Anchors the Ancient Village of Viviers

The terracotta rooftops of Viviers, a medieval village in southern Ardèche (Photo: © JL. Rigaux/Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Tourisme)

The Viking Longship makes a brief stop near Viviers, the village hiding behind trees at the quiet port. However, there is still time for a complimentary tour, and you don't want to miss this 5th-century gem. Sycamores and the surrounding mountains set the scene and narrow, winding paths open to Renaissance homes. Amid this serene setting, the 11th-century cathedral proves that not all of France's best churches are massive works of art. The St. Vincent Cathedral is not just the smallest in France but is also the oldest cathedral still in use in the country.

6. The Camargue is an Unspoiled Natural Delta Unlike Anywhere Else in France

Migratory flamingoes in the Camargue region of France south of Arles (Photo: Rebecca Toy)

South of Arles, the Rhône meets the Mediterranean in the Camargue delta. These marshlands, many natural preserves, defy expectations of French landscapes. Migratory birds, including flamingos from Africa, make the preserves a temporary home. They join the region's all-white horses, an ancient breed that is one of the oldest in the world. Pink salt flats stretch out to the horizon from the bleached ramparts of the fortified village of Aigues-Mortes.

Walled city of Aigues Mortes in Camargue (Photo: Rebecca Toy)

Stops to see each of these are included in Viking's full-day tour of the Camargue from Arles. You'll have ample time to walk through the Ornithological Park where the birds freely come and go from the marshlands. In addition to Aigues-Mortes, the tour takes you to Les Saintes Maries de la Mer on the sea and the site of a yearly pilgrimage of Roma people to the Romanesque church. You'll feast on homemade lunch at a local manade or traditional ranch.

7. The Restored Village of Les Baux-de-Provence is Like a Living Museum

Dramatic is an apt description of this limestone village's views and history. The fortress was a powerhouse in the 11th century, fiercely ruling over 80 towns in what would become Provence. Les Baux never settled into the French kingdom well, and King Louis XIII eventually demolished the castle in 1632–and charged the citizens for the destruction.

Today the restored city is a popular tourist destination. A local guide will take Viking guests past the souvenir shops and into the village on a half-day tour of this area. More than just a striking restoration, you'll look into the rise and fall of life in Les Baux.

8. Carrières de Lumiéres Offers a Multimedia Art Show in an Abandoned Quarry

Just a fifteen-minute walk from Les Baux is this limestone cave turned quarry. The expansive space provides a pristine canvas for a maze of art. Famous paintings project onto the 50-foot walls to music. Wander around and take in the 40-minute show that runs continuously, stepping outside if needed. Viking pairs this artistic spectacle with the tour to Les Baux. Make sure to take an extra layer–the quarry gets cool and the winds can whip through the village above.

9. The Pont Du Gard is the Most Iconic Remaining Roman Aqueduct

This marvel of ancient architecture is one of the world's most famous surviving Roman wonders. The three-tiered bridge and aqueduct carried water to Nimes, France, one of the largest cities of the time. The Pont du Gard moved 44 million gallons of water daily from the springs 31 miles away. Its creation and survival are astounding; it was built more than 2000 years ago and rises 160 feet high without mortar.

This half-day Viking tour from Avignon gives you a thorough history guide of the UNESCO World Heritage site and time to enjoy the setting. If the weather is right, be prepared to take a dip into the Gardon River that runs underneath the aqueduct.

Updated August 31, 2023
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