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On The Rhone River: Mother and Son Take Their First River Cruise Together

David Swanson

Dec 9, 2019

Read time
30 min read

Sponsored by Viking River Cruises

My mom and dad had their own style of exploring the world. As a family, we stuck to caravanning around the Western U.S., camping for a few nights in a National Park and then retreating to the comfort of a Motel 6 for a night with a swimming pool, shower, and un-fancy restaurant-cooked meal.

When I was 20, after I made my first backpack tour of Europe, mom and dad realized they were missing out on something. With my brother and I having entered adulthood, they had the means to treat themselves to international travel. They began embarking on what became almost yearly visits to Europe — traveling on their terms.

Even into their 70s, they would reserve the first few nights of hotel, maybe a quick-to-fill independent hotel in Paris or Madrid, but then would tool around for weeks through two or three countries, with barely an itinerary in their pocket. Well-worn maps were always at dad’s side. One summer they bought a VW Vanagon in Germany and used it for five weeks of lodging before shipping it back to the states. They were frugal travelers, but they had a curiosity for culture, the arts, and the history of these countries — and they were perfect traveling companions.

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After dad passed away, I became aware that mom’s independence had its limits. Travel on her own without her favorite navigator was daunting, and as she got older physical limitations — primarily an unsteady gait caused by lousy feet — meant she was at risk for falls. But although life at home is good, surrounded by friends and family, her hunger for seeing the world has never been tempered.

My career as a travel writer owes a lot to my parents’ sense of wanderlust, but much of my travel is solo. Occasionally, the opportunity to bring someone comes along, and that is how mom and I found ourselves in France, aboard a Viking cruise down the Rhône River. Primed by the steady drumbeat of ads introducing the TV show Downton Abbey, mom has been curious about a river cruise for some time now, and Viking seemed like a perfect match for her sensibilities — and mine.

This wouldn’t be my first trip with mom; I took her and my (then) 10-year-old nephew on a Disney Alaska cruise. I even escorted her to China, where her walking poles drew amazed looks. We’re good traveling companions, with common refrence points and an ability to efficiently communicate in shorthand on some topics. Plus cruises create a great hub for multi-generational travel — a place where the needs of of almost any family member can be accommodated and the ability to go at your own pace is respected by crew and fellow cruisers alike.

Come along with us on this seven-night Lyon & Provence journey (it’s also offered by Viking in the reverse direction), as I share my day-by-day report on a trip with mom. The itinerary explores some of France’s most beloved territory — from Lyon, the culinary capital of France, through cherished wine regions of Beaujolais and Côte Rôtie, with stops to discover 2,000-year-old architectural treasures along the way. My backpack is safely stored in the basement, and a calling plan has been enabled for mom’s phone — let’s go!

Days 1 and 2: Lyon

The Rhône River courses from the Swiss Alps to Lyon and then heads straight south to Avignon, the “City of Popes.” While perhaps not as storied as the Rhine or Danube, the Rhône has its own appeal (can you say “Provence”?) and history (the Romans left their mark), as well as art (Arles was Van Gogh’s stomping grounds). For me, this is all new territory, and my pen is poised for notes. But mom has spent many weeks in France, so the cruise will be a refresher for her, as well as an introduction to river cruising. While she and dad have stopped in various places in Provence, it turns out she’s seen precious little of the towns along the Rhône.

Rather than go straight from the plane to the ship, ahead of our trip I asked mom if there was another area in the vicinity where she’d like to spend a few days. She perused a map for a moment, paused on Paris, then looked east. “Oh, Switzerland,” she sighed. She hadn’t been to the land of cheese and chocolate for about 30 years, so we flew into Geneva to spend three days alongside the Rhône and its tributaries in Zermatt and Lake Geneva. It was a perfect appetizer for the cruise, made easier by the comprehensive and efficient Swiss Rail System.

But we had a date with a boat, so yesterday we made our way by rail from Geneva to Lyon, France’s third largest city. My 84-year-old mother can walk, but slowly, cautiously, and not for long distances. She uses walking sticks to steady herself, so luggage was my responsibility (fortunately, she packs quite modestly). While train travel is relatively easy for those of us who are able-bodied, it didn’t take long to realize that this was a journey mom could not have done on her own. She also does not use the Internet, meaning most of the trip-planning is left to me. Fortunately, the Viking cruise will take much of the planning responsibilities off my shoulders.

In short, the busy Lyon train station proved an intimidating transition from the gentler bustle of Swiss towns. I planted mom in the station Starbucks to guard our bags while I scurried about changing money and pondered options for the transfer to the ship. There was a subway, which would have deposited us just a few blocks from the dock, but with bags, mom, and flailing walking poles, I thought better. The taxi — 20 euros for a 2-mile ride — dropped us at a road pullout above the dock and we made our way down the ramp to the Viking Delling.

Carlos Brito, the Delling’s hotel manager (yes, a cruise ship is basically a hotel on water), welcomed us aboard and showed us to our cabin, a veranda suite where the TV was already tuned to the safety video. While typical river cruise cabins are slightly smaller than the average ocean cruise cabin, ours is generously proportioned — 275 square feet divided into two separate rooms. One half has a couch and chair, a TV and minibar, plus a wide balcony where we survey cyclists whizzing by along a river path. Our cabin steward converted the queen bed in our bedroom into two twins. We loved the larger bathroom than most mid-priced cruise ships have, plus a floor-to-ceiling window that can be opened down to a railing. All in all, very nice digs for us to share, meaning we will each have space. (Another option if traveling with a parent is to book two separate cabins).

After grabbing a bite to eat we explored Viking Delling forward and aft. The décor on Viking’s longships utilizes clean, subtle Scandinavian design elements — nothing flashy or overstated. Each of the ships has 95 cabins spread onto three decks, with the lobby and main restaurant found on the second deck, and the lounge, an indoor/outdoor dining venue and bar, on the third deck. A sun deck sits on top, and with August weather pleasingly warm but not hot, we are looking forward to the open air and sunshine. Fittingly, Delling, like all of Viking’s river cruisers, is named for a Norse god — in this case, the father of the day.

We’re spending two days and two nights docked in Lyon, providing plenty of opportunity to explore the city either independently or on the tours Viking provides — at least one complimentary each day, along with paid options. The free excursions, while not always in-depth, encourage a basic, painless introduction to the port and its culture and history.

Yesterday, the included tour explored Vieux Lyon, the old city. The departure on coaches was set for 9 a.m. but mom chose to stay behind and enjoy breakfast on a more leisurely basis, while I headed out to see the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. Though built only in the 1870s, the enormous structure sits atop the city’s most prominent hill, visible from almost anywhere in Lyon, and inside the church is resplendent with lush mosaics lining most of the walls.

The tour continued into the heart of the old town, divided into three districts, St. John, St. Paul and St. George. St. Ringo was not feted here, joked John Martinez, our guide. But the old city is known for a unique feature: the “traboules,” a series of passageways that connect one building to another, providing shortcuts through private property. There are almost 300 of them, John said, each with a doorway facing the street, a corridor, interior stairwells and a gallery for light and air. But just walking the main streets of Old Lyon was amply rewarding on its own, with dozens of shops selling unique wares, from silk fashions to lemon products.

I returned to the old town after the included tour to explore on my own, finding a silk shop that actually still makes the product that Lyon was long known for, and a store where a handsome young clerk offered a tasting of different types of the liqueur Chartreuse, made nearby in the French Alps. Then I wandered back to the ship, our sanctuary in the heart of the city, where mom was awaiting an update on my day — and lunch.

Having enjoyed a leisurely day reading on the sun deck (and falling in love with the cookies stocked next to the coffee machine), mom is looking forward to our excursion tomorrow, into the country and to the vineyards of Beaujolais, an hour north of Lyon. While not a major wine connoisseur, she knows what she likes and Beaujolais Nouveau has never impressed her. Will this light-drinking French wine live down to its reputation, or are we in for a surprise? Meanwhile, a trio of musicians from the Lyonnaise opera house are warming up in the lounge for a post-prandial performance. Time to order a glass of Champagne and settle in for the show.

Day 3: Lyon to Vienne, via Beaujolais

This morning, on the included shore excursion, mom and I learned that the Beaujolais appellation is no longer dedicated only to wines designed to be drunk young. As we bused 35 miles north from Lyon into the region, located west of Geneva, our guide Lesley Cleaver told us how the growers of Beaujolais had successfully marketed their wine as one that should be drunk as close to the date that it appears on store shelves each November.

“Beaujolais Nouveau could be made quickly and cheaply, and the gamay grape lends itself to being drunk very young,” said Cleaver. But as taste buds became more sophisticated, Beaujolais Nouveau went out of favor. Over the last couple decades, and with an eye to the more profitable vineyards of Burgundy just north, growers looked to improve their region’s reputation through more traditional aging processes. “They are now making more interesting wines, a Beaujolais Vieux.”

I’ve had a few glasses of Beaujolais Nouveau over the years, and never paid much attention to it. Mom’s opinion of Beaujolias Nouveau she'd drunk at home over the years was stronger and even less favorable. Still, she approached the excursion with an open mind, and reveled in how the view from our coach opened up as we headed out of Lyon. Our adventure included a stop at the Château des Ravatys in Saint-Lager, where we toured the cave, strolled the vineyards, and tipped back four samples of the wine, including a rosé. Our verdict: All had experienced varying degrees of aging, and all were imminently drinkable, especially the premier cru that finished our session — they were also affordably-priced. Better yet the drive through Beaujolais, even in a big touring coach, was accompanied by a lush carpet of vineyards rolling over the gentle hillsides, almost as far as the eye could see. We were in the France we dream of back home.

Soon we were back aboard the ship for lunch, during which the captain cast off from Lyon for the 200-mile journey south on the Rhône River to Arles and Avignon, where our week-long cruise would end. Since our journey started in Switzerland, and we followed the Rhône River through Valais and down to Lake Geneva, we wondered whether any of the water lapping the ship today could be the same molecules we were alongside a few days prior in the Rhône Valley.

Aboard Viking Delling, for meals we had two choices: the main Restaurant, located inside on the lower deck, just above the water line, or upstairs on the Aquavit Terrace, an outdoor venue, partially covered and located at the bow of the ship. At Aquavit, a barbecue grill offered burgers, steaks and other fare at lunch, and a small buffet spread nearby was primed with salads and a carvery. In the Restaurant, the lunch menu offered several appetizers, plus entrées such as turkey breast with green pea risotto, smoked salmon quesadilla (surprisingly tasty), or gnocchi a la Niçoise. Clearly we were not going to starve, and house wine and beer was offered at all meals — no upcharge.

Back in the cabin, I enjoyed the decadence of working on my laptop on our balcony — one of the better offices I’ve had — and soon realized Viking Delling had slowed to a crawl. I looked out ahead and saw a dam-like structure ahead. This would be the first of a series of 12 locks that would gradually take us from Lyon, elevation 485 feet, down to Arles, which sits almost at sea level. This would also be mom’s first, much-anticipated lock experience (the Panama Canal has been on her bucket list for many years), so she parked herself on the balcony for the show.

Viking’s 50-some longships are all identical in size, 443 feet in length and 37 feet at the beam — the precise measurements that allow the vessels to go through locks on most of Europe’s major rivers. As Delling crept into the lock, we were amazed by the perfectly straight approach the vessel made — there was no more than six inches from the edge of ship to the wall of the lock, and we could only assume the same was true on the starboard side. This detail soon became more impressive as the water level lowered, a couple feet a minute I estimated, and we were close enough to kiss the wet curtain of concrete rising in front of our balcony. Viewing the lock transit from our balcony was cool (if slightly claustrophobic), but we vowed to witness future locks from other positions on the ship.

Some time this evening we’ll dock in Vienne, where I need to figure out a plan for mom. The included shore excursion is a walking tour of town, and mom has already warned that she won’t be able to keep up with the group. Hmmm...

Day 4: Vienne to Tournon-sur-Rhône

A couple we sat with at dinner last night advised that I wasn’t the only person traveling with mom. And while these other cruisers might not be using their mother as fodder for a story for Cruise Critic, I definitely want to meet up with them and get their take on the experience.

One of the things I like about Viking is that, unlike a lot of cruise lines, Viking knows what it is, and what it isn’t. Rather than aiming to be the end-all be-all for every potential customer — age 8 to 80, and from backpacker to well-heeled — Viking has been carefully positioned for a specific demographic: Age 55 and up, and upper-middle-class, but not necessarily wealthy. Viking’s clientele is well-traveled and curious to explore, which means we’re among friends. It also means there’s not much pretense, either for the ship’s operation or for how our fellow guests comport themselves. I brought a blazer to wear at dinner, but feel no pressure to wear it; mom isn’t self-conscious about her white and neon purple tennies.

On the other hand, I chide mom for her propensity to drag out little plastic baggies of medications and supplements at the breakfast table, where she laboriously extracts one pill after another, more than a dozen in all — a routine imported from home. But here we share a table with other guests. Perhaps translating my objection into French will get the message across?

C’est collant, I suggest. But the word for “tacky” is not one she’s familiar with, so I put away my Google Translate app and give an embarrassed shrug to our tablemates. They, on the other hand, are more than willing to forgive my mother’s idiosyncrasies.

Over and over, my mother enchants those we share a table with, and a lot of the passengers praise me for taking her on the journey.

There are challenges, though. Today's offered shore excursion is a walking tour, but one look out the window reveals hills rising on all sides — a city of terraces I overheard someone say — and mom has already said, “you go on without me." I really don't want her to miss any experience if possible, and peering out the window while at breakfast, I spy a possible solution: a tourist tram parked on the street opposite the dock. I quickly checked with the adjacent tourist office and, sure enough, the tram offers a tour of the city every hour on the hour for €7.50. I re-board the ship, tell mom of the solution, give her a 20-euro note for the Vienne City Tram, and off I go on my walking tour.

Fortunately, the walking tours are split into three speeds. I chose the more-spirited paced group and off we go, ascending mostly deserted streets along 2,000-year-old Roman walls, aiming for a high point just out of view. Huffing and puffing we make our way up the hill, passing a cemetery, finally arriving at Belvédère de Pipet, a viewpoint over the town capped by a small church. Looking straight down, a Roman theatre fans out beneath — a two-week jazz festival concluded in July, our guide Emilie Saez announces. On an adjacent ridge sit ruins of a Medieval castle, while below the Rhône River arcs through the valley.

Just as we were about to walk back down the hill, what comes chugging into the parking lot? It’s the Vienne City Tram. I see a door open in front and out come the walking poles with mom close behind, along with Jan and Bill, fellow Viking passengers from the cabin next to ours. “I was late to the tram,” mom tells me. “The driver wasn’t going to take me, but Jan and Bill interceded on my behalf. They bought my ticket and got me on.”

I thanked the couple profusely for being guardian angels for mom — I’m sure they won’t be the last to look after her when I’m not nearby.

Our walking tour heads back down the hill and Ms. Saez shares Vienne’s Roman bona fides over the “Quietvox” headsets we all wear. “In Roman times, Vienne was amazing, monumental, and probably quite striking,” she says. And around one corner, we encounter the 2,000-year-old Temple d’Auguste et de Livie, which fills much of the town’s main square. Built around 10 BC in honor of Emperor Augustus and his wife Livie, the temple is in astonishingly good shape (owing its survival to having been converted to a church following the Theodosian decrees), its majestic Corinthian columns providing a sublime backdrop for the café-goers reading the morning news.

The afternoon is spent sailing down the Rhône, navigating three more locks which mom and I enjoy from different spots on the ship, and eventually we arrived in our port for the night, Tournon-sur-Rhône. Tomorrow, a 116-year-old steam train is on the agenda!

Day 5: Tournon-sur-Rhône to Tarascon via Viviers

What a day this has been — exploring a quaint town on foot, riding a steam train and a midnight ramble through a tiny village robed in history. This morning, I embarked on Viking’s included excursion which started with a walk around the small town of Tournon-sur-Rhône, where we docked last night. Against a backdrop of terraced vineyards our guide, the bubbly Mylène Paris, shared that the unprepossessing hillsides on the other side of the river are valued at 1 million euros per acre, producing storied wines for Maison M. Chapoutier among others. Mom stayed behind for the short walk, less than a mile in overall length, which was probably a good idea, as Mylène kept a moderately fast pace and playfully referred to our group as “very elastic.”

“Ooh là là!,” Mylène exclaimed as she bounded into a street and urged us to cross. “French drivers hate to use their brakes, so crossing the street can be a leap of faith.”

Mom would not have been amused, though she would have enjoyed wandering through the market of Tournon where the region’s long history of cured meats was on display, along with other local products, like apricots and very mature goat cheese, redolent with mold. And across the river, if time allowed, the original Valrhôna chocolate factory has a museum, La Cité du Chocolat, that sounded enticing. Mylène advised that if we were to bring one thing home that is emblematic of the region it should be the chestnut cream, to spread on crackers or bread, and she promised it would be it would be well-stocked at the gift shop for our next morning excursion, the Train de l’Ardèche, a vintage steam train.

“She’s a very old lady,” said Mylène. “But she’s full of smoke and grit.”

Originally opened in 1891, the train line runs between Tournon and a mountain town called Le Cheylard, traveling via the gorges of the Doux River. By 1968 the line was no longer economically viable and it shut down as a commercial operation, explained Mylène. But in 2013 it was revived by rail enthusiasts and converted into a delightful tourist venture, utilizing authentic steam engines from the turn of the (previous) century. We only traveled the initial 10-or-so miles of the route, and despite the flecks of grit sprinkling onto hair and clothes, it was still a treat, the scenery spilling into the river below, where the wildlife was limited to the occasional sunbathing nudist. Ooh là là, indeed!

Aboard the train we got to meet one of the mother-daughter couples we learned were traveling with us on the cruise, Sarah and her 86-year-old mother Susan. It was a first trip to France for both of them, and Susan had an amazing back story as a businesswoman and single mother, having recently relocated from Hong Kong to Toronto. Like my mom, Susan was enjoying the cruise at her own pace, joining in on some tours but skipping others. Still, she walked confidently with her cane and seemed game for the adventure.

Back aboard Viking Delling for lunch, we continued down the Rhône at a fairly fast clip, to make it to our stop for the evening, 50 miles down-river. One of the bridges we cruised under was so low that crew was on the top deck to make sure everyone ducked to clear the structure as it whisked by overhead! Correspondingly, the captain’s bridge, a box-like structure sitting on the top deck, revealed itself to be a jack-in-the-box apparatus, and for these low clearances it dropped into a void below, its top almost flush with the top deck as we sailed under.

Downstairs we were kept entertained with a demonstration on how to make a tarte tatin, the classic upside-down caramelized apple tart. Delling’s executive chef Frixos and maître d’ Petar were more focused on an off-the-cuff comedy routine that showcased the camaraderie of the ship’s crew than tart tips. The informal show concluded with not only samples of the tarte tatin but an array of other delectable desserts for afternoon tea, plus a trove of chocolates that someone had generously hauled aboard from the Valrhôna factory.

The evening concluded with one of the more unusual shore excursions I’ve taken. After dinner, Delling docked in Viviers, where guides were waiting to take us on a late-night stroll through the tiny town’s outsized history, which dates back to the Roman era and includes listed monuments and a tight cluster of architecture in Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and 18th-century styles. Carrying flashlights and the indispensable Quietvox headsets, our guide Ginette explained how the Viviers’ population of 4,000 remains stable, because it is quite a bit less expensive to live here than in neighboring communities.

But with many buildings dating to the 14th century and earlier, what a place to live! The cobblestone streets were free of cars, and our route on foot ascended past the former Bishops Palace to the cathedral, consecrated in 1119 and named for St. Vincent, the patron saint of winemakers. One square, illuminated by a single streetlight, had two restaurants still open at 10 p.m., but otherwise Viviers was eerily quiet and haunting. While it would have been great to see the town during the day (as Viking’s northbound itineraries do), I wouldn’t have given up our evocative midnight stroll through this little-known architectural treasure.

Day 6: Tarascon to Avignon via Arles

Early this morning, Viking Delling landed in Arles. Or rather, we landed at the tiny town of Tarascon (apparently Viking’s longships are a bit too large to dock downstream in Arles). The night before I thumbed through the ship’s Lonely Planet guidebook and found no mention of Tarascon, so I was prepared to write it off. But as we came in near dawn, just a thousand feet from the dock loomed an imposing castle dipping a toe into the Rhône. The hulking medieval Château de Roi René is well-preserved and warrants a look, but instead mom and I grabbed a quick breakfast and headed off to the buses for our included walking tour of must-see Arles.

Just 12 miles down-river from Tarascon, Arles is most famously linked to the legacy of the impressionist Vincent Van Gogh. The artist did 200-some paintings in the vicinity, and he wanted to develop a community of artists, explained our guide for the morning tour, Sian Griffiths Bell. “Gauguin was the first invited to come down,” said Bell. “But the two argued constantly, fueled by alcohol and cigarettes.”

Although there is no museum here possessing a trove of his work, the Van Gogh legacy seems to touch every corner of Arles. Just a few hundred feet from the bus loading area is the site of one of Van Gogh’s most important paintings, a little yellow house at the corner of 2 place Lamaryine. Unfortunately, the house was destroyed during WWII, Bell tells us. It was here that mom decided to split from the walking tour, anxious that the she wouldn’t be able to keep up with the pace. There was minimal traffic this Sunday morning, and the walled city seemed compact enough that she wouldn’t get lost, and so we bid adieu.

Leading with the QuietVox headsets to narrate, we headed toward the Arena, which rose above the street a couple blocks away. While not as large as Rome’s Colosseum, the theatre in Arles is a more intimate and intact structure, and Bell leads us inside to find a row where we can be seated in the shade.

“It was completed 10 years after the Colosseum,” says Bell, around AD 90. “And although it is smaller, it could still seat 20,000.” Then, our guide goes through a typical day at the Arena, which would start with animals fighting in the morning, followed by public executions for lunch, and then gladiator games in the afternoon for the big finish. The Arena was used for these shows over several hundred years, until the Dark Ages, when the entire town of Arles was moved inside to protect the population against the bubonic plague.

“During the plague, by law the people could not remove the stones for building,” Bell adds, which is probably why the Arena remains largely intact today.

Through friends she'd met onboard, mom had heard of a must-do tour while in Arles, and it turned out to be an optional excursion available aboard Delling, following the morning included tour. The tour to the tiny village of Les Baux-de-Provence, 10 miles away, visited former limestone quarries that have been transformed for a sound and light show called Carrières de Lumières. As far back as 1977, the quarries have been used for shows with different themes each year, and the 2019 edition featuring the works of Van Gogh has been a huge hit.

Fortunately, the Viking tour includes not just the bus transfer to Les Baux, but a reserved entry time, and when we arrive we find out why: A long line of people snakes outside the caves, waiting for their turn to enter! But we skip the line, and inside we discover some 75,000 square feet of nearly flat limestone surface used for the projections. The images are accompanied by well-chosen music, creating a literal immersion into Van Gogh’s work, beautifully composed and alive on walls as tall as 50 feet. Of course, moving through the various chambers is invited, and I hold mom’s hands carefully as she navigates the uneven ground, which itself sometimes becomes animated with the paintings.

Afterwards, the bus takes us to the town of Les Baux — or rather, to the base of it. The car-free village sits among a jumble of boulders, the streets not wide enough for a car, but filled with day visitors. Mom gamely tackles the ascent, her walking poles dutifully at her side, and wistfully, she notes that she was here once before with dad. “But back then I don’t think Les Baux had been discovered,” she adds, recalling the days before Provence hit the big time with tourists.

Back on board the ship, I met 23-year-old Noelle, the youngest person aboard Viking Delling. She’s obviously mature for her age, and when her mother and grandfather gave her a graduation gift of a trip, the one she chose was the Viking cruise — with her mom. We chatted over drinks before dinner, and compared notes.

“When we got on-board I discovered there was no one my age,” she exclaimed. “But as the cruise went on, I got to be more comfortable. I was worried about us traveling together before the trip. Mom and I can butt heads — sometimes I’ll give her a little attitude. But now, we’re just so happy and grateful to be here.”

Yes, mom and I have had a few challenges, as well. While we’re in-synch on most things, I find myself constantly putting the brakes on, to allow her to catch up. When she can see me slowing down for her, she becomes more aware of her limitations. And so I’m learning how patience isn’t just a virtue, it’s a continuing goal. While I don’t have the physical challenges that mom does, I can see there will be a day where I will appreciate the patience of those around me, and going it at a slower pace will be its own virtue.

Days 7 and 8: Avignon

Last night, as dusk began to embrace the Rhône River, our ship pulled into the dock in Avignon, just a few hundred feet from the wall that surrounds the city. After our overnight there, Mom and I sat at the Aquavit Terrace to enjoy breakfast, the sun peeking through whispery clouds and advising us of a warm day ahead. Although today’s walking tour of the City of Popes was offered at a leisurely pace as well as — well, my speed, mom advised that she wanted to take the morning off.

She spends these hours on the ship reading, taking in the port talks, and getting to know her fellow cruisers, and fortunately, when I come back from my explorations, she’s delighted — not disappointed — to hear of my discoveries. As someone who aims to conquer every corner of every port, this is an alien concept to me.

While trying to conquer every corner of each port was my speed, I have been learning to accept the speed mom wants to see France, and part of that means keeping the agenda unpressured. And she’s been adjusting to me as well: She now downs her morning pills in the cabin, not at the breakfast table. And so we’ll save our touring for after lunch, when we'll grab an Uber.

Today’s included tour explores Avignon’s historic center, and our guide Marie Neige leads us into the old city, and as we pass through a gate she explains the history of the ramparts.

“We built the wall not because we were afraid of the French,” explains Neige. “We built it because of the Rhône. When it’s raining in the mountains, we cross our fingers and wait for the floor and silt.” Today, out of 100,000 Avignon residents, some 13,000 live inside the wall. At first glance, with its clean, calm streets, it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else. “Living inside the wall is not very convenient,” Neige cautions, “especially if you have a car. It's mostly students living here.”

Soon we arrive at the city’s claim to fame, the Palais des Papes. Yes, when Pope Clement V fled Rome in the 14th century, it was Avignon where the seat of papal power moved to. For seven decades, a period known as the Great Schism, seven different popes resided in Avignon and built a towering, imposing palace — a precursor to the Vatican. Amazingly, inside the palace is almost bare today. But its huge, cavernous chambers speak to the power the church wielded in Medieval times. Despite a lack of gilded trappings to ogle, there is a silver lining.

“When they went back to Rome, they took everything,” says Neige. “And thank god they did. If the treasure and the library had been left here, none would have survived the French Revolution.”

Back at Viking Delling, mom and I share lunch and discover that Susan would also like to see a bit of town. So, with Sarah, we join forces and the four of us Uber to one of the city gates, perhaps a half-mile away. We meander slowly and cautiously along the narrow streets, surveying shops selling soap and lavender. At one shop, bolts of colorful fabric are spread across tables and mom sees patterns and colors she likes — and at bargain prices.

“Would you like me to sew you a tablecloth and napkins,” she asks?

Eyeing the cloth of purple and yellow, in playful designs that shout Provence, of course, I reply. The shopkeeper snaps to attention, and out come the scissors. She marks off three generous meters of fabric and folds it into a bag.

We shared our dinner with Sarah and Susan on this last night of the cruise. Debating between veal scaloppini or risotto of roasted vegetables and corn, we tipped back Champagne to toast our mother and child journey.

“We’ve met a lot of nice people this week, haven’t we,” asks mom. Yes, I say, we have.

I haven’t received that tablecloth yet, but when I do, it’s one that will find a special place in my heart.

*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. *

Want to learn more about a European River cruise?

We traveled on Europe's most popular rivers -- the Danube, Rhine, Rhone and Seine -- and share our stories about our discoveries, both in-port and on-shore, with plenty of tips and insights to help you plan your own voyage. Please join us.

On the Danube River: Two Longtime Pals Make Discoveries About Europe and Friendship

On the Rhine River: Our Culinary, Castle and Cathedral Discoveries Are Just the Beginning

On the Rhone River: Mother and Son Take Their First River Cruise Together

On the Seine River: Paris Is Just One of Many Standouts on This Solo Cruise

And don't miss our exclusive new series: Cruise Critic's Ultimate River Cruise Guides. The guides give expert advice on what to do in ports of call when cruising Europe's rivers, from insight on the marquee attractions that are typically featured on included tours to off-the-track discoveries to make on your own.

Check out: Cruise Critic's Ultimate Danube River Cruise Guide

Check out: Cruise Critic's Ultimate Rhine River Cruise Guide

Check out: Cruise Critic's Ultimate Rhone River Cruise Guide

Check out: Cruise Critic's Ultimate Seine River Cruise Guide

Updated December 09, 2019
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