A voyage along the Rhône has to be one of the most scenic river journeys in Europe, as the river carves its way through the countryside of the Rhône-Alpes and Provence regions to the Camargue and its marshy delta. Medieval villages cling to the hillsides, often guarded by a chunky-looking castle, while vineyards stretch away into the distance.
In July, fields of lavender in bloom create a purple haze, while until August, sunflowers cut swathes of yellow across the countryside. Cultural attractions come thick and fast; the Romans have left their mark here in the magnificent amphitheatre at Arles and the stunning Pont du Gard. This is a river cruise for adventurers, too, with hiking, cycling and kayaking on offer.
All the major river cruise lines sail the Rhône, among them Viking River Cruises, AmaWaterways, Emerald Waterways, Scenic, Avalon Waterways, Riviera Travel and Uniworld. River cruises typically sail on the Saône and the Rhône between Lyon or Chalon-sur-Saône and one of the ports near the Rhône delta, such as Avignon, the medieval, walled town of Tarascon, or Arles.
The cruise almost feels as though it’s in two parts: the Burgundy wine country on and around the Saône, as well as a day or two exploring Lyon; and the sail between Lyon and the Rhône delta, the weather usually getting progressively warmer as you head south.
Some cruises are round-trip from Lyon, others one-way. On a one-way cruise, you will inevitably get to see more in a week as the ship spends less time sailing. Some lines offer longer voyages; Scenic sails from Chalon-sur-Saône to Tarascon in 12 nights, for example.
Depending on your interest, the southbound cruise is arguably better, as the big sights like Avignon, Arles and the Pont du Gard come at the end. Having said that, many see a chance to taste and buy the Burgundy wines at the end of the northbound voyage as a highlight; travel by Eurostar and you can probably carry a fair few bottles home.
What’s particularly lovely about the Rhône is that the places you moor along the way are without exception beautiful – and it’s easy to walk from the dock into each pretty town to explore independently. Typical stops include the old town of Tournon, guarded by a castle on a bluff, where cruise lines sometimes arrange cocktails at sunset.
Viviers, meanwhile, is a tangle of cobbled streets clinging to the side of the hill, dotted with ancient stone fountains and tiny squares shaded by plane trees. The small wine-growing town of Chateauneuf-du-Pape sprawls over a hill overlooking the Rhône valley and is a must for wine-lovers; it’s best known for its punchy reds. You can also visit the castle, now in ruins, that once served as the summer home of the popes.
A short drive from the ports, there are more discoveries, not least Uzès, a picture-perfect medieval town clustered around a ducal palace. On market days, there are cheese stalls offering samples, as well as great mounds of Provençal lavender for sale and piles of juicy peaches as temptation.
There are plenty of surprises along the way, not least the Train de l’Ardèche excursion from Tournon on a vintage steam train that puffs its way along narrow hillsides on tracks laid in 1891, following the craggy gorge of the river Doux, chugging through dappled oak forests with glimpses of rocks and swimming beaches far below.
Also in the Ardèche region, which is threaded with fast-flowing rivers and deep canyons, is the spectacular Pont d’Arc, a natural rock arch that forms the entrance to a 22-mile-long gorge. Cruise lines including Scenic and Avalon Waterways offer kayaking here for the adventurous; prepare to get wet as the river drops over several sets of rapids on the two-hour descent.
If you like the idea of kayaking but prefer to avoid whitewater, Uniworld offers a kayak tour on the Gardon, a more tranquil river spanned by the Pont du Gard, a graceful aqueduct built by the Romans and one of the best preserved in the world.
All Rhône cruises call at Avignon, famous for its bridge and for the 700-year-old Palais des Papes, epicentre of the medieval Christian world. Some cruise lines offer a private dinner or musical recital inside the palace, which is very special. Most stay the night in Avignon as there is so much to see; and if you visit during the middle two weeks of July, the whole town is buzzing with the annual festival, one of the world’s biggest contemporary performing arts events.
The Roman city of Arles is a gateway to the Camargue, the wild, marshy delta, famed for its gypsy heritage, its bulls and white horses, and its vast, blue skies. You’re spoiled for choice in Arles; the Camargue and the Roman amphitheatre aside, this is where Van Gogh took the inspiration for more than 200 paintings, and you can join a tour to follow in his footsteps. Viking River Cruises even offers painting classes at a local fine arts school, providing you with an original souvenir to take home of your sunlit odyssey through Provence.
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