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Roaming the Rhone

I woke to see a glorious sunrise across the waters of the River Rhone just ripple gently by the wake of our cruise ship. Already a cloudless sky heralded another beautiful day. Herons and egrets lined up every few yards and rival fishermen wih tents and camping stoves on the go were dotted along the banks.

In the distance, the unmistakable profile of Mont Ventoux looked down with its barren limestone top looking like a snowcap. The saying is that if you can see Ventoux you must be in Provence and we certainly were, sailing slowly down towards the Mediterranean. A river cruise along with the 120 other guests proved to be a good way to see the South of France from a different angle.

The weather was hot in the towns but, with a breeze generated during the cruising, pleasant on board. For a couple of days we felt the power of Le Mistral- the famous wind from the mountains- but luckily not too powerful and serving to make the temperature more enjoyable.

In August, the commercial traffic on the Rhone was sparse- just the odd container barge or oil barge outnumbered bu the various river cruise ships. With France in full holiday mode there were plenty of tourists in all the remarkable well-preserved old towns- monuments to the Romans and the developments added in the Middle Ages, fuelled by religion and conflict.

The relatively quiet river I found belied its history as one of he oldest and most important trade routes in Europe, from the earliest settlement some 3000 years ago through 500 years of Roman occupation. the magnificent amphitheatres and theatres built bu the Romans and the wonderful abbeys, palaces and churches that followed grew from the river's value as a trade route. Rising in the Alps some 500 miles from its Mediterranean outlet at Marseilles, the Rhone runs through Lake Geneva and through the Jura mountains to be joined at Lyon by the Rover Saone.

As it continues south, the river enters its most picturesque region, passing a series of lovely old towns bathed in the crystal light that beguiled painters like van Gogh and Cezanne, as well as thousands of artists over the years. 

From van Gogh's stamping ground at Arles, the Rhone changes character again as it begins to form a delta that spreads through The Camargue, a marshy haven for wildlife that is one of the most important nature reserves in Europe.

Our cruise also took us up the Saone through some of the world's richest vineyards in Beaujolais and then into Burgundy. It would have been a crime not to have sampled some. but it started deep into Provence.

Most of us were probably cajoled into singing Le Pont D'Avignon as part of schooldays French lessons; well, this was our chance to finally see what the song was all about. The bridge dates from the 13th century when a shepherd was divinely inspired to begin building it. Named St Benezet Bridge after him, it originally had 22 piers and was more than 1000 yards long. A huge flood in 1669 virtually wiped out the bridge, leaving just four piers jutting out into the Rhone with a tiny chapel.Later we got a closer view from the boat as the captain manoeuvred for a photo opportunity.

Avignon's other claim to fame is as the seat of five Popes, after Pope Clement V fled from a politically unstable Rome in 1309, taking refuge in the town on the invitation of the French king. Succeeding pontiffs made additions to make their palace ever more lavish until Pope Gregory IX returned to the Vatican in 1376.

French cardinals promptly elected a rival Pope in Avignon and a schism split the Catholic Church until the papacy was reunited in 1417. The palace remained the property of the Pope until the French Revolution seized it back for the nation. Now the Palais des Papes is one of the main tourist attractions.

We took a tour on the tourist 'petit train' that winds its way around the narrow streets. For wight euros that was great value: a 50 minute trip with excellent English commentary.

While in Avignon we also took a coach tour 15 miles west to the Roman engineering wonder the Pont Du Gard. this is a 160ft high aqueduct over the River Gardin built during the first century AD to supply water to the city of Nimes. The 35 arch aqueduct is part of a 30 mile journey for the water, an amazing engineering feat which was in use for 800 years, long after the departure of the Romans. A lower footbridge was added at a letter stage, and from the bridge at the height of summer you can watch families swimming in the wide shallow waters below. There's also a visitor centre explaining the background story of the bridge and Roman life.

The Roman theme continued as we headed downstream to Arles, pretty much the furthest south the river boats travel. Just below Arles, the Rhone divides into a marshy delta- The Camargue- famous for its wild horses and bulls destined for the bullfights at Nimes and Arles. The fights at Arles take place in the incredibly well preserved Roman amphitheatre, capable of seating 26,000 in its day, for gruesome Roman games. The arena is now used mainly for the bullfights.

There are two types of fight, one of which involves brightly coloured ribbons and baubles collected from its horns by running men dressed in whites rather like cricketers. The bulls are returned to the marshes in this case. The other fight is more in the Spanish style, with the larger Spanish fighting bull being killed in the arena.

Another gruesome piece of Arles' rich history is the home of Vincent van Gogh for the last two years of his life (1888/89), scene of his ear slicing off incident.

The srystal clear light attractedcan Gogh and many other artists including, in a later era, Picasso.

After Arles the boat turned round and cruised upstream past Avignon and the Provencal towns of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Orange, both of which are often stops for cruises.

WE left Provence fot the Ardeche and the town of Viviers as a base for a tour of the Ardeche Gorges. There are 22 miles of limestone cliffs up to 1000ft above the winding river below. The river's entry to the groges is via the biggest natural arch in Europe, The Pont D'Arc, 112ft high and 194ft wide. It's major tourist destination with more than a million visitors a year and 4000 canoes a day at the height og the season. From the viewpoints above the gorge they are like coloured dots.

Close by is the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave, containing one of the earliest known Paleolithic cave paintings, about 30,000 years old. Visitors can no longer enter this cave but you can visit a re-creation at the Caverne du Pont d'Arc, a futuristic building for an ancient era and an excellent way of discovering this important window on early human life.

While we were touring the Ardeche, our ship was making progress upstream and our coaches rejoined it at a small landing stage at Le Pouzin. A few passengers who stayed on board enjoyed a morning cruise, passing Montelimar.

We moored overnight in Tourmon and had a short stroll along the riverfront, stopping to watch the locals playing boules in the lovely evening sunshine.

Vienne was our next port. Get tickets here for the 'petit train' at the tourist office opposite the quay. It takes you through the winding streets high up to Pipet Hill for an unrivalled view over the town and the river, including looking down on the Roman theatre.

Vienne is a few miles downstream of Lyon, France's second largest city, where the Rhone and the Saone join. Our cruise took us past the lit up city and into the Saone and on into the wine country through Beaujolais, Macon and into Burgundy, finally tying up at chalon-sur-Saone.

From Chaon it was a short coach trip through the wine villages of Meursault, Volnay and Pommard and through some of the most exclusive vineyards in the world to Beaune, for a wine tasting and an afternoon of poeple watching in the squares near the incredibly roofed former hospital, the Hotel Dieu.

We woke up the next morning alongside in lyon for the last day and night in this beautiful city. Highlights to visit are many. the first must be the Basilica Church of Our Lady atop the Fourviere Hill. It is impressive from outside with a view across the city to the other hill- Croix-Rouge. inside it is simply stunning.

The place Bellecour and Place des Terreaux are huge public squares, are huge public squares, a showcase of Lyon's architecture. Visit the Old Town and you can see he city's famous traboules- alleyways between the narrow streets disguised by doors creating a network of passages originally to allow silk merchants to travel around the city quickly but used during the Second World War by Resistance fighters to evade the Gestapo.

It's just another aspect of the Rhone valley that gives you history from 33,000 years ago to that desperate time for France under Nazi occupation. It gives you the marshy landscaped of the delta, complete with flamingos and fighting bulls through the lavender fields of Provence in season and the limestone gorges to the rolling vineyards of Beaujolais and Burgundy.

And he weather is usually lovely, too- a wonderful place to cruise.

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