TRAVEL: Viking cruises the French waterways

15th Century hospital in Beaune PNL-141124-113213004
15th Century hospital in Beaune PNL-141124-113213004

International business author and travel writer Professor Ian Cooper recently experienced a river cruise in the South of France with Viking River Cruises.

Which of the following would you choose to do – visit a high quality chocolate factory to sample as much as you can eat; taste wines in some of the world’s best wine growing areas or enjoy a leisurely cruise through the Provence region of France?

Before the pressure of decision-making gets too much for you, let me give you some good news.

On the ‘Portraits of Southern France’ Viking River Cruise down the Rhône and Saône rivers, that my wife and I were lucky enough to check out recently, you don’t have to choose … you can do them all and much more!

Our seven nights French adventure began with a short flight from London to Heathrow to Marseille and a seamless transfer to the Viking Hermod. This is one of several Viking Longship clones the company has designed an built in recent years.

Our cabin on the top passenger deck was spacious, with a huge very comfortable bed; excellent bathroom with luxury toiletries; a safe big enough for a laptop computer; a fridge and a fantastic private verandah.

Given how lucky we were with the sunshine in Southern France in October and early November, this was a fantastic facility for watching the French countryside slide by.

Our first port of call was Tarascon, our base for a visit to Arles. Believe it or not Arles is a city, which is seven times the geographic size of Paris yet with a population of just 50,000 people.

Its Roman history is everywhere, but perhaps most significant is the magnificently impressive Les Arènes, the 20,000 seat amphitheatre which is still in use today.

As we sat in the arena, our guide explained how it is now used for ‘bull races’, an event specific to this area of the Camargue.

Instead of trying to kill the bulls, bull racing involves the equally crazy and seemingly suicidal challenge of trying to remove tassles from the bull’s head as it charges angrily towards you!

The other reason that makes Arles famous is Vincent Van Gogh. The artist lived in Arles and painted a staggering 300 works during his time here, many of which have become some of the most iconic and reproduced images in Western art.

It was in Arles that Van Gogh also cut off part of his ear and spent over a year in the Hotel-Dieu … the hospital, which we also visited.

It was fascinating, to follow in the artist’s footsteps and see the places and objects that he had immortalized in some of his paintings.

Most interesting was a visit to the Café de Nuit’ – (with its ‘starry, starry night’) – to see exactly what Van Gogh saw as he painted this masterpiece.

Exploring Tarascon under our own steam, just a short walk from the ship, we found and explored King René’s castle and this turned out to be an absolute hidden gem.

Have you ever been secretly disappointed with castle visits, when you find little more than collapsed walls and lumps of stone? This was not the case in Tarascon.

This is the most beautifully intact medieval castle I have ever seen, with its maze of large rooms leading off each other.

That night after a sumptuous dinner, we cruised into Avignon and we were all invited onto the deck as we approached the famous bridge to sing the obvious song, ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’ accompanied by, of course, a French accordion player!

Yes a tacky, tourist cliché, but after the several glasses of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, that had been served with our meal, a highly enjoyable and memorable experience.

Avignon is not just famous for its bridge, (Pont St Benezet) but also for its Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes). This is the largest Gothic palace in the world and was home to seven Popes from 1309 to 1377.

Here we were able to tour the maze of private papal apartments, view the stunning frescoes and appreciate the grand scale of this amazing building.

Now, I suppose it was inevitable, but it won’t come as a huge surprise to you, that food and drink played a very important part in this river cruise, with most days offering up some typically French temptation. It was all delicious and extremely difficult to resist. I didn’t!

In Avignon, we were let loose in Les Halles … the indoor food market … and here we sampled a range of creatively flavoured olives and garlic.

As if this wasn’t enough, later that day as we cruised away from Avignon and down the Rhône we were served French pastries, lemon meringue, apple tarts and macaroons typical of the area together with cognac and coffee.

This however was merely the dress rehearsal, for the food tastings to come the next day. The city was Tournon and first a visit to the Valrhona chocolate factory and shop in Tain l’Hermitage.

This was chocolate heaven for many, as we were given unlimited access to sample as much chocolate as we wanted.

Given that there were so many different types and styles of chocolate to try, it didn’t take long before the brain was screaming … “enough”, though the hand and mouth weren’t always listening!

Happy, but dosed up on chocolate, it was then onto the Crozes Hermitage winery, where we were given three wines to taste before sleeping our way back to the ship for dinner with a Provencal theme.

Let me ask you another question: What do the following have in common … a retired clergyman; a personal injury lawyer; a printer of banknotes, an opera singer and a plumber?

The answer – absolutely nothing – apart from the fact that they were just some of our many dinner companions during the voyage.

One of the things I really enjoy about river cruising is the social informality onboard and how easy it is to get to know your fellow passengers. With around 190 guests, there are no ‘black tie’ formal evenings.

All meals are served together with open seating. You can sit anywhere and with whomever you want for any meal. My wife and I made a point of sitting with different people everyday. It was fascinating to meet so many different folk and hear their stories.

Onwards down the Rhône, we made a stop in Vienne, to take a walking tour of the city and to check out its Roman origins, which included the impressive Temple of Augustus and Livia.

We were also treated to a mini-train ride up to Mont Pipet for an incredibly spectacular view across Vienne and the winding Rhone River below.

Soon we arrived in Lyon, the second largest city in France, the gastronomic capital of the country and the confluence of the two rivers, the Rhône and the Saône. This is a huge, modern and vibrant city, which is over 2,000 years old with an historical old town that is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage site.

Included in our cruise was a scenic coach tour around the city with stops at the magnificent Fourvière Basilica and a walking tour through the old town and some of the traboules … the secret alleyways that the silk weavers used.

Believe it or not, at this point, we had coped for an entire day without the formal temptations of food or wine tastings. I suppose it was inevitable therefore that as we cruised into the Burgundy region and visited the old town of Beaune, in the heart of vineyard country we would have to summon our strength for a final round of tastings.

Here we sampled two whites, two reds and a liquor, with some totally delicious cheese puffs, whilst on the way to the Hotel de Dieu. This incredible hospital with its unique styling, colourful roof and gothic facades is totally unique. It was built in the 15th Century as a hospital for the poor and remarkably it continued as a hospital up until 1971.

All too soon, our final stop on the cruise was Chalon-sur-Saône, a small and charming, almost caricature French town, where we wandered in the Sunday morning market, drank coffee in a pavement café and queued up for our fresh baguette.

Despite seeing so much and over indulging just now and then with the food and drink … and chocolate … this ‘Portraits of Southern France’ river cruise from Viking was nevertheless conducted at a gentle and leisurely pace.

We had plenty of time to sit back and relax on the ship, enjoy the scenery and sleep off the wine tastings.

In terms of service, Viking knows exactly how to look after its guests. They claim in their promotional literature that they explore the world in comfort! On this cruise they certainly lived up to that promise.

TRAVEL FACTS

Viking River Cruises offers an eight-day river cruise from £2,444pp full board including all meals and drinks (wine, beer & soft drinks only) and 6 included guided tours. Price includes flights and guests also have access to free Wi-Fi. Viking often have a range of special offers with discounts of up to £1,000 per person. They can be contacted on 0800 319 6660 for further information about the best deals available. Website: www.vikingcruises.co.uk