Taking a boat down the river to Avignon…

At Christmas last year, my mom surprised my sister and I with tickets for a Viking River Cruise in France as part of our summer adventure! It was a week-long journey down the Rhône river from Chalon-sur-Saône to Avignon. My sister and I had been on an ocean cruise with our grandparents when we were younger, but our mom had never been on one. We arrived in Chalon-sur-Saône on Saturday afternoon and we were greeted by a cruise ship representative to bring us to the bus that would take us to our new start point in Lyon. The river levels were so high this year that the boat could not get back up the river because it could not fit under the bridges. We collapsed onto our white-on-white deluxe beds in our cabins and delighted in the modern, clean, and stylish design of the ship that we discovered was brand new this year. Mum had her own room next to us, and we could peek around the balcony at each other when we were enjoying the sunshine along the way (which we barely had time to do because our schedule was packed).

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The majority of the guests on the ship were Americans, and there were a handful of Canadians and Brits for a total of 180 passengers. If you are familiar with Viking Cruises, you may already know this, but we counted on the first night that there were seven passengers on the ship under the age of 50.
Since we were hours down the river from where we started, we stayed in Lyon for the first couple of days and took bus trips out from there for the excursions. It was quite rainy at the start of the trip and we discovered after our first day that the giant red umbrellas with “Viking Cruises” were much better than the packable umbrellas we brought, and we already looked like über-tourists traveling in a large group of seniors and wearing little radio packs around our necks listening to our tour guide. To the girls who had worked so hard to blend in as Parisians, this was a little less than ideal for us, but worth it for the places we visited. It was also strange to have an entirely English-speaking crew and guests that made it completely unnecessary to speak French (though we would practice in all the small towns we went to as much as we could).

The daily schedule was a huge difference for us as we’d been living on the late-night/late-morning routine, and on the ship breakfast started at 6:30am and went until 9:30am, and most morning excursions started between 8:00am and 9:00am. I’m actually surprised we made it to all of them every day!

On the first day we did a walking tour of Lyon in the morning and it was raining the entire time.

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We went up to the highest point, where there is both a church and a small Eiffel Tower. It had a wonderful view of the city of Lyon, which reminded us of Florence, Italy.

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The church is called Le Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviére. We didn’t plan to go inside the church as a tour group because they were in the middle of mass, but mum peeked in just before we got back on the bus and waved us over to join her. I stepped inside and discovered the most beautiful interior of a church that I had ever seen in my entire life. I stood there completely speechless for about ten minutes, mesmerized by the sculptures, mosaics, and gold details. Not only that, but as we stepped inside a soloist started singing and if you have any idea about the acoustics of a large domed ceiling, it was the epitome of breathtaking. (Of course, no photos were allowed so I only have a couple exterior shots.)

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After lunch we took a bus out to the ancient city of Pérouge, built in the 15th century. We wandered along some of the most complicated/designed cobblestone streets and by beautiful ivy-covered homes and restaurants.

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No, that isn’t just interesting woodwork on the door, it has charred completely from some fire. Crazy.

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As part of the tour, we also got to try the local ‘gallettes’, a crepe-like baking made of butter, flour, and sugar.

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The meals on the ship were excellent, and we quickly found ourselves taking photos of them because the plating was so beautiful.

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Lobster and scallop cerviche in a vanilla sauce. We all agreed this was one of the best tasting dishes we have ever had.

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The “amuse-bouche” on our first night on the ship.

We discovered early on that the staff of the ship was exceptional, and the Program Director Susann (from Germany) and Hotel Manager Kornelia (from Austria) were fantastically friendly and personable hosts who we often chatted with on the boat and off.

Susann dressed up for the "Taste of Provence" dinner.

Susann dressed up for the “Taste of Provence” dinner.

On the second full day my sister and I got up early to go for a run before the boat made it’s departure to our next stop. It had stopped raining for the first time so far and we captured some photos along our run to remind us of Lyon before having breakfast on the deck. We would have liked to stay longer here.

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A pedestrian bridge to “Old Lyon”

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The mini Eiffel Tower was built taller than the church after the French Revolution to show that religion and the Catholic Church no longer was the most powerful force in Lyon.

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Breakfast! (Including some to bring back to surprise mum in her cabin)

The sun stayed out for the start of our trip down the river, and we enjoyed some sunshine on our balcony as the top deck was closed to fit under all the bridges.

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This is was our ‘view’ going through a lock:

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Our afternoon excursion was to Vienne, and this massive church called the Cathedral of St Maurice, in the ‘Flamboyant Gothic’ style.

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In the afternoon we went to Baune, and explored the “Hotel Dieu” which was once a free hospital for the poor and is now a museum.

The inner courtyard of the hospital. The roof tiles were redone in the original style, and are enamel-painted metal shingles

The old medicine bottles

The old medicine bottles

After some free time we were invited to the basement of a wine store to their 14th century cellar for a wine tasting, and we tried 4 kinds of wine (2 white, 2 red- can you tell I’m not a big wine drinker?! 😉 ) and a cassis liqueur used to make an aperatif wine that was created in Beaune called Kir.

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We met so many lovely people this week, and we almost wanted a longer cruise so we could spend more time in such excellent new-found company. When we got back on the ship in Vienne we started chatting with Michael and Eileen, a delightful couple from New Jersey. We sat with them for dinner, and quickly realized (without wanting to sound cliché) what marvellously kindred spirits they are. We enjoyed chatting with them on other excursions during the week and we hope to not only keep in touch but that our paths cross back on ‘the other side of the pond’.

It was partway through dinner leaving Vienne that we realized we had started travelling backwards. It turns out a crane on the top of the ship broke, and we couldn’t continue on without it working so we had to go back to Vienne to get it repaired. There was great apology for the delay by the crew, and they opened up the bar for the rest of the night. And let me tell you, the seniors on that ship were crazy partiers that evening into the wee hours! When the after dinner dance party began, and Dancing Queen started up (followed by the Macarena), we retreated back to our cabin and watched Kevin Kline and Meg Ryan in “French Kiss”. 🙂
The next day we went to Tournon, a city built in medieval times, and the chocolate capital of France. (Oh yes.)

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We started with a wine tasting at a beautiful vineyard where we tried several kinds of Shiraz, and afterwards we went into town for a chocolate tasting. Our tour guide said we could sample as much chocolate as we wanted at the chocolate shop we were heading to. We thought “Yeah, right. He means they will bring around a tray to the group and we will be able to take a piece of 3 or 4 kinds. He’s exaggerating”. Nope. I have never seen so many samples. They had over a dozen kinds of chocolate, with different names and descriptions (similar to wine), varying in cocoa percentage, and they had four main types: dark, milk, white, and blonde. Blonde was created here when a chocolatier over cooked the white chocolate and the sugar in it caramelized, and it turned caramel coloured. Long story short, we all sampled as much as we wanted just as our tour guide had said we could.

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Samples of every kind

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Everywhere you looked: samples

That night we arrived in Viviers and went on an evening walking tour at 9:00pm. It was a very small town with the narrowest cobblestone streets, and dark alleyways that make it easy to imagine a Jack-The-Ripper type story to have happened here over a century ago.

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A pretty door. 🙂

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We arrived in Arles early the next morning, and were given a couple options for the day. Our ship was sailing to Avignon after lunch so we could take the bus into town for the morning tour and either bus back for lunch and stay on the ship while it travels, or stay in Arles until the late afternoon and bus to Avignon for dinner. At this point in the week we were pretty tired of buses so we decided to stay in Arles for the day. On our tour we saw the amphitheatre, the town hall, and the hospital that Van Gough stayed in that has been turned into a museum. Our tour guide was so slow that we had time to do a little souvenir shopping in between stops on the tour. (Well, my sister bought things mostly. I’m great at encouraging others to buy things. I’m a souvenir enabler. 🙂 )

The amphitheatre:

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We came upon the Réattu Museum where we had heard there was some Picasso and other pieces. The museum was brilliantly set up, and apart from the numerous incredible pieces by Réattu, there were many great juxtapositions of old and new pieces, and we were thrilled we had the time to check it out.

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This was one of Réattu’s many gorgeous sketches

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This is a letter Van Gough wrote to Gaugin

This was a letter from Van Gough to Gaugin.

We waited for the bus at a park where a couple groups of elderly men were playing pétanque, and then headed by bus to meet our boat in Avignon. We arrived just as our ship was pulling up to the dock.

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That night was the Captains Dinner, where they introduced the entire staff one by one. It was cool to see each crew member recognized individually and we also heard what country they are all from (most: Bulgaria, Hungary, and Germany).

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The huge Ferris wheel outside the walled city of Avignon.

The next day we explored Avignon, which many crew members on the ship told us it was their favourite stop, and now we can see why. A walled city, Avignon has beautiful old architecture, and curving spiral streets. We started at the Papal Palace.

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The art installation inside the palace

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Some spices at the market

Some spices at the market

imageWe went to the Les Halles Market and got to walk through the most postered streets I have ever seen, as their gigantic annual theatre festival was going on. (It is about half the size of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but is made up of mostly French pieces, and over 1000 shows run for 4 weeks- each production has its show every day at the same time so you can easily organize your schedule.) As we walked down the street dozens of artists handed us their pamphlets advertising their production and they often went into enthusiastic explanation (in French, of course), about their show.

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Our placemats at lunch even advertised the festival… So many options

We picked up the phone-book-sized festival program and looked over the options at lunch. We decided we had time for three shows before dinner, and tried to pick shows that might be a bit more Anglophone-friendly, choosing to go see a magician, a one-woman show about Billy Holiday (a musical?), and a clown. We also caught a sneak peek at a commedia del arté version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we would go to after dinner, but on our way to one of the afternoon shows we crossed paths with two men dressed formally and walking down the street carrying a coffin between them. I asked one which show they were doing and he handed me a pamphlet, and replied with a deadpan look “In the coffin is a man who saw our show last night. He died. From laughter.”

We decided to change our plans and at 10:00pm watched a two-man show with almost no words make us laugh until our faces hurt and I had tears streaming down my cheeks. It was brilliant. On the way home we took a ride on the Ferris wheel by the water, because, why not. 🙂

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We got back to the ship and finished packing, in order to be ready to leave the next morning after breakfast and pick up our rental car to head out of Avignon to our final week of family vacation in the heart of Provence. What a week!

One thought on “Taking a boat down the river to Avignon…

  1. Wow, sounds like an EPIC, delicious and beautifully busy week! Explore away! (And SO glad you actually watched French Kiss in France!!!! Yaaaaa!) xo! Grosses bises à vous tous, belles madames!

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