The journey begins with popes and painters. It was rebellious popes who put Avignon on the map by knocking up an impressive fortress residence and moving in for a century.
Their papal palace broods over tree-shaded squares that spill cafe tables and chatter. Beyond the city walls, the Rhone River slides beneath Avignon’s truncated medieval bridge, and scenic departure point for a Uniworld cruise through France.
Next day we’re in Arles, famous thanks to van Gogh, who lived (and cut off his ear) in town, and painted its streetscapes. This town is also crowned by a monumental building, but the Roman amphitheatre is strangely overlooked in a clutter of sunflower-yellow postcards and posters.
"Buy your souvenirs today or you won’t find them tomorrow," advises Piet our cruise director, before adding: "Then again, buy them today and you’re bound to find them tomorrow at half the price!"
Many passengers return to the ship clutching olive oil and Starry Night tea towels, but this eight-day Uniworld river cruise isn’t just a shopping spree. We learn about art, history and wine, and excursion choices offer active alternatives: kayaking the Gard River, Nordic walking along the city ramparts at Tournon, cycling along Lyon’s riverside promenades.
My boat afloat is the trim, sexy SS Catherine, launched just one year ago. My cabin rivals a boutique hotel room: the marble bathroom is delightful, the shower gushes and my balcony shimmers with river light. With the touch of a button a glass screen rises to enclose it, extending my interior space on a rainy day.
Although it’s Uniworld’s largest vessel, SS Catherine only carries 159 passengers. It’s a luxurious ship with eccentric design tastes. Original Chagall and Miro sketches line the corridors and the lounge is an explosion of leopard-skin and floral prints. Colourful opulence is countered by unobtrusive service, particularly outstanding in the restaurant, where waiters seem to anticipate passengers’ every whim.
The food on board SS Catherine is well matched to the regions it sails through, and top quality. We dine on daube provencal (wine-rich beef stew), soupe au pistou (vegetable soup freshened with pesto) and cod bouillabaisse, all Provence specialities.
The chef gives us a crepes Suzette demonstration. Post-dinner cheese plates are fabulous: I nibble through a regional French round-up of Roquefort, Reblochon and St-Nectaire. It says much about Uniworld’s sense of food adventure that the waiter tempts me into trying blue-cheese ice cream one evening. It’s surprisingly delicious.
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We sail north for a morning in Viviers, a somnolent riverside town where cats roam and old men play boules in the square. Away from the tourist trail, it provides a pleasant contrast to Avignon and Arles. France’s smallest cathedral sits at its summit, in which we’re treated to a concert. The organ bellows and booms, sending shockwaves through my ribcage.
Beyond Viviers, Provence left behind, we sail the flat, industrialised landscapes of the Rhone-Alpes region until, near Tain l’Hermitage, the scenery rucks up into vine-clad hills and the hazy Alps appear.
Twinned with the tower-studded town of Tournon on the opposite bank, Tain is one of the prettiest places to moor in Europe. I visit a cellar door for a Cotes du Rhone wine tasting, while other passengers opt to visit Valrhona, the high-end chocolate company founded here in 1922.
Next day, Lyon is our big-city moment. "Lyon is so bourgeois. Everyone is very polite and well-behaved," says our local guide Aurelie. But there’s much to be said for a bourgeois city: good museums, fine buildings studded with wrought-iron and statues, a temptation of shops and restaurants. Patisseries induce gluttony with pink tarts, orange macaroons and green marzipan ‘Lyon cushions’.
The late-afternoon departure from Lyon is wonderful. Where the Rhone and Saone meet, funky contemporary buildings erupt, then we sail through the city centre as kids wave from bridges. Soon we’re gliding past villas and into blue Burgundian hills. Swans paddle beneath willow trees. Such lovely passing landscapes are a good reason to river cruise, as we’re transported to another destination with delightful ease.
Next morning, I throw back my cabin curtains to find we’re docked at Chalon-sur-Saone. I just have time for a morning stroll through quiet, pigeon-popped squares before we’re off by coach to Beaune, medieval seat of the dukes of Burgundy and the base of many influential wine merchants.
Beaune is a graceful, walled town whose highlight is the Hôtel-Dieu, a medieval hospice of zigzag-tiled roofs. In my free time, I stop at a cellar door and sniff my way around the mushrooms, mustard and Chaource and Epoisses cheeses of the local market. Then I sit in a sunny courtyard and soak up the history, just happy to be here.