France is the most visited country in the world for good reason – the art, culture and gastronomy, the iconic landmarks and the idyllic countryside elicit joie de vivre for all who travel there. It’s imbued with history at every turn and there’s no better way to experience it than on an eight-day Viking cruise from Avignon to Lyon on the Rhone River. It’s not my first time in France, but it’s certainly a new experience to explore the countryside on a river cruise and as a cruise aficionado, I’m a big fan of the ‘unpack once and enjoy the journey’ appeal of cruising.
A Viking river cruise really elevates the experience of exploring a destination from the onboard amenities to the offshore excursions, immersive experiences and included tours. The itineraries are well-curated and with ports located closer to town centres and an included shore excursion in every port, there's time to explore at leisure or on a guided walking experience.
On board Viking Delling, an intimate, state-of-the-art vessel inspired by Scandinavian longships, I have all the modern conveniences at my fingertips, including free Wi-Fi. My spacious stateroom is a comfortable spot to retreat to and I also adore the curated onboard library, one of the reasons why Viking is considered the 'thinking person's cruise line'.
The south of France in summer is so ripe with beauty, aromas and charm you can easily see how this pocket of Provence has seduced and inspired artists for centuries. The light throws the colours and details into sharp relief from individual cobblestones to the intricate folds of a sliced truffle. Even the sunrise from my tastefully furnished cabin aboard Viking Delling is like a watercolour painting – beautiful pink and orange shades reflecting in the river.
Arles, the inspiration for many of Vincent van Gogh's artworks, is also as pretty as a picture. On a guided walking tour, I’m reminded of the town’s famed quality of light and vibrant colours; floral window boxes, brightly hued doors and windows all vying for my attention. With free time to explore, I stop for an espresso at the famous Le Cafe La Nuit, which van Gogh painted in Cafe Terrace at Night, and enjoy the leafy ambience in the gorgeous piazza.
One of the most picturesque villages in France, Gordes sports a uniform look of stacked sandstone tumbling down a hillside. Contrasting with the brilliant blue sky and verdant trees, it takes my breath away. The village is built into the hillside with a beautiful 5-star hotel at the top and 10th-century chateau and Romanesque Saint-Firmin church nearby. Bees provide the buzzing soundtrack to a blooming field of lavender, the gorgeous scent lingering as we stop to take in the sight en route to the town of Monieux.
Lavender is definitely a theme here – walking up a steep, cobblestone hill even the washcloths drying on lines are a soft purple hue. We lunch at Les Lavandes where, over scoops of lavender ice-cream and chilled rosé, I learn more of the area’s history that dates back to Roman times, including the UNESCO-listed Pont du Gard, the ancient aqueduct now a delightful spot for local families to cool off in the river.
From lavender to sunflowers, another of van Gogh’s masterpieces in real life. We disembark in Viviers, just a short walk from the ship to the town centre, to find a field of sunflowers. Tall and vibrant with the Old Town and 12th-century St Vincent Cathedral as a backdrop, I must have taken 50 photos of these sunny, graceful flowers. The town of Viviers is a highlight – the movie, Chocolat, was filmed here and it’s the quintessential French village, all medieval and Renaissance houses and cobblestone streets and locals strolling with baguettes tucked under their arms. It’s a truly immersive experience into the French way of life.
Cruising further up the Rhone River, I see more beautiful villages from my Veranda stateroom balcony. Characterised by stone houses, ancient church spires atop hills, medieval towers standing watch, trickling mills and lush vineyards, there’s always something interesting to see on my journey. The gastronomic heart of France is undoubtedly Lyon, an UNESCO World Heritage Site dotted with architectural treasures including the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere, St Jean Cathedral and Palace of Justice.
I strike out on a tour of the renowned Beaujolais wine region, north of Lyon, captivated by the rolling valleys and lush vines as far as I can see from a 15th-century hillside windmill, the views enhanced by the insights provided by my knowledgeable local guide.
At Chateau de Pierreclos, the stately castle and historic estate also houses rows of vineyards. In the caves beneath the chateau, where old wine equipment is kept and wine tastings are held in the cool environment, I take a deep breath and inhale a sweet grape scent, steeped in the walls from centuries of winemaking. I taste a white made with chardonnay grapes, and an earthy yet light red wine. Le-Cos Piguet farm unearths another of the region’s gourmet delights: black truffles.
On a 'working world' shore excursion, I accompany owner Olivier and his truffle-hunting dog, Chinouk, as she searches and locates truffles under hazelnut trees in the orchard. It’s an incredible process to watch and Chinouk is quick to find the delicacies. Not many can say they have eaten a truffle within five minutes of digging it from the ground, but Olivier generously slices some for me to try. It’s earthy with a hint of hazelnut.
A perfect host, Olivier also dishes up bread with truffle butter and a beef stew with fluffy couscous, followed by a cheese wheel with truffles in the middle and a divine truffle chocolate mousse, paired with local wines. This attention to detail is also echoed on board, where the menu follows the region you’re sailing through with delicious French offerings such as onion soup with provolone and gruyere, duck breast with fig sauce and herbed mash potato and decadent, creamy desserts – all meals and beverages are included as part of your Viking cruise.
On the lighter side, there’s a buffet-style alfresco lunch on the Aquavit Terrace & Lounge, ideally located at the bow of the ship for optimal views. To make the most of the vistas as you dine, there’s a few onboard venues to choose from, including the Viking Lounge & Bar with floor-to-ceiling glass doors, plus a restaurant with panoramic views.
On our last night on board as we farewell new friends at dinner, I take the opportunity to spend time on the sundeck to watch the sunset over Lyon. Seeing the silhouette of the Basilica de Notre Dame and cityscape along the river was just magic and it’s a moment in an unforgettable journey that’s etched in my mind forever.
This is one of Flight Centre's Top 50 Travel Experiences for 2020. Read the whole list here!