DAY 1 EMBARK IN AVIGNON
Arrive in Avignon, where your five-star floating hotel is moored in the picturesque historic center. The dedicated English-speaking crew will welcome you on board and help you to your cabin. After settling in to your spacious and tastefully furnished accommodation, there’s time to familiarise yourself with this five-star floating hotel.
DAY 2 AVIGNON
The light catching the red roofs of Avignon’s majestic skyline is a sight to behold over breakfast, after which we embark on a guided tour of one of the most extraordinary and intriguing cities in France. Avignon’s destiny changed during the 14th century, when the Pope’s court moved here to avoid strife in Rome. Igniting a century of prosperity, the pontiff commissioned a host of ambitious building projects, and today the city is immaculately preserved, nestling behind its almost-intact 14th-century walls and boasting more remarkable monuments, superbly decorated buildings, churches, chapels and convents than you can possibly count. Most important is the stunning Popes’ Palace, made up of two buildings that together form the largest Gothic palace in the world. With turrets, towers, parapets and other fortifications, its exterior resembles a mighty fortress, while the interior is a tour de force of medieval architecture and ornamentation, adorned with priceless frescoes, Gobelin tapestries and graceful sculptures. The ceremonial hall, chapels, cloisters and private apartments are all unmissable. But to truly embrace the feel of papal Avignon, imagine yourself here during the Middle Ages amid the Palace’s rich furnishings and extravagant decoration, with cardinals, princes and ambassadors milling about its candlelit halls and corridors, while in the streets below countless pilgrims eagerly anticipate benediction. This was Avignon’s brief golden age, when it was truly the centre of Christendom.
After lunch you’re free to explore as you wish, perhaps visiting the nearby Petit Palais, the former home of the archbishops of Avignon, to cast a critical eye over the remarkable collection of over 300 paintings and sculptures from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, including works by Botticelli and Carpaccio. Or take a stroll on the iconic Pont d’Avignon, which, dramatically, ends halfway across the river, made famous by the melody we all recall from our first French lessons. It’s our final afternoon so you may wish to do some shopping, or just find a quiet café in a shady Provençal square to watch the world go by. Perhaps though, return to the luxurious surroundings of our ship, finding a quiet spot to contemplate the many wondrous places you’ve seen and experienced over a quiet cup of tea.
Returning on board for dinner, the ship sets sail towards our next destination, Arles arriving later that evening.
DAY 3 ARLES & PONT DU GARD
You awake under the azure skies of deepest Provence, amid the warm stone colours of Arles, many of whose historic monuments are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Although small in size, it was the key stronghold on the Roman road to Spain, one of the empire’s richest possessions. Seagoing ships could reach here and the city became a regional capital, briefly ruling over Gaul, Spain and Britain. Our guided tour will help you appreciate the finer points of Arles’ magnificent Roman remains, including the splendid amphitheatre, one of the best preserved in the world, the earlier theatre built during the reign of Augustus and the Alyscamps, the ancient necropolis with its extraordinary atmosphere. The disturbed but great genius of an artist, Van Gogh, lived in Arles for just over a year, from February 1888. It was his most prolific period and, inspired by Arles and the light and beauty of the Provençal countryside, he produced around 300 works, including The Night Café, The Sower and, of course, Sunflowers.
After lunch we visit the amazing Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct, one of the wonders of the ancient world. No amount of fame can diminish the first sight of this 2,000-year-old structure, which was the highest bridge built in the Empire – the Romans themselves considered it the most important testimony to their greatness. Its statistics are staggering: over 900 feet long and almost 160 feet high, with its stones each weighing up to six tons. To put this in perspective, the span of the Pont du Gard is greater than the width of the River Thames at London Bridge – and no mortar was used in its construction! The situation is lovely too, with pine- and cypress-covered hills adding to the harmonious setting. Re-joining the ship in Avignon, we cruise towards Viviers during dinner.
DAY 4 ARDÈCHE GORGES & TOURNON
This morning we disembark after breakfast and whilst our ship effortlessly cruises upstream towards Le Pouzin, we will explore one of France’s most outstanding landscapes – the Ardèche Gorges, whose scale is a fitting reminder of Mother Nature’s awesome power. Sheer limestone cliffs plunge almost 1,000 feet to the river’s blue waters, which elegantly snake their way through stupendous rock formations, culminating in a huge natural arch, the Pont d’Arc. We enjoy marvellous views at every turn of caves, grottoes and natural sculptures before returning to the ship moored in Le Pouzin. Enjoy a relaxing afternoon on board – perhaps catching up on some reading or just lazing in the sun as the temperature rises, before we arrive in the pretty provincial town of Tournon with its lovely tree-lined avenues. Across the river, you’ll see the vine-covered hillsides producing Hermitage, yet another of the world’s most revered wines – a fitting view as we enjoy another exquisite dinner in the ship’s excellent restaurant.
DAY 5 VIENNE
During breakfast this morning, we’ll slip our moorings and cruise north through one of the most spectacular sections of the Rhône Valley, as the river squeezes and twists pasts Condrieu, Saint-Rambert-d’Albon and Saint-Vallier, with wooded cliffs rising high on both sides. Traditionally these stretches were the most dangerous due to fierce currents and varying water levels but, with the waters now tamed by a series of locks whose complex mechanisms never cease to fascinate, you can relax on the Sun Deck taking in the exceptional views. After lunch we arrive in the ancient Roman stronghold of Vienne, first a Celtic settlement, then a Roman stronghold under Julius Caesar. Strikingly located in a narrow section of the Rhône, where the river meanders dramatically around a steep bluff, Vienne is a treasure trove of historic remains, including the stunning Roman Temple of Augustus and Livia, and a walk around its streets really brings its heritage to life.
You will also have some free time to explore at your leisure before returning to the ship for dinner, during which we commence our cruise towards Chalon-sur-Saône.
DAY 6 BEAUNE & BURGUNDY
Overnight we have made steady progress north and mid-morning we arrive in and berth in Chalon, gateway to Burgundy and the home of Nicéphore Niépce, the inventor of photography. On today’s tour we see some of the pretty yet surprisingly small villages that produce some of the world’s most sublime wines – Meursault, Volnay, Pommard, Gevrey-Chambertin and many more. Nearby is medieval Beaune, Burgundy’s wine capital, which is wonderful to wander around. At its centre is the Hospices de Beaune, also known as the Hôtel-Dieu. Originally built in the 15th century as a hospital for the disadvantaged, it’s a jewel of High Gothic architecture, instantly recognisable for its colourful glazed roof tiles arranged in dazzling geometric patterns. A prestigious annual wine auction takes place here each November, with proceeds going to benefit the Hospices and its charity work. Of course, you can’t visit Burgundy without sampling its amazing wines, so we visit the cellars of a leading traditional winemaker for a tour and tasting.
Later we return to ship and as we slip our moorings once again, enjoy an aperitif with newly made friends in the convivial bar before tonight’s dinner.
DAY 7 LYON
One of river cruising’s great pleasures is the fascination of waking in a completely different location and on waking this morning, the ship arrives in Lyon. After our last splendid breakfast, we’ve a leisurely start enjoying a guided tour of Lyon, one of France’s most fascinating cities. The Rhône Valley had been the route of choice for marauding armies and peaceful traders for centuries, and Lyon’s current site, at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers, cried out to be fortified. In 43 BC the Romans founded the city, which subsequently grew in importance; Emperor Claudius, conqueror of Britain, was born here. There are many Roman remains to see, but it was the production of silk that brought Lyon to prominence during the Middle Ages, and throughout the city you can see signs of the wealth that poured in – Renaissance buildings, imposing churches and Europe’s largest pedestrian square, Place Bellecour, with a statue of Louis XIV as its focus. The Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is crammed with antique shops and intriguing traboules – narrow covered passageways enabling silk merchants to transport their wares to the river without getting wet – that today are a joy to amble through. As well as its glorious architecture, Lyon is generally acknowledged as France’s (and to locals, the world’s) gastronomic capital. In fairness it has much to commend it: nouvelle cuisine was invented near here and the city boasts a huge array of speciality food shops and eateries, including 20 restaurants with one or more Michelin stars and countless little places to eat.
It’s our final afternoon in which you are free to explore Lyon further or perhaps though, return to the sumptuous surroundings of your ship, head up on to the Sun Deck and just contemplate the wondrous places you have seen and experienced over a quiet cup of tea. This evening the Captain’s dinner takes place, serving specialities of the regions you have visited during your voyage of discovery through this fascinating country.
DAY 8 DISEMBARK IN LYON
After breakfast this morning, the crew bids you farewell before you disembark the ship, with time to look back on great memories from a superb trip.