France: Arles to Lyon on the Rhone

By Pamela Wade

A French cruise ... idyllic. Photo / Getty Images
A French cruise ... idyllic. Photo / Getty Images

You might call it a well-trodden thoroughfare, except that it's a river. The ancient Greeks came this way, and the Romans, and now it's my turn, chugging quietly up the Rhone from Arles at the Mediterranean end all the way to Lyon and beyond.

Frankly, though Pytheas and his mates may have had the eye-candy of muscular slaves to admire as they were rowed upriver, I'm preferring the unashamed luxury of my Uniworld cruiser, the River Royale.

I have a cushioned bed, a marble bathroom and floor-to-ceiling ranchsliders; downstairs there's a dining room staffed by people who take the responsibility of serving food very seriously indeed; and upstairs a cosy lounge and open-air deck have both-sides view of the Provence scenery. It's what I've really come for: wooded hills and distant mountains, orchards of hunched olive trees and lines of twisted cypresses, endless striped vineyards, little villages of coloured houses clustered around their churches, and the towns.

The towns all face the river, which brought their first visitors, and arriving by boat places us right in the centre, just a short stroll from the square and important buildings. In Arles, that's the Roman amphitheatre, an oval double-decker of creamy sandstone arches where 2000 years ago gladiators and wild animals fought to the death and the arena was soaked in blood. Now the colour comes from the bright fabrics in the souvenir shops and the umbrellas over the pavement cafe tables. Narrow cobbled lanes wind invitingly between the terraced houses where paint peels off the shutters and graffiti in French seems much less offensive. It's a cheerfully scruffy place, it's very lived-in but undeniably picturesque - and that's official, because who would disagree with Van Gogh? He's an industry here and we visit the originals of his paintings: cafes and gardens still looking the same as when he interpreted them in his vibrant oils.

We drive through more of his paintings on the way to an olive mill.

Ten generations of olive production haven't dulled the passion, and in a converted stable we are guided through a tasting of green and golden oils. Then in the hilltop village of Les Baux, which seems to grow organically out of its limestone outcrop, we're swept along alleyways by the fierce mistral wind, within living memory a legally acceptable mitigation for murder. Only 22 people live here now, but its well-deserved reputation as one of France's prettiest villages brings a transient population to the winding streets.

An overnight sail up the river brings us to Avignon, bigger but still so attractive that I don't resent having that song stuck in my head all day. The bridge on which one dances in the song is just along the bank, its low arches stopping abruptly halfway across the river, but the city wall is intact. Inside, it's full of churches, as you would expect after a century of popes living here.

The Palace of the Popes is vast, and so are its three wine cellars - the popes heartily embraced the concept of wine that Pytheas and his followers had introduced to the region.

Not far from the city, the Cotes du Rhone appellation reaches perfection at Chateauneuf-du-Pape. In a cellar surrounded by miles of stony vineyards, under the tuition of a stern oenologist we taste the results of centuries of tradition.

Nearby is the Pont du Gard: a magnificent three-tiered aqueduct, two millennia old and still standing strong against floods that wash away feeble modern structures. It's beautiful and deeply impressive. The Greeks brought wine to Provence, but the Romans have left an incomparable mark on the landscape.

Our next stop was established by the Romans too: the mysteriously empty village of Viviers, built on a hillside where we trail up cobbled lanes between higgledy-piggledy old houses, and see only cats. It comes to life at the top, when we enter a short, fat cathedral where the organ fills the building with joyful sound as we marvel at the intricate intarsia of its altar.

Passing a sinister cluster of nuclear power cooling towers, we reach the twin towns of Tain l'Hermitage and Tournon, linked by a distinctive suspension bridge. On either side the steep hillsides are draped with grapevines, and more wine-tasting is an option here; but just a block away there is the Valrhona Chocolate Factory, with free samples. It's the ideal precursor to the afternoon's onboard crepes suzette cooking demonstration, itself the perfect preparation for a pre-dinner nap.

Next morning brings Lyon, our biggest city. From its lovely basilica on the hill, our local guide leads us downhill through a maze of hidden alleyways, put to good use by the Resistance during the war. At the bottom we peel away to our choice of restaurants for lunch, anything from Paul Bocuse's Le Sud (website in French) to Macca's for a McBaguette, to fuel up for the shops and museums. I find a quaint collection of automatons; a miniature Quasimodo rolls his eyes at the top of the bell-tower while Esmeralda gaily waves her tambourine below.

Now we leave the Rhone and branch left into the Saone River, squeezing under 15 bridges. Next morning, I'm woken by the bump as we moor at Chalon-sur-Saone, our last port of call. Though our visit to the marvellous Hopital de Beaune (website in French), with its glorious patterned roof tiles and fascinating story, is great consolation there's no getting past that we've reached the end of our voyage.

I would happily stay on board for the return journey. After all, everything looks different going the other way.

Pamela Wade was a guest of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises and Etihad Airways.

- NZ Herald

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