With river cruises rising in popularity, Anthony Pearce joins Uniworld on the Rhône
Under the baking summer sun on the SS Catherine’s top deck, a glass of wine in hand, we set sail from Lyon on a journey south to Provence, where vineyards, Roman ruins and Mediterranean cuisine awaits. It’s easy, almost immediately, to understand the appeal of river cruising, a market that has grown hugely in the UK in recent years.
Since 2012, the numbers have risen from 130,000 total guests to 210,000 in 2017, with European itineraries now representing almost 90 per cent of all cruises. But while the Rhine and the Danube remain the Big Two when it comes to continental offerings (making up nearly 60 per cent), the Rhône in France, the next largest share, offers perhaps the most quintessential river cruising experience. Opening up cultural-powerhouse cities, quaint villages, bucolic charms and superb food and wine, these cruises, which begin in Lyon and end in Avignon (but also take in the Saône, Burgundy and Arles), provide an incredible way to see France in a luxurious and relaxing way, with the option of more active travel should you want it.
With a locally inspired menu and wine list, a French cruise director and a ridiculously ornate interior, Uniworld’s SS Catherine is designed for well-heeled guests who don’t want to just see France, but truly experience it. With an often-deserted on-board pool, a spacious stateroom with an adjustable Juliette balcony, and the decadent Leopard Bar, the ship is truly a luxurious proposition.
One of the beauties of river cruising is how centrally ships dock in towns and cities. Unlike their larger ocean counterparts, which can often be upwards of an hour from the main attraction (see Civitavecchia for Rome), the river-cruise port is usually just a short stroll from each city’s centre. In Lyon, we dock next to the Lumière University Lyon 2, a 10-minute walk from the Place Bellecour, the city’s huge, tree-lined public square, home to flower stalls and small art museums, and from which the 15th century Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste is visible.
In the city, we go in search of its famed secret passages, known as Traboules, originally created in the fourth century for the city’s many silk weavers hoping to avoid rain showers, but later used by the resistance during Nazi occupation. Uniworld, which includes all but the most extravagant shore excursions, offers a tour of these hard-to-spot passages, with behind-locked-door access to many that are hidden away in buildings. Signs with a blue lion or gold flower on the wall mark each passage.
Lyon is regarded as the birthplace of French cuisine, and no visit to the city would be complete without properly sampling its food. Bouchon – wood-panelled, rustic taverns particular to Lyon – serve hearty, honest and often superb food: we opted for La Tete de Lard (13 Rue Désirée), just north of the Museum of Fine Arts, where my poor French meant I inadvertently ordered lamb brain (surprisingly delicious).
That evening, before leaving Lyon on its way to Burgundy, the ship docked at La Confluence, near the meeting point of the Rhône and Saône, the fast-changing industrial area of the city, home to new nightclubs, venues and restaurants housed in former warehouses. Here, we’re able to take in the Musée des Confluences, a science centre and anthropology museum built in a jaw-dropping deconstructivist style.
In Beaune, a walled town in the centre of France’s Burgundy winemaking region, we wander cobblestone streets and take in the Hospices of Beaune, a former charitable almshouse founded in 1443, before taking a tour of the surrounding countryside, which is almost exclusively made up of vineyards. The Route des Grands Crus, a 60km route that runs along the foot of the Côte d’Or escarpment, from Dijon in the north to Santenay in the south, is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Following a return to Lyon, the ship heads south down the Rhône, taking in Tournon (Tain-l’Hermitage), Viviers, Avignon and Arles. As we arrive in Viviers, the heavens open, bringing to an end a two-month summer dry spell, and the town quickly floods. Fortunately, there’s a long-enough pause in the rainfall to stop for an éclair, wander the cobblestone paths and head to its highest point to admire the view – terracotta rooftops pan out towards the Rhône as mountains tower in the distance.
The following day sees a morning spent exploring the walled city of Avignon, including the magnificent Palais des Papes and the half-collapsed Pont Saint-Bénézet. Later, we head out on an excursion: a kayaking trip down the Gardon river.
It’s a unique experience that takes us under the Pont du Gard, an elevated Roman aqueduct.
Our journey concludes in Tarascon the next day, where we join a coach to Arles, known for its remarkable Roman ruins. The city, which houses an ancient amphitheatre, is perhaps best known for the influence it had on Vincent van Gogh, who painted hundreds of works there (including Sunflowers and The Yellow House) in just a short amount of time. ABTAmag.com