Anthony Pearce joins Uniworld for a luxury river cruise on the Rhône and Saône – joining together the historical and beautiful cities of Lyon and Avignon
For as far as the eye can see: vineyards. The sun is beaming down and we’re stood at a crossroads in Puligny-Montrachet, a commune in the Côte-d’Or department of Côte de Beaune, not far from the Saône, a tributary of the Rhône; here, wine production isn’t just big business, it’s life. The area is home to one of the world’s most famous vineyards, Montrachet, a Grand cru vineyard for white wine made of Chardonnay, but it’s just one of many exceptional Burgundy wine producers near by.
We’re here with Uniworld Boutique River Cruises on a Rhône river cruise that will take us from Lyon, up to Beune on the Saône, and then back down through France’s second city on the way to Avignon and Arles. While it may seem slightly peculiar, beginning in Lyon and then returning just a day later, it allows the chance to explore the city in something like the depth it deserves. Smaller and more intimate than Paris, Lyon may not possess the world-famous tourist attractions of its more-visited rival city, but its buildings, streets and parks can match it for beauty – and, without the crowds, the tourist traps and frequent terrible weather, it can often be more enjoyable.
Thanks in no small part to the legendary chef Paul Bocuse, the godfather of French cuisine, Lyon is often considered the gastronomic capital not just of France, but the world. The food here is superlative, whether you’re looking for haute cuisine or peasant food. Bouchons – wood-panelled, rustic taverns particular to Lyon – serve hearty, honest and usually superb food and are found across the city. We opted for a lunchtime trip to the La Tête 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). Le Garet (7 Rue du Garet) may be the best-known bouchon in the city, but Lyon is full of them: they’re cheap, fun and offer a real slice of Lyonnais life, as well as some strangely delicious dishes.
Of course, one of the best things about river cruise 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 (Civitavecchia for Rome is a perfect example), 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, perhaps Lyon’s best-known landmark.
In the city, we go in search of its famed secret passages, known as traboules, originally created in the 4th 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-see 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 spot, but you’re advised to go with a guide – these are difficult to spot on your own.
That evening, before leaving Lyon on its way to Burgundy, the ship docks 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. Maybe it’s just me, but you can sometimes get cathedral fatigue exploring medieval cities on European river cruises, so a quick stop to enjoy some modern architecture is a welcome surprise.
Rise of the Rhône
Sat on the top deck of the SS Catherine, a glass of wine in hand, sailing through the French countryside, it’s easy to see why river cruise is 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, for my mind offers the best river cruise experience.
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 onboard pool, a spacious stateroom with an adjustable Juliette balcony, and the decadent Leopard Bar, the ship is truly a luxurious proposition.
The ‘boutique’ in Uniworld’s name is there for a reason, each of its ‘super ships’ are unique, tailored around the river they sail. Joie de Vivre – which sails the Seine, docks next to the Eiffel Tower and boasts a Parisian-style café – does this to the greatest effect. In fact, many of the guests on board our sailing, most of whom are American, have already seen this ship: they had booked back-to-back cruises, paring the Seine and Rhône. Luxury river cruise is becoming a crowded market place, but Uniworld’s above-and-beyond service, food and excursions have set it out among the crowd. Of course, this sort of experience doesn’t come cheap (prices for this cruise start from £2,099pp), but for clients who are looking for a luxurious holiday in Europe, this is as good of an experience as you can get on land.
In Beaune, a walled town in the centre of France’s Burgundy winemaking region, we wander cobblestone streets and take in the Hospices de 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 what felt like endless sunshine, 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. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and a town you’d probably never visit if it wasn’t a river cruise stop.
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. The rain the day before has quickened the current, but today the weather is glorious, and once we get the hang of the steering, it’s a hugely relaxing and enjoyable experience that takes us under the Pont du Gard, an elevated Roman aqueduct. It’s easily the highlight of the cruise.
Our journey concludes in Tarascon the following 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. The city, like Avignon, has a remarkably Mediterranean feel – we trade in the peppery red wines and meaty stews for crisp whites and grilled fish.
In fact, perhaps more than anything else, this cruise highlights the diversity of France as a destination, in terms of its geography, culture, history and gastronomy. Although the Loire may be France’s longest river, Rhône cruises allow a deep exploration of the country. Opening up cultural-powerhouse cities, quaint villages, bucolic charms and superb food and wine, these cruises provide an incredible way to see France in a luxurious and relaxing way – there’s perhaps no better way to see it.