Maybe it’s the quality of the wine, or maybe it’s the fresh air, but despite having consumed more than a sensible amount of alcohol, I wake up feeling remarkably good. But then, what’s not to feel good about? We’re on our honeymoon, cruising through France’s famous wine country, basking in the warm glow of the vineyards as well as our host’s hospitality.
Uniworld is a remarkable animal. Sitting on a fleet of 17 vessels, the line has ships across most of Europe’s main rivers as well as some more surprising options – including a new Ganges itinerary, which has unsurprisingly proved exceptionally popular. The burgeoning fleet is renowned for its elaborate décor, phenomenal service and overall quality. Judging by the figures, it has certainly curved a niche for itself in the market.
Today we will be docking in historic Viviers. Think winding, medieval lanes, period houses dripping with charm and ancient cathedrals. It’s the kind of city where you would welcome the opportunity to get lost in the company of a wine merchant and hear a whole lot more about the local region.
Our tour guide – originally from India but now married to a local man – teaches us about famous residents, past conquerors and the avenues of trees planted by Napoleon’s marauding armies. Its cathedral – the oldest functioning one in France – is a testament to the church’s regional importance. We are treated to a short concert using its very own creaking organ. Puccini and Bach are interspersed with modern renditions from the world of cinema, which goes down extremely well with the ship’s American contingent.
Our penultimate call of this saunter through Burgundy and Provence is Avignon. Famous for a song that I had never heard of (Sur le’pont d’Avignon) and a palace that I most definitely have – Palais des Papes. My wife tells me I should get my priorities right.
We dock right outside Avignon’s old city walls. Inside we find a strange contrast, as both museum and functioning city coexist. Modern shop fronts sit comfortably housed within ancient stone frames.
For most of the 14th century, Avignon was the capital of the Christian world after the church moved its Holy See to the south of France when it became apparent that the troubles in Rome were too close to the Vatican for comfort. Over the following decades the palace became a metaphor for indulgence and excess. Popes were not known to hold back on the finer things in life, and it seems that their 14th century brethren were not going to let the side down. The initial palace was built, furnished and then extended by each of its occupants over the next 100 years. What’s left is certainly something to behold. It is now regularly cited as one of the best surviving examples of international gothic architecture in existence. And the foremost reason for Avignon’s popularity on this cruise.
Our visit to Avignon coincides with the night that their famous light show is to be narrated in English. We are told by our cruise director that the spectacle isn’t to be missed and one of the receptionists kindly takes our money and buys the tickets from the vendors in town. The show will commence after dinner, once darkness has set in.
It turns out that virtually everybody on board has bought a ticket for the show, as well as many of the passengers from the other ships that line the shores of the Rhone. We are led back into a pitch black Palais des Papes, and sit on the ground of the courtyard. Suddenly a voice (in English) booms out across the entire town and the palace walls light up. We are taken back in time and watch the castle’s walls be rebuilt and torn down, as we meet figures long dead. It’s an amazing way to comprehend the the virtually incomprehensible history of the palace that surrounds us.
On each day of our cruise with Avignon there is the option to take a more active excursion. Over the past few days we have cycled, hiked and explored. Today we will be kayaking. As a virgin kayaker, my wife and I decide to take a two-person kayak and use her undoubted experience to help guide us down the river. I ignore the winces from the older married couples, who all quickly take the one-man kayaks.
It soon becomes apparent that a two-person kayak is a test for the most sturdy of relationships. Accusations fly as we serve off course. Halfway through it turns out I’ve been steering incorrectly. We capsize; although the water is barely above our knees. I find it hilarious.
About two thirds through the experience we pass under Pont du Gard, a huge Roman aqueduct, which was built in the first century AD and added to in the 18th century. It’s a phenomenal experience, and even we stop bickering as we pass underneath the vast structure and feel the history of the Unesco-world heritage site. It’s arguably the highlight of our entire honeymoon, and the moment we will talk about going forward.
Our final call on this incredible cruise is to Arles, which is the perfect way to cap off what has been an unforgettable saunter through France’s rich history.
Arles is a city which feels decisively Mediterranean. Walking past its ancient coliseum – which is now a bullfighting ring – you could be in southern Spain, or indeed Italy, which the city used to be part of.
Arles is famous for its connection to Vincent Van Gogh, the troubled artist who stayed at the hospital there twice during the 1880s. He painted the hospital’s gardens, as well as his ward and one of his doctors among a catalogue of hundreds of other works. The city was said to have had a profound impact on Van Gogh, who compared Arles to Japan and Spain. One of his most famous pieces, Starry night over the Rhone, was painted in Arles. It is a beautiful representation of the river at night and manages to perfectly capture the city’s peaceful reflections on the water sitting below the stars above.
We always knew that the south of France – especially at this time of year – would be the perfect destination for a honeymoon. Uniworld, in all of its bells and whistles glory, has been the perfect host. The fact that the cruise includes hiking through vineyards, cycling through Lyon and kayaking through Roman aqueducts in the price makes it all the better. Especially if you feel the need to work off a bit of the indulgence you pick up three times a day from their restaurant.
For anyone asking whether a cruise is a good honeymoon option, we can safely say that the answer is yes. Both river an ocean cruises have brilliant qualities. While both are technically within the same class of holiday, they couldn’t be further apart. Probe a little deeper with your customer and find out what they are really looking for. We have a feeling that you may be surprised with the amount of people that would quite naturally fit onto a river holiday.