Soak up culture on a slow boat
Plenty of time to eat, drink and explore this region of historic buildings and innovative food
IHAD seen France. Or so I thought. I had flown over snow-capped mountains. I had walked the cobbled streets of tiny villages and meandered through the many alleys of Paris. I had caught trains through the countryside. I had driven around the green hills. I had swum the waters of Nice and cycled through the vineyards of Bordeaux.
So I thought I had seen France. But the view from the River Rhone makes me reflect. Maybe there is more than I thought to this country of historical, gastronomical and cultural delights.
My travel buddy Devii and I find our Rhone River ride, the Viking Cruises longship Heimdal, docked in Lyon in central-east France, about 420km from Paris.
Here we will start our eight-day cruise towards Avignon in the south.
Being docked for three days in the gastronomical capital of France means there is a chance to explore a foodie scene with a difference, which is perfect because Devii is a chef in Europe.
She tells me chefs are avoiding the expense of operating in Paris and creating a new wave of modern French fusion bistros throughout Lyon.
You’ll still get the typically French menu du jour (menu of the day) which will give you an entree, main and dessert for a set price (13–40 euros). But the dishes steer away from the traditional cuisine we associate with French bistro eating. There’s not a coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon in sight.
We stumble upon Potager des Halles (Vegetable Garden of the Halls) which bucks the trend a little with some great tapas-style small plates to share.
We eat our dinner of grilled sardines on skewers, a whole grilled octopus tentacle and tiny ravioli in a truffle sauce, with a view of La Fresque De Lyonnais (Fresco of the People of Lyon), one of the many painted houses in the city.
These houses are famous in Lyon and the incredible artwork of this one particularly brings the people of Lyon to life. From the chef standing in front of his bistro to the pilot and author Antoine de Saint-Exupery and his character The Little Prince staring off a third-floor balcony and even a real resident of the building taking photos of passing tourists, it will give you an insight into the history of France’s third largest city.
You can take in more of Lyon’s long history in the cobbled streets of its old town. Residents even open up the courtyards of their refurbished buildings to tourists. You can weave the maze of streets through the traboules, unique hidden passageways made for busy merchants in medieval days and used through the Second World War to mount a resistance against the Nazis.
The charm of the old town with its stunning silk shops, traditional French bistros, chocolate shops and fromageries, is a must. But crossing the river to the newer part of town tells a story of a city embracing a style of dining we are looking for.
Bars and cafes with simple or colourful crate furniture are popping up among the mostly drab, industrial buildings.
This includes the kind of place chefs want to eat. The unassuming Le Kitchen offers up the standout meal of the trip with its fresh herb salad and cured beef, pickled radish, perfectly cooked lamb and nectarine with a fluffy ball of meringue to finish. It is a must visit.
This fresh fusion style of dining is a foodie’s dream, but for those looking for a quintessential French experience, you’ll need just a short drive in to the mountains.
Fortunately Viking has plenty of included and optional shore excursions. Take your pick of a number of tours through the Beaujolais region.
At Oliver’s farm in the mountains we taste truffle butter before a seated lunch. Then head out with truffle dogs Shenook or Maistro to hunt for the elusive fungi in a private forest.
Restored chateaus are dotted through vineyards that line the hills of the Beaujolais. The views are stunning though the wine leaves a little bit to be desired.
After winding our way further through the mountains towards Burgundy, we meet a herd of cheeky goats and taste a number of cheeses and, of course, there is more wine.
After three days of eating and drinking our way through Lyon and surrounds, we are ready to set sail aboard the Viking Heimdal.
Sitting on our stateroom balcony as we sail down the Rhone River, we see the medieval fortresses and imposing mountains
◗ Afternoon sailing offers up stunning views of the Rhone and the towns that line its banks. RIGHT: The Viking longboat sails past terrace houses of Lyon, with La Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere in the background.