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 from-ageries, 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
in a different light. It dawns on me that this style of travel means I get to see different places without having to pack and leave my accommodation. For a lifelong backpacker, it is a revelation.
And life aboard the longboat is different from the huge ocean liners I associate with cruises. We are a small group of only 180 passengers. There is still plenty in the way of nightly entertainment in the form of dinners, quizzes, French theatrics, demonstrations and general mingling with other guests, but it is certainly a cruise for grown-ups.
The boat itself offers plenty of luxury between its restaurant, lounges and terrace dining but I get the feeling it is more about the destinations along the river than the life aboard. And only a couple of hours after leaving Lyon, we reach our next stop, Vienne.
Vienne may not be a town you would think to stop in but the Roman history and the sprawling city market make it worthwhile. Tours of both are included in the cruise’s shore excursion program.
Vienne’s first-century Temple of Augustus and Livia, 500-year-old Gothic Cathedral of St Maurice and Roman amphitheatre will put you in touch with France’s history, all among incredible markets.
I have been to many French markets but the one in Vienne rivals them all. Every street and alley in the centre of town gives way to tables of fresh produce, meats, rotisseries cooking chickens over pomme de terre (whole baby potatoes) and more kinds of cheese than I knew existed. White, yellow, blue, orange, hard, soft, gooey, stinky and fruity cheeses.
As this is where people from across the region do their shopping, there is also the standard array of beautiful flowers, clothing, knick-knacks and utensils. Whatever you need for the rest of your trip, you’ll find here.
But you will not need much because life aboard the Viking Heimdal is taken care of for you.
By the time we leave Vienne for an afternoon of sailing, the ship staff knows us by name and drink, which makes for a relaxing afternoon sunning ourselves on the terrace as we meander towards Tournon.
From river reflections to wild mountain ranges – we leave the ship on another included excursion to explore the L’Ardeche.
Holidaymakers below paddle through clear water trickling over stony creek beds. The area is inaccessible by road so apart from our ride, an open steam train, it is tranquil with only the sounds of nature and happy campers.
One of the treats of travelling on the Viking Heimdal is the varied sailing schedule, from early starts to afternoons on the move. And as we leave Tournon we get to see the Rhone by nightfall before arriving late in the evening at the barely-there village of Viviers.
There’s a night-time excursion to explore this tiny stop and the chance to have a drink at a small pop-up bar that only exists during tourist season. But we don’t stay long as the ship departs at 2am for a historical epicentre of Southern France.
Sheltered by medieval walls, Avignon’s maze of narrow streets is filled with churches, museums and palaces tracing the history of this ancient, vibrant city.
Shore excursions at this, our final stop, include a visit to the Palais des Papes or Palace of the Popes.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site was built in the 13th century and became the residence of the popes in the 14th century.
A tour offers the history of one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe. It has been spectacularly restored and maintained and regardless of how many castles you have seen in your travels, it’s a must-do.
Avignon is also the perfect launch pad to see Provence, famous for fields of purple. Choose between optional excursions to lavender fields or, if you haven’t yet tested enough regional wines aboard the boat, visit vineyards in the hills as a part of optional shore excursions hosted by Viking.
There’s also a chance to cook provincial cuisine in a Flavours of Provence optional excursion or visit the stunning Pont du
Gard aqueduct built by the Romans 2000 years ago.
But it’s time to leave the boat. It again dawns on me how different this style of travel is. To see a city or town for the first time by slowly approaching it from the water allows you to see it all. No busy airports to navigate, no bustling train station platforms to push through and no tight one-way streets to drive down. France looks different from the water and it’s a view worth seeing.
By the time we leave Vienne for an afternoon of sailing, the ship staff knows us by name and drink, which makes for a relaxing afternoon sunning ourselves on the terrace...
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.
Vienne’s first century Temple of Augustus and Livia. TOP RIGHT: The hills of the Beaujolais region. BOTTOM RIGHT: Shops in Lyon’s old town are lined with everything from chocolate to spirits.