The light catching the red roofs of Avignonâ€™s majestic skyline is a sight to behold over breakfast, after which we embark on a guided tour of one of the most extraordinary and intriguing cities in France. Avignonâ€™s destiny changed during the 14th century when the Popeâ€™s court moved here to avoid strife in Rome. Igniting a century of prosperity, the Pontiff commissioned a host of ambitious building projects, and today the city is immaculately preserved, nestling behind its almost intact 14th-century walls and boasting more remarkable monuments, superbly decorated buildings, churches, chapels and convents than you can possibly count. Most important is the stunning Popesâ€™ Palace, made up of two buildings that together form the largest Gothic palace in the world. With turrets, towers, parapets, and other fortifications, its exterior resembles a mighty fortress, while the interior is a tour de force of medieval architecture and ornamentation, adorned with priceless frescoes, Gobelin tapestries, and graceful sculptures. The ceremonial hall, chapels, cloisters, and private apartments are all unmissable. But to truly embrace the feel of papal Avignon, imagine yourself here during the Middle Ages amid the Palaceâ€™s rich furnishings and extravagant decoration, with cardinals, princes, and ambassadors milling about its candle-lit halls and corridors, while in the streets below countless pilgrims eagerly anticipate benediction. This was Avignonâ€™s brief golden age when it was truly the center of Christendom. After lunch youâ€™re free to explore as you wish, perhaps visiting the nearby Petit Palais, the former home of the archbishops of Avignon, to cast a critical eye over the remarkable collection of over 300 paintings and sculptures from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, including works by Botticelli and Carpaccio. Or take a stroll on the iconic Pont dâ€™Avignon, which, dramatically, ends halfway across the river, made famous by the melody we all recall from our first French lessons. Itâ€™s our final afternoon so you may wish to do some shopping, or just find a quiet cafÃ© in a shady ProvenÃ§al square to watch the world go by. Perhaps though, return to the luxurious surroundings of our ship, finding a quiet spot to contemplate the many wondrous places youâ€™ve seen and experienced over a quiet cup of tea! This evening we enjoy the sumptuous Captainâ€™s Dinner, with the chef serving specialties of the regions youâ€™ve visited during your voyage of discovery.
ARLES & PONT DU GARD
You awake under the azure skies of deepest Provence and amid the warm stone colors of Arles, many of whose historic monuments are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Although small in size, it was the key stronghold on the Roman road to Spain, one of the empireâ€™s richest possessions. Seagoing ships could reach here and the city became a regional capital, briefly ruling over Gaul, Spain, and Britain. Our guided tour will help you appreciate the finer points of Arlesâ€™s magnificent Roman remains, including the splendid amphitheater, one of the best-preserved in the world, the earlier theatre built during the reign of Augustus and the Alyscamps, the ancient necropolis with its extraordinary atmosphere. The disturbed but great genius of an artist Van Gogh lived in Arles for just over a year, from February 1888. It was his most prolific period and, inspired by Arles and the light and beauty of the ProvenÃ§al countryside, he produced around 300 works, including The Night CafÃ©, The Sower and, of course, Sunflowers. After lunch, we visit the amazing Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct, one of the wonders of the ancient world. No amount of fame can diminish the first sight of this 2,000-year-old structure, which was the highest bridge built in the Empire â€“the Romans themselves considered it the most important testimony to their greatness. Its statistics are staggering: over 900 feet long and almost 160 feet high, with its stones each weighing up to six tons. The situation is lovely too, with pine- and cypress-covered hills adding to the harmonious setting. Rejoining the ship, we cruise along the RhÃ´ne and, during dinner, pass the imposing 15th-century castle at Tarascon standing guard on the river bank.
This morning we cruise effortlessly downstream. In the distance youâ€™ll catch glimpses of the Alps and, as we approach Valence, the landscape gradually becomes less green with more ochres and magentas, the houses have sloping terracotta roofs typical of the Mediterranean and the air carries heady aromas of pine and cypress. You can only be in the Midi or â€“ as we call it â€“ the south of France. Itâ€™s so relaxing to catch up on some reading or just laze in the sun. After lunch, we explore one of Franceâ€™s most outstanding landscapes â€“ the ArdÃ¨che Gorges, whose scale is a fitting reminder of Mother Natureâ€™s awesome power. Sheer limestone cliffs plunge almost 1,000 feet to the riverâ€™s blue waters, which elegantly snake their way through stupendous rock formations, culminating in a huge natural arch, the Pont dâ€™Arc. Caves, grottoes and natural sculptures create marvelous views at every turn before we return to the gentler slopes of the RhÃ´ne Valley, where our ship is moored in charming Viviers, a medieval town clustered around its 12th-century cathedral. We slip our mooring and proceed through the famous lock at BollÃ¨ne, one of the deepest in France, as you relax over dinner.
VIENNE & TOURNON
Overnight the ship has cruised almost imperceptibly downstream and we enjoy breakfast in Vienne before our guided tour. Strikingly located in a narrow section of the RhÃ´ne where the river meanders dramatically around a steep bluff, Vienne is a treasure trove of historic remains, including the stunning Roman Temple of Augustus and Livia, one of only two edifices of this type in the whole of the country. From the ship, a little train will take you to the top of the city, the Mont Pipet hill, where the view onto the RhÃ´ne will inspire keen photographers. Itâ€™s also where the Romans chose to build the spectacular amphitheater in the 1st Century AD, which could accommodate 13.500 spectators. As the train weaves through the charming, narrow streets of the old town, soak up the history of this fascinating place.Â We wander back to the ship for another superb lunch, during which we enter perhaps the most picturesque section of the RhÃ´ne as the river squeezes and twists past Condrieu, Saint-Rambert-dâ€™Albon and Saint- Vallier, with wooded cliffs rising high on both sides. Later we moor in the pretty provincial town of Tournon, with its imposing castle and tree-lined avenues on one side of the river, while on the other are the steep vine-covered hillsides of Hermitage, where another of the worldâ€™s most revered wines is produced â€“ a fitting view as we enjoy another exquisite dinner.
CHALON & BEAUNE
Rising this morning weâ€™re berthed in Chalon, the gateway to Burgundy and home of NicÃ©phore NiÃ©pce, the inventor of photography. On this morningâ€™s tour, we see some of the pretty yet surprisingly small villages that produce some of the worldâ€™s most sublime wines â€“ Meursault, Volnay, Pommard, Gevrey-Chambertin and many more. Nearby is medieval Beaune, Burgundyâ€™s wine capital, which is wonderful to wander around. At its center is the Hospices de Beaune, also known as the HÃ´tel-Dieu. Originally built in the 15th century as a hospital for the disadvantaged, itâ€™s a jewel of High Gothic architecture, instantly recognizable for its colorful glazed roof tiles arranged in dazzling geometric patterns. A prestigious annual wine auction takes place here each November, with proceeds going to benefit the Hospices and its charity work. Of course you canâ€™t visit Burgundy without sampling its amazing wines, so we visit the cellars of a leading traditional winemaker for a tour and tasting before returning to the ship for lunch.
After our first splendid breakfast, we have a leisurely start enjoying a guided tour of Lyon, one of Franceâ€™s most fascinating cities. The RhÃ´ne Valley had been the route of choice for marauding armies and peaceful traders for centuries, and Lyonâ€™s current site, at the confluence of the RhÃ´ne and SaÃ´ne Rivers, cried out to be fortified. In 43 BC the Romans founded the city, which subsequently grew in importance; Emperor Claudius, the conqueror of Britain, was born here. There are many Roman remains to see, but it was the production of silk that brought Lyon to prominence during the Middle Ages, and throughout the city, you can see signs of the wealth that poured in â€“ Renaissance buildings, imposing churches and Europeâ€™s largest pedestrian square, Place Bellecour, with a statue of Louis XIV as its focus. The Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is crammed with antique shops and intriguing traboules â€“ narrow covered passageways enabling silk merchants to transport their wares to the river without getting wet â€“ that today are a joy to amble through. As well as its glorious architecture, Lyon is generally acknowledged as Franceâ€™s (and to locals the worldâ€™s) gastronomic capital. In fairness it has much to commend it: nouvelle cuisine was invented near here and the city boasts a huge array of specialty food shops and eateries, including 20 restaurants with one or more Michelin stars and countless little places to eat. While you enjoy your first lunch the ship quietly slips its mooring. Cruising upstream, we catch the first glimpses of the vine-clad slopes of the hazy green Beaujolais hills as we approach one of the worldâ€™s most revered red-wine-producing regions. On our left, we see the picturesque villages of Morgon, Fleury, JuliÃ©nas, ChÃ©nas and many more, while on the right you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of snow-capped Mont Blanc â€“ Western Europeâ€™s highest mountain. As the afternoon drifts into evening and we cruise past the town that gives them their name, the white wines of MÃ¢con hold sway â€“ and what could be better than a cool, crisp glass in the lounge before enjoying this eveningâ€™s culinary delights in the restaurant, prepared by our outstanding chef.