Set off from Avignon to Lyon with AmaWaterways for a Rhône River cruise through Southern France. Food, wine, history, art, and culture abound.
After two years of working in my hermetic apartment in Santa Monica, California, I jumped at the chance to take an eight-day river cruise up southeastern France’s Rhône River from Avignon to Lyon—wine, cheese, Roman ruins, Van Gogh haunts, truffle hunting, medieval chateaus, and cathedrals. All of this aboard a luxury 78-stateroom, 443-foot long river ship operated by AmaWaterways, stopping at towns along the river for daily excursions.
Getting to Avignon for my Rhône River Cruise
Within days I was on an Air France flight to Paris for transfer to a high-speed TGV train for a three-hour trip to Avignon in the Provence region of France.
I’d backpacked across Europe in my youth on click-clacking, rickety rail carriages with my head bouncing off the walls and ceiling. This 200-mph train was gliding at speeds I’d never experienced. Soon we were rolling through bright yellow rapeseed-flower fields, verdant hills of lavender, and a landscape studded with red-tiled roofs and cypress trees. The technicolor immersion lifted my spirits and, when I arrived at the boat’s quay in Avignon, I was ready for exploring Provence.
Introduction to AmaWaterways and the Rhône River Cruise
Our week onboard featured many luxuries and personal amenities—twice-daily room service, an onboard masseuse, hairdressers, and a fitness trainer with access to weights, stationary bikes, treadmills, and daily exercise classes. The staterooms were spacious (most come with twin balconies and measure 210 or 235 square feet), and the bathrooms came stuffed with French shampoos, creams, herbs, and slippers. I even practiced my golf skills on the top deck putting green under a full moon as we glided silently past medieval chateaus on the riverbank.
An Efficient Way to Explore the Rhône River
But as a first-time river cruiser, the sheer efficiency of the mode of travel wowed me. My fellow passengers agreed.
“You don’t have to pack and unpack and keep checking into one place after another,” said Kate Machinski, a traveling grandmother from Breckinridge, Colorado. “It’s a five-star hotel that travels with you.”
“You’re taken right into the heart of each town and city on the river,” said Shannon Moss, a travel agent from Atlanta. “Instead of looking at maps and dealing with other travel hassles, you spend all your time exploring right off the boat.”
With only about 70 passengers on this journey (the ship hosts a maximum of 156 guests), the social atmosphere also seemed more intimate and connected.
“On the big cruise ships carrying thousands of people, there are always lines to get food, and there’s not as much intermingling,” added Machinski. “Here, you can’t help interacting with people at meals, social activities hosted on the ship, or during the daily excursions that are all included.”
A Smooth Ride
I also didn’t notice anyone popping Dramamine for seasickness. The boat seemed like a magic carpet ride, even on the river’s windiest days. AmaKristina’s skilled captain and crew navigated one of the 12 separate locks along the river that elevated the cruiser to each section of the Rhône.
Entering the World of Van Gogh
In February 1888, the tortured painter escaped the bustle of Paris for the colors, light, and landscape of Provence, first settling in the town of Arles. Boasting the best weather in France, the region enjoys 300 days of sunny skies a year. Olive oil, tomato, garlic, and robust red wine are in abundance. And a vibrant café culture infuses the small towns and villages.
“As they say in Provence, we like things slow in the morning and not too fast in the evening,” said our local guide, Nadine Sirop.
Van Gogh produced many masterpieces here. As Nadine walked us through the Arles sites of his most iconic works, everything felt strangely familiar. A reproduced plaque of Café Terrace at Night hung on the walls of the actual café.
We saw the remains of the Yellow House. In December 1888, Van Gogh responded to a violent argument with his roommate, artist Paul Gauguin, by cutting off his right ear. He ended up in the local hospital. Another plaque painting, Le Jardin de la Maison, sits exactly where he overlooked the hospital’s colorful courtyard. We proceeded to a spot along the river where Van Gogh painted Starry Night Over the Rhône.
Nadine put on Don McClean’s song “Starry, Starry Night” on the intercom on the tour bus back to lunch on the ship. I misted up after seeing so much beauty infused with so much suffering. Van Gogh had indeed paid a heavy price for his genius.
Rhône River Cruise Excursion to Les Baux
That afternoon we visited the hilltop village of Les Baux with panoramic views of the plains. Below the village are massive abandoned limestone quarries transformed into Carrieres Des Lumieres, an immersive exhibit that illuminates the works of great artists onto the limestone walls.
These “Quarries of Light” are a dazzling show of art projected onto the cavernous walls, accompanied by soaring music. Created in 1975, the performances are Provence’s most popular visitor site, featuring the work of Picasso, Renoir, Chagall, and of course, Van Gogh. One 35-minute show featured the architectural and artistic beauty of Venice. Another featured the Mediterranean sky art of French painter Yves Klein. One minute you’re looking up at giant slabs of drab gray walls in the dim light and the next the walls are taken over with a kaleidoscopic tumble of stunning images accompanied by gorgeous music. It was a wow experience I won’t soon forget.
Our Rhône River Cruise Stops in Avignon
Returning to my luxury stateroom while docked at the Avignon quay, I dove into bed, replenishing my energy for the next day. I awoke to a slight rocking, looked out the window, and saw whitecaps on the river. It was my first encounter with Le Mistral or The Master, a cold, torrential northern wind that blows down through the Rhône Valley in the fall and spring. The wind seemed to scrub the sky and I wonder if it inspired one of Van Gogh’s many starry nights?
Palais des Papes in Avignon
I decided to dress casually for a quick walking tour around Avignon. Named the City of Popes, the walled city was the center of the Catholic Church in medieval times. Its Palais des Papes housed seven popes. Avignon belonged to the papacy for more than 400 years, only relinquishing control to France in 1791 during the French Revolution. The quaint alleyways, posh shops, crowded cafes, and thriving produce market seemed the essence of southern France.
Pont du Gard near Avignon
But my real target was the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman bridge/aqueduct that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated an hour’s drive away. At 160 feet high and roughly 600 feet long, it’s the tallest section of a Roman aqueduct anywhere and is stunningly preserved. Constructed in the first century AD, the entire waterworks ran 31 miles from the natural springs of Uzès to the 50,000 resident Roman town of Nimes.
In a marvel of ancient engineering, tens of thousands of gallons a day flowed through the length of the pipeline to the baths, fountains, and private homes in Nimes. Nimes was a mere 56 feet lower than the springs at Uzès, a sufficient gradient to keep the water flowing downwards.
The Pont du Gard was built with precisely cut blocks of limestone, some weighing as much as four tons, held together by friction and gravity alone. There was no use of mortar, and its sheer size and majesty were astonishing. One felt the full power and legacy of the Roman Empire in an edifice that stood solidly through two millennia.
“Recent floods washed away many modern bridges on the same river, but the Pont du Gard withstood the overflow with ease,” said Aurelien Clavero, our tour guide. “Once the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, the structure became a toll bridge. It is now one of France’s top tourist attractions.”
Our Rhône River Cruise Takes us to Search for Truffles
Drifting into water-filled dreams in my stateroom that night, I felt us gliding upriver toward the charming town of Viviers. In the morning, we traveled by motorcoach to a local truffle farm, La Rabassiere.
Exploring the Truffle Farm
There, the animated owner Serge Aurel treated us to a short tutorial on the prized delicacy of truffles. His family has worked their 75-acre farm with its 6,000 oak trees over four generations since the 19th century. The labor is arduous and sensitive to the vagaries of nature.
Most trees take more than 15 years to create firm roots mature enough to nurture tiny spores and fungi that become these prized black truffles. When harvested, they can fetch up to $1,000 a kilo (2.2 pounds). They are then shipped to the world’s most high-end restaurants.
Soon we were hunting for the subterranean edible with Serge and Emy, his trusted Lagotto Romagnolo dog, a breed specially trained to sniff out truffles. We chased after Emy as she scampered from tree to tree, nostrils flaring, until she began digging ferociously in a fertile patch of ground. Up popped several luscious truffles that Serge quickly nabbed. Afterward, we shaved them and spread them on fresh bread with a coating of truffle oil. The sweaty, musky aroma and taste of the fruity flesh stayed in my mouth for hours.
“Sometimes, my wife gets jealous of all the time I spend out in the fields with my three dogs,” said Serge through a translator. “But this business takes lots of work and can be a big risk. Only about 4 in 10 of my trees produce truffles, and we are banned from using insecticides or weedkillers. I also have to deal with two types of thieves—feral pigs and residents.”
Sampling Truffles on AmaWaterway
I eyed my truffles differently at that night’s dinner in AmaWaterway’s formal dining room on the luxury cruiser. They seemed more luscious. I was also impressed by the chef’s sourcing of local and seasonal produce, native to the towns on the river.
At one Chef’s Table evening onboard, I tucked into the following gourmet feast:
- Concasse Heirloom Tomato, Mozzarella Pearls, Basil Olive Powder
- Grilled Tiger Shrimp, Tahini Hummus, Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto
- Cauliflower Veloute, Marzipan, Grilled Figs, Peanuts, Ginger Oil
- Pan-Fried Salmon Trout, Pumpkin Mash, Braised Navette, Swiss Chard, Riesling White Wine Sauce
- Beef Striploin, Herb Crust, Natural Jus, Horseradish Puree, Sweet Potato Fondant, Heritage Carrots, Wild Broccoli
- Salty Caramel Chocolate Tart, Lime Macaron, Mango Ice Cream, Fresh Berries
Besides the transcendent food, the local Côtes du Rhône and Beaujolais wines served complimentary during lunches and dinners onboard, never stopped pouring.
Our Rhône River Cruise Continues
Soon we were smooth cruising again to the hilly riverfront village of Tournon. Once docked, I spent several hours at Le Chateau de Tournon, a 16th-century castle on the west side of the riverbank, for a pairing of local wines and chocolate.
In the Roman town of Vienne, we toured their well-preserved ruins. The Augustus and Livia Temple was built in honor of Caesar Augustus, son of Julius Caesar, and his wife, Livia. We ducked into the Saint-Maurice Cathedral, a Gothic church that took more than 500 years to build.
Inside were dozens of headless statues resulting from wars between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century. A young woman inside sang Ave Maria in perfect pitch. Then on to St. Pierre Abbey, one of the oldest surviving churches in France, and now a museum. I was so engrossed that I almost missed the midday ship departure en route to our final stop, Lyon, the food capital of France.
Lyon, Our Rhône River Cruise Destination
Once docked at Lyon, a group of us made a beeline for the legendary indoor market, Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. It’s a three-floor, gourmet wonderland of 13,000 square meters with 50 vendors offering every type of confection and delicacy—butchers, bakers, chocolatiers, cheesemongers, oyster bars, delicatessens, and fishmongers.
Exploring the Lyon Food Markets
In recent years, famed local chef Paul Bocuse, proprietor of the longest, Michelin 3-star-rated restaurant in France (50 years)—L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges—lent his name to the 2004 market renovation.
Our first stop was a pastry stand. I sampled Tarte Pralines Rouges, a dense dessert of extra thin pastry, cream, caramelized sugar, and crushed almonds. After scarfing a too-big portion, I felt my glycemic index skyrocketing.
To recover, I ambled over to charcuterie and fortified myself with some pork and pistachio terrine, thinly sliced salami, duck liver mousse, and lemon mustard crust with minced chicken.
Then I sauntered sideways to a cheesemonger and devoured an assortment of goat cheese, Camembert, and some Saint Marcellin—a local version of Brie with an aged, runny, creamy mushroom flavor. France produces more than 1,000 types of cheeses, most of them unpasteurized.
“Fat is life, butter is better,” intoned our tour guide, Alex, as I waddled to the exit.
Exploring Old Town Lyon
I walked through Lyon’s old town to work off the gastronomical treats from the food market. I meandered through the area’s uniquely covered sidewalks, known as traboules, and its ornate alleys and posh cafes.
Then I plodded up an interminable stairway on Fourviere Hill, home to the immense 19th century Notre-Dame de Fourviere Cathedral. The view was panoramic, and I was grateful my trip had not seen a speck of rain.
That night back on board at my usual dining table with fellow foodies, I realized I’d reached my gastronomic limit. I retired early and prepared for my last day—an excursion touring the Beaujolais wine region.
Touring the Beaujolais Wine Region
The following day we journeyed to Oingt, a medieval village officially listed as one of the most beautiful in France. Perched at an elevation of 1500 feet, it overlooks the Valley of the Azergues River. A local limestone containing iron oxide gives all the local buildings a distinctive golden color. We climbed the sloping, quaint streets studded with red doors. At the top, the castle/chapel afforded a view of the lush, hilly vineyards below that spread to the horizon.
Afterward, we visited Domaine de la Logère, a 40-acre, multi-generation Beaujolais vineyard in operation since 1569. Owner Pascal Gayot was absent, but his 32-year-old son Pierre showed us the giant vats, gnarled rows of wired branches, and tool yards of his trade. Alluding to climate change and the whipsaw weather challenges of drought, heat, hail, fungus, and frost, he seemed to hint that the dynasty might end.
“My father is always out on the vineyard; he works every day. There are no weekends,” said Pierre. “My father’s boss is nature.”
The atmosphere lightened considerably once we moved to the tasting room. Soon we tippled the vineyard specialties of Beaujolais Rouge, Rosé, and Blanc. Several of my fellow oenophiles arranged for caseloads of the vintage to be air-shipped home.
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Enjoying AmaWaterways on Your Rhône River Cruise
On the way back to my final night on the luxury cruiser, I marveled at the elevation of my overall mood. Work is the best enemy of melancholy. But eight days of gorging on a French cultural feast while river cruising, with all needs handled by an attentive crew, might be a more efficient way to eradicate depression. I’m now sure of it.
You can find AmaWaterways online for this and other great itineraries. For those interested in travel with a particular focus on regional wines and cuisine, contact Expanding Horizons in Tustin, CA. We have more great articles on Wander for what you can do when you visit France and more wow moments while you cruise.