Our annual vacation budget must be replenished soon because we can't wait to try another vacation like this one. We took a Viking River Cruise down the Saone and Rhone Rivers in Southern France (it's their Portraits of Southern France tour) during the month of April 2015. It is actually a seven-day cruise but we added on an extension to get us to the city of Nice, right on the French Riviera. The cruise started in Chalon-sur-Saone, where the Viking River boat (Hermod) was docked. At the start of the second day, we toured Beaune and once we were heading down the Saone on the 2nd day, we stopped at Tournus and finally at Macon. Day three had us in the city of Lyon, where we spent two days exploring. On day four we stopped at Vienne and then headed for Tournon overnight. We arrived in Tournon on day five, and explored Tain L'Hermitage and Viviers. On day six we were in Arles (we couldn't stop at Tarascon due to lack of port space) and then finally on day seven we arrived in Avignon. Day eight had us on a long bus ride down to Nice, and what a beautiful place this was. The cruise was over but there was so much to see on the French Riviera - like Monaco and Monte Carlo. Quite a nice trip with beautiful weather except for 1/2 rainy day in Nice.
In preparation for our flight, and to kill a few hours at Washington Dulles airport, we dined at a wine bar in the airport. Sandra and I each had a wine flight and then we shared charcuterie. The flight was about 8 hours to Brussels and then another 1.5 hours to get us into Lyon. Since France is about 6 hours ahead of us, it made for a very long day. Upon arrival, we were greeted at the airport by Viking River Cruise representatives and a bunch of us were bused to the port at Chalon-sur-Saone in France. Our cabin was ready upon arrival and we enjoyed a late lunch (dinner to them) on the ship. The food turned out to be pretty tasty, but of course we were very tired from the flight. They give you house wine at both lunch and dinner on these cruises and it's very easy to just sit around and eat / drink the cruise away. We were determined to see everything though, so no fear of packing on the pounds with this trip.
The second day we were a bit more rested and ready to see the town of Beaune which included a Burgundy wine tour / tasting. This city is the wine capital of Burgundy and Burgundy is known for their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines. We enjoyed the wine tasting and bought a few bottles to consume later on the ship. In the afternoon we took the optional tour to the Abbey of Cluny, and the ship set sail for the town of Tournus during our optional tour and we caught up with it in the town of Macon. During the optional tour to Cluny, we saw the famous Benedictine Abbey, which was the world's largest church until St. Peter's was built in Rome, Italy. This evening we attended the welcome dinner and met the program director. After we headed for our cabin and the bed within, the ship was to set sail for the next town, Lyon. One thing we noticed is that you could hardly tell the ship was moving on the river. These boats are very stable and the river is fairly calm. That sure beats bobbing up and down on an ocean liner.
We awoke while cruising the Burgundy and Beaujolais landscapes, and soon arrived in Lyon. What a beautiful city this is. After a nice buffet breakfast (yes, espresso and cappuccino are available) we disembarked to hop on a bus for our tour of this 2000-year-old city and UNESCO World Heritage site. We saw the Basilica Fourviere and the old town area with it's city hall. We visited Basilica Notre Dame and passed by St. Georges Church, St. John's Cathedral, Palais de Justice and the St. Paul area. Once we were off the bus we had a nice coffee with a view of the Saone and Rhone rivers. We also did the optional tour of the town of Perouges, which was restored in 1911 by the Beaux Arts Commission. This town was featured in several films, including The Three Musketeers.
We had a very nice dinner this evening and there was entertainment too. Some of the folks got up to dance, but alas I left my dancing shoes at home! We did open one of those Burgundy wines we had purchased in Beaune, and this was enjoyed during the happy hour on the ship.
Before we departed Lyon around noon and headed towards the town of Viennne, we did an optional excursion to the local market center. What an experience to see all the fresh food and in fact we were able to taste some cheese and sample wine too. Naturally we bought another bottle here, this time a Rhone Valley red wine. Once back at the boat and underway, we began passing through the locks on the river, which was quite interesting to watch. Upon arrival in Vienne, we did a walking tour and then a mini-train ride up the hill to see the town's cathedral and the Cybele Garden. We were able to look down on the town and view ancient Roman ruins from the 1st century. Walking back to the boat, we stopped in a shop to get Allen some PJs (forgotten at home) and of course they were only sold in womans lingerie shops. Back on the boat again we started cruising after dinner and headed for Tournon. During dinner we shared our bottle of wine with another couple (who shared their Burgundy wine with us) as we watched them eat frog legs.
This day started off on the right foot with a tour of a chocolate factory in the town of Tournon. After that we toured the art gallery of Pierre Palue. There were some nice paintings in his gallery, which was run by his sister. The best part was still to come - a nice wine tasting at the Domain Du Murinais winery in the A.O.C of Crozes Hermitage. Yes, we bought another bottle here too! After that it was back to the ship and time to sail again through some locks (we also passed a nuclear power plant) and head to the town of Viviers. Once there we did a nighttime walk to see buildings dating back to the Middle Ages and some beautiful examples of architecture. Oh, there were a few kitty cats here too.
This day we were supposed to arrive first in the town of Tarascon but the boat didn't have a berth to tie up to, so we ended just going straight to the town of Arles, which is the place Vincent Van Gogh produced some of his finest works. We toured a Roman arena in the morning, and then the Romanesque Cathedral of St. Trophime while admireing its beautiful facade. Known as the 'little Rome of Gaul', Arles was once the richest city of the Roman Empire after Rome. We also did the optional tour to Les Baux and St. Remy de Provence. This took the whole afternoon and it was sure worth it. In Les Baux they discovered how to smelt Aluminum with bauxite. In the evening, back on the ship for dinner, we actually tried escargot. It wasn't bad at all!
After breakfast we disembarked the boat and did a walking tour of Avignon. We visited the Papal Palaces, which are there because Avignon was known as the 'City of Popes' during the 14th century. After lunch we did an optional tour to the A.O.C. 'Chateauneuf du Pape', where we did a tour of the vineyards and a nice wine tasting. These vineyards stood out from others simply due to all the stones around the vines. In France we learned that the vines are kept low to the ground and that the rocks found here from the Rhone riverbed heat up during the day only to radiate their warmth back to the vines during the evening. They also prune the grape clusters so that only the best ones stay on the plant until harvest time, ensuring the quality over quantity heritage of the region. This would be our final night aboard the ship, as we departed for Nice the following morning.
Heading down to Nice on the French Riviera took over three hours via tour bus. There was a bit of traffic to contend with plus we had a nice 'technical stop' at a gas station / cafe, and they even served cappuccino too. Upon arrival we found the weather beautiful but it was a bit windy. We had lunch at the restaurant on the roof of our hotel, which was right on the beach (well, across the street). The next day we would learn about the weather in Nice - it's sunny 300 days of the year, but that next day it was rainy and windy. Anyway, the first day was finished off by touring a museum on our own, and then enjoying dinner at an Italian restaurant. The slices of pizza are bigger than the plate they serve it on.
The next day we got soaked when out on a walking tour with the other folks that joined us from the cruise. In the morning we walked through the old town area of Nice and then enjoyed lunch on our own before returning to the hotel to rest. By mid-afternoon the rain was finished and we enjoyed another walk in the city, stopping at the Museum of Modern Art and then picking up some sandwiches to eat for dinner with our last bottle of wine, purchased in Burgundy.
Our final full day in Nice was quite nice. It started off with a massage for Allen while Sandra went out on a walk-about. In the afternoon we did an optional tour to Monaco and the capital Monte Carlo; we saw where the Monte Carlo race is run. They were already setting up the grand stands for the race that will be performed near the end of May (our Memorial Day weekend). We dined at the famous 'Cafe de Paris' restaurant, which is right next to the Casino Monte Carlo. Quite a splendid evening and the end of a wonderful vacation in France.
Sandra and Allen enjoying the fine food of Nice.