South of France River Cruise Wrap-up

The Viking Cruise Ship Experience

The Ship

This ship was made in 2012 as with the entire fleet, so it’s new, modern and has the very latest in amenities, including satellite wi-fi (although it’s not screamingly fast).

You will pay for drinks in the lounge but you can purchase a premium drinks package separately. Depends on how much you drink. This is not an all-inclusive get hammered on cheap alcohol kind of cruise. Bartenders are experienced and know how to make a decent cocktail. There is unlimited wine and beer with meals.

IMG_9124There are only about 160 passengers  and amenities are very close by. It’s way more intimate than the floating cities that are today’s ocean liners. Cabins are never more than a two minute walk to dining areas and outdoor decks, quiet spaces and computer centers. We did not have to call down for this or that  except extra pillows, which came in mere minutes.

Vienne 005People have asked what the ship looks like. The answer? Exactly as pictured on the website and in print and television medias. There’s no real-life step down. It’s gorgeous.

The Cabin

Our cabin was a first class cabin and is generally the one pictured on TV. It was spacious and very well appointed. Having the balcony off the cabin for private outside time was  very nice, but there are plenty of areas to be outside if you don’t have a balcony. Showers and toilets worked beautifully. We heard from other passengers that their cabins were less spacious but also much cheaper. Best to check online for your own needs. It was really nice not to be tripping over each other. The room came with a bottle of sparkling wine which we sipped on our balcony on a hot day between ports. Nice.

Having BOTH 110V and 220V outlets in each cabin, as well as USB charging ports were thoughtful additions.

The Staff

We’ve been on other cruises. Service was always professional and fastidious.

We were very impressed by the staff’s interactions with passengers and their overall demeanor. They were comfortably engaging and gregarious, and while professional, they were not formal. Clearly designed to be a Viking differentiator.

Midway through the cruise we were required to change ships due to the fact that our cruise began on the wrong ship because of high waters. It was utterly painless. The team added extra perks: a cheese tasting and a bottle of local wine, for example. When we got back aboard, wet and cold from Lyon, they had prepared some rum-laced hot chocolate for us. It seemed like it was just for us — they were thoughtful and attentive and made it seem like OUR cruise was the only cruise.

A special note: our cruise director, Nikolas, an American-raised Belgian, was everybody’s friend – knowledgeable, friendly, funny and professional. He gave personal recommendations to anyone who asked and also gave daily briefings to all passengers, as well as presentations on wine, art and cheese that were informative, well-researched but never too academic.

The Food

The food on board was pretty much perfect for a large and varied group of passengers. The chefs managed to feed everyone with a fairly varied menu that highlighted the region’s cuisine. Of course the food in southern France is generally more rustic and passengers  expect some fancier fare so, while this is not a complaint in any sense, we found in many cases, the chefs’ hands were tied and probably they focused on presentation and mass appeal in their versions of the local dishes.

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Our best meals were rustic and full of local flavour. We ate lunch at a sidewalk café in Avignon and sit rose wine while eating fois gras, roast duck and other local delicacies. And on the ship , the chef surprised us this one day with a special menu featuring the rustic cuisine of Provence: Baguette, olives, local dried sausage, herb roasted chicken and duck and local cheeses. It was the best meal of the trip by far.

Vienne 008Vienne 007Tour Guides

All of our tour guides were exemplary. They were excellent guides that knew their subjects — history, architecture and culture. They also knew so much more, including about the geography and the horticulture or the region. They did a superb job of wrangling large groups of tourists  while never seeming to rush or to corral.

Viking employs QuietVox, the latest in guided tour technology. It’s a small receiver that every tourist wore which was tuned automatically to the tour guides’ transmitter. The perfect tour experience. Guides could speak quietly and respect residential areas and hallowed places while including everyone. We could go further afield of the group and still hear the guide clearly which was especially good for discovering photo opportunities.

Travel

This, being our first Viking river cruise, we chose to go top-drawer all the way, which included first-class air travel to Europe and back which ain’t cheap. They were long travel days but at least we had short lines and more comfortable surroundings.

It was a pricey trip, but if you wanted to not spend so much, regular economy airfare and a smaller cabin would still make for a great vacation. There’s lots of hang-out space on the ship, so not a big need for a larger cabin.

Something that never occurred to us — Spring rains make the rivers high, which can hamper river navigation for ships on rivers that include ancient bridges.

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The crew wasn’t sure that the cruise would make it all the way to Lyon and Chalon-Sur-Saône because of the combination of high waters and particularly low bridges there. As it turned out, we were able to make all of our stops but on a couple occasions we were awakened in the morning  by the crew dismantling all of the structures on the sun deck above us to make under-bridge passage possible.

The Places

The Stops

The stops along the cruise were amazing choices — each was unique and different from the last. We wish had more time in each but had to keep moving. But, then we look back at what we packed into 8 days, we realize the ground we covered. As with many cruises, we discover the locations we will return to on our own (*cough, cough* Beaune.)

Arles

Arles was our first stop — a wonderful representative of the colours of Provence – the blues, the yellows. We walked in ancient footsteps among  Roman ruins and saw the inspiration for many of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous works. We took in the wandering ancient streets to the Roman coliseum and the Amphitheater from the first century, built by Augustus in Julius Caesar’s honour. As, well we stopped by the locations made immortal by Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, Starry Night, Cafe at Night.

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Avignon

We walked through the narrow streets where Avignon has it’s own  Roman ruins and then the remnants of Roman influence from 1000 years later when Avignon held the seat of the Catholic Church during war. For me, the highlight was a stop at Les Halles at Avignon, a market for purveyors, of cheeses, meats and pastries. We saw lovely sausages, pates, breads and everything for an amazing Provencal repast.

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Leaving our guided tour at this point, we scouted out a French sidewalk cafe from which to  soak in the sun the proper way. A lovely lunch, some rose wine and lovely conversation made for a lifetime memory.

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Leaving Avignon we began the most picturesque part of the river cruise, passing limestone mountains, vineyards and castles, drinking sparkling wine on our sunny balcony.

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Our trip through Vienne revealed a stunning view of the city from the church atop a mountain.

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Then the most unexpected thing happened. To show us the quality of the acoustics of the church, our tour guide sang Ave Maria in a pitch perfect, strong and clear voice that transported everyone in the room. It was one of the highlights of our entire trip.

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Again Vienne had it’s own Roman ruins, most impressively, the temple of Augustus and Livia.

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Ardeche/Tournon

At our next stop, Ardeche we boarded a steam train, enjoyed a ride through the country side (don’t wear white. It is a dirty ride) and sampled some of the ciders and juices made from the area’s fruits.

Ardeche 006The train wound around the mountains of the region and gave us views of rivers and gorges and the odd nudist who, I’m sure, figured they’d be totally alone and didn’t count on a train full of tourists going by 100 metres above.

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Lyon

Lyon is a large city and we had really only a few hours to spend there. We toured the very old streets and the “traboules” – passageways through the buildings from street to street as old Lyon didn’t have enough room between mountain and river for cross streets everywhere.

Lyon 008We were in search of Lyonnaise sausages and nougat, specialties of the area. We found each of them in quaint shops that sold them and other specialties of the area. It was a cold, blustery day in Lyon, but shopping along its narrow, old streets was fantastic.

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Chalon-sur-Saône/Beaune

It’s like the trip saved the best for last. We pulled into a more industrial part of Chalon-sur-Saone because the water was too high to pass under the ancient bridge to downtown proper. It was fine, because were were taking the bus to Beaune in Burgundy, wine capital of France, and maybe all the world.

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It had warmed up, the sun was out and we enjoyed our trip through the clos, the stone-walled vineyards of Burgundy, past the mustard factory into Beaune. We walked through the Hôtel Dieu and had our wine tasting in an old cellar.

Beaune 017We poked about for a short time and then had to leave for our last night on the boat. We will definitely be coming back to Beaune, maybe someday, to stay. We liked it that much.
Beaune 024You see the Viking ads on television and the web. As with most things, you don’t believe the real thing can measure up to the idealized version presented there. This is an exception. Seeing the advertising after we’ve returned, our reaction was the same: it’s JUST like that. 100% just like that. It was a spectacular introduction to the South of France. Intimate. Romantic. Historic. Wonderful.

Final Day Cruising & Beaune

Somewhere this morning we left a pile of passengers on shore for a wine excursion. They will meet us by bus further down the river. The boat casts off and continues on down to Chalon-sur-Saône. We elect to sleep in and do the afternoon excursion as we have a hellish travel schedule tomorrow. There will be no sleep tonight as the load-out starts at 2:00 in the morning.

Our last day will be in beautiful Beaune, in Burgundy. Beaune, of course, is well known for world class winemaking and also for mustard. Today our tour will take us into the heart of this region, through a town called Meursault and into Beaune. We will visit an ancient winery and and the Hôtel Dieu as well as enjoy a bit of free time to shop.

Beaune 015We board the motorcoach for a four hour tour. We pass many fields of grains growing and eventually those fields give way to vineyards. Meursault is on a hill and all we climb we pass beautiful walled stone houses or clos.

Beaune 016Beaune is not a region of chateaus like the Beaujolais region. The clos have modest sized homes with walled gardens and deep scarlet roses climbing the walls.Now and then you get a peek through a break or arch in a wall down to the muted, sun drenched vines in their neat rows.   Breathtaking. I’m dying to stop for photos but there is no time if we are to make the tasting.

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We continue on and disembark near the town centre across from the Hotel Dieu from 1443. This incredible building was donated by a couple of wealthy patrons, as a place to care for the sick poor. Not much more than a comfortable bed, soup, and medicinal herbs were available to pretty much ease you into death.

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Stained glass over the altar explained in pictorial detail what your fate would be if you did not accept Jesus. Very soothing. The hospital has been  preserved as a museum and is quite remarkable especially in light of the fact that this was the only working hospital in Beaune until 1971.

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Also at the Hôtel Dieu was The Last Judgement, it’s original polyptych altarpiece by the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden — A piece that figures prominently in the region, and also in a search and rescue mission from WWII that saw it rescued from destruction, featured in the 2012 film, Monument Men.

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Next we continue on to a famous cellar to taste three wines. The beautiful stone cellar itself, musty and with low ceilings, represents some of the finest product of the region.

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We taste two excellent whites, one a premier cru, a 6-year-old Pinot which they urge you to age another 14 or more years (ha!), and another specialty of the region, cassis liqueur. Of course we buy all of them.

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After the tasting we have a bit of time to pop into shops. There are a few bakeries, linen shops and souvenir shops. No time to explore this gorgeous town further unfortunately. We are due back at the bus for a return to the ship and dinner.

 

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Dinner tonight begins with a rather horrible piece of sushi for an amuse bouche. Soggy, tasteless and definitely the only bad thing we have eaten on the cruise. It was a surprise as it did not even suit the theme of the meal. It was quickly forgotten over another quite excellent and rustic meal following it.

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Chicken cassoulet appetizer with puff pastry and lots of tarragon and a deep, rich Boeuf Bourguignon with buttered noodles for a main. Both are delicious and exactly the kind of rustic food we are looking for on the cruise, the kind of food that makes me want to get home and prepare some French meals. Inspiring.

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Since we have changed ships and chefs, we have noted a more rustic trend that is our personal preference. Not to say the food on the Buri was not excellent. It was, it was just a little too “fancy” for a cruise in Provence for our tastes and I have to believe as I said in an earlier post that the food was pleasing to 98% of the cruisers. And once again I have to restate that it is no reflection on Viking, it is only personal preference.

After dinner we have to pack and go to bed for our 2 am wake up call and a 24 hour return home to Ottawa. Back to real life.

Un Petit Goût de Lyon and on to Beaune

We awake to an 8 degree Lyon which promises to rain on us. We are busing into the town center to see a basillica and then into old town to shop. Upon our return to the ship we depart for Beaune on the Saone (rhymes with Rhone) River.

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A note about cruising with Viking and their shore excursion guides. We have now been on several tours this trip and have to give kudos to Viking. Their guides are some of the best we have ever encountered. Each one has been extremely knowledgeable about the town and the history of the area and knowledgeable beyond their talks. As well, each one has implemented their own personal style and delivery. Our guide into Lyon, Christian, is well-traveled and a comedian. It was a highly entertaining morning. Beyond that, we have taken as we said, several of the leisurely tours. In each case the guide was superb at keeping the tour moving but never making the more infirm passengers feel hurried. Lastly, unlike in North American tours, tipping while gladly accepted, is never mentioned, either by the guide or by putting a visible basket up front labeled “Tips”. A euro or two for your driver and a little more for your guide is appreciated and well deserved. Our guides this cruise have truly taken our experience to above and beyond.

On this blustery day, our second last of this trip, we view a good part of the city of Lyon from the shores of the Saone River and the hill above the city upon which the Notre Dame de Fourvière Basilica is perched.  Colourful buildings line the shores of the river and I notice each window is decorated with an ornate iron faux balcony and window valance. Very picturesque. Our bus climbs the hill to the basilica to where we are let out to view the building. Here we are invited into the most ornate building, church or otherwise, I have ever entered. A sight to behold – a wedding cake topped with ice cream and sprinkles then dusted in gold leaf for good measure. A cherry would be gauche.

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After viewing the spectacular interior we head to the the walled cliff just beyond to see the equally spectacular view of the city of Lyon at our feet.

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The bus winds its way down the hillside and deposits us in old town. Our guide, Christian, leads us through traboules, ancient doors in the apartment walls that lead to interior courtyards and serve as shortcuts between the streets. The traboules are distinct to Lyon.

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In the ancient town of narrow cobbled streets we peruse shops and cafes. There are many purveyors of candy – chocolate, calisson and nougat –  specialties of the region, flower shops, soap and gourmet foods such as regional salts, meats and candied fruit.

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We are on the hunt for regional specialties, particularly Lyonaise sausages. We are stymied on many occasions because the French feel Wednesday is a holiday especially preceding a bank holiday which is then followed by a what the hell holiday, because you know…we are, French. So. Not a lot open the past few days. Luckily, we stumble upon a lovely shop here in this narrow alley in Lyon which features an array of homemade sausages: fine herb, blueberry, paprika, boar, chevre, poivre, nature — handmade and rustic. We select several and are dying to get them home to share with friends. Some baguette, french cheese, moutard and a pickle. Happiness.

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Our time, while short but well spent and very enjoyable,  is cut even shorter as the skies open and heavy rain chases us back to the bus and onward to our waiting ship. We are treated to hot chocolate spiked with rum upon boarding, to chase the chill. The Viking staff often have little surprises waiting.

This evening the crew present a farewell dinner to us. The day after tomorrow, most passengers have horrific flight schedules, us included, so tonight will be the night for goodbyes. Dinner, a seven course event, includes regional specialties from the Burgundy region where we are now docked, including escargot, filet mignon and shrimp with bearnaise and duchesse potatoes with red wine jus and crepe Suzette for dessert. Lovely end to a lovely week.

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Tomorrow we have a walking tour of Chalon-sur-Saone and some free time to shop before an early dinner and early up for a brutally early flight.

Vienne and Some Food Notes

Many people have asked us about the food on board. I rate it about 7.5 stars on 10, this being more of a reflection on Rob and I, not Viking. The Viking chefs and kitchen staff, thoughtfully and carefully prepare and present meals that are pleasing to 98% of the passengers — a considerable feat in light of the fact that the average cruising age is about 60 and from all over the world. The chef, always accessible, makes recommendations and visits each table at dinner to chat. In light of that, there is not a single meal that I cannot wait to get home to recreate or an item I would return to order again. Despite their use of local ingredients and menus, the food is still what Rob and I call “hotel” food. We would prefer a more rustic style menu, a slaved-over bouillabaisse, ham and cheese on excellent baguette.

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However, on this, day 5 of our 8 day cruise, we made a discovery which I hope holds out to not be an anomaly. Each day the ship serves a three course lunch and dinner but offers “lighter” fair on the beautiful forward deck. As I mentioned yesterday, we were changing to our original ship, the Hermod. After touring lovely Vienne, our cabins were not yet available so we retired to the aforementioned deck for a little sun and beer. There was a light nosh of local olives, charcuterie including local tiny sausages, whole wheat and white baguette and an excellent olive tapanade already placed at the tables on the deck. Since the light lunch was about to be served and we were comfortably seated, we decided to stay.

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This decision led to the best meal we have had on board. Memorable, delicious, and yes…I would eat here again. The chef carved up perfectly roasted herbed chickens, ducks and lamb. Sides included a rich gravy, ratatouille (of which I am generally not fond, but must say this was excellent and light on the eggplant which I find makes it bitter), whole grain baguette, a sweetish, red cabbage salad, herbed tomato, arugula, bocincini salad dressed with a light vinegar and a most excellent olive oil, and potato wedges that I think are cooked in a chicken soup base. Also on offer was squid salad, fish in tomato sauce, green salad and a tuna salad.

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Dessert, a feast for the eyes and palate, was a table of colourful, delicate, airy, melt on your tongue macrons, a local very trifle-like, specialty tart from Vienne,  mille feuilles, candied lemon and orange peel and other assorted tortes. This was exactly the kind of rustic fare we have been craving in France. This change may also be a reflection of the chef on the Hermod.

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Earlier in the day, we departed by motor coach to Tournon and headed off to meet the Hermod, our new ship at Vienne, a lovely town on the Rhone which is built into a hill and features some amazing Roman architecture and ruins.  Vienne is an hour bus ride through the Rhone valley countryside alive with the ubiquitous terracotta roof tiles, fruit orchards, rolling hills dotted with small villages and churches, steep vineyards, cypress trees which stand erect on their own rising from mixed forests and landscaped properties. Unfortunately for us we are teased by the neat, soft silver grey-green fields which will erupt in waves of glorious lavender in about a week, long after we depart.

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Arriving in Vienne we disembark and promptly board a tour tram which takes us to the top of the steep hill into which old Vienne is built, overlooking the Rhone Valley. At the top we see ancient Roman walls and quaint properties with walled gardens, a timeworn cemetery and a small chapel of Notre – Dame de Pipet, noted for its acoustic properties. Our guide says she will sing to us to demonstrate. She begins to sing Ave Maria in a mesmerizing acapella rendition, that rings through the chapel and renders the tour spellbound.

After this little treat, we reboard the tram and descend to the town square where our leisurely walking tour guides us by a Roman Temple to Caesar Augustus and Livia, Roman Forum ruins and the massive, ornate  St – Maurice Cathedral. Medieval and Roman buildings are found side by side here, an interesting view to the past history of the valley.

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Upon our return to the boat and lunch we depart for Lyon where we are to have a tour of Les Halles de Bocuse, ultimate foodie destination and what we have been looking forward to all trip. By the time we pull in to Lyon we are told the excursion has been cancelled and the reason is because it is France and that is what France does. Even though it is a “bank” holiday, this has been arranged and approved but Les Halles decided business was too light today and they were not going to wait for us to arrive. C’est la vie. We are told today that our visit to the Avignon market earier in the week was superior and that while we could go off-book tomorrow, the tour would be more fun.

For dinner this evening Rob chooses the creamed mushroom appetizer, veal tenderloin and spring pea main and a white chocolate bread pudding. I opt for the refreshing tomato, cucumber, incredibly creamy and light blue cheese salad, snapper with a cream sauce of fresh green peas and white Tuscan beans and raspberry cake for dessert. Our new Austrian chef may be a difference maker.

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Tomorrow we will walk the streets of Lyon and peruse the shops.

Easy Morning into Ardèche

No rushing about today. All activities on shore take place in the latter half of the afternoon. We breakfast at 9:30, seated at a lively table of Americans. After breakfast there are French lessons and then a chocolate tasting (Valrhona) in the lounge. So during this slow period, drifting along the picturesque Rhone River, enjoying the swans and little towns,  I will note some observations about Viking and River cruising for those considering it.

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This is a very pricey trip. There are a few ways to make it way more affordable. Book your own air travel. Viking is first class all the way and will take care of it for you. They don’t price shop and you will fly first class, the most expensive way to get to Europe. Roughly half the cost of this trip was for airfare. We are also staying in the second most expensive cabins on board. They are spacious. Other passengers have told us that their rooms are quite small. You can view dimensions online. Our cabin features a sitting room (about 8×12) with a chair, couch, desk, fridge and tv. The bedroom (about 8×10) features a second tv, closet and space to stow two suitcases out of the way. The narrow bathroom (about 10x 3) is attractive and well designed. We also have a lovely and private balcony off of our stateroom. No complaints here about space.  First class cabin all the way.

But… do you want to pay for it, when the very comfortable bar and lounge, quiet library and sun deck are merely steps away? It’s not a huge boat. I takes 30 to 45 seconds to walk to the lounge, sun deck or dining area. I would guess that the the cabins furthest away might take 2 minutes to get anywhere. There are always seats and tables available in these areas, unlike on the massive oceanliners where you have to stake a deck chair out in the morning and actual fights over said chairs erupt between passengers..

Alcohol though not complimentary in the lounge, flows freely at lunch and dinner (wine) and you have a bottle of sparkling wine waiting in your cabin when you arrive (may only be in first class). You can also purchase a premium drinks package. Depends on how much you drink. I’m fine with paying for the occasional beer or cocktail but you can bring your own as well, especially since we are in the heart of French wine country and you are in town frequently.

If you are a photographer, take the leisurely walking tours offered as opposed to the regular tour. All of the infirm or very old passengers will be in the group and you have plenty of time to duck down alleyways and explore and return to the group without missing a beat.

The only other advice I have heard and can pass on is beware of booking in the spring. Rivers run high with rain and  waters pouring down from the Alps and are unpredictable. The cruise last week remained in port at Avignon for the entire week. It did not move. Some passengers went home and received a partial discount and the people who stayed, were bussed from town to town for their excursions and then returned to port in Avignon. Very disappointing I’m sure for those imagining themselves floating serenely down the Rhone. As a result of these high waters, our ship, the Hermod did not make it to Avignon to receive us this week. Her sister ship, the Buri was sent instead. In regards to that, tomorrow morning we are meeting up with our original ship, the Hermod, in Vivviene and transferring over. Other than packing our bags and leaving them outside our stateroom by 8 am tomorrow, we are not required to do much else. Minor inconvenience.

Today our afternoon excursion took us by motor coach to the countryside of Ardèche for a steam train ride through the valley. The trip is an hour long on an open car train and the ride is quite dirty from the coal used to power the train.

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At the half way mark the engine is manually turned on a turntable and we head back. The valley is beautiful and features many ancient stone bridges over the River Doux.  Acacia trees bow with their lightly scented waterfall pannicles, and daisies, pink soapwort, white yarrow and mauve meadow rue fill out the colour palette which has considerably reduced now that spring has given way to the summer heat in Provence. Lavender is about to bloom.

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Perched high on the stony cliffs are neat rows of vineyards with a look down at nude bathers taking advantage of the cool, clear waters at the bottom of the valley.  Soon  we are returned to the station where a lovely snack of croissant and apple cider await.

The coach departs the train station and deposits us back at our ship docked at the small town of Tournon. I decide to grab my camera and take my own tour of the little village whose pastel face looks towards the steep vineyards of Tain l’Hermitage across the Rhone.

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Dinner, served a little later this evening, consists once again of many choices but the Chef recommends her coq au vin we we choose. The chicken, stewed in a rich wine sauce over two days with bacon and mushrooms does not disappoint especially accompanied by a local merlot. I however find the French onion soup appetizer thick and unappealing. Our waiter steers us clear of the orange dessert souffle, saying it is too dry, and we instead choose the mascarpone and cherries, pretty to look at but very sweet.

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Back to our room to pack for tomorrow’s transfer at Vivienne in the morning and then onto Lyon.

Our search for authentic food experiences at home and around the world.