Tag Archives: Provence

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.

Vienne

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.

Arles, Provence

Still trying to conquer jetlag and enjoy the offerings on day 2 of our cruise. We have signed up for a leisurely walking tour through the city of Arles in classic Provence.

IMG_3503Breakfast in the dining room proffers an American style hot breakfast of omelets, scramble, sausage and bacon as well as a European selection of meat, cheese and fruit. Our breakfast companions inform me that the the coffee is excellent but I am avoiding liquid before our planned excursion as we have been told that French public toilets are scarce and…”oh la la.” Yes, they actually say that here.

Soon we board a comfortable Mercedes-Benz coach bus and we are off to explore Arles and the Roman ruins in the city. The scenic countryside of Provence unfolds outside our windows. Ditches are clotted with wild yellow iris and scarlet poppies. Cherries are just pinking up in their orchards, thorny artichokes ripen in neat rows, and bridal spirea hedgerows arch to the ground with their heavy blossom bounty. We fly past horses grazing in the morning sun, ancient terracotta roofs, giant sycamores, elegant cypress, a colour all their own.

We pull in to Arles on the Rhone river, just outside the city ramparts. The ancient stone ramparts are softened by eons of time and have given themselves over to wildflowers. Our guide says the city would like to restore them but I think they are magnificent as is.

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We enter the city beyond the ramparts and begin our walking tour through Arles. Classic Provence. Cobbled streets in amazingly good shape and lovely, colourful, shuttered windows bedecked with window boxes and planters of all kinds greet us cheerily. The ship gives us quiet box radios to listen to our guide through. We are lucky to have a most excellent and informed guide. She allows us to walk and explore at our own pace and we are guided by her voice, always knowing down which narrow alley the tour will go and when to jump out of the way of the cars which travel down these narrow streets.

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Arles is waking up this Monday morning and the small shops and cafes that dot the charming streets sputter to life.. The sun warm on the light breeze makes the walk perfect.  As we move through Arles we come to the Colosseum built by the Romans in 90 AD. The structure, largely intact serves today as a stadium where bullfights are hosted. Go Bull! Sitting on the cold, ancient stone seats brings the ghosts of another time to the fore.

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From there we head into Vincent Van Gogh territory, the cafe where he painted “Cafe Terrace at Night”. The cafe has been unfortunately completely bastardized for les touriste, but ah….stuff happened here.

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We also were treated to the spot Van Gogh was inspired to paint “Starry Night on The Rhone” and the garden courtyard  of the Hotel Dieu, “Garten des hospitals in Arles”, where Van Gogh was hospitalized after getting loose and free with a knife near an ear.

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Our walking tour through the streets of Arles is everything you could want in a brief tour of Provence. Arles and Provence define “quaint”.

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We wind our way slowly back to the coach and are transported to Tarascon where the ship has moved in the meanwhile to meet us. We board and head to the dining room for a light lunch of squid pasta and shrimp po’boys. Not quite classic but a very nice sandwich.

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After a brief nap (still recovering from the time change), we head up to the lounge for a pre dinner drink and await the briefing about the events for the following day after which we retire for dinner at the civilized hour of 7 pm.

At dinner we meet up with companions from day one who are entertaining dinner mates. Our foursome elects to abide by the chef’s choices for the evening: Poached Scallops and Avocado, Chateaubriand and Chocolate Souffle.

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IMG_3166IMG_3168Dinner was beautifully presented and accompanied by a local wine. All in all, an excellent meal. Tomorrow we do hope to take advantage of a cafe in Avignon on our free time.