Viking River Cruise: Lyon & Provence

Because our first Viking River Cruise (Paris to Normandy) was so enjoyable, we decided to try another one, and to see a part of France that we had driven through, but to see it more leisurely as we travel north on the Le Rhône River (See Viking River Cruises for more details).

Our goal was to see a different area of France, and hopefully have the same great river cruise experience we had on our River Seine Viking River Cruise.

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Trip Beginnings/Planning

As Viking had "sweetened their trip price offer" to the point where we could no longer ignore it, we decided to go for it. Perhaps because the airfare component of the trip was "free", it turned out to be a bit different than we were used to (see below). Go here to view Viking's information on this cruise.

The steps to get to the Viking Ship were as follows;

Summary: We decided to "take" the Viking free air fare even though it placed us into economy seating. Yes, that is a very uncomfortable way to travel anywhere and we would never do this kind of thing again! If your tolerance level for uncomfortable airplane seating can be overcome by "no cost tickets", then perhaps your experience(s) might be different than ours.

Upon arrival in Marseilles, we collected our luggage and met the Viking River Cruises representative, who got us onto their bus, and took us to Avignon, France where we boarded the Viking Heimdal, our home for the next week.

This is a relatively new ship for Viking, it was built in Avignon and launched in March 2014. At 443 feet in length, it is longer than our first Viking trip (the Viking Spirit) in 2014 (that ship is 375 feet long).

This is the Écluse de Caderousse locks on the Rhône River (north of Avignon), and as you can easily see, the limited height inside the lock is the main reason why the Viking River Cruises on the Rhône have to leave the sun deck in the collapsed position.

Image is the property of Jean-Marc Rosier via Wikipedia

The Palais des Papes is an historical palace located in Avignon, Southern France. It is one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe. Once a fortress and palace, the papal residence was the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century. Six papal conclaves were held in the Palais, leading to the elections of Benedict XII in 1334, Clement VI in 1342, Innocent VI in 1352, Urban V in 1362, Gregory XI in 1370 and Antipope Benedict XIII in 1394.

After we arrived at the ship, got our cabin and unpacked, we had a bit of "free time" which we used to walk about the city of Avignon.

Because the ship provides a tour of the Papal Palace on day 3, we avoided going inside that building, and concentrated on exploring the walled city street.

The city centre of Avignon is entirely enclosed by 4.3 kilometres of walls.

Day One Avignon, France

Avignon, nicknamed “City of Popes” because it was home to seven popes from 1309 to 1377, as well as being located in an area where the Roman Empire constructed numerous buildings, arenas, and other facilities in, is an interesting place to start this trip.

But I think that it would make far more sense for me to create this trip blog in the manner in which Viking River Cruises does it - to generate a "day by day" narration of where we were, what took place, and what our thoughts were, so lets switch to that format;

As I previously described, this was our "arrival day" and as we were in the first wave of arriving passengers, we had to wait a bit for our cabins to be cleaned and prepared. Viking has what they call an "embarkation buffet" from 11AM to 3PM, so that everyone who arrives can entertain themselves with food or drink until their cabins are ready to be occupied.

Our game plan is always the same, we unpack, get a 1.5 or so hour nap, wake & shower, and then go out and hike in order to get as tired as possible (although, we generally take 1/2 of a sleep aid to insure that we get a full night's sleep) so that the first nights in Europe are not a "sleepless" event! This approach works quite well for us, as we have always had good results in jet-lag removal.

Keep in mind that this day's exploration, was really more about us getting tired and being able to walk about this ancient city, and not about "visiting" any specific Avignon sites.

 Quick History Lesson 

Originally built between 1350 and 1370, Avignon’s ramparts, or protective walls, give the city its defining architectural aesthetic. Within the walls there's a wealth of museums, 17th and 18th century mansions, and botanical gardens. The ramparts were restored in the 19th century.

 The above information was extracted from Wikipedia.

This is the Pont Saint-Bénézet, one of the original Avignon bridges (construction commenced in 1177), which used to link the Papal Palace (which is just to the right of the bridge) to the west bank of the River Rhône. Repeated Rhône floods tore down this bridge, and finally Avignon decided to just leave it as a partial bridge and not to keep rebuilding it.

Meanwhile, the Viking Heimdal is moored and waiting for our return. You can't see it in this picture, but the Avignon City Walls are just to the left of the ship in this picture.

Arles, France

The ship moved from Avignon, south to Tarascon at 5AM (approximately 30 kilometers), so that the day's tour to Arles could begin from there. The tour to Arles was via tour bus, so moving the ship closer made the bus route shorter.

 Quick History Lesson 

The Roman Empire seized this area and founded Arles in 123BC, however, it did not become an important city until it backed Julius Caesar against Pompey. Marseilles, which had backed Pompey, became a less important city center and Caesar founded a retirement center for veterans of the Roman Sixth Legion.

 The above information was extracted from Wikipedia.
Photo by Rolf Süssbrich

We rode the bus from Tarascon to Arles, hiked through Arles and our first stop was the original Roman Amphitheater (above). This arena, built in 90AD, seats more than 20,000 visitors and is still in use today. In a somewhat interesting coincidence to it's original purpose, bull fights are still held here, as well as jazz festivals, etc.

The Arles Roman Arena is quite large, 446 feet in length by 358 feet in width and 70 feet in height - big enough to hold the Viking Heimdal in the center of the arena.

The artist Vincent Van Gogh moved to Arles from Paris in 1888. He produced quite a few paintings while here, however, his increasing mental illness caused the local government to have him hospitalized at least once.

The images above, were taken at the hospital where Van Gogh was a patient, and also where he produced several famous paintings.

The tour returned to the ship for lunch, and we decided to not take the optional afternoon tour to St. Remy and instead hung out and worked on further jet-lag removal (AKA "nap").

Day 3 Avignon, France

The ship departed Tarascon at 8PM on day 2, bound for Avignon, the ship remained here for the majority of day 3.

Today's tour is a "walking tour" of Avignon including a visit to the Papal Palace (entrance above). Construction began on the palace in 1252 and Pope Clement V made it his official residence in 1305. The Palace additions/reconstruction began in earnest in 1334 under Pope Benedict the 12th.

Although the "official" Popes departed Avignon in 1377 and returned to Rome,  Popes Clement 7th and Benedict 13th remained in the Avignon Palace until 1403. For those of you who are not familiar with the Papal Schism, it is an interesting part of the Catholic Church history.

As shown in the above images, the Palace is huge, over 15,000 square meters of interior space - making it the largest gothic Palace in Europe!

The Festival of Avignon is held each year in the Palace, during the month of July.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape Tour

The Viking organized afternoon tour was to the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine region, known in France as one of the appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) regions. Here, in one of the hottest wine regions in France, you get wines with wonderfully warm and spicy aromas such as cinnamon, cloves, and freshly roasted coffee.

 Quick History Lesson 

The name "Châteauneuf-du-Pape" means "the pope's new castle" but the name does not allude to the papal palace. The town was probably already called Châteauneuf when the popes arrived. In 1893 the villagers, realizing the marketing potential of the name, added "du-Pape". Only one tower remains intact of the summer palace. Time, religious wars, and finally a German bomb during World War II have seen to that. But it is still quite impressive as is the stunning view over the vineyards and the river Rhône.

 The above information was extracted from Wikipedia.

All those vines waiting for warmer weather! The vines are pruned for removal of the unwanted wood. For those of you who do not understand why the vines are pruned, we suggest that you visit Pruning Grapeviness for a short explanation of why it is necessary.

The only purpose for those rocks in this vinyard, is to keep the heat in the ground! The stones attract heat during the day, and the soil is therefore kept warmer at night.

Tour Bus in Vineyard: It was a bit brisk this day, but still an interesting view of a vineyard in the winter. The vines are left dormant until Spring.

Those mountains in the distance are Montmirail (in the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains) and Mont Ventoux (just to the east of the Dentelles de Montmirail), as we looked east from the vineyard.

As shown in the above images, the vineyards are distinctively rocky, and these rocks are useful to the vines because they keep the daytime heat "in" the soil for a longer period of time, which keeps the roots warm overnight. This entire area has a unique clay sub-structure, and the combination of the heat retaining rocks, on top of this clay structure, produces a unique variety of grapes.

Have you ever wondered what 7,000 liters of wine would look like?  In the image to the left, I am standing next to a barrel that contained that much Grenache!

In this area of the winery, there were another 15 of these barrels, each full of wine.

 Quick History Lesson 

The wine classified as Châteauneuf-du-Pape Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) is produced from grapes grown in the commune of Châteauneuf-du-Pape as well as in portions of the four adjoining communes in the Vaucluse department. The vineyards cover an area of approximately 3,200 ha. Of this total 1,659 ha (abbreviation is "hectare" a unit of surface area equal to 100 acres) lies within the commune of Châteauneuf, 674 ha (21.1%) within Courthézon, 391 ha within (12.3%) Orange, 335 ha (10.5%) within Bédarrides and remaining 129 ha (4%) within Sorgues. Unlike its northern Rhône neighbours Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC permits thirteen different varieties of grape in red wine but the blend must be predominantly Grenache. In 2010 there were 320 producers. The total annual production is around 100,000 hectolitres (equivalent to 13 million bottles of 0.75 L) of which 95 percent is red. The remainder is white: the production of rosé is not permitted by AOC rules.

 The above information was extracted from Wikipedia.

In 1317, one year after his election, Pope John XXII ordered the construction of a castle (shown above) at the top of the hill above the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The castle was destroyed by the German Army, as it retreated from this area in August 1944.

The Chateauneuf-du-Pape village center, looking north.

Castle Ruins: Celeste and I posing just in front of the Castle ruins.

Walking down to the Village: Taking a break before continuing down the very steep walkway.

The fountain in the center of the village was pretty, and a natural gathering place for the entire village. All of us felt like we were in a Medeival Village!

A quick break from all of our Village exploration, before we head back up the hill to the tour bus.

Wine Tasting Class: Celeste and I are learning about the famous wines grown in this area.

Doing the obligatory swishing of the wine, preparing for my next bite of cheese.

As shown in the above images, there was a walkway behind the castle ruins, down to the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The village consists of a mere 2,500 residents, but there are 320 wine companies located therein! Our tour proceeded to a local winery, where we were given a presentation by their Sommelier, as he led us through a dégustation de vin of several local wine varietals.

In the meantime, the Viking Heimdal had departed Avignon for Viviers, where our tour bus was to meet the ship.

Day 4 Tournon-sur-Rhône

The ship cast off at 4AM to continue north on the River Rhône, to Tournon - set to arrive at 1PM today.

There were two tours today, one to the Tain l'Hermitage for another wine tasting, and the second option was to take a steam train near Saint-Jean-de-Muzols (Train de l'Ardèche) into the Ardeche Mountains. We decided to take the train tour, as it is a very old steam locomotive, and the train would be going through the mountains, with steep gorges and beautiful views.

The steam locomotive was built in 1903, and the cars we rode in were from the same era, so it felt like we had entered a time machine! Seat comfort was not a "design goal" in that era, wooden bench seating with no pads.

Tournon Castle: Celeste and I hiked around Tournon, to see as much of the village as we could. This castle was built in the 15th century and is now a Museum named "Chateau-Musee de Tournon-sur-Rhône".

Gives you some idea of the age of this village doesn't it? This is the Église Saint-Julien de Tournon-sur-Rhône church. Construction was started in 1300.

Train de l'Ardèche Tour: A sufficient number of train cars had to be positioned to take our tour group.

And so we hung out for a few minutes, until the train cars were ready for us.

As the train went up the mountain, it looped back and forth over the river below.

Some additional views of the many bridges that were built to carry the train up the mountain.

Everyone had to get off the train, so that the engine could move onto the turnstile to prepare for the return trip.

Locomotive Turnstile: The turnstile operation drew everyone's attention! The locomotive was repositioned much quicker than I would have thought possible.

Once at the top of the gorge, everyone got off the train, the locomotive was decoupled from the cars and driven onto a turnstile, where the engineer swung the engine around and then he drove it back to the front of the passenger cars and re-coupled for the drive back down the gorge.

Day 5 Vienne, France

The ship departed Tournon at 7PM on day 4, set to arrive in Vienne at midnight. It is Easter Sunday, and it is not only chilly outside this morning, but most things are closed here in Vienne. The ship is docked on the west side of the River Rhône, and to get to the other side, we hiked over a pedestrian bridge.

 Quick History Lesson 

Note that Vienne became a Roman colony in 47 B.C. under Julius Ceasar, who forced the Allobroges tribe to vacate. That tribe then founded the city of Lyon.

 The above information was extracted from Wikipedia.

The first three images above, were taken as we walked about Vienne. Our ship tied up on the western side of the river, where we were immediately in front of Cathédrale Saint-Maurice (sixth image), yet another amazing example of church architecture & construction.

In the third image above, you can see the Viking Ship moored to the western shore of the Rhône River.

The seventh image is of the Temple of Augustus and Livia, and when you consider that it was built between 20BC and 10BC, and further consider how often France has been subjected to wars in the previous 2,000 years, it is amazing that this temple is still standing!

The eighth image was taken on top of Mont Pipet, above the Roman Amphitheater, and you can see how the entire valley floor and river are below us.

This was taken from the summit of Mont Pipet, looking down into the Roman Amphitheater and the city beyond. Mont Pipet is 280 meters above sea level and the distance from the river where the ship was moored was less than a kilometer but it was a constant ascent.

Built sometime around 40 to 50AD, it was originally able to house 13,000 spectators, and was (at that time) the largest arena in Gaul. The arena is still in use today, and hosts plays, opera and jazz festivals.

Day 6 Lyon, France

The ship arrives in Lyon at 3PM, and we initially tied up at the Quai Claude Bernard - the eastern side of the Rhône River. This is a very scenic location, adjacent to the Université Lumière Lyon and only 2.2 kilometers from the Place des Terreaux.

The Rhône River splits away from the Saône River at the southern tip of the Lyon City Peninsula and swings east on the north side of Lyon. The Saône River continues it's northward march to Vioménil, France. We were told by Viking personnel, that the Saône River was too high to allow the Viking Heimdal to proceed to it's usual location.

Since the city tour we are interested in takes place on day 7 (Tuesday), we decided to go ahead and do our "own" walking tour and so we head off to Place Bellecour, and tramp around the Rue de Victor Hugo and Rue de la Charite. The goal was to see some of the city, walk off some of the good food being served on the Heimdal, and to earn our next meal!

Day 6 Tour from Lyon to Perouges, France

The optional free tour to Perouges departs at 2PM today, and we drive through some really beautiful countryside on the way there. The La Dombes district is where fish are raised in a series of 1,200 ponds. Apparently, these fish hatcheries have been there for quite a long time. File this one under "more things that we did not know about France"!

Perouges is another of those amazing medieval walled & cobblestoned little villages that are all over Europe, but each is just different enough, to where it is always interesting to visit them.

After the archealogical excavations on the Croix Tombée site, it was confirmed that humans have been present in Pérouges from Chalcolithic (about 2500 BC to 1800 BC) until the Merovingian period (5th-8th centuries) on the Longevent river. There are no records or information for the 8th through the 12th centuries, and the first written records mention the Pérouges old fortress dates from the begining of the 12th century.

The above images give you an idea of how medieval Perouges appears; narrow cobblestoned streets, everything was built with stone, city wall surrounds the entire village, lookout towers, etc. There were a number of small shops where one could satisfy their desires for a momento.

So perhaps this is one of our "better" Trip Advisor tips - when in Perouges, be sure to go to the museum and walk up the stairs to the roof, because on a clear day, you can see for miles & miles!

We returned to the ship in time for the Captain's Cocktail Party at 6:30PM.

Day 7 Lyon, France

OK, last day of the cruise and today is the more interesting Lyon city tour. There is another tour departing for Cluny, France - but that one required a two hour bus ride in each direction. So we make the easy decision that we'd rather see the city in more detail.

The Lyon City tour first stop is at La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière (main entrance above), which is another amazing example of a Gothic Church. Built with private funds in 1872 to 1884, on the site of what was once the Roman forum of Trajan.

Although you cannot see it in this picture, the rear area of this church is next to a wall that overlooks the city of Lyon below the ridge that the church is located on. The view is fantastic.

On the way up to the Basilique Notre Dame, we pass by more Roman Ruins, most of which were associated with the Amphitheater for the Roman Forum of Trajan. Image 1 and 2 are of those ruins, and image 3 and 4 were taken from the back-side of the church, looking down into the Lyon River Valley.

On the way back to the ship from the tour, the bus driver was kind enough to make several stops at some of the interesting Lyon city sites. Image 1 and 2 above, are of a building near the Saone River, that has no windows on the city side of the building, instead, all of the "window scenes" were painted onto the building by local artists. Image 3 is the Lyon Opera House, and image 4 is a pieton alley on the old city side of the La Saone River.

Image five is a view of Lyon from the area in back of the Cathedral. Images six & seven, were taken of Lyon street scenes near the La Saone River. Image eight is where we found a seafood restaurant, and had lunch there.

The Place des Terreaux is a square located in the center of Lyon, France on the Presqu'île between the Rhône and the Saône rivers, at the foot of the hill of La Croix-Rousse in the 1st arrondissement. The square belongs to the zone classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Celeste and I decided to have our last meal ashore, rather than sit through another "formal" meal onboard the Viking Heimdal. This was not a comment on the ship's food (it was good), but more of a "we are not truly hungry, and we wanted to have something local" before we leave Lyon. We found a small restaurant in the La Confluence Mall, and we had gallettes - if you have never had one, do a Google Search, because they are fantastic!

Although I came back to the ship to let my back and leg nerves get a break, Celeste went on a walk and discovered some interesting architecture. Images 1 and 4 are of the "Orange Cube" building on the Saône River near the La Confluence Mall. This six-story building is separated into a double-height showroom on the ground floor and offices on the upper levels, with a roof terrace surrounding offices on the sixth floor. Image 2 is of the La Confluence Mall, and as you can see, it is very distinctive architecture. When the Viking Heimdal moved to the Saône River, we were docked immediately next to this mall. Image 3 is another cube building, similar to the Orange building.

Day 8 Cruise Departure Day

This was our "departure day" and we woke up that morning to discover that not only had the French Air Traffic Controllers gone on strike sometime during the night, we also found to our horror, that the strike had caused many domestic flights to be cancelled. Including our Lyon to Paris flight, that was due to depart Lyon at 1PM.

I'm not going to fully describe this part of the trip, suffice it to say that we eventually were able to get a semblance of normality restored, and we finally got back to Sarasota at 1:45AM. If it had not been for some very, very nice Air France personnel at the Lyon Airport, we would probably still be in Lyon today!

Trip Summary

This was our second Viking River Cruise, and it is difficult to compare it to our 2014 River Seine cruise. The stops we made on this cruise were very good, however, the River locks are frequent and are quite low compared to the River Seine lock systems. The River bridges are also quite low, which meant that the sun-deck area was never open throughout the entire cruise. Considering how chilly it frequently was, the sun-deck would probably have not been utilized often. As just an example, average temperatures for Lyon, France are in the mid to lower 50's (farenheit).

The wine on this ship was as good as the River Seine cruise, but the food was not quite as good. It is difficult to put the food into perspective, it was well prepared, it was good quality, but it was not as enjoyable as what we had on the previous cruise. Bear in mind that it was not "bad", it was just not as good when you compare the two ships, perhaps due to the chef?

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