The remains of the famous Pont d'Avignon over the Rhone.

WESTERN CIVILISATION'S WATERWAY

The Rhône, a jewel in European river cruising, carries a sense of history from Ancient Greek and Roman times, linking deliciously captivating landscapes along its banks.

JOY DODDS reports.

THE river leading north from the Mediterranean historically has been an axis of European development – and the finer things of life. Today cruisers are treated to its rich culture, French cuisine and the fruits of the Côtes-du-Rhones, the wine regional appellation hailed globally, produced from grapes grown there since the first century AD. Welcome to one of the oldest wine-producing areas in the world!

Cities and villages along its course in Rhône-Alps all contribute to its character from Julius Caesar’s imprint on Lyon to the medieval jewels of Tournon and Tan l’Hermitage to the breathtakingly-beautiful villages of Vienne and Viviers. The vista along the banks is continually changing.

From more northern Chalon-sur-Saône, it is possible to explore Beaune, the capital of Burgundy’s wine region as well as Cluny and Tournus.

Sitting on the confluence of the Rhone and the Saône rivers, Lyon’s Roman past is exemplified by its famous Fourvière amphitheatre. The cobbled streets of the old city, its silk weaving past are famous, joined these days by gastronomy, thanks to chefs like Paul Bocuse and its bouchons (small bistros) serving cuisine lyonnaise, usually with a Beaujolais red wine.

The Rhône is visually striking , whether it be watching a canoe pass under the stone bridge Pont d’Arc along the Gorges de l’Ardèche, the downstream beauty of Roman town Vienne with its temple and amphitheatre, or rural Montélimar.

However, it is the riverbank beauty of Provence in the south that really fascinates, particularly the départment known as Vaucluse, with Avignon as its capital. It’s a countryside full of lavender and herbs, picturesque markets and villages, all watched over by Mount Ventoux .

Riverboats moor near the famous arched bridge Pont St-Benezet, built in the 12th century to link Avignon with what was to become Villeneuve-les-Avignon. Today, only four of its 21 piers and arches remain, one of them housing the small Romanesque chapel of Saint-Bénézet. The stunningly beautiful bridge, which stretches out towards the island of La Barthelasse, can be accessed via

Châtelet tower.

Avignon, is Europe’s Capital of Culture. During the Avignon Papacy (1309-1377), seven successive popes and the Holy See resided there. Papal ownership continued until the French Revolution in 1789, when Avignon finally became part of France.

The historic significance of its medieval ramparts, 39 separate towers and huge richly-decorated Palace of the Popes, complete with vaulted halls and magnificent Gothic chapel, saw Avignon become a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Its cathedral, Notre Dame des Doms, hails from the 12th century. The Palace of the Pope’s courtyard and other buildings make the perfect backdrop for the city’s celebrated annual performing arts festival.

Visitors gravitate to Place de l’Horloge, the pulsating social hub of Avignon, festooned with restaurants, cafes and music, Rocher des Doms, the perfect vantage point to view the river below, or the Teinturiers Quarter, the former fabric dyers’ area. Across the river are the monuments, towers and museums of Villeneuve-les-Avignon, including Philippe-le-Bel Tower and a Carthusian monastery.

North of Avignon the ruins of the 14th century Summer Palace of the Popes in Chateauneuf-du-Papes. Today, the village has another claim to fame, based on the 13 million bottles of AOC wine produced annually. Tain l’Hermitage, Vienne and Valence are other wine strongholds.

It’s certainly not all “papes and grapes” along the Rhône. The ruined 10th century castle of Lhers sits on a limestone outcrop west of the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape on the Rhone’s left bank. Excursions to Orange, reveal its Roman origins, including a triumphal arch built in 20 BC and a Roman theatre, today venue for summer plays and theatre. Carpentras, between Avignon and Orange, once a Gallo-Roman city, has a 14th century synagogue, the oldest still in use in France. Its colourful Friday markets are stocked with lavender and orange marmalade, olives, fruit, local cheeses and specialty nougat.

Downstream lie Tarascon and Arles, the latter the site of some impressive Roman ruins, including Les Arènes, which seats 20,000 and is still in use, as well as Romanesque monuments such as the Church of Saint-Trôphime, completed in the 15th century. The city’s vibrant colors and striking quality of light have inspired many artists including Paul Van Gogh. St-Remy de Provence and the fortified village of Les Baux de Provence, also immortalised by Van Gogh, are easy excursions.

When the Rhône passes Arles, it divides into two branches - the Petit Rhône and the Grand Rhône, flowing through a vast swampy wetland called the Camargue. It is time to disembark and leave the wild grey horses, fittingly one of the world’s most ancient breeds dating from Gallo-Roman times, to their wilderness.

WHAT TO DO IN LYON

Waiting to board the river cruiser before it departs Lyon or Chalon-sur-Saone? Here are a few pointers:

Explore the well-preserved 2000-year old medieval town, Vieux-Lyon with its cobbled alleyways and bars and take in the views from the cathedral on the hill, Notre Dame de Fourviere.

Take in a spot of culture at the Museum of Fine Arts, one of Europe’s finest art museums, spanning the Middle Ages to modern times. Follow up with something different - thanks to the local Lumière brothers’ invention, Lyon is the birthplace of cinema so visit their home, now a museum.

Explore the covered food market known as Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, then eat hearty French food, washed down by a glass of Beaujolais, in a bouchon, once frequented by 17th and 18th century silk workers. No haute cuisine here, but plenty of classic French dishes served on checked tablecloths, with joie de vivre.

SCENIC FRANCE

History and art enthusiasts, food connoisseurs and nature lovers alike can experience the majestic paths of France’s Saône and Rhône rivers, heading south from the charming town of Chalon-sur-Saône to Tarascon near Avignon on board the “Scenic Emerald” or “Scenic Sapphire”. Cruise slowly south past picturesque villages, architectural wonders and cultural treasures, docking in the centre of both small riverside villages and atmospheric cities like Lyon and Avignon, on a leisurely 12-night river cruise, allowing ample time to soak up the charm of southern France.

Details: www.scenic.com.au

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