Viking River Cruises and Portraits of Southern France Itinerary

Anyone who has dreamed of traveling to the Burgundy and Provence regions of France would love the 8-day, "Portraits of Southern France" itinerary of Viking River Cruises. The journey links Chalon-sur-Saône north of Lyon with Avignon in the south near Marseille, sailing on the Saône and Rhône Rivers.

In 2014, Viking launched three new Longships for this itinerary—Viking Heimdal, Viking Buri, and Viking Hermod. These innovative ships, with their squared bow and sunlit Aquavit Lounge, are a great addition to this region.

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Cruise the Burgundy and Provence Regions of France

Palace of the Popes in Avignon, France

Linda Garrison

The river cruise is almost all-inclusive, with all meals and complimentary beer, wine, and soft drinks available during lunch and dinner. The ship also has complimentary WiFi. Although the cruise features time to sail along the rivers and enjoy the scenery, the ship also stops at some memorable ports, including visits to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The ports of call and example included activities are:

  • Beune - Burgundy wine route excursion and wine tasting; visit to Hôtel-Dieu
  • Lyon - Tour of the old city and free afternoon to sample the local food in the gastronomic capital of France
  • Vienne - Walking tour featuring the Temple of Augustus & Livia
  • Tournon - Tain l'Hermitage excursion and wine tasting
  • Viviers - Evening walk through the Old Town
  • Arles - Walking tour that includes Les Arènes amphitheater
  • Avignon - Walking tour featuring Pont d'Avignon and the Palace of the Popes

While on the ship, guests get an opportunity to sample a variety of French cheeses, learn to make chocolate fondue, taste some Burgundy wines, listen to some French music, and attend lectures on the area. Most ports include time for shopping or exploring on your own, which is easier than on many ocean voyages since the river ships usually dock right near the city center.

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Spend Time in Avignon Before or After Your River Cruise

Avignon Hotel de Ville
Linda Garrison

Saône and Rhône River cruises of southern France often embark or disembark in Avignon. This popular city of about 90,000 is best-known as the residence of the Pope for 70 years in the 14th century. Not surprisingly, the most famous site in Avignon is the Palace of the Popes (Palais des Papes), once the center of Christianity.

The second most popular site in Avignon are the remains of Pont Saint-Bénézet or Pont d'Avignon. This ancient bridge is the subject of a well-known French nursery rhyme, Sur le Pont d'Avignon.

Avignon was a walled city in medieval times, and much of the old wall remains today. Avignon's old town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

It's a great town to spend a few days before or after a river cruise, which allows visitors time to explore the area and see nearby sites like the remarkable Pont du Gard.

The first important site visitors often see is Clock Square, or Place de l'Horlage, which is the center of activity in old town Avignon and site of the City Hall or Hotel de Ville.

The Avignon City Hall, or Hotel de Ville, is located on the town's main square, Place de l'Horlage, which is also called the Clock Square since the Clock Tower is on the back of the City Hall. The Place de l'Horloge is the center of activity in old town Avignon, with shops, restaurants, cafes, street vendors, and a carousel. The square also is the site of Avignon's large Christmas market in November and December each year.

The Clock Tower was built on the 14th or 15th century and backs up to the Hotel de Ville or City Hall on the Clock Square. The Opera Theatre is next door. Built in 1846 after a fire, the National Opera Theatre is located immediately to right of the City Hall (Hotel de Ville).

When Pope Clement V was elected in 1309, he moved the residence (and headquarters) of the Catholic Church from Italy to Avignon. Since he was French, he believed the King of France would be friendlier to the Pope. Avignon was a tiny town, and the Papacy was able to just buy the whole town.

The huge Palace of the Popes (Palais des Papes) was the residence of the Popes for 70 years. Internal conflict within the Church led to the Great Schism of the West, and a second Pope lived in Rome starting in 1378, but until the conflicts were resolved in the early 1400s, Avignon played an important role as one of the centers of Catholicism. Since six Popes were elected at the Palace in Avignon, it is still an important historical and religious site. Architects also consider the Palace one of the most impressive medieval Gothic structures in Europe.

Notre Dame des Doms is located on Place du Palais, adjacent to the Palace of the Popes, in old town Avignon. Notre Dame is Avignon's cathedral and dates back to the 12th century. The giant gilded statue of the Virgin Mary weighing over 4 tons is the most notable feature of the Cathedral. It was added in the 19th century.

Visitors to the Palace of the Popes can tour on their own, with an audio guide, or with a local guide. Entering the Palace, it's easy to identify its Gothic style by glancing up at the ceiling.The vaulted ceiling in the Palace of the Popes is a good example of Gothic architecture. Many of the walls and ceilings in the Palace were once painted or decorated with figures, but only a few of these medieval artifacts remain.

The Pope could look out onto this Grand Courtyard from the window of his bedroom. The Benedict XII Cloister is a courtyard surrounded by two levels of galleries. The lawn, galleries, and pointed archways are still used today for weddings and special events. The Cloister is named for Benedict XII since he was the Pope who ordered in built.

This huge dining room at the Palace of the Popes in Avignon is 130 feet long and 60 feet long. Although the Pope held huge banquets here, protocol made him sit separate from his 200 guests.  The wooden, barrel-vaulted ceiling was added in the 20th century. Prior to that change, the ceiling looked like the night sky and was painted dark blue with yellow stars.

The Pope, Cardinals, and guests ate huge dinners in this great hall. They often had 9 courses, with 3 choices for each course. Or, about 25-30 dishes at each meal! 

Medieval chefs didn't have super-strong electric exhaust fans to remove the smoke and heat from their kitchens. They had tall, funnel-like chimneys like those seen at the Palace of the Popes. This kitchen would often cook up to five oxen at a time over spits in order to feed the 1500 people working, living in, or visiting the Palace. The nearby gardens supplied the wood for the cook fires.

The North Sacristy at the Palace of the Popes links the Great Chapel to the Pope's private rooms. Although these tombs of cardinals and other spiritual dignitaries look real, they are actually plaster replicas. The Great Chapel at the Palace of the Popes in Avignon is 150 feet long and 60 feet high. Its Gothic style is like much of the rest of the Palace. This Chapel is still well-used, hosting about 60 major ceremonies each year.

Leaving the Palace of the Popes, visitors get a great panoramic view of the Pont d'Avignon from the walk up to the Jardins des Papes. When completed in the 12th century, this bridge was about 3000-feet long and had 22 arches. It extended across two rivers to a tollgate on the far side. When first built, it was the only bridge across the river between Lyon and the Mediterranean. Today only four arches remain, and the remains are a popular tourist attraction, especially for those who remember the French nursery rhyme.

The medieval Popes once grew herbs and plants in a lovely garden on the hill up from the Palace of the Popes. They also had a zoo in the garden. Today, it's a quiet place to walk, feed the ducks, and check out the panoramic views of the Pont d'Avignon and of the old town.

Les Halles may be ugly on the outside, but it's fun to walk around the inside of this market that sells produce, meats, fish, and a little bit of everything else. It's found on Place Pie.

The Jardins des Papes (Garden of the Popes) offers great views of the Rhône River and of old town Avignon. This fascinating medieval town is a marvelous place to either start or end your cruise of southern France on the Saône and Rhône Rivers. 

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