A river cruise is not the first way one would think to explore medieval France, but Alyssa Schwartz finds it to be a unique opportunity to let the trip soak in at her own pace
The last thing I expected boarding a river cruise, exactly three months to the day before my 40th birthday, was to feel like a teenager. But there I was, one day in, scaling a fence after hours to get to my bed, decades since I'd last had to sneak in after staying out too late.
This time, I didn't have a curfew to break; but after a rich French dinner involving puff pastry and several types of cream sauce aboard the Scenic Sapphire river-cruise ship, a late-night walk through the quiet, cobblestone streets of Avignon with two of my travel companions felt like just the thing. And in our hurry to get out there, we'd forgotten to grab boarding cards – which would have let the staff in charge of locking up know we were still out wandering.
The stroll had been delightful: During the summer months (especially during the city's annual arts festival in July), Avignon is full of tourists, but on this mid-May night, the medieval city felt like it belonged to just us. When we happened onto Place Crillon, one of the dozens of town squares built by the Vatican centuries ago, there was no one sipping rosé at any of the cafés or bars that line the plaza; after we stopped to practise high-school French on a solitary waiter who stood smoking a cigarette at the edge of his empty tables, he ushered us to seats and brought over glasses of Pilsner, for which he later refused payment. After bidding him adieu with cheek kisses – three in Provence, he explained in advance, allowing us all to evade the awkwardness of misaligned regional kissing traditions – we headed back to the boat, giddy on beer and cool, spring evening air. When we arrived at the pier and found the Sapphire dark and locked for the night, we spent a long moment giggling before we hopped the waist-high gate and walked to the top of the gangplank, where we then banged on the glass door until a crew member heard us.
River cruising is known for its older demographic, so it shouldn't have been surprising that by 11:30 p.m., the rest of the 150 or so passengers aboard our eight-day Rhône cruise had long since turned in for the night. But what was surprising was that for all its grey-haired stereotypes (many of which were realized; for example, all excursions are prominently labelled with classifications of "active," "moderate" or "relaxed," with an active hike turning out to be a walk up a steep driveway to a lookout over the town of Vienne), my slow boat trip from Avignon to Chalon-sur-Saône, just north of Lyon, also offered the sort of intimate, uniquely local travel experiences to which I'm more inclined, along with the flexibility to enjoy the south of France the way I wanted to.
If it's an unexpected fit, it's one that hasn't gone unnoticed by the cruising industry – many lines are expanding their excursions and on-board options to be more appealing to younger travellers; by next year, the cruise line Uniworld plans to launch the first boutique river-cruise brand specifically targeted to millennial and Gen X travellers, with revamped designs and culinary programs and on-board mixologists and DJs.
The voyage with Scenic wasn't my first visit to Avignon – a few years ago, during the only French stop aboard a mammoth Mediterranean cruise ship, I'd ridden an hour by car from the much bigger port in Marseille and had just enough time to take the requisite photo of Avignon's iconic bridge, tour the sprawling Gothic palace that was the Pope's residence nearly 700 years ago and eat a croissant. In other words, a perfect tourist morning. This time, docked for two full days just outside of the stone walls which surround the old city, I got lost in its alleyways, paused to watch its street performers and browse its colourful boutiques, jogged along its riverbanks and wandered its pretty covered market on an organized tour with the boat's chef, stopping to sample hunks of lavender- and lemon-scented fougasse (a flatbread unique to the region) and to sip glasses of picpoul and slurp oysters at a couple of the chef's favourite stalls. While he shopped for fresh herbs and vegetables to bring back to the boat for dinner, I discovered Provençal-style garlic, whole cloves pickled in wine and herbs that are so mild and sweet the locals eat them whole.
That evening, before our boat sailed north, my fellow passengers and I boarded trolleys which carried us through Avignon's ancient streets back to the Palais des Papes, where, under the soaring, arched ceiling of what was once the papal banquet hall, a chamber-music trio played a private concert so lovely the experience moved me to tears. Afterward, there was a crush for the trolleys back; given our above-average mobility and the fact that the boat was only about 10-minute walk away, we took one last stroll through Avignon, passing back through Place Crillon where our waiter friend from the night before spotted us and implored us to sit down for another drink. We smiled and cheek-kissed and waved him goodbye – the trolleys back to the boat don't move that slowly – and cruised out of Avignon against a sunset of such artistically mottled pinks and purples that, with just a glance, gave me an instant appreciation for why the whole post-Impressionist painting movement started right here.
The trick to enjoying river cruising, I quickly understood, is to pick and choose. Though the inclination may be to get your money's worth by taking advantage of all of the tours (on Scenic, all excursions are included in the fare) and meals, trudging behind a group and eating the same food quickly become tiresome. But by taking advantage of top-notch programming that might be inaccessible, logistically challenging or cost-prohibitive were I travelling independently, and otherwise treating the boat like a floating hotel – especially during the lengthier and overnight dockings that are common on river cruises – I found an appealing balance.
During a quick morning stop in Viviers, ours was the only group winding its way up the stone streets, past intact 13th-century homes and the Maison des Chevaliers, a 16th-century nobleman's Renaissance-style mansion, which our guide pointed out for its curious, elaborate façade of sphinxes and hieroglyphics, finally reaching the ruins of a fortress – along with spectacular views of the verdant Rhone valley, sparkling river and Viviers's ancient terracotta rooftops – high above town. Though Viviers is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the south of France, it's just a quiet rural village; lacking the lively street cafés and visitor accommodations of its counterparts, it's a place I felt unlikely to have heard of, much less visited. But, back on my veranda with a croissant and a pot of tea, watching its golden buildings grow smaller as we cruised on, I was thankful our boat had delivered us there.
In Lyon, we skipped the full-city walking tour for a jaunt upon Scenic's electric bikes (also included) around the city zoo, and then struck out in the afternoon on an independent pilgrimage to Lyon's traditional bouchons and famous gourmet food hall. Out for another after-dinner stroll along the water, we found the bleacher-style steps down to the riverbank crowded with students from Lyon University, located a few blocks away; we popped into a mini-marché for cans of beer and staked out a spot close to a trio of young men who'd brought along a tuba, horn and trombone and were jamming out an impromptu jazz concert. When they packed it in, reluctantly, so did we. This time, though, when we got back to the boat, it was still lit up and lively, the dance floor in the main lounge full of guests boogeying to the oldies. Which goes to show when river cruising, whatever your generation, acting your age can be a purely optional activity.
If you go, Scenic's 2017 eight-day Idyllic Rhone itineraries sail from Chalon-sur-Saône down to Avignon and Tarascon. Fares start at $4,955 (Canadian) a person, including airport transfers, all excursions, meals and drinks, and butler service and gratuities. https://www.scenic.ca
The writer travelled as a guest of Scenic. It did not review or approve this article.