Though I lived in France for a year, I didn't see much. Yes, I know Paris well but I was too cash-strapped to travel beyond that. And, knowing only a part of the country makes me feel like I've only read a part of the France book. I had never visited the Rhône River region, yet the area has always felt familiar — maybe because its history is so connected to Italy or because my French stepmother's cooking is influenced by this region. Suffice it to say, I was excited to head there when I was invited by Viking Cruises on a Rhône River cruise.
Truth is, I was hesistant to be on a cruise and to be a part of an organized trip, because that's not usually how I travel. But I had never been on a river cruise and wanted to experience it firsthand, so I packed my bags, headed off for a week on the river. And you know that? It was the best cruise experience I've had. Floating down the river with the scenery passing by like never-ending some movie reel was just so serene. And traveling from town to town (sans driving) was such a relaxing way to travel. And the region? The mix of country chic and luxe laidback spoke to me. Yes, I was keen to explore the food and wine scene, but I also got plenty of history and culture along the way. Here are the highlights:
DAY 1: ARLES
I can't help but think of high school Art History class when I think of Arles. I vividly remember studying the town's Roman ruins, from the ancient amphitheater to the Église St-Trophime, so my inner history dork reveled in starting the day with an extensive city tour.
The other thing that was impressive? The city's light. Van Gogh lived in Arles for a few years and he spoke often of the town's colors and light. But it's one of those things you have to see for yourself to appreciate. Maybe it's just during summer with those long sunbathed days. Or perhaps it's because there's so much bleached-out limestone. But the town seemed to glow with a stunning soft light that I kept trying to capture in my photos.
After the tour and some quality wandering, we lunched at Paris Pop-Up (which, despite the name, is in Arles for the time being) for one of the most creative meals we had the whole trip. It was simple seasonal food but all really well executed, from the toasted brioche with three peas (above) to the white asparagus with potato chips.
We then set out to explore—Provence has an extensive ceramics and perfume culture so we went in search of both. I bee-lined to the local studio, La Main Qui Pense, where the gorgeous plates used at Paris Pop-Up were from. But my top find of the day was the La Parfumerie Arlesienne, which had really unique (thought pricey) scents. Before leaving town, we spent some time at the Foundation Van Gogh, which had an exposition of Van Gogh's work from when he lived in the area.
If we had a few more days, I would have wanted to check out the famed Saturday farmers market (one of the biggest markets in Provence), the original location of the cosmetics company, L'Occitane, and the famed Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus, frequented by everyone from Bergman to Hemmingway.
DAY 2: AVIGNON AND CHATEAUNEUF DE PAPE
The next day was my favorite of the trip. Yes, Arles was picture perfect and I could easily have spent a week there attempting to become Provencal, but Avignon's size and pace was more my speed. The town rivals Arles for its importance in the history books—the papal seat was there for 70 years and the ancient bridge, Pont d'Avignon, is so legendary there are songs written about it. After a few hours learning all about the Papal Palace, I split off from the group to head with my travelmates, Krista and Nastassia, in search of the city's food.
Maybe it was Nastassia's influence (she is all about sweets, after all) but we kept veering toward the desserts. We stopped by the impressive food hall, Les Halles d'Avignon, which I didn't hear much about beforehand and it's kind of a mystery as to why. Les Halles was stall after stall of gourmet foods, super gorgeous ingredients, and packed to the brim with locals. From there, we stopped in almost every bakery we came across and two that were particularly noteworthy were Baking Company Avignon and Maison Violette. The Baking Company Avignon was teeny but filled with excellent canelé, meringues, and macarons. Maison Violette was bigger (they actually have a few locations) and more extensive with everything from savory Palmiers to gorgeous local specialities like a pistachio tart cherry cake and a sweet version of fougasse known as Fougasse d'Aigue Mortes.
That afternoon we headed to the wine region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This area is the largest wine growing region in the Rhône River region (over 8,000 acres are planted) and produces more wine than all the Northern Rhône wine regions combined. There are basically just two wines from the area, a white and a red and, though the whites have started to come into their own, the red wines are where it's at. The reds from this area — a mix of 14 grape varieties, the most commong being Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre — are not as celebrated (or complex) as Bordeaux wines but I tend to like them more. They're drinkable and food friendly, especially (no surprise) with the flavors of the region. Some of the classic wineries of the region that are worth a visit are Chateau Mont-Redon, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, and Clos des Papes.
I expected excellent wine, but I didn't realize was how beautiful the area is. We stopped by the ruins of the pope's castle (the very castle that the region is named for) and then went to the town itself where there was tasting room after tasting room. I love that, for the most part, France hasn't totally commercialized the wine industry so these tasting rooms are small, casual, and largely family run.
DAY 3 AND 4: VIVIERS AND TOURNON AND RIVER TIME
The next few days I really got into the experience of being on a river cruise. Every day we'd wake up in a different city and cruising along a river meant no rough waters to speak of while the ship's small size meant you got to know everyone aboard. Each morning I woke at sunrise (jet lag!) and made the most of it by doing yoga on the deck. A few times everyday we'd cross through one of the river's many locks, which left me in awe (and claustrophobic).
Though we mostly spent these days on the river, we did get mornings in the teeny towns of Viviers and Tournon. Viviers is the town where the movie Chocolat was filmed and the town was every bit as charming and sleepy as the movie. We discovered the excellent butcher shop, Boucherie Mouisson but I have to admit that the owner was salty as hell. She was annoyed with us before we even arrived, perhaps becuase she didn't like our indecision or just didn't like tourists. But her gruff personality was worth dealing with because they had the best rilettes of ever.
We didn't have time for more than breakfast in Tournon-Sur-Rhône but during that time we discovered the pastry shop Patisserie Du Chateau, which had the best almond croissant I had the whole trip.
DAY 5 AND 6: BURGUNDY, BEAUJOLAIS, AND COTE ROTIE WINE TASTINGS
The next few days we spent crisscrossing the wine regions of Mâconnais, Beaujolais, and Côte-Rôtie. This was my first time to any of these wine areas and I was really excited since it's a variety of really prized but vastly different wines. While Mâconnais (which is the Southern most part of Burgundy FYI) has beautiful Chardonnay-focused whites, Beaujolais is known for its really drinkable, easy reds. I was blown away that such different wines were grown just a few miles from each other — it just really spoke to how different the region's microclimates are.
While the Mâconnais and Beaujolais wines are pretty common here in the States, the Côte-Rôtie wines are a little harder to come by. And once you see how small the region is, it's easy to understand why. The majority of the wine is actually sold and consumed in the immediate region so these wines are hard to even elsewhere in France. After visiting the vineyards, which are on insanely steep hills (the vines are supported by a sort of oak branch teepee to help them grow on the super steep terrain), we went to Le Cercle des Vignerons for a tasting. We sampled a variety of Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie wines but the standout was the Domaine de Bonserine La Sarrasine 2013.
My only complaint is that we didn't get enough time in each region. I feel like I got a decent overview of the three regions but definitely want to go back sometime and explore more.
DAY 7: LYON
While I was in France, there was record rainfall and historic floods across the country. We didn't really feel the affect of it until we arrived in Lyon where the rivers were so high we weren't able to take the boat any futher. So our boat docked in Lyon and though we did venture north (see above), we spent those last few nights in Lyon. I had never spent anytime in that city and, all told, ended up having almost 5 days there. I'll be sharing my favorites from Lyon on the site in the near future so be on the lookout!
More France On Salt & Wind
- France Itinerary: Rhone River Arles To Lyon
- France Itinerary: 24 Hours In Paris
- What To Pack For France
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Photos by Aida Mollenkamp and Krista Simmons