The South of France. This sounds like leisurely afternoons in the shade of ancient ruins, colourful summer dresses and banquets under a starry sky. And one thing we notice: the lifestyle on board becomes more cheerful and laidback from day to day. Is it perhaps attributable to the impressive constructions of these bubbly metropolises? As you walk through Avignon’s Palace of the Popes, you feel as if you have travelled back in time to an era long past.
And in Lyon, if you could, you’d love to switch places with the angel of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière because he has the most beautiful view of the city. But perhaps the South of France’s special atmosphere is a result of its breathtaking nature. Romantic Carmague boasts one natural spectacle after the other: during your boat or bicycle tour, you will come across graceful white wild horses and might even catch sight of a shy flamingo.
Chalon is located upriver where the Saône becomes more shallow, and so it is the point where modern ships must turn about. The docking location is very close to the heart of the town. A pretty stroll will take you directly from the ship to everything that’s worth seeing, such as Chalon Cathedral and a museum documenting the birth of photography here in Chalon.
This old silk-trading city amazes visitors with its labyrinth of covered passageways called “traboules”. These were originally created to ensure that the silk was kept dry as it was being transported. Today, you’ll experience a world that’s simultaneously old and modern, as Lyon’s residents go about their daily lives surrounded by centuries-old architecture. Even beyond Vieux Lyon, there are great places to shop and go out in France’s third-largest city. And after all that, you can take a breather amid the greenery of Parc de La Tête d’Or, discover Lyon’s rich cultural offerings, or climb to the top of the basilica to enjoy the view and the rich mosaics decorating the walls. Getting hungry? Lyon is famous for its simple but exquisite cuisine focusing on regional products, which has earned Lyon the nickname “la ville de gueule” (“the city of the mouth”).
You’ve probably heard of the famous bridge in the song “Sur le pont d’Avignon”. This bridge actually exists, or at least part of it does; wars and floods reduced the bridge’s original 22 arches to four. In 1660, after yet another flood, the bridge was abandoned. Aside from the bridge, you’re likely to be most delighted by Avignon’s palaces, wines and culture. The Papal Palace is monumentally impressive, particularly in the evening when it is illuminated by a light show. Rue des Teinturiers, the former textile dyers’ street, is one of the most beautiful streets in Avignon. By a small stream with old water wheels, you’ll find numerous charming cafés to relax, watch the world go by and quietly hum the old children’s song. Wine connoisseurs, however, are advised to take part in a tasting session in the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This is an informative and inexpensive way to sample famous wines.
As the ship sails on in the direction of the Mediterranean, you’ll notice the landscape around you changing. It becomes freer and wilder. The Rhône forks here, taking with it 20 million tonnes of debris, sand and clay every year and flushing it into the Mediterranean. Black bulls, white horses and pink flamingos are the star attractions of the Rhône Delta. Watch out for the flamingos between salt marshes and paddy fields, where you can see them filtering water. Herons and a wide array of other birds, dragonflies and lizards are to be spotted at literally every turn. Mosquitoes too, so we advise you to apply repellent. In 1970, the majority of this 120,000-hectare marshland – the only one of its kind in France – was appointed a nature reserve. It’s the perfect place to go roaming, to take great pictures and to discover little villages. In the little town of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer there is an old fortified church dating back to the ninth century – don’t miss your chance to visit it. In addition, you can stroll through the narrow streets, buy souvenirs or try an excellent paella direct from its massive pan.
In 1896, Paul Cézanne himself said, “This area is full of undiscovered treasures. Nobody has yet managed to do justice to them in their representations of the riches lying dormant here.” A good reason to discover this approximately 930-km2 wetland for yourself. You can do so by wandering among gnarled olive trees and through purple lavender fields, red meadows filled with poppies and the best red wine vineyards. Can you hear the sound of crickets chirping? That means it’s time for coq au vin and a large glass of local wine beneath the starry sky. Other Provençal specialities include white nougat from Montélimar, candied fruits from the town of Apt and the renowned truffles of the Vaucluse Mountains. Good food and drink is a major part of savoir vivre – and rightly so.
A pretty 15-minute walk takes you from the dock to the ancient amphitheatre, where you can relax and watch the torero. The bullfights here (called “course camarguaise”) are not bloody affairs. The bullfighter simply tries to snatch the tassel that’s wrapped around the animal’s horns. The bulls come from the Camague, and after the fight they return to their fields there. In Arles, past and present are one. The city features a mixture of modern urban development and historical buildings. If you dig deep enough, you end up in the sixth century. Or even in the second. You can see the discoveries unearthed during numerous excavations in the archaeological museum. Next to the amphitheatre, the Fondation Vincent van Gogh preserves the heritage of the Dutch artist, for whom Arles was like a second home. Information panels mark the locations where van Gogh created his works. We recommend that you simply sit down and try seeing the intense colours of Provence with his eyes.
France’s oldest city has a wild past. The sea brought several waves of migration with it, turning this port city into a bastion of multiculturalism. Conquerors came to the city by sea as well – and in 1720, so did the plague. To this day, there is a sense of daring in Marseilles’s air, which perhaps partly explains why French hip-hop was born here. Thanks to its long history, this city is the cultural centre of the south of France. Marseilles – the European Capital of Culture in 2013 – continues to impress its residents and visitors with its diverse museums and theatres as well as its architectural masterpieces. And if you’d like to try a really good bouillabaisse, you’ve come to the right place. Bon appétit!