The Rhône and The Seine

France, the culturally rich Western European country, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. And rightfully so, as France is a truly remarkable country. The land of a staggering range of wines, impeccable Haute Cuisine and earthy French cuisine, influential literature and philosophy, ingenious artists, countless castles, distinct regions, and diverse landscapes, France has a lot to offer. The rivers of France, most notably the Seine, the Rhône, the Saône, and the Marne, as well as an intricate quantity of waterways and canals criss-crossing the country, are inextricably linked to the country’s culture, development, and history. The major waterways for river cruises are the Rhône (sometimes combined with a little of the Saône) and the Seine, each providing vastly different scenery and perspectives on the country, yet both delivering beauty, culture, history, and unequalled gastronomy. The Rhône is home to famous vineyards and Roman ruins, as well as typical Mediterranean and Romanesque architecture of the friendly and warm south of France. The Seine is a fantastic way to discover Paris and explore the verdant northern and western regions as the river meanders toward the Atlantic Ocean.

The Rhône

Used as a trade route since prehistoric times, the 812 km (505 mile) Rhône River is the only major European river to flow directly into the Mediterranean Sea. This strategic feature also made it possible for armies coming from the south or across the Mediterranean Sea to enter and make their way up through the continent. Originating at the Rhône Glacier near Valais in the Swiss Alps, the river emerges from the western end of Lake Geneva, flows into France across the Jura Mountains, down into the Rhône-Alpes region, descends further past Lyon, where it meets up with its tributary the Saône, then continues into southern France and the Camargue Delta, after which it empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Typical Rhône river-cruise itineraries operate between Lyon and the Sea. Some cruises go north from Lyon on the River Saône to take in some valued Burgundian towns before descending into the southern regions. The landscape is rife with world-renowned vineyards and splendid vistas from the gastronomic and silk center of Lyon, to the papal city of Avignon, to the Roman heritage and arena of Arles, and into the wild labyrinth of the Camargue, known for horses, bulls, and pink flamingos. The scenery and impressive ports of call and Roman heritage attest to the longstanding significance of the river for trade and tourism.

The Saône River

Rising at Vioménil in the Vosges department of Eastern France, the Saône flows 431 km (268 miles) south-southwest until it joins the Rhône at Lyon. Its name derives from the Celtic river goddess, Souconna, and the river travels past some famous vineyards in the Burgundy region of France on its approach to Lyon. Serving as an important transportation link between Paris and Marseille, the Saône is connected to the Moselle, the Marne, the Yonne, and the Loire rivers by a series of canals.

Chalon-sur-Saône

Located in the Burgundy region, where the Saône and Canal-du-Centre meet, Chalon-sur-Saône is a pleasant and quite town. Once a well-known river port for distributing wines up and down the river, Chalon is now best-known as the birthplace of the inventor of photography, Nicéphore Niépce. A museum in town, Musée Nicéphore Niépce, depicts his work and the history of photography. The river banks are a nice place to wander, as well as the pretty center, with its shops and cafes and animated market on Fridays and Saturdays. The main church is the Saint Vincent Cathedral on Place Saint Vincent, which has a neo-Classical 19th century façade and features some 8th century elements.

Mâcon

Delineating northern France from southern France, Mâcon is found at the southern end of the Burgundy wine-growing region amidst undulating vineyards. At the crossroads between the territories of the Kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire, Mâcon was a prosperous town thanks to the customs duties collected. Currently, the town is a pleasant place to visit and has such historic sights as the 14th century St. Laurent Bridge over the Saône, the Saint Vincent Cathedral, and the Saint Pierre Cathedral. Mâcon is an essential stop on any trip to have a dégustation of some of the local wines. Additionally, Northwest of Mâcon is the well-known Benedictine abbey, Cluny, which was built in a forested hunting reserve of the time. Cluny exemplified the Benedictine principles and became a leader of western monasticism with the help of a series of competent and influential abbots in the late 10th century.

Lyon

Considered the third largest city in France, and sometimes the second (an ongoing debate between Lyon and Marseilles), Lyon is the gastronomic capital of the country. Sitting at the splendid convergence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, Lyon boasts a long and rich history, lovely scenery, and unique landscapes. The historic center is in a type of peninsula, presqu’ile, formed by the merging of the rivers, and home to the largest public square in France, Place Bellecour. Two large hills to the west and north dominate and give shape to the city. Fourvière is the hill to the west, which is known as the ‘hill that prays’, as it is the site of the impressive Basilique du Notre-Dame de Fourvière, several convents, and the palace of the Archbishop. For the athletically inclined, or those who like climbing, the basilica can be reached via a series of steps; alternatively, there is a funicular. The basilica, built between 1872–1896, is a unique combination of several architectural styles and features the crypt of St. Joseph, as well as some fine mosaics and superb stained glass. The hill to the north is Croix-Rousse, commonly referred to as the ‘hill that works’ as it was traditionally the home to many small silk workshops. Lyon has a long tradition in the textile industry and is part of the Silk Trail. The Lyon silk industry emerged under Louis XI and became firmly rooted under François I. The city has an eclectic smattering of museums, including the Musée des Beaux Arts, which has a remarkable collection rivaling that of Paris museums, and the Musée Historique des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs, which depicts the history of the textile trade in the city.
Before the building of the basilica on the hill, the pre-eminent church in Lyon was the Cathédrale Saint Jean-Baptiste de Lyon, on the banks of the river. Built in the 12th century upon the ruins of a 6th century church, the cathedral has an impressive chapel and a 14th century Astronomical Clock. Vieux Lyon, the original medieval city, is found on the west bank of the Saône at the base of the Fourvière hill and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as much of the presqu’ile and Croix-Rousse. Modern Lyon is mainly east of the Rhône, where most of the population lives.

Vienne

‘Vienne the Beautiful’ is a town of exceptional interest; a place where a Gothic cathedral and Roman temple can rub shoulders with Romanesque cloisters and ancient churches, and bask in the glow from the fast-flowing Rhône. Vienne lies at the point where the Gère tributary enters the Rhône and boasts some amazing Roman heritage, such as one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in France, located nearby on Mont Pipet. The Cathédrale St. Maurice, built from the 12th to the 16th centuries, combines elements of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The rectangular Temple d’Auguste et de Livie has six Corinthian columns and a façade of carved ornamentation. The temple has been used as a museum, a court, and a library, as well as the site to celebrate the cult of the goddess Reason. Across the river are the communes of St. Roman-en-Gal and Sainte Colombes, which are well-known for the excavation of a wealth of antiquities, including majestic mosaics, villas, baths, and marketplaces. As the Rhône carves its way further south, the scenery becomes mountainous and rugged, with vineyards, castles, and rock outcroppings.

Tournon-sur-Rhône

A 10th century feudal castle, perched high on a rock, overlooks one of the region’s most attractive cities, Tournon-sur-Rhône. The town also boats a fine 14th century church, St. Julien Collegiate Church, which has a nice selection of murals and paintings. Often included as an excursion on river cruises is a ride further into the Ardèche region on the Chemin de Fer du Vivarais, a nostalgic steam-hauled train. A popular coach excursion is to the Gorges de l’Ardèche, an impressive and scenic red-rock gorge with peculiar rock formations and viewpoints to the sliver of a river below. The gorge is considered among the most amazing sites of natural beauty in the country.

Also of interest is Tain l’Hermitage, the twin town of Tournon on the opposite bank. Reached by a footbridge from Tournon, Tain is a modern town with shops and wine merchants offering tastings of the famed Côtes du Rhône wines from the Hermitage vineyards.

Viviers

Created in the 5th century, sleepy Viviers’ unique location kept it protected from the Industrial Revolution, preserving its old-world charm. Viviers sits at the foot of Cathédrale Saint Vincent, an impressive structure started in the 12th century with 15th and 18th century embellishments. The upper or ecclesiastical town is distinct from the lower town and both provide lovely places to wander. The town has some fine medieval houses, a 12century tower, a beautiful Renaissance façade on the 16th century Maison des Chevaliers (The Knights House), and the splendid main street (Grand Rue), which is flanked with meticulous façades, ornate portals, and wrought-iron balconies. Viviers is often used as an excursion departure point for the Ardèche on Rhône river cruises.

Orange

Renowned for its Roman architecture and heritage, Orange has been in existence since Celtic times. The Romans founded Orange in 35 BC as Arausio, named after the local Celtic water god. The Roman Amphitheatre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is considered to be the best-preserved amphitheatres in Europe and is still used for concerts. There is also an impressive Triumphal Arch, also a listed site, which were both built during the reign of Emperor Augustus.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Located between Orange and Avignon is the charming village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so named because it was the summer residence of the popes and home to some of their vineyards. Today the ruins of the fortress on the mound behind the village can still be reached from the center and the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine is the most prestigious of the Côtes du Rhône varieties and is coveted the world over.

The landing site for Châteauneuf-du-Pape is approximately 3 kilometers outside of town, so it is not normally used as an overnight stop on a Rhône river cruise, but rather a jumping off point for a visit to the village and the multitude of wine cellars. Alternatively, there may be a coach excursion to the village departing from Avignon.

Avignon

Definitely among the most beautiful towns in France, Avignon has a unique and long history, dating back to a Celtic fort and Gallic tribe settlement. Completely encircled by the medieval 14th century ramparts, built by the popes, the entire old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This Papal City, not Rome, was the seat of the papacy from 1309 to 1377 and in the course of that time was the residence of seven popes. Avignon’s major attraction is the Palais des Papes (Popes’ Palace) at the heart of the town, a truly ravishing medieval fort-like construction, and the Romanesque cathedral Notre Dame des Doms, which appears dwarfed by the immense palace. There are pedestrian areas and smart shopping streets which radiate from the Place de l’Horloge, an animated town square with a brightly-colored carousel, below the square at the foot of the palace. The remains of the famous 12th century bridge, Pont d’Avignon, or more correctly, Pont St. Bénézet, jut out into a branch of the river Rhône toward Villeneuve-lès-Avignon on the left bank. The view from a river-cruise vessel toward the bridge with the backdrop of the Palais des Papes is humbling in its beauty. The area surrounding Avignon is rife with lavender, vineyards, Roman and Mediterranean architecture, plane trees, rocky soil, and olive groves.

Arles and the Camargue

Established by the Greeks in the 6th century BC, Arles was a Celtic stronghold, a Roman capital, and a major religious center in the Middle Ages. Located on one of the four main roads of the Route de Santiago (St. Jacques de Compostelle), Arles was an important pilgrimage stop, where pilgrims could have food, shelter, and rest, before continuing on their way. Today Arles is a romantic and compact town on the River Rhône. The town boasts many Gallo-Roman antiquities, including the fine Roman Amphitheatre (Les Arènes). The theatre is still used today for the local tradition of bullfighting as well as other performances. There are two types of bullfights in France, using two different races of bull. In Arles, the majority of the bullfighting does not involve killing the bull, but rather is a test of skill and agility, involving red ribbons and the horns of the bull as beast and bullfighter cavort around the arena. On a more artistic note, the town has a deep artistic heritage. Most notably, Vincent Van Gogh immortalized the charming and historic town square and cobbled lanes, as well as the dazzling colours and warmth of the Provençal countryside surrounding the town. The Place du Forum in the center pays tribute to the poet and writer, Frederic Mistral, who is credited with reviving the Provençal language

Just upstream of Arles, the Rhône River forks into two branches, forming the Camargue Delta. Arles is therefore the starting point for excursions into the Camargue, where cowboys, pink and white flamingos, fabulous white horses, bulls, and many other wildlife inhabit the labyrinth of salt lagoons, rice fields, marshes, ponds, and canals of this protected natural reserve. A cruise into the Camargue is truly a unique experience and the light as the sun rises over the delta is sumptuous. An important thing to remember is insect repellent, as at certain times of the year, the ponds, reeds, marshes and standing water can attract some pesky little bugs.

The Seine

The Seine

The River Seine is a commercial waterway and tourist destination in north-western France, originating near Dijon in the Côte d’Or region of Burgundy, winding its way north and up through Paris, twisting and turning on through Normandy, and eventually flowing into the English Channel between le Havre and Honfleur. The Seine flows for 776 km (482 miles) and is the longest navigable waterway in France, connected to the Loire, the Rhine, and the Rhône via a comprehensive system of canals and locks.
Having been captured by countless painters throughout the centuries and providing the backdrop for numerous literary endeavors, the banks of the Seine in Paris were added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Seine sightseeing became popular within Paris with the introduction of bateaux mouches in the late 19th century. City cruises usually consist of a daytime sightseeing cruise, or a dinner cruise, or a ‘Paris by Night’ cruise to admire the well-lit and magnificent monuments of the capital after dark. Longer Seine River cruises take place from Paris through Normandy, taking in the lovely ports of call and fascinating shore excursions such as Versailles and its famed castle, Giverny and Monet’s gardens, Rouen, and Honfleur, the adorable town nestled between the Seine and the Channel. The scenery is a delight, with a blend of lush orchards, abbeys, villages, Gothic monuments, and green pastures.

Destination highlights on the Seine

Paris

The ‘City of Lights’ and the ‘City of Love’, Paris is the most visited destination in the world. Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful and romantic cities the world over, Paris is renowned for its neo-Classical architecture, grand boulevards, plethora of museums, and impressive monuments. A total of 37 bridges span the river Seine as it cuts through the capital, granting a romantic atmosphere to the city, and affording lovely views to the monuments. The bridges come in all shapes and sizes and can best be seen from the river, especially on a sightseeing cruise. Seine River cruises usually dock in the center, allowing for easy exploration of the capital. Frequently the river cruise vessel incorporates a guided ‘Paris by Night’ cruise so that passengers can marvel at the luminous monuments.

The two most famous things in Paris are the Eiffel Tower (La Tour Eiffel), the symbol of Paris and of France, and the Louvre, which the symbol of art history and grand masters. The 324-meter (1,063 ft) Eiffel Tower stands guard over the Seine and straddles the Champs de Mars heading toward the Invalides, where the remains of Napoleon are buried. Previously a royal palace, the Louvre houses 35,000 works, containing an incomparable collection of Old Masters, sculptures, antiquities, and of course, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (La Joconde).

Reputed to be the ‘most beautiful avenue in the world’, the avenue des Champs Elysées runs for 2 km from the Place de la Concorde, with its Egyptian obelisk, to the Place Charles de Gaulle-Etoile, and its Arc de Triomphe. The name Champs Elysées literally means Elysian Fields, which comes from Greek Mythology and refers to the place of the blessed. The Champs Elysées has been copied and imitated, but there is nothing like the original avenue, flanked by swanky shops and exclusive hotels, swarming with tourists. At the western end of the avenue, based on the Roman Arc of Titus, stands the Arc de Triomphe. The Arc was commissioned in 1806 after the victory of Emperor Napoleon I in Austerlitz and stands over 51 meters (165 feet) high and 45 meters wide.

A landmark located on Ile de la Cité, an island in the middle of the Seine and the original settlement site of Paris, is the Cathédrale de Notre Dame. The symbol of paradise and the strength of Paris, this magnificent Gothic cathedral is awe-inspiring. Built from 1163 to 1240, the cathedral has impressive architecture and lovely 13th century rose windows.

Another landmark of Paris, the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Sacré Coeur is located on the butte of Montmartre, the tallest point of the city, which can be reached by climbing 250 steps or taking a funicular from below. Begun in 1875 and completed in 1914, the basilica is made from a special stone called travertine, ensuring the endurance of its white exterior. The Romano-Byzantine influences can be see in the overall structure and style and the Byzantine cupolas are whimsical, yet provide a memorable sight, especially when lit at night.

The skeletal exterior of the 1970s Pompidou Centre (Centre Georges Pompidou) has been a noted attraction in Paris since its inception in 1977 and houses the National Museum of Modern Art (Musée National d’Art Moderne) and a vast public library, Bibliothèque publique d’information.

Originally a railway station, the light and airy Musée d’Orsay is one of the most beautiful museums in Paris. The Orsay contains paintings, sculpture, furniture, and photography from 1848 to 1914, with an appealing collection from the Impressionists.

The Rodin Museum (Musée Rodin) is housed in the Hôtel Biron and surrounding gardens, which served as the sculptor’s residence from 1908. The museums has the famous pieces, The Thinker and The Kiss, as well as a room devoted to Camille Claudel, his talented and tortured lover, inspiration, model, and sculptress.

Paris is divided into 20 districts, or arrondissements, which fan out from the Seine like a snail shell. In the Marais, comprising the 3rd and 4th districts, there is some of the most quaint medieval type architecture, squares, and cobbled lanes to be found in the capital. Especially interesting is Paris’s oldest square, Place des Vosges, built from 1605 to 1612by Henry IV. The literary heart of Paris is located in St. Germain, with its elegant streets, chic boutiques, and crowded cafés. St. Germain was the center for the Existentialist movement of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and home to philosopher Albert Camus.

Paris has an active day and nightlife, with an unbelievable amount of restaurants, bars, brasseries, cafés, clubs, stores, and markets. One of the fashion capitals of the world, the city is home to major Haute Couture fashion houses and a bustling textile industry.

Conflans-Sainte-Honorine

Situated northwest of Paris at the confluence of the Oise and the Seine rivers, Conflans-Sainte-Honorine is a town with a significant shipping heritage, dating back to 1855. The town takes its name from the Château de Conflans and its gardens, which were designed by André Le Nôtre, but no longer exist, except for a lone stair. The sights include the sandstone Saint Maclou Church (Eglise Saint-Maclou), which was started in the 11th century and then subsequently improved and added to until the 19th century, and the 11th century Montjoi Tower, which was a Roman dungeon.

Giverny

Positioned on the right bank of the Seine, the village of Giverny lies at the border between Normandy and Ile-de-France (Paris Region), where a settlement has existed since Neolithic times. Giverny served as the home of Claude Monet for 43 years, and he immortalized the water-lily pond and graceful archway on his grounds, now famous around the world. Thanks to Monet, the village of Giverny, Monet’s house, and its lovely gardens are among the most visited sights in France. Nearby Monet’s house is the Musée d’Art Americain Giverny, showcasing the work of Impressionists born in the USA. The Musée de Vernon has some of Monet’s work as well as his various followers, inspired by him, including his stepdaughter.

Rouen

The historic capital of Normandy, Rouen was once one of the most prosperous cities in medieval Europe. Known as the ‘City of 100 Spires’, Rouen has some impressive medieval architectural treats, such as the gothic Rouen Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen), with its Butter Tower (Tour de Beure). The cathedral was the subject of many paintings by Monet and also contains a tomb with the heart of Richard the Lionheart. There is a splendid 16th century Astronomical Clock (Gros Horloge) in rue Gros Horloge. Other famous structures include the Abbey Church of Saint-Ouen, built from the 12th to the 15th centuries, and the Palais de Justice, which once served as the seat of Parliament. There are many splendid medieval half-timbered houses and buildings in the pleasant and historic town center. Known as the place where the English burned Joan of Arc, there are many sights that make reference to her brief time imprisoned within the town. The Tour de Jeanne d’Arc was the tower where she was brought in 1431 and threatened with torture. At the Old Market Square (Place de Vieux Marché) stands the modern Church of Joan of Arc, built in a form that is meant to represent the pyre on which she perished.

Caudebec-en-Caux

Just a short cruise downstream from Rouen, on the right bank of the River Seine, is Caudebec-en-Caux, a pretty medieval town. The name derives from a Scandinavian language, perhaps meaning “cold stream”, and is one of the many Norman towns with this distinction. The stretch of river between the two towns takes in lovely Normandy scenery, with lush woods, orchards, and sweeping fields. The most significant feature in the town is the Church of Caudebec-en-Caux, from the 15th and 16th centuries, with gothic balustrades and spires. Also of interest is The Templars’ House (Maison des Templiers) from the 12th and 13th century, which now houses a small museum of local archeology and history. The Musée de la marine de Seine is a museum depicting the history of river navigation. The landscape around the town is characteristic of the chalk plateau descending to the Seine Estuary.

Honfleur

A charming and picturesque old port town on the Seine Estuary, Honfleur is usually the turn-around point for river cruises on the Seine. The town is located opposite Le Havre, a modern and industrialized port that was seriously destroyed in the World War II Normandy bombings. An immense and modern bridge, the Normandy Bridge (Pont de Normandie), which has itself become a tourist attraction, connects the two towns. Delightful Honfleur is home to narrow medieval houses, cobbled lanes, and a colorful fishing and yacht harbor, rife with photo opportunities, the epitome of which can be found in the heart of the town, the Vieux Bassin. A premier sight is the Sainte-Catherine Church, with a bell-tower separate from the main building, which has the distinction of being the largest wooden church in France.
The special light of the town, the sky, the chalk plateau, and the harbor have attracted artists for centuries trying to capture some of the magic. The images of Honfleur, particularly the unique slate-covered frontages of its houses, were frequently the subject of paintings, including those of the école de Honfleur, such as Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet, who contributed to the appearance of Impressionism. The Musée Eugène Boudin has a collection of 19th century paintings, Impressionist works, an ethnographic history of the town, and some pieces by Monet.

Honfleur was the port from which, in the 16th century, adventurous French settlers set out for the new lands of the Canadian Territory. The old port also served as a significant trading center, as there were links with Canada, the Antilles, the African coasts, and the Azores, also making Honfleur one of France’s five principal ports for the slave trade.