barges moored barthelasse avignonThe Rhône is one of Europe's great rivers. And there are many ways to experience its grandeur, from ten day cruises to ten minute boat ferries. This is our guide to river tourism in Provence.

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The Rhône river is 813 kilometers / 505 miles long and has its source in the Swiss Alps. From there, it heads south-west to Lyon, where it meets its main tributary, the Saône, then turns south via Vienne, Valence and Montélimar. Once the Rhône enters Provence, the main stops are Avignon and Arles.

At Arles the river divides into two branches, the Grand Rhône (Big Rhône) and Petit Rhône (Little Rhône), forming a delta that winds through the marshlands of the Camargue. The Rhône is the only major European river to flow directly into the Mediterranean.

RIVER TOURISM AND SEA TOURISM

Sea cruising along the Mediterranean, with stops in Marseille or Toulon, has become enormously popular over the last few years. Bear in mind that river tourism is a very different kind of travel.

River cruising boats need to navigate locks and sometimes narrow stretches of water. so they're much, much smaller than the massive floating cities that sail the high seas.

river cruise ship avignonOne of the biggest sea cruise ships such as the MSC Seaview might accommodate up to 4000 passengers. A typical river cruise ship might sleep 100. Pictured, the Emerald Liberte sailing past Avignon can take 138 passengers.

And hotel-barges can sleep as few as eight guests, although these are more common on the canals than on the Rhône itself. It makes for a much more intimate experience.

Catering for these numbers also means you'll have more limited dining choices. This said, most river cruising companies offer excellent regional cuisine. And provençal food always beats Germanic Rhineland cooking hands down, in our opinion!

There are other advantages. Sea cruising tends to focus on major ports that can accommodate those huge vessels. But a river trip along the Rhône will take in a nice mix of medium-sized cities and pretty little towns and villages like Martigues and Châteauneuf du Pape.

And, whereas most sea cruises stopping off in, say, Marseille will moor well out of the city centre, river boats can drop you off within short walking distance of the big attractions such as Arles' Roman amphitheatre or Avignon's Palais des Papes.

You will still need to take a tour if you want to see some major sights like the Pont du Gard or the Camargue. And, on the stretch south of Avignon, don't expect your boat to drift gently past fields of lavender: these are generally to be found on higher ground, a bus ride away (many cruise companies will offer excursions).

starry night over the rhoneThe main attractions of the Southern Rhône are its stunning Roman monuments, the rich wildlife of the river delta and the art legacy of the Impressionists and Vincent van Gogh. Pictured: Van Gogh's Starry Night over the Rhône, painted in Arles and one of his most famous works.

There are great wineries to discover here too, notably around Châteauneuf du Pape.

You'll need to go much further north to see really spectacular scenery, like the Gorges d'Ardèche, and to taste the top wines of Burgundy. Some companies offer cruises that continue up as far as Lyon, Chalon sur Saône in Burgundy, or even Paris.

Note too that Rhône cruises focus exclusively on France; look to the Rhine or the Danube if you'd like to discover several different countries on your trip.

Among the leading tour operators offering cruises along the Rhône river are Viking, Avalon and Riviera.

THE MAIN STOPS ON RHONE CRUISES

Travelling North to South, your river boat will visit many of the following places in Provence (of course some cruises travel in the opposite direction!) All Rhône routes will definitely take in Avignon and Arles, but the smaller stops will vary from trip to trip.

le chteau chteauneuf du papeThe little "halte fluviale" (a river stop rather than a cruise port) at Châteauneuf du Pape is about a 10-15 walk from the nearest vineyards.

As the name suggests, Châteauneuf once housed the "new castle" of the wine-loving Avignon Popes, who had vineyards planted there: click here to read about them.

The village itself isn’t one of the prettiest in Provence, and the château, pictured, is now ruined. But it's a fabulous spot to taste and buy these fine wines at bargain prices.

One of the most popular destinations in Provence, Avignon needs no introduction: click here for our full guide to the city’s main attractions.

Some cruises may offer bus trips to some of the delightful surrounding villages such as Roussillon. The cruise boats are moored on the Allées de l’Oulle a short walk from the Palais des Papes and city centre.

The small town of Tarascon is about halfway between Avignon and Arles. On days when Arles' boat pier is busy, it takes the overspill and buses passengers into Arles (it's about a half hour ride).

Tarascon itself is best known for its Château and other mediaeval monuments and a mythological monster, the Tarasque, which was said to have terrorised the region at the beginning of the first century.

Also of interest: a large Souleiado museum-shop selling traditional indiennes fabrics. Tarascon's halte fluviale is on route de Vallabrègues, about a 20 minute walk from the town centre.

Along with Avignon, Arles is the essential Rhône cruise destination. Superb Roman sites, a charming old town, the Vincent van Gogh trail and a buzzing modern arts scene all add up to a tempting package. Click here for our full city guide. The cruise ships are moored a short walk from the train station and town centre, on the chemin des Segonnaux.

Those cruises which continue onwards from Arles offer a choice of routes. Some ships take the Grand Rhône down to Port Saint Louis du Rhône. This sleepy little town is a personal favourite of ours.

To be honest, it doesn't boast much in the way of big tourist sights, apart from some splendid beaches and the panoramic views across the Rhône delta from the top of its chunky 18th century tower.

martigues miroir aux oiseaux1But it does have an unassuming charm and is the perfect starting point from which to tour the Camargue. The cruise ships stop here on the quai Bonnardel, near the Tourist Office.

From Arles some cruise operators take the canal east to Martigues, pictured. Surrounded by water on all sides, Provence’s "Little Venice" is a colourful and very pretty small town to stroll about.

Click here for our guide. Its cruise ship port is on avenue Louis Sammut Avenue, behind the Town Hall and Tourist Office.

A handful of other companies take their cruises west along the Canal du Rhône as far as Aigues Mortes or Sète, both in Languedoc-Roussillon.

OTHER RIVER TOURISM

You don't need to set sail for days on end in order to experience the Rhône. In Avignon a company called Mireio offers several shorter boat trips as well as longer river cruises.

An attractive and convenient option for the visitor in a hurry is the one hour circuit past the Pont d'Avignon and the Palais des Papes and around Bartelasse Island as far as the Tour Philippe Le Bel in Villeneuve lès Avignon, Avignon’s "sister city" on the opposite river bank.

In season, Mireio also runs lunch and dinner cruises from Avignon to various destinations including Arles, Châteauneuf du Pape and Tarascon. Click here for the current programme.

Really short of time? You can take the free shuttle boat (navette fluvial) from the foot of Avignon bridge to Barthelasse Island – a crossing that takes just five minutes!

horses on the bac du sauvageThere are also two car and passenger (and horse!) ferries in the Camargue, the Bac de Bararin across the Grand Rhône and the Bac du Sauvage across the Petit Rhône. Pictured: human and equine passengers on the Bac du Sauvage.

Boat trips are one of the best ways to explore this region and you'll find plenty of them on offer at both Saintes Maries de la Mer and Aigues Mortes.

Finally, for the more adventurous, short excursions on nego chins are offered at some river- and canal-side locations such as Port Saint Louis and L’Isle sur la Sorgue.

This is a traditional long, lightweight, flat-bottomed boat, a little like a punt or a gondola, which was – and is – traditionally used for fishing.

 

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