I”M SITTING AT A SMALL TABLE on the sundeck of a long, slender, stylish riverboat. It’s been our floating hotel for the past three-and-a-bit days, and sometime during the night we docked in Lyon, France’s third-largest city. Across the river from where we’re tied up is Lyon’s charming Old Quarter, its waterfront lined with gnarly trees and elegant old buildings, its skyline riddled with spires and chimneys and bright-orange roofs.
We touched down in Paris 10 days ago, and romantique France has been wooing us, bewitching us and beguiling us ever since. Europe’s City of Lights is something else – especially at night, with its glittering Eiffel Tower … the Champs-Elysees (Paris’ grand promenade) … its monumental gateway, the Arc de Triomphe … and its gargoyle-guarded Notre Dame Cathedral, haunt of the notorious hunchback.
We ventured into the countryside, exploring Monet’s rambling Garden, then oohing-&-aahing at the extravagant 500-year-old Palace of Versailles. Then we drove down through France’s astonishing Loire Valley, exploring five medieval châteaux – marvelling at their sumptuous interiors, their manicured gardens, their turrets and towers and moats, plus an occasional spooky knight-in-rusty-armour (the knight long-gone, of course).
We spent the night before our river-cruise in the oldest and most atmospheric hotel I’ve ever slept in: the Cour des Loges – incorporating four restored Renaissance buildings, narrow 15th century stone staircases and archways, gorgeous antique furnishings, and (in our room, at least) an ancient, spacious four-poster bed!
Europe is criss-crossed by dozens of navigable rivers and canals. And, because towns and cities were often located on (or close to) these waterways, most worthwhile sites are within easy reach of a shiny riverboat – like the one we boarded the next day.
If you’ve never been on a luxury river-cruise before, you don’t know what you’re missing! And it’s hard to think of a better way to experience these famous regions. The highlights just keep coming: one day, a wine-tasting stop in some dark boutiquey cellar … then the next day, a visit to some archaeological ruins … followed by a walking tour in one of the glittering cities along the route … and the day after that, a stroll through a village marketplace with lunch in a local farmhouse.
And in between, from the comfort of your riverboat’s sundeck or the privacy of your own personal veranda, you can watch the world go by: the oh-so-lovely farmlets, forests, churches, castles, villages, hamlets and people-scenes that line the banks both sides.
We motored off on our eight-day cruise last Thursday, and have thus far ventured north along the scenic River Saone (pronounced ‘Sawn’) into the world-famous Burgundy region – epicentre of France’s vast wine-trade, where vineyards stretch to the horizon in every direction.
We woke up on Friday in Chalon-sur-Saone … and launched a grape-escape to the city of Beaune. Here we visited the Hotel Dieu (originally a 15th century almshouse or hospice) before going underground into the Cellier de la Cabiote – to get to the bottom of viniculture and sample the highly-rated results.
Recharged by a yummy riverboat lunch, we then drove to the medieval villages of Brancion and Cormatin to explore the ancient lanes, stretch our ancient legs, check out an ancient castle, and take some ancient photos.
Saturday was more of the same … with a leisurely drive along roads that wound through romantic Beaujolais scenery, past more vines, trees and castles to a dedicated ‘weinmuseum’ (tasting included, of course).
And on our afternoon agenda? A countryside drive to Cluny Abbey, Europe’s most influential monastery during the early Middle Ages, and the world’s largest Christian structure until the Pope-of-the-day decided to go one better, and had St Peter’s built in Rome. Most of the Abbey’s 12th century stonework was looted and carted away during the French Revolution, when the Abbey’s priests also got the chop (courtesy of the brutal guillotine) – and, today, only one towering section of Cluny’s magnificence survives.
At this point, we’d seen less than half of what awaited us on the waterways of France. We still had the River Rhone to come. (Remind me to tell you about it sometime). But if you haven’t already done so, please add a river-cruise to your bucket-list …