Cruise Diaries: A Historic Rhone River Cruise

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River cruising Southern France is typically suggested as an itinerary for wine lovers, but the Rhone doesn’t just take you through the heart of wine country. It’s an incredibly rich and multi-layered art destination, with 2,000 years’ worth of architecture, Catholic monuments, formal gardens and artistic legacy – think Vincent Van Gogh.

Art and architecture lovers get ready because here's what you can expect to see on a Viking river cruise through Southern France.

The Arles Amphitheater – Arles

Ancient Roman Amphitheatre in Arles

Les Arènes d'Arles is a true Roman amphitheater built around 90AD, when the city of Arles was under Roman rule. Among countless historic monuments in Arles, it’s a standout on most excursion itineraries. It’s a cultural hub with a consistently combative legacy – from the early gladiator fights to the modern-day semi-annual bullfights. Vincent Van Gogh painted a bullfight scene in the amphitheater in 1888, titling it Les Arènes.

Van Gogh garden – Arles

A beautiful courtyard in the Hospital at Arles, named Van Gogh Garden

The courtyard of the Hospital at Arles is a magically beautiful pocket in the heart of the city. One of the trivia items that guides love to share: There was only a simple herb garden in the courtyard when the troubled artist, Vincent Van Gogh, stayed at the Hospital at Arles in 1888. He created the gardens in his mind’s eye, and people created it in real life afterward. The actual building is no longer a hospital, but a Van Gogh historic site. The garden space, on the other hand, is maintained much as it was in his painting titled Garden of the Hospital in Arles.

Church of Saint Trophime – Arles

The entrance to the Church of Saint Trophime in Arles. Red doors contrast the ornate stone sculptures outside.

Among many monuments encompassed in the designated UNESCO World Heritage site of historic Arles is the preserved Romanesque-style Catholic church—particularly the exterior and its wealth of sculpture. Pictured, the front portal, which is so complex that it takes an expert guide to point out distinct elements such as the Evangelical symbolism (winged lion, eagle) and the depiction of the Last Judgment.

Saint Paul de Mausole – Saint-Remy Provence

The outside walls of the Saint Paul Hospital and monastery, just outside of Saint-Remy, Provence

Outside Saint-Remy and within walking distance of two ancient Roman monuments, is the beautiful 11th century Saint Paul Hospital and monastery (also referred to as the Saint- Rémy Asylum) where Vincent Van Gogh was admitted for psychiatric care, and remained for one of his most prolific creative periods. Inspired by the natural landscape, Van Gogh painted and drew some of his best known works such as Wheat Field of Cypresses, The Siesta, Irises and The Starry Night. Today, the Saint- Rémy Asylum,still functions as a monastery and art therapy center.

View of wheat fields from Saint-Paul – Saint-Remy Provence

A view of Van Gogh’s immortalized ‘Wheat Fields’ from Saint Paul in Provence

Van Gogh’s many passionate admirers are guaranteed an emotionally profound moment when looking out the window to the wheat fields the artist immortalized in his “Wheat Field” series. Provence’s legendary light is truly in evidence most days, making it almost too easy for any digital camera to emulate his depiction.

Château Museé – Tournon-sur-Rhône

Chateau Musee stands majestically on a granite rock in Tournon-Sur-Rhone

Standing majestically on its granite rock, you’ll find Chateau Musee (pictured here) in the town of Tournon. Chateau Musee (Castle Museum) is easy to spot with its distinctive blend of early Medieval and early Renaissance architecture. The winding maze of narrow streets will lead you from the center of town to this historic landmark that once served as a feudal castle beginning in the 10th century. The museum currently houses sculptures by Marcel Gimond, paintings by Raoul Dufy, an exhibit dedicated to the founding family’s history and a room entirely dedicated to the local celebrity/engineer, Marc Seguin, who invented the tubular boiler for steam trains and built the first suspension bridge across the Rhone. Once in the museum, be sure to look out the windows and take in the sweeping panoramic views of the Rhone valley below.

Lyon Trompe l’oeil (The murals of Lyon) – Lyon

Mural in Lyon depicting a restaurant with patrons inside

Lyon is known as a food destination, but for art lovers, the most interesting aspect of the city is its’ numerous painted wall murals. The murals were painted by a group called CiteCreation, which started in the 1970s by a group of students who wanted to make art accessible to everyone and help the people of Lyon rediscover their local identity. Some of the murals are fantasy depictions, and others are the particular style known as trompe l’oeil – characterized by ultra-realism in every detail, including the recognizable figures that populate them. The one pictured here, combines food and art. The image is of a restaurant façade with a photographer taking snaps of a famous chef at work.

Notre Dame Basilica, Lyon

Art inside the Roman-Byzantine basilica de Notre Dame in Lyon France.

Lyon’s historic Roman-Byzantine basilica dates back to the Middle Ages. Architect Pierre Bossan traveled around Sicily before beginning the project on the Norte Dame Basilica, and took inspiration from Byzantine, Moorish and Romanesque styles. The upper sanctuary is a visual feast of stained glass, statuary and six incredible mosaics. A museum of sacred art is also housed in the basilica.

Medieval village of Pérouges

The streets of medieval village of Perouges in France

When Lyon locals want to have a fun sightseeing day with friends and family visiting from elsewhere in France, they head up to the well-preserved 14th century medieval village of Pérouges. In the Middle Ages, this was a wealthy little waypoint, strategically set on a main travel route. It was centrally located between many powerful feudal houses including Savoy and Burgundy – and thus, was constantly under attack.

Historic Garden – Pérouges

A protected historic site, Perouges  was once a buzzing trade hub.

The medieval walled village of Pérouges became a ghost village when trade routes changed in the 1800s, but the French Restoration Society declared it a protected historic site in 1911. Buildings were restored and sites such as this historic garden were re-created anew.

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