Rivers of wine: cruising through Burgundy

Our contributor John Barr fell in love with river cruising only recently, and was thrilled to discover that Riviera Travel catered for another of his interests by offering a cruise through France’s top wine-producing region. Here is the story of his trip.

‘Wine that maketh glad the heart of man.’ The Old Testament had a way of describing the pleasures and prescriptive values of the grape-borne liquids produced through aeons of viniculture for libations and imbibing by the masses, writes John Barr.

What a pleasure then to take a leisurely cruise through the vineyards of Beaujolais and Burgundy. It was June, and too early to see the laden vines, yet one sensed the flavours emanating from historic soils and wine-making processes when touring the regions’ ancient villages and gentle hillsides rising from the River Saône.

It was like navigating through pictorial depictions of labels of classic vintages – Maĉon, Brouilly, Chiroubles and Morgon in the hilly Beaujolais best known for classic versions of the Gamay grape (as opposed to the annual vin ordinaire). And, to the north, the Burgundy towns and villages around the wine capital, Beaune, such as Nuits-Saint-Georges, Corton, Pommard and Volnay, plus Montrachat, Meursault and Corton-Charlemagne which offer the best white-wine vintages.

Some of these were too briefly visited on a road trip to Beaune. whilst our river cruise base was moored to the south in the picturesque town of Chalon-sur-Saône. Those who did make the excursion not only enjoyed the landscape and history, but also had time to explore the many historic buildings of Beaune and, importantly, to sample a generous selection of noble wines and classic Crème de Cassis in the cool of Le Cellier de la Cabiote.

This guided treat, arranged as part of a Riviera Travel holiday aboard the splendidly equipped ‘MS Lord Byron’, came towards the end of an eight-day cruise which had started in Marseilles for embarkation at Avignon and sailed northward on the Rivers Rhône and Saône. (The reverse of more frequent voyages that start at Lyon).

That beginning in Avignon, with the vessel moored in the heart of the ancient town, provided ample opportunity through guided and ‘free time’ walks to witness its host of remarkable monuments, churches, monasteries and the famed Pope’s Palace – and to walk on to the remains of the 12th century Pont –Saint-Bénézet (with the brave joining in a sing-a-long of ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’, the origin of which was born of myth rather than history).

An overnight sail brought breakfast in deepest Provence and convenient moorings in Arles with its abundance of Roman remains and colourful reminders of the brief sojourn of Vincent van Gogh there in the late 1880s. After lunch there was a road excursion to the iconic and engineering miracle that is the Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard.

Back northwards on the Rhône and a brief berthing at Viviers for a half-day road excursion to another breath-taking vista, the Ardèche Gorges known locally as ‘the European Grand Canyon’, albeit on a small scale. The spectacular limestone cliffs tower up to 1,000 feet above green oak woods and a narrow river bed of rapids and calm waters. Not for the faint-hearted are the waters and the winding overhanging roads.

Those who did brave the journey and unfriendly weather, were reunited with water-safe fellow passengers at Le Pouzin, then overnight to Tournon and on to Vienne which was once a centre for the textile industry, but with greater claims historically to being a Roman stronghold established under Julius Caesar.

The ancient warriors left traces of their many crafts and skills both there and all along the river, including evidence of the viniculture which was to be the main interest of the following days once the ‘Lord Byron’ (how appropriately named for a trip of indulgence) journeyed along the River Saône to the delightful centre of Chalon-Sur-Saône. This was the convenient mooring for the subsequent coach excursion through the vineyards and the educational exposure around Beaune.

The overnight return cruise south to Lyon was almost an urban anti-climax, but the old ‘silk capital of the world’ combines much of its history and culture with its strategic importance at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône, not to mention being a modern business centre, transport interchange and sporting venue.

And as we bade farewell to ‘Lord Byron’ and its hospitable and energetic crew, we also reflected on the engineering marvels of these waterways, with their historic and the relatively modern bridges and locks – some 15 of the latter on just this section of the Rhône and Saône, with four being traversed twice each, some with an awesome depth of around 16 metres.

Perhaps we should have saved a drop of a classic wine to toast their modern day creators, who deserve to be classed with their Roman predecessors.

For further information go to www.rivieratravel.co.uk

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