For me to even consider stepping foot on a cruise ship, of any kind, I would have to be certain the food and wine would meet my standards. After all, one of the main reasons why we leave our tropical lifestyle in Bangkok, to fly halfway across the world to France, is to eat great food and drink wine. Luckily, our French river cruise was all about the food and wine.
Our French River Cruise Route
This particular itinerary was aboard Viking River Cruises’ Lyon and Provence Tour. We started in Avignon, known as the City of Popes, as it was home to seven popes in the 1300’s. The main part of Avignon is encircled by high Medieval walls. Our first stop was Arles, then off to Viviers, Tournon, and Vienne, before ending in Lyon. In addition to our scheduled ports, there were excursions offered to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Beaujolais, and Mâcon, all well known wine regions.
Frankly, these are a bunch of French towns and villages that I had never heard of before, and most likely would not have visited on my own. This is one of the benefits of taking a French river cruise. Normally, we would have just hit the main cities, and gloss over the rest.
We passed on many of the walking tours offered during our French River Cruise, as we prefer to do our own thing. We joined the group walking tour, though, in Viviers, a small pedestrian friendly village. I certainly learned a lot more than I would have otherwise. The town itself is one of the best preserved medieval towns. Tiny alleyways, beautifully painted doors and shudders, bright flower boxes, and loads of adorable cats!
And, I admit, whenever there is a cathedral on a hill, we rarely walk up. Our laziness takes over. In this case, our tour gingerly wound our way to the top of the hill, which provided a fabulous view over the village. Medieval buildings, sandstone walls, pinkish hued roof tops. Again, something I would not have done on my own, but was happy to follow a group leader to explore. I was actually surprised how much I enjoyed myself.
Tasting French Wines on Our French River Cruise
The villages we visited were adorably French, but I was promised French wine! Not only did we have an amazing selection of wines from all over France on board, but we also toured two of the most famous French wine regions. The history alone of the wine regions on the Rhone River is fascinating. Most of the vineyards along the Rhone date back to the ancient Romans, who introduced wine to the region. When Avignon became the home to the papacy, the Popes encouraged wine production in the surrounding region.
Our first wine tasting was in the lovely village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which has its own unique history. Although the popes in Avignon encouraged the production of wine in the region, the immediate area around Avignon was not ideal for wine making. Instead, nearby Châteauneuf-du-Pape became the wine growing area, at least until phylloxera destroyed wine production across Europe during the late 1800’s. Don’t worry, they bounced back.
Even within Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which translates to the first chateau of the pope, the terroir is unlike any other region we’ve seen. The ground is covered with stones and pebbles, which provide a unique mineral flavor to the wines produced there. For me, it just meant the vineyards were beautiful to look at. Crisp green vines, with white stone terroir, and beautiful rose bushes at the end of each row. It’s what a vineyard should look like.
Although we experienced a Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine tasting in town, for me, the real highlight of the trip was exploring the vineyards, and the little village. The town is set up for wine tasting, with loads of wine shops and tasting rooms, many of which are below ground in wine cellars. Simply adorable.
Our second wine tasting occurred in Beaujolais and Mâcon. I’m more of a fan of Beaujolais than I am of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Beaujolais red wines are less complex, and somewhat fruity red wines, whereas Châteauneuf-du-Pape are complex blends, with high tannins. It’s also possible that I enjoyed our Beaujolais tasting more because it was in the cellar of a castle.
Stepping onto the grounds of an ancient chateau, with a family chapel, and fuzzy black sheep, with large imposing trees lining the entrance to the grounds – that’s where a wine tasting should take place in France.
Both of these wine tasting experiences were wonderful, though, particularly because as much as we have explored the lesser known wine regions of Emilia Romagna, Emporda, and the Douro, we’ve never been to the French countryside. This was a great way to dip our toes into the French wine regions.
Eating French Food in Provence
Provence has some of the best regional food in France. Unlike what I would normally consider French cuisine, heavy in creams and sauces, the food in Provence is lighter, and more like its Mediterranean neighbors. Food is prepared more with olive oil, garlic, and tomatoes. All ingredients I adore.
The menu aboard our French river cruise focused on international dishes and always highlighted the local cuisine, both Provencal and of France in general. Dishes included frogs’ legs, chateaubriand, and escargot, alongside lamb chops Provencal, and a goat cheese soufflé.
Although Chef Peter did a good job of offering French dishes at each dinner, during one of our last days, the focus was entirely on the cuisine of Provence, with a lunch spread topped off with a massive table of cheese, and a fondue station. But, the focus of the meal was on Provence, with the fish based soup, bouillabaisse, and the vegetable stew, ratatouille. There were specialties I had never heard of before, or associated with France, including candied fruits. There were, of course, eclairs and macaroons.
Throughout our stay in France, I was impressed by the variety and quality of all of the fresh produce too. We visited markets with artichokes the size of a baby’s head, and seasonal white asparagus as long as my arm. These all feature heavily in the local cuisine and were incorporated to the meals on board as well.
On every Viking River Cruise in Europe, part of the itinerary includes a Cultural Curriculum. On some cruises, this could include a history lesson or a focus on art of the region. On our French river cruise, most of the Cultural Curriculum focused on food and wine.
Being a food focused cruise, Viking did its best to bring the local food in, particularly on sailing days. They offered a cooking demonstration where Chef Peter and the Maitre d’, Imre, cooked chocolate fondant, the warm lava cake. They offered French style afternoon tea and an evening discussion about French cheeses.
Traveling France on a River Cruise
Overall, I was happy with the food and wine onboard our Viking River Cruise. And, there are a few reasons why I would recommend touring France on a river cruise.
First, France is a hard place to travel. Is it as hard as China? Certainly not. But, at least for us, in comparison to nearby Italy, or Spain, or even Portugal, France is hard. The language is hard. I understand that a lot of that could be solved by learning French, but it is just easier for me to get around Italy, Spain, and Portugal with what Spanish I speak.
When it comes to the cuisine, French food is not as recognizable to me as it is in Italy, where most dishes can be considered comfort foods – dishes I grew up eating. It’s just not the same in France, which has the reputation of being a higher end dining experience. When I was growing up in New Jersey, if someone had French food for dinner, it meant they went into New York City with their parents and went somewhere fancy. We ate Italian at our local pizzeria. I just find it more difficult to decipher a French menu.
Last, France is expensive. Entrees generally range between 15 and 20 Euros or more. In comparison, I can find a fabulous pasta in Emilia Romagna for between 8 and 10 Euros. A decent bottle of wine at a restaurant in Italy will cost about 10 or 15 Euros. In France, they start at 25 Euros. Moreover, I think it is much easier to find an awful French restaurant that still costs a fortune.
So, what does that mean for the French river cruise experience? Menus are in English. The staff speaks English. French dishes are on the menu, and are explained by the Chef each night. And, all of your food is included. No price tags on menus. It just made for a much more enjoyable experience. In fact, we spent an extra week in Lyon after our cruise ended. We rented an apartment. We were stressed every day about what to eat and where. What’s open on Sunday, or Monday? Do they have an English menu? What are we ordering? Wow, that was an expensive lunch. We missed the crew on Viking!
Perhaps someday we will return to France to explore again, and we will become more familiar with the language and the cuisine. But, in the mean time, I am very happy we explored the South of France with Viking. It made our experience in France easy and carefree, and that much more enjoyable.
Get a more in-depth look at our Viking River Cruise experience in our YourTube video:
We were guests of Viking River Cruises for our French river cruise, but all opinions, and yummy sounds, are as always, my own. Our Veranda Stateroom aboard the Viking Longship Buri starts at $1,999 per person.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.