Luxury and pampering in the south of France

Posted on 15 December 2014

Uniworld Boutique River Cruises has recently launched a new ‘super ship’, the SS Catherine, to ply the Rhône River in the south of France. Justin Fox stepped aboard for a week of touring and regal pampering.


The Catherine moored on the Rhone River in Avignon.

The Catherine moored on the Rhone River in Avignon.

From Avignon’s Palace of the Popes to the old town of Lyon and the picture-perfect villages of Burgundy, a cruise on the SS Catherine offers a window on the art, architecture and culture of southern France. Each day involves a bit of cruising and excursions off the ship to local sights. It’s a glorious way to experience this corner of Europe.

The cruise began in Avignon, that fabled medieval city. From the river, it looks like Camelot with tall ramparts, dreamy spires and the 12th-century stone bridge made famous in the nursery rhyme ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’.

We toured the Popes’ Palace with its maze of galleries, banqueting halls, and chapels. The enormous structure – with walls that are 40 metre high and four metres thick – is more Gothic fortress than palace. It was here that seven 14th-century popes resided during a turbulent period in Catholic history.


The enormous, Gothic Pope's Palace dominates the skyline of Avignon.

The enormous, Gothic Pope’s Palace dominates the skyline of Avignon.

From Avignon we cruised upriver through northern Provence and Rhône-Alpes, stopping at quaint villages for a few hours of exploring before pressing on. There was the lovely hill town of Viviers where we listened to an organ concert in St Vincent Cathedral. Next came the twin towns of Tournon and Tain-l’Hermitage which gaze at each other across the Rhône. They’re linked by an elegant suspension bridge, a revolutionary design at the time (1849) and one that’s still used around the world today.

Our final stop was Lyon, the second largest city in France with a magnificent old town, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. To get some perspective, we visited the hilltop Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière, Lyon’s hallmark church, for a dramatic view of the city.


Stately neo-classical mansions line the banks of Lyon's rivers.

Stately neo-classical mansions line the banks of Lyon’s rivers.

We explored the old town on foot, venturing into the twisting lanes, courtyards and traboules (historic passageways) of the St Jean quarter, and strolling the waterfront to take in the street life of this pedestrian-friendly city. The modern architecture along the banks of the Saône River was startling, some of it more UFO chic than utilitarian.

The older quarters were packed with architectural gems and the Musée des Beaux Arts offered up a bunch of excellent Post-Impressionist works, including a fine Gauguin painting from his Tahiti period. Lyon is also known for its street art, particularly murals, one of which covered an entire six-storey building and depicted scenes from the city’s history. You can spend ages gazing up at the tromp l’oeil balconies where figures from the past go about their business in life-like works of art.


There's plenty of startling modern architecture in Lyon.

There’s plenty of startling modern architecture in Lyon.

Lyon was our last stop, and as we reluctantly disembarked, our group looked enviously at the new arrivals, bound for the return leg to Avignon. We all had serious stowaway envy. Perhaps there was a broom cupboard somewhere I could squeeze myself into…


Book a cruise on the Rhône River

The SS Catherine is the latest of 13 ships in the Uniworld stable and offers a seven-night cruise on the Rhône. All on-board meals, gratuities, airport transfers, all drinks (except for selected spirits) and most activities are included in the price. Meals are prepared using the finest ingredients and dining is an Epicurean delight. There are a number of excursions each day, including ‘choice is yours’ options, all hosted by English-speaking guides. Bicycles and Nordic walking sticks are also available for your own exploring. Rates for this cruise are from R44 500 a person sharing.

Justin Fox was a guest of Uniworld Boutique River Cruises on board the SS Catherine. For more information regarding a cruise through Burgundy and Provence, Tel 011 280 8400 or web


Watch rural France drift by as you wallow in the SS Catherine's indoor swimming pool.

Watch rural France drift by as you wallow in the SS Catherine’s indoor swimming pool.


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