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See France’s Splendor on the Rhône and Saône

From the lavender fields of Provence to the vibrant blue waters of the French Riviera and the sweeping vineyards of Côtes-du-Rhône, southern France is home to some of the country’s most romantic imagery. Medieval castles and villages set the stage for classic films like “The Three Musketeers,” and bustling city centers feature sleek shops and cutting-edge cuisine.

On Emerald Waterways’ Sensations of Southern France river cruise, travelers experience many of these wonders firsthand without worrying about planning transportation, accommodations and other logistics. Unlike some larger cruise lines that build itineraries around crowded tourist hot spots, this program is carefully structured to showcase the cultural and historic layers of France in a meaningful way. Groups can visit some of the world’s most precious archaeological sites, trace the footsteps of famous artists and thinkers, and sample regional wines in the cities that produce them.

This spring, I had the luxury of traveling as a guest of Emerald Waterways aboard the Emerald Liberté from Nice to Lyon. On the first day of our trip, Emerald Waterways provided transportation for new arrivals from the Nice Côte d’Azur International Airport to the city of Arles, where the Liberté was docked and ready to welcome guests for the first cruise of the 2018 season.

Over the following six days, we traveled to seven distinct locations: Arles, Avignon, Tournon, Macôn, Chalon-Sur-Saône, Beaune and Lyon, with the addition of several optional excursions to nearby sites and cities.

Little Rome

Once a provincial capital of ancient Rome, Arles was known as the Little Rome of Gaul, and remnants of this 2,000-year-old history are present throughout the city. Inspired by the famed coliseum in Rome, the beautifully preserved Arles Amphitheatre remains in use to this day.

Arles also served as the home of 19th-century impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh during his most productive work period, in which he completed over 20 paintings. Travelers can visit many of the sites that inspired his art, such as the Café de la Nuit, which still functions as a restaurant and cafe; the yellow house where he worked and lived; and Hotel Dieu, where he was institutionalized for several months. The central fountain and garden in the hospital are the subject of his painting “Garden of the Hospital in Arles.”

A short overnight sail brought us next to Avignon. During the 14th century, this small town became a city of great consequence after it was chosen as the official seat of the Catholic popes. To commemorate its new headquarters, the Catholic Church fortified the city with an imposing 4.3-kilometer wall, the second-longest continuous wall in the world, after the Great Wall of China.

The church also constructed the Palais des Papes, or Pope’s Palace, a magnificent three-acre castle that remains one of the largest and most significant Gothic edifices in all of Europe. In addition to exploring these major sites, visitors would be remiss not to stop by the famous Pont St. Bénézet, a medieval bridge that inspired “Sur le Pont d’Avignon,” a well-known folk song dating back to the 15th century.