Exploring the Rhône River From a Floating Hotel

February 2, 2016 Updated: February 7, 2016

The 505-mile Rhône River was used by Greek and Roman traders, so today’s river cruisers can experience antiquity, artistry, history, and some of the finest food and wine in Europe. Beginning in Beaune and ending in Avignon, I decided to experience the region by boat and to discover a waterway that has evolved from ancient trading to contemporary travelling.

Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine is a 159-passenger boutique riverboat with five-star hotel amenities. Even so, it was a surprise to find two butlers serving guests in the boat’s six suites. My stateroom with a veranda was the height of elegance. If a butler were added to my journey, I would need to research what butlers do aside from packing and unpacking. Even without a butler, service was immediate, impeccable, and anticipatory. How did the maid know I longed for a pot of herb tea on my veranda after touring Beaune with a cold?

Beaune is a walled city with half of the ramparts and battlements intact. Roman ruins lie all around town, but I was most interested in the insight into medieval medical care offered by Hotel-Dieu, a former hospital. Although their methods may have shortened life rather than extended it, Hotel-Dieu was a beautiful and comfortable place to die. The nuns were lavish with physical comforts, and extravagant religious art offered solace for souls ready to move into the next life.

When choosing a river cruise company, cost, destinations, and time are critical considerations.

Built in 1443, the hospital is a pair of two-story buildings set around a stone courtyard. The inside has been restored to the original. The Hall of the Poor is furnished with beds draped with red curtains showing that the indigent were treated with dignity. Beds face an elaborate altarpiece that was normally closed in the shadows of the chancel. When a patient entered his final hour, candles lit up the chancel and a priest opened the panels. The last thing the dying person saw was the gates of paradise.

My journey moved from ancient hospice care to today’s wines and truffles. Passengers were given choices of hiking, biking, or riding a van to visit vineyards and a truffle farm. At the truffle farm, I learned that a counterfeit truffle industry is growing. Fungus that looks like truffles are sprayed with a synthetic scent. The chef does not notice the scam until he cooks the tasteless “truffles.”

Obviously, Lyon has changed since the days of Julius Caesar. A nighttime view from the top of Fourvière Hill illuminates the bridges and the city where the old and new create a symphony of lights reflected in the river. On the hill, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière was built between 1872 and 1884 on the site of the Roman forum of Trajan. It has been a Christian pilgrimage site since a shrine dedicated to Our Lady was erected in 1170. The view often attracts too many visitors. A night visit is ideal for those who wish to have a private thought in a space sacred through the centuries.

Lyon, City of Silk

Lyon has been the City of Silk since the 1600s. The city’s ancient traboules (covered passageways) were used by silk workers to transport goods and water. At one time, one-third of the population was engaged in the silk business. The Maison des Canuts (House of the Silk Workers) presents a 500-year history of silk production in Lyon.

Silk screening has been practiced from the 1700s. People come from all over the world to see artisans creating masterpieces of colour from squares of sheer, white silk. L’Atelier de Soierie has been producing artistically acclaimed silk items since 1895 and seemed the most likely place to purchase the scarf of a lifetime. The problem was narrowing my selections to my credit card maximum. I retreated to a nearby café to regret what would have been a record-breaking spree.  

That afternoon, employees of L’Atelier de Soierie came onboard to present a lecture about the silk industry, and they brought boxes of scarves and ties. I took one credit card, the one with the lowest spending limit, and told myself I deserved a scarf, one scarf, the perfect scarf. The lobby was mobbed with women seeking the perfect scarf. Mine was neatly folded on a table. Indeed, it was perfect. The colours are those of the Rhône at different times, from a bright blue morning to a splendid rosy sunset. I now wear the colours of the river that enchanted me from my veranda on the S.S. Catherine.

When choosing a river cruise company, cost, destinations, and time are critical considerations. Service on the major cruise lines is reported to be excellent, but Uniworld has the highest staff-to-guest ratio of the companies cruising European rivers. If pampering is on your agenda, that is an important fact to keep in mind.

Carol Stigger is a Chicago-based writer, teacher, and traveller who specializes in developing nation issues, microfinance, and leisure travel. carolstigger@sbcglobal.net