River cruising is a rapidly growing sector of the cruise market. Asked to explain the difference between ocean and river cruises, the respected author Douglas Ward commented that with ocean cruising the ship is the destination, with river cruising the destination is the destination.

My recent cruise destinations were the towns and cities of southern France that border the Rhone and Saone rivers, along with famous wine regions such as Beaujolais, Macon, Cotes du Rhone and Beaune.

All aboard

Great British Life: Popes Palace. Photo: Mike Pickup Popes Palace. Photo: Mike Pickup

After Holiday Extras’ usual efficient meet and greet parking at Heathrow I was soon on my afternoon flight to Marseilles and from there a coach transfer took me to Avignon where I boarded Riviera Travel’s MS William Shakespeare in time for dinner. My compact cabin was well equipped, with good wardrobe space and tea and coffee making facilities. The floor to ceiling sliding window offered plenty of air and light and there was individually controlled air conditioning.

There was a comfortable main lounge and bar which also served light lunches and included a 24-hour tea and coffee station. The deck below was home to the main dining room while the open top deck was available for relaxation, although little used on my trip due to the unseasonably cool weather.

Great British Life: Le Pont d'Avignon. Photo: Mike PickupLe Pont d'Avignon. Photo: Mike Pickup

Before leaving Avignon we were treated to a guided tour. Much of the old city wall remains and I had a ring-side view from my cabin. The Popes Palace, one of the largest medieval gothic buildings in Europe, is in its centre, although the interior is largely bare with just a few visible wall paintings.

However, the best-known structure is the Pont d’Avignon, a stone bridge built in 1234. Regular flooding washed away a number of arches so that today less than half of it remains. The bridge is the inspiration for the traditional 15th century French song Sur le Pont D’Avignon.

Ear, ear!

Great British Life: Pont du Gard. Photo: Mike PickupPont du Gard. Photo: Mike Pickup

The following morning found us in Arles. There is a well-preserved Roman amphitheatre which stages concerts and, more controversially, bullfights. It was here in December 1888 that Van Gogh famously cut off his left ear and allegedly sent it to a local prostitute. He painted two self-portraits after the event but showing a bandaged right ear. Experts puzzled over this for some time until they realised he painted them looking in a mirror.

Arles was also the starting point for a trip to the Pont du Gard, part of a 2000 year old aqueduct built to take water from a spring near Uzes to the Roman settlement in Nimes. Although only 12 miles separates the two, the nature of the terrain meant that the aqueduct stretched for 31 miles with a barely noticeable drop of 1:3,000. How on earth did the Romans do that?

The Ardeche Gorges, France’s answer to the Grand Canyon, were a highlight of the next day and the following morning I arrived in Vienne. A walk around town was followed by a train ride to Mont Pipet Hill from where there were excellent views of the town, countryside and winding river.

Pretty as a picture

Great British Life: Chalon-sur-Saone. Photo: Mike PickupChalon-sur-Saone. Photo: Mike Pickup

Sailing through Lyon in the evening was a memorable experience as we joined the river Saone heading north to Chalon-sur-Saone. It’s a delightful town, stylish and full of characterful buildings and lovely shops. It is also here in 1822 that Nicéphore Niépce invented what we now know as photography.

Then it was back to Lyon, a large modern city at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone, dominated by Notre Dame de Fourviere on a hill overlooking the centre. Another claim to fame is the Place Bellecour, a large open central space and the third biggest square in France.

Great British Life: Notre Dame de Fourviere. Photo: Mike PickupNotre Dame de Fourviere. Photo: Mike Pickup

In complete contrast to the historic buildings we had seen so far, that evening the ship moved to Quai Rambaud. A new development, it consisted of a few small apartment blocks of a differing styles and colours overlooking a river inlet. Shops, bars and restaurants completed the attractive development while a lovely riverside walk revealed more unique accommodation and boats moored along the bank, a number of which appeared to be boutique restaurants. Lyon is generally recognised as the gastronomic capital of France, so eating out is a national pass-time.

Back on board a celebratory dinner rounded off the day and the cruise; next morning I headed off to the airport and my flight home.

Great British Life: Quai Rambaud. Photo: Mike PickupQuai Rambaud. Photo: Mike Pickup

Fact box

Riviera Travel offers a seven night Burgundy, Rhône and Provence River Cruise with prices from £1,929 per person (19 October departure) based on two sharing. Prices include return flights and transfers, full board, excursions, Wi-fi and cruise director and concierge throughout. For more information visit rivieratravel.co.uk or call 01283 523431.

Holiday Extras is the market leader in UK airport parking, hotels, lounges, and transfers. Call 0800 316 5678 or visit holidayextras.com