Holidays in France: The joys of grape harvesting and tasting during a river cruise on the Rhône

Harvest time in Burgundy and the pickers rest in the morning from their labors with the help of chopsticks and wine.

The sun is high and music blares from a radio but not as loud as the jokes. Working in pairs, one prunes the vine leaves while another fills a basket, hitched to his back, before emptying bunches of Chardonnay grapes into a small trailer.

Here in Puligny Montrachet in eastern France, it’s a precious cargo – only wine made from hand-picked grapes can carry the Grand Cru label. This is a rare opportunity to observe centuries-old harvests on the 80 km long Route des Grands Crus, which runs along the foot of the Côte d’Or escarpment.

Lesley walks through Avignon on the banks of the Rhône, pictured, on the Riviera Travel tour

Lesley notes that the passengers on Riviera Travel's river cruise ship, the MS William Shakespeare, pictured, are all from the UK and full of zest for life

Lesley notes that the passengers on Riviera Travel’s river cruise ship, the MS William Shakespeare, pictured, are all from the UK and full of zest for life

Passengers on Riviera Travel’s MS William Shakespeare river cruise ship are all from the UK and full of zest, joining a range of daily tours (included in the price). We stop for a wine tasting at Cellier De La Cabiote in Burgundy’s wine capital, Beaune, trying young whites and fruity reds in the 17th century cellars before strolling through the market to find stalls overflowing with colorful late summer produce.

Chestnuts, almonds, plums and tomatoes are piled high but the longest queue is for the truffle stand with shoppers stumbling over Rae, a truffle-sniffing border collie, lazy on the sidewalk, while his owner , Gerauld Theibaut, and his son Jordan are making a quick business selling seasonal nuggets of black gold.

Opposite the market is the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, a former hospital for the poor, and one of the finest examples of 15th-century Burgundian architecture with glistening patterned tiles in black, green, red and gold.

We leave the beauty of the Saône to sail on the Rhône, the most powerful river in Europe which has its source in the Alps and flows into the Mediterranean. The glacial water is beautifully green, and as the river widens, the Côtes du Rhône vineyards cling to the hillsides.

According to Lesley, the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, pictured, is

According to Lesley, the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, pictured, is “one of the finest examples of 15th-century Burgundian architecture”.

Lesley's river cruise stops in Arles, where the river divides into the Grand Rhône and the Petit Rhône.  Pictured is the city's Old Town

Lesley’s river cruise stops in Arles, where the river divides into the Grand Rhône and the Petit Rhône. Pictured is the city’s Old Town

Our main entertainment is through the locks. We count 18 of them from Lyon to Avignon, all masterpieces of engineering whose highlight is the lock of Bollène, which is part of the hydroelectric dam of Donzère-Mondragon. This fine example of 1950s brutalist architecture is one of the deepest locks in Europe and we descend 75 feet in darkness.

With searchlights shining and the sound of water running down the walls, we enter what looks like a James Bond movie set as Captain Michel Cartier navigates the ship less than 8 inches to either side lock walls. It’s nerve-wracking to watch, let alone steer.

Captain Cartier, 36, from Camargue, says he could “virtually steer a boat before he walked”. His father was a fisherman and Cartier spent his life on the Mediterranean and the Rhône, where he knows every bridge and every lock “like my pocket”.

It’s a relaxed cruise and we’re enjoying plenty of space as the 140-passenger ship is half full as travelers take time to return to their mainland vacation. Many are enjoying trips abroad for the first time since the pandemic and are taking the opportunity to socialize and bask in the sun. Most are ‘Riviera regulars’, having traveled on the company’s land tours and now trying out a river cruise. They are a friendly group and love the ship for its welcoming crew.

Lesley toasts the day with a glass of Côtes du Rhône at a cafe in Place du Forum, pictured, where Van Gogh painted Starry Night

Lesley toasts the day with a glass of Côtes du Rhône at a cafe in Place du Forum, pictured, where Van Gogh painted Starry Night

In Avignon - the last stop on the tour - Lesley and her group spend a morning exploring the Palais des Papes (pictured)

In Avignon – the last stop on the tour – Lesley and her group spend a morning exploring the Palais des Papes (pictured)

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Lesley sailed on Riviera Travel’s Burgundy, Rhône and Provence cruise. The eight-day cruise on MS William Shakespeare on September 29 starts from £2,149 pp, including flights, wifi, seven tours, all meals and the captain’s dinner (rivieratravel.co.uk, 01283 523431 ).

There is a daily diary of outings, quizzes, dancing, harbor talks and evening entertainment from a pianist.

“Every lunchtime I promise myself a salad, but fail because there are so many temptations,” says new cruise passenger Lesley D’wan, from Lee, south-east London.

In Arles, where the river divides into Grand Rhône and Petit Rhône, there is the Saturday market. It’s an intoxicating experience with scents of lavender, lemon, garlic and cheese as a jazz band plays and, oddly, cheers echo from the crowd in the Roman amphitheater where the championships of France beach volleyball. We toast the day with a glass of Côtes du Rhône in a cafe on Place du Forum where Van Gogh painted Starry Night (Cafe Terrace).

For our final stop in Avignon, we have our very own Starry Night on the Rhone, a magical cruise to see the 14th century city walls and towers bathed in golden light, reflecting off the river. In the morning, we walk to the Palais des Papes.

And that’s the real beauty of river cruising; you can step off the ship to discover Roman ruins, vineyards, markets, palaces and gardens, galleries and museums – or just sit at the nearest bar to raise a drink to be back on the river.

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