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Trip Report Trip report: Viking Portraits of Southern France

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My wife and I took this cruise on the Viking Heimdal in November 2014. We had been following weather reports from the Rhone Valley and were wary of flooding in the area. Viking insisted, however, in response to our inquiry that everything was projected to be normal. This was far from the case, however, as we found out when we arrived in Avignon on 15 November in the evening.
The docks in Avignon were flooded and we were unable to board the Heimdal, nor were the passengers arriving there from the southbound cruise able to disembark. We were put up in a Novotel in Avignon which was reasonably good. The first of many meetings was held in which we were informed of pending changes in the itinerary. During this time we were treated to free drinks from the hotel bar. We quickly learned that free drinks = bad news from Viking as this was a recurring theme throughout the trip.
We had a rather late dinner, roast duck with sides, at a restaurant across from the Papal Palace, Le Lutrin, where we walked in masse in a group of about 50. There were two other groups of similar size which went to different restaurants.
The following morning we took a bus to Arles for a tour. While it was nice and we enjoyed Arles, there was no free time to look around on our own nor to shop. We had about 25 minutes at the Espace van Gogh—just enough time to use the bathroom, grab a coffee and buy postcards. This lack of free time and a chance to shop was a recurring theme throughout the week.
We were able to board the Heimdal when we returned from Arles but we would not be going anywhere by boat for a few days. The original itinerary called for arriving in Tarascon via the Heimdal that day but obviously that was not going to happen. There was a trip to Les Baux offered that afternoon but as it would involve a long bus ride, we skipped that. As we feared, our cruise was turning into a bus tour. We managed to avoid any long ones except one where we were misled and totally blindsided.
On Monday, 17 November we went to Chateauneuf du Pape by bus. That was fine since it is not far. We visited a winery for a tasting and did have time to buy wine in their shop. That was an interesting tour. Another meeting was called for 9:00 PM on the boat and cocktails were free. Yes, that meant bad news. There would be no movement due to flow rates on the Rhone so there was an all-day bus trip planned to Tarascon the next day. As it would be 4 hours on the bus, we opted out of that.
Then on Tuesday 18, November it was announced we would be leaving that morning. Then that was not going to be the case so they offered another all day bus tour, not to Tarascon but to a chocolate factory and winery instead. We nixed that idea too.
Tuesday, was our favorite day on the “cruise” as they were selling it. Since we opted out of the tour we had precious free time in the lovely city of Avignon and was really the only free time we had there. In the afternoon they offered a bus trip to Pont du Gard and we jumped on that as it was not on the original itinerary and we had been wanting to see it. It also is not far from Avignon, maybe 40 minutes. It was fantastic and we had a fabulous guide. There were also new tourist facilities there including clean, modern restrooms and nice shops. We loved it.
With every rose there is a thorn, as they say, and the next day was the worst of any experience we have ever had on any tour of any sort anywhere. It was completely avoidable and absolutely inexcusable for anyone in the tourist business to let alone come up with the plan, but then to have it approved. This soured me on Viking more than any single thing.
On Wednesday, 19 November it was determined that the ship could move through the lock at Chateauneuf du Pape but not carrying passengers. Thus we were all requested, more or less forced, to leave the boat and go to Aix-en-Provence via bus. Now Aix is a beautiful city and well worth seeing, but only as part of an all day trip. The way Viking did was unforgiveable. We were totally mislead as to what the trip would entail and how long we would be on the bus which would join the ship at Avignon.
We traveled for two hours from Avignon to Aix where we had one hour on the ground. The guide could not believe that they were asking her to give a tour of that length. Twenty minutes were spent waiting in line to use the very primitive toilets at city hall and the rest of the time in a mad dash to reach the meet up point with the bus. I felt badly for our poor guide as she obviously knew and loved her city. It was a horrible way to see that lovely gem.
What really got many fellow passengers riled was that there was a huge Christmas Market on Cours Mirabeau which there was no time to visit. We were under the impression that we were going to have shopping time in Aix but that apparently was a ruse to lure us on the bus. So we piled back on the busses for a trip of over two hours to Chateauneuf and the end of the worst tour experience we ever had.
As they could have simply remained in Avignon and allowed us free time there it would have been fine and a short bus ride to Chateauneuf. Why they did what they did is something that I cannot fathom. I have requested and explanation but they have not addressed my complaint. What were they thinking?!
We boarded the ship in the late afternoon and it departed that evening. Since we were cruising at night we saw little of the shore.
Thursday, 20 November. We cruised until reaching Vienne in the afternoon. We had a very good tour guide there and it is an interesting and lovely town. Again, though, we only had about 25 minutes free time and that was, obviously, not enough for any real shopping. The Viking ads are very misleading as there is nothing leisurely about their tours. Certainly not this one.
After Vienne we left for Lyon and arrived there in the evening where our abbreviated cruising ended. On Friday, 21 November we had a lame morning tour of Lyon. We visited the Marché Paul Bocuse which seemed silly since it is not a place where you cannot buy much of anything as it is mostly fresh foods. When the tour went to yet another cathedral we broke off and went to a café. It was warm enough to sit outside on the lovely terrace and have view of Lyon as we sipped our petits noirs. As we were docked at least two miles from the city center, this tour was by bus.
They did offer some bus tours that afternoon but we wanted no more of that after our experience in Aix so we walked around the areas around the boat. They had little to offer but it was a pleasant enough stroll.
We departed early in the AM on Saturday, 22 November for the long flights home. It was more a bus tour than a cruise and it was a very expensive, yet mediocre, experience. .
Now as to the Heimdal itself, it is a wonderful, comfortable ship which is kept spotless by its fine crew. The beds and staterooms were meticulously thought out and had plenty of electrical outlets of both North American and European currents. It was as fine a hotel as I’ve ever stayed in.
The chef was fabulous and the meals were always excellent, in some cases exquisite. The wait staff was just outstanding and I must praise them. So that part of the cruise experience was quite positive.
In all fairness, to Viking, the abominable day wasted going to Aix aside, cruising is not for us, at least as they do it. We would much rather spend time in a place and get to know it rather than dashing from one place to the next. Certainly without the weather disruptions our cruise would have been much better but not something we want to do again.
Viking did offer us 20% off a future cruise but that is not enough, IMO.

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