Wine in the south and war history in the north await travellers cruising the rivers of France.
Burgundy and Provence are perfect for cruising in the European summer, with universally admired French cuisine and wine combining with great scenery and warm weather to serve up a recipe that sees passenger numbers growing and cruise companies sending newer ships to ply the Saone and the Rhone.
Many itineraries combine cruising on the two rivers, giving passengers a taste of the vineyards at the heart of France and its Mediterranean coast.
The typical package is between 10 and 15 days, and begins with a fast train trip from Paris. Travellers may leave the train at Dijon to enjoy wine and mustard tasting at Beaune or at the river port of Chalon-sur-Saone. Some cruises depart from Lyon, where passengers would leave the TGV, doubling back to explore Burgundy by coach.
Cruises from Chalon-sur-Saone stop at Tournus, home to the Burgundy Romanesque-style church of St Philibert which dates back to 950. Macon is the gateway to the famous Beaujolais wine region and tastings are a highlight, accompanied by local cheese. With the town of Cluny, built around a 10th century Benedictine abbey, and the national equestrian centre also in the region, many itineraries spend a good day-and-a-half in the area before the ship departs for Lyon.
The gastronomic capital of France also demands attention, with food tours of the markets and culinary schools, and the opportunity to dine at traditional Lyonnaise bouchon restaurants where the menu will include sausages, tripe soup, roast pork and duck pate. Climb the Fourviere hill to see the basilica and for the best view of the 2000-year-old city where the Saone meets the Rhone.
The Loire may be France's longest waterway but the more navigable Rhone is France's premier cruising river. The Romans occupied many sites along its course including at Vienne, which has a well-preserved theatre and temples.
The ship will pass between the twin towns of Tain L'Hermitage and Tournon, which stand on the left and right banks of the river.
Tournon Castle has a wine cave and, along with nearby Viviers, the twins are known for the quality of their chocolate. Such is the calibre of its Renaissance and Romanesque architecture that there's usually a walking tour of walled Viviers. Some packages will also include a trip into the Ardeche mountains.
A visit to the renowned red wine region of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a certainty. On some cruises, the ship will stop in the town itself, while on others it will continue the short distance to Avignon and travellers will visit Chateauneuf-du-Pape by coach.
Avignon, the gateway to Provence, is a pretty, fortified city of cobblestoned streets and squares. Some packages include dinner at the grand Palace of the Popes, built during the 14th century when Avignon was the home of the papacy. It was during this period that the four remaining arches of Pont Saint Benezet, one of southern France's great landmarks, were built on the Rhone.
Arles, the capital of Provence, was a favourite subject of Vincent Van Gogh, and the city's Roman arena, built in 90AD, still hosts bull fights. Most itineraries include a day or more in the region with visits to surrounding villages and the nearby Camargue wetlands at the mouths of the Rhone before transfers to Nice, Cannes or Monaco.
JOURNEY BACK IN TIME
The Seine is more languid than the Rhone, which suits the tenor of many of the cruises that ply its waters, round-trip from Paris.
Most of the itineraries have a war history and gardens theme, and cruise to the Normandy coast and back over eight to 10 days.
The ship will cruise gently downstream through the night to reach Vernon for tours to Monet's house at nearby Giverny. The French Impressionist painter lived in the town for more than 40 years and some of his most famous artworks are of its gardens and lily pond. The grandeur of French chateaux are often rivalled by the grounds which surround them and such is the case at nearby Bizy Castle, sometimes called the Versailles of Normandy.
Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake at the market square of Rouen further to the north-west. Travellers will have at least a day at Rouen to taste local specialties such as camembert and apple brandy, see the Gothic cathedral - another of Monet's favourites - and explore its half-timbered houses and astronomical clock.
It's at Rouen that itineraries vary. There may be a coach ride to the beaches at Normandy - for many travellers on a Seine itinerary, a visit to the site of the D-Day landings is a pilgrimage and the reason they take the cruise. Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery and the D-Day Museum are usually on the schedule and there's often a stop at Bayeux to see the famous tapestry which depicts the Battle of Hastings and the visitation of Halley's Comet in 1066.
Other packages instead offer a full-day excursion from Rouen to the site of the Battle of the Somme to see the battlefields where 23,000 Australian soldiers were killed or wounded.
The ship would then cruise to Honfleur on the south bank of the Seine estuary to allow passengers to visit the beaches of Normandy. There could also be day trips to the small villages that sit atop the limestone cliffs of the English Channel.
The return cruise to Paris may include a visit to the pretty village of Les Andelys, where travellers can see Chateau Gallard, built by Richard the Lionheart in 1198 and regarded as a military masterpiece because of its series of circular fortifications.
Then, from Conflans, travellers can visit Auvers-sur-Oise where Van Gogh lived and died, explore the parks and gardens at Chateau de Chantilly or head to Chateau de Malmaison where Josephine Bonaparte cultivated exotic plants and kept animals such as kangaroos, black swans and zebra.