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River ride from French Riviera easy

Press AssociationPress Association 27/04/2016 Neil Lancefield

Gliding along the river with a cocktail in hand, as stars twinkle above me, I'm certain there is no better way to travel.

Exploring a new destination each day of a holiday usually means living out of a suitcase and spending hours on the road every night.

But memories of cramped coaches slip far into the distance thanks to Avalon Poetry II, the cruise ship smoothly transporting my partner Hayley and me to many of the highlights of the Provence region in the South of France.

The popularity of European river cruising has rocketed in recent years, and our dusk arrival in Avignon makes it easy to appreciate why.

"Wow!" I gasp, as the stunning vista of sparkling lights and picturesque ruins comes into view.

Our visit coincides with the city's annual arts festival and we come to a stop right next to a fairground. I finish my pina colada and in just a couple of minutes, Hayley and I are high in the air on a Ferris wheel, looking down at the busy streets below.

Arrivals like this aren't possible on big cruise ships which often dock so far away from city centres that you have to take a taxi or bus to get to where the action is. But river cruising means we can dash off the boat and find ourselves immediately where we want to be.

Avalon includes a guided tour for every city and town visited, so the next morning we're taken to the sumptuous Palace of the Popes.

In the 14th century, Avignon was the permanent residence of six successive popes. The prestige and pomp of the role is clear as we walk around the private chapels and apartments of their official residence.

The city is also renowned for the bridge that inspired the children's song, Sur le Pont d'Avignon. With the catchy tune stuck in our heads we have a quick dance on the bridge before it's time to leave.

Convenience is one of the main advantages of this form of travel. Our hotel room - and all our belongings - sail with us. Croatian waiter Tomislav knows my name, and my favourite drink. The time spent travelling feels genuinely enjoyable rather than a necessary chore to get to the next port.

Poetry II carries just 128 passengers, so the chances of us bumping into the same person twice are pretty high.

Most of our fellow travellers hail from the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - with a few Brits added to the mix - and by the end of the week, we know many of them well.

Many of the long-haul travellers tell us they opted for a river cruise because they were anxious to make their own way around a foreign country.

One big advantage of river cruising is it removes a lot of uncertainty over how much the trip will cost. On top of the daily excursions, the price of the cruise includes three superb meals a day, plus beer and wine with dinner and an unlimited supply of hot drinks and cake.

Pretty much the only time we have to dip into our spending money is at the very start of the holiday, when we spent a night in Monte Carlo before boarding the ship.

The principality - on the coast of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea and surrounded by France - oozes wealth, from the yachts and supercars to the luxury stores and flashy restaurants.

Monte Carlo is great - especially if you have the bank balance to fully enjoy it - but the comfort of our cruise ship and beauty of Provence is the undoubted highlight of our trip.

Avalon Poetry II moves so quietly that when we wake up after the first overnight sailing, I suspiciously pull open our cabin curtains to check we really have travelled to Arles.

Nicknamed the "Little Rome of Gaul", the city is packed with heritage from the time of the Roman Empire.

It's Sunday morning, so the streets are deserted as we visit the imposing amphitheatre.

Built in 90AD to house 26,000 spectators, the Arenes d'Arles has been so well maintained that, as we sit in the original stone seats, it's easy to imagine the gladiatorial fighting and chariot racing that took place there.

The next couple of hours are spent walking in the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh, who created some of his most popular paintings when he lived here in the late 1800s.

Several concrete easels with prints of his work have been built in the positions where the originals were painted, and it's remarkable how little some of the places have changed.

The ease of river travel is perfectly demonstrated towards the end of the trip, when we arrive in Lyon to discover French farmers are blockading roads across the country in protest over falling food prices. A double-decker Italian coach parks next to our boat and a group of weary students clambers off. They look like they've been on the road for several hours longer than planned and wishing they hadn't bothered leaving home. Our trip has been so easy I feel a pang of guilt about their travails.

Of course, I still make a mental note to make every holiday as effortless as this one.

* The writer travelled as a guest of Avalon Waterways.

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