The Rhône: Vienne

Vienne viewed from la Passerelle.

Exiting the river harbor in Lyon we turned Wanderlust to port and headed downstream on the Saône. The Saône here passes by a row of ultramodern buildings strung a row along the left bank. In a kilometer, just past the last bridge, the Saône reaches its end as its waters join with the Rhône. The convergence of the rivers is marked by another new modern structure, the Musée des Confluences.

The added flow of the larger Rhône pushed up the pace of the current. Wanderlust was now going noticeably faster as she headed south.

Wanderlust enters l’écluse de Pierre Bénite just to the south of Lyon.

Exiting the lock

Our first stop on the Rhône was in the commune of Vienne, a middle-sized town of around 30,000. As with Lyon, we had previously visited Vienne during an earlier car trip. Prior visits take the pressure off of sightseeing. There was no need to rush about to see the town’s best sights. The absence of touristic urgency gave us the luxury to enjoy the feel and soul of Vienne.

And there are definitely things to see in Vienne. The commune is known for its extensive Roman ruins and its interpretative museum. Vienne sits on the edge of Côte-Rôtie, the North Rhône’s most northern wine appellation. It is a logical choice for those looking for a base to explore the nearby vineyards that produce sought after and expensive wines. There’s also a two Michelin-star restaurant in town, usually enough of a criteria on its own to lure us to visit.

But none of that mattered this time through. We had visited the ruins, the vineyards, and the restaurant last time. On this occasion we could take it all in in small bites.

Wanderlust at the quay in Vienne

Construction of la Cathédrale Saint-Maurice de Vienne, Vienne’s cathedral, we begun around 1130.

It is a different feel when visiting a town by boat rather than by car. During car trips meals are arranged restaurant by restaurant. Often the days schedule can be defined by the eating times. By boat we could make most of our meals onboard and only eat out when we felt like it. In between we could relax and take in the town, tour around or not, and generally get a small glimpse of living life like a local. There was no rush.

In 2017 we passed through Vienne four times and chose to stay and moor there twice. Our first stay over at the quay ended prematurely when we were asked by the gendarmerie to move after two nights. Bastille Day fireworks were planned in the area and it would not be safe to stay. Three days later we returned, this time mooring at the pontoon a little further down on the right bank.

Vienne is in the Rhône Valley, a region infamous for its strong winds. Indeed, on the second day of our return stay, a strong wind from the south picked up with 50+ kilometer per hour gusts. (This wasn’t the typical Mistral wind, which normally blows from north to south.) The stiff winds made piloting Wanderlust tricky, particularly without a bow thruster. Even walking around on shore was annoying. So rather than continuing back up to Lyon as planned we decided to stay at the mooring pontoon and watch the Tour de France broadcast on TV.

A kayaker surfed Wanderlust’s wake on the way downstream.

Wanderlust moored in Vienne.

Not long after we settled in we heard a thump from the stern. From below it sounded like the sound of a big hunk of wood had been blown into Wanderlust’s hull. Our dog Gigi, as she always does, responded with a bark. Becky and Gigi went up top to investigate. Moments later a visitor, presumably fully vetted by Gigi and Becky, stepped on board.

The sound had come as a stand-up paddle boarder’s board had bumped against Wanderlust’s hull. The Guillaume, the paddle boarder, came to the pontoon to escape the wind. He politely asked Becky if he could share what is a public pontoon. Ironic as he was French and we were visiting his country. It was more his pontoon than ours.

We soon discovered that Guillaume, the French version of the English name William, was on a journey on his paddleboard from Lyon to the Mediterranean, 323 kilometers away. Guillaume had a week to make the journey, which seemed impressively ambitious. But with the headwind Guillaume could make no progress even heading downstream helped by the Rhône’s current. So he, like us, decided to hold tight for the day. He came to the pontoon to wait out the wind.

A calm night on the Rhône

And a windy day

Guillaume had planned on camping out on the bank. But soon Becky had invited him to spend the night on board in the guestroom. With nothing much to do, he sat down and joined us watching the Tour.

This particular stage of the Tour de France crossed the Rhône not far downstream of Vienne. Guillaume, a cyclist with good English, gave us the local’s commentary as the peloton passed through the towns and terrain familiar to him.

After the stage finished, Guillaume headed out to buy some wine as a gift while I prepared dinner for us all.

The following morning the winds had slackened. Guillaume was able to continue on his way downstream. For the next few days we tracked Guillaume’s progress via a link to a tracking map that he had given us. In the end he came up just short of his goal; the delay from the wind in Vienne was too much to overcome. Still he went impressively far in just a week. Indeed he moved farther than we would typically travel in the same time in Wanderlust powered by her engine. Who knew you could travel such distances on a stand up paddleboard?

The Temple of Augustus and Livia in Vienne is a reminder of the Roman times.

Inside Vienne’s cathedral

This type of experience exemplifies why we like barging. On a boat we become part of the scenery. We are just people living in France and participating in the community experience is some small way. Though we will be gone soon, we aren’t dashing off to another sight. We get treated differently when we travel by boat rather than car. The locals know that you will not be gone in an instant. You are “there” for a day or days rather than just passing through in an hour. It’s a better way to get the feel of what it is like to actually live in France.


Wanderlust’s log shows 31 kilometers and one lock from Lyon Confluence to Vienne. The main engine ran 3.2 hours. A rough map of the route can be found here.

In July of 2017 we stopped twice in Vienne. The first time we moored at the quay on the right bank for two nights. The configuration of the quay makes this mooring a little rough when the fast commercials come by. After a couple of nights we were asked to move for safety reasons because of the planned Fête nationale fireworks nearby.

A few days later we came back and moored for three nights, mostly to wait out the strong southerly wind. This time we used the floating pontoon on the right bank, which is better insulated from the wakes of the passing commercials.

Neither mooring has services.

Vienne from the far side of the Rhône

Entering the Pierre-Bénite lock going upstream

One thought on “The Rhône: Vienne

  1. Pingback: The Rhône: Ampuis | Wanderlust

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