Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
The agent checking me in to my KLM flight from Vancouver to Amsterdam spied my bright-red Viking River Cruises tag when I put my luggage up on the belt. “Going on a river cruise?”
Sort of, I replied. I explained that Viking was christening 16 Viking Longships in a ceremony in Avignon – 14 new, two launched last year but never christened. “I’ve always wanted to take a river cruise,” she continued. “I see their ads on TV all the time. Don’t they do something with Downton Abbey?”
Indeed they do. Viking has supported PBS MASTERPIECE as a National Corporate Sponsor since 2011. In 2012, when Viking announced they were renewing their sponsorship for two additional years, Viking’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, Richard Marnell said, “Our partnership over the last year has been an overwhelming success, and we are proud to continue our association with the finest programming on television.”
Two years to the month after the launch of the first Viking Longships, it’s that brand awareness that Viking has able to cultivate that impresses me more than anything else. It’s certainly not easy to do, but now, when people who haven’t river cruised think ‘river cruising’, they picture Viking.
Things got off to a good start as my KLM flight from Vancouver touched down nearly an hour ahead of schedule at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, leaving me with ample time to connect to my Air France flight to Marseille. It was my first time flying with the national carrier of France, and I was impressed. Even aboard my small, all-economy-class Airbus A319, seats were spacious and comfortable. I’m glad I’ll be taking them back to Canada in a week’s time!
It was wheels-down at Marseille-Provence Airport just after 2pm local time and after retrieving my luggage, I was greeted by the Viking River Cruises representative and whisked to the waiting motorcoach – a brand-new Mercedes Benz decked out in a custom Viking graphic wrap on the outside.
I can’t be entirely sure, but I’m guessing the red, black and white interior design of the coach – Viking’s colours – isn’t by accident. For an hour, we drove in comfort to our destination on this auspicious day: Avignon, France.
Bordered by the Rhone River, Avignon is often nicknamed the “City of Popes” thanks to the abundant presence of Popes and Antipopes in the city during the Papal Schism that swept Europe between 1378 and 1418. During that fun-loving time, much of Medieval Europe was split in their support for the Papal seat in Avignon versus Rome. Several men claimed – at the same time – to be the rightful Pope, and so began 40 years of strife, political turmoil, and delightful misunderstandings.
However, that time of uncertainty largely shaped the Avignon that exists today, with much of the town’s historic center being formed during that time period. Today, it’s recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses the Papal Palace, Episcopal Ensemble, and the Avignon Bridge.
The bridge – Pont d’Avignon or Pont Saint-Bénézet – is considered one of the key landmarks of the city, and was popularized in the song, Sur le Pont d’Avignon, that dates back to the 15th century:
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tous en rond
As the song goes, couples are supposed to dance on the bridge. No word yet on whether Viking’s official christening ceremonies will include such festivities but given the copious amounts of exquisite French wine here onboard Viking Heimdal, I’d say it’s not entirely out of the question.
Speaking of, let’s talk for a moment about the brand-new Viking Heimdal, which still sports that alluring ‘new-ship’ smell.
One of 14 brand-new Viking Longships to hit the waterways of Europe this year, Viking Heimdal is, at least on the outside, nearly identical to her Longship fleetmates. Inside, she’s almost identical to Viking Baldur that we had the privilege of sailing aboard last December.
But there are still small tweaks and changes that have been made. Staterooms now sport luggage mats to protect bedding on turnaround days, each sporting clever Norwegian sayings. Carpeting is now a rich, nautical blue, while hallway and lounge carpeting has also been altered to show predominantly blue and brown colours.
All told, Viking is christening 18 ships this week. Nine of these were officially christened in Amsterdam this morning, while we’ll be present for the christening of the next seven here in Avignon tomorrow. Three ships are physically present here in Avignon, and the other four will be christened via video uplink with the Neptun Werft shipyard in Rostock, Germany.
On Friday, March 21, two new Longship-esque vessels – Viking Hemming and Viking Torgil – will be christened in Porto, Portugal – and we’ll be bringing you all those details live as well.
Other ships being officially welcomed into the Viking River Cruises fleet this week include Viking Alsvin, Baldur, Bestla, Buri, Delling, Eistla, Gullveig, Heimdal, Hemming, Hermod, Hlin, Idi, Ingvi, Kara, Kvasir, Lif, Magni, and Viking Torgil.
Dinner this evening was an intimate affair in the Restaurant, one of the nicest public spaces onboard. The food was everything I’ve come to expect from Viking, and the inclusion of local, French wines was a huge plus.
But there was one interesting new development at dinner tonight: orders were taken by our waiter not using the traditional pen-and-pencil, but via iPod Touch systems.
Under a haze of jetlag and excellent French wine, our first day here onboard Viking Heimdal draws to a close. Viking Heimdal is known as the Norse Guardian of the Gods, blessed with extraordinary sight and hearing. Perhaps she can see the future, and the fantastic adventures that tomorrow holds as Viking celebrates their third consecutive year of Longship christenings here in Avignon.
Be sure to join us; it’s going to be an exciting day!
Viking Longships Christening 2014
|March 17, 2014||Avignon, France||Arrive Marseille and transfer to Avignon. Embark Viking Heimdal.|
|March 18||Avignon, France||Viking Longship 2014 Christening Ceremonies in Avignon.|
|March 19||Bordeaux, France||Disembark Viking Heimdal & transfer to Bordeaux, France. Embark Viking Forseti.|
|March 20||Bordeaux, France||Scenic cruising & sightseeing in Bordeaux|
|March 21||Porto, Portugal||Fly from Bordeaux to Porto, Portugal. Tour & overnight stay onboard Viking Hemming.|
|March 22||Porto, Portugal||Sightseeing in Porto.|
|March 23, 2014||Porto, Portugal||Onward journey home|