Sister Act: Tain L’Hermitage and Tournon Beckon River Cruisers

Tain L'Hermitage across the river // Photo by Susan J. Young
Tain L'Hermitage across the river // Photo by Susan J. Young

Nestled amid vineyards and located across the Rhone River from each other, Tain L’Hermitage and Tournon in southeastern France draw river cruisers ashore with their savory wine and chocolate tastings, a fortified Medieval castle/chateau that delivers amazing river views and, simply put, a high dose of “the quaint factor.”

Travel Agent visited the two destinations last month during Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection's  S.S. Catherine inaugural debut. While we only had a few hours ashore, here’s a glimpse of some of the sites awaiting clients as they go ashore in Tain L’Hermitage (Tain as it's affectionately called) and Tournon.

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tain l'heritage
Photo by Susan J. Young

Tain L’Hermitage

Tain and Tournon are connected by a famous footbridge, built by Marc Seguin and his brothers in 1849. Seguin had built another bridge in the destination that was torn down but his bridge suspension methodology and use of wire cables revolutionized global bridge building. The same technique was later used in building of the Golden Gate Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge.

Towering over the town is Church of Notre Dame de Tain, which dates from 1838; its bell tower constructed in 1865 has 13 melodic bells. Another 1800s era building, originally built as a wealthy citizen’s home, is now the city’s town hall.

Ramparts surrounded Tain in the 12th century but nearly all were destroyed in the 18th and 19th century. However, near the river, visitors can view one of the old gate towers. Much of the riverfront area, though, is comprised of more modern structures.

Other attractions? Hotel des Courbis, now the town’s Museum Palue, gives travelers a sense of what society was like in the 16th century. An elegant staircase tower graces the courtyard. The Old Medieval Oratory or Maison de L’Oratoire was restored in 2012 and today houses a sculpture collection. It’s open on Sundays only.

Another historic building is The Granary. During 1445, the newly crowned Charles VII, who reigned during the Joan of Arc era, ordered salt – a precious commodity – to be sent to Tain. Legally, the purchase of any salt had to be made at the granary, although later crops were also traded for the precious seasoning.

tain l'heritage
Photo by Susan J. Young

One of the cutest town attractions is the Chapel Larnage in the town hall’s garden. The Lamage family felt they held the secret in the cure for epilepsy – a tea made from the gallium plant they gathered on the hillsides of L’Hermitage. Each year hundreds of pilgrims arrived for “the cure” so Madame de Lamage built this chapel for them in 1840.

If clients visit the chapel, they might stroll in the area to peruse a Roman milestone. The Roman road between Arles and Lyon passed through Tain, about halfway up the hill behind town.

Another Roman artifact at Tain is the Altar of Taurobole, built by the Romans in 184 AD close to the Temple of Hercules (The temple is gone; in its place is the chapel of Saint Christoph). This altar was discovered in the 16th century buried in the hillside soil. It's visible at the chapel location.

tain l'heritage office du tourisme
Photo by Susan J. Young

Tain’s tourism office is highly visible along the riverside road; just look for the blue shutters. The office will organize guided tours of the town in English on a year-round basis. A minimum of five guests and advance booking are both required.

That said, river lines usually offer some type of walking tour; for example, guests on our Uniworld tour had the option of two tours -- one was a walk to the Cite du Chocolat at Valrhona, a museum and chocolate tasting place. Valrhona was one of the first to offer chocolate with 70 percent cocoa guanaja.

Entrance to Tain L’Hermitage from the Uniworld docking point; vendor is seen preparing flowers for the river vessel. // Photo by Susan J. Young
Entrance to Tain L’Hermitage from the Uniworld docking point; vendor is seen preparing flowers for the river vessel. // Photo by Susan J. Young

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Guests who chose Uniworld’s alternative “Tournon Castle" tour on our voyage simply headed out from the ship’s dockage point in Tain and walked with the guide across the suspension bridge for superb river views and easy pedestrian access to Tournon. Once on the Tournon side, cruisers passed by the town’s city hall.

Photo by Susan J. Young

Perched on a huge rock overlooking the Rhone, Tournon Castle, though, dominates the downtown area. Some portions of the massive complex date from the 10th century, much from the 15th and 16th centuries. The Counts of Tournon, one of the region’s most powerful families, lived here.

Inside is the city museum, with the first floor dedicated to the city’s “lord of the manor.” Most notably is the bedroom of one of the count's daughters, Helene, with some period furnishings; local legend says that Helene was Shakespeare's inspiration for the character Ophelia in Othello.

View from the terrace of Tournon Castle // Photo by Susan J. Young
View from the terrace of Tournon Castle // Photo by Susan J. Young

The second floor of the castle has permanent exhibitions including paintings and sculptures by Marcel Gimond. The Chapel Saint Vincent shows a 16th century work by Capassin.

While the castle structure is impressive, the furnishings and exhibits are modest, so advise clients that the big draw is the amazing river and town views from the castle terraces.

One such view is of one of the town’s two remaining, fairly-intact towers --the Pierregourde Tower and the Hospital Tower. It’s easy to view them from the castle. But, if clients prefer a hike and climb, they can simply consult the local tourism board’s map, which shows the starting points for the “Path of Towers.”

Photo by Susan J. Young

Near the castle is the Saint Julien Church, built in a gothic, flamboyant style. On the church’s north side are five houses that date to the French Revolution. Inside the church are a number of masterpieces, including frescoes, paintings and statues.

Clients might take a peek inside the chapel on the right hand side at the end of the nave. The site is historically significant in French history as the Dauphin Francois’ son was buried here for 11 years after he died in Tournon Castle in 1536.

St. Julien Church, Tournon // Photo by Susan J. Young
St. Julien Church, Tournon // Photo by Susan J. Young

Mauves Gate is Tournon’s only remaining city gate; it’s highlighted on the tourism bureau’s map of local attractions.

Another important site in Tournon is the mansion of Marquess De La Tourette, an 18th century building that’s now a cultural center, library, exhibition hall, sculpture school and tourist information center.

If clients love flora, they might head to the local botanical park, called Le Jardin d’Eden or the Garden of Eden. It’s’s highest rated attraction for Tournon. At the gardens, clients can expect to see Renaissance ramparts, narrow paths, brooks and small bridges. This is a place for relaxation and enjoyment of nature.

Wine bars and shops can be found in both destinations. Clients might talk with the concierge onboard their vessel about the best places for wine tasting and wine shopping.

ss catherine
S.S. Catherine is docked at Tain L’Hermitage, across the river from Tournon, France.

Uniworld’s ( S.S. Catherine calls at Tain L’Hermitage and Tournon throughout its summer inaugural season. Many other river lines also call at these sister cities across the Rhone; most offer walking tours or chocolate and wine tastings.

The towns are fairly compact so visitors easily can explore on their own as well. Tain and Tournon have a joint tourism brochure in English; it's not online, at least from what we could determine, but clients may pick it up at sites around both towns or within local tourist offices.

It's probably prudent to alert clients, though, that Tain and Tournon have a small town feel, so not every site is open to the public and those that are may only be open certain days each week. But most of the historic sites have interesting facades, even if they're not open on a particular day.

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