The Rhône River winds its way from the scenic mountains of Switzerland through the heartland of France before finally flowing into the Mediterranean Sea. A journey along the Rhône features sweeping views of lavender-filled landscapes, rolling hills dotted with castles and vineyards, and Provençal villages teeming with age-old mystery and charm.
The Rhône offers the perfect combination of natural and cultural wonders, so travelers can savor the sights as well as broaden their minds. The river has inspired centuries of impeccable French cuisine and laces through the most well-regarded vineyards of Burgundy & Provence. The art and architecture of the towns along the riverbanks reflect an intriguing blend of Celtic, Roman, Greek and French historical influences. A cultural lifeline for centuries, the Rhône Valley is home to an unending array of experiences to delight all the senses.
- Countries: Switzerland, France
- Source: Rhône Glacier
- Mouth: Mediterranean Sea
- Length: 505 miles
- Area: 21 square miles
The Rhône River has been an important lifeline for Western Civilization dating back to Greek and Roman times. It was the main trade route from the Mediterranean to the heart of ancient Gaul. As such, it helped convey Greek cultural influence to the people living along its banks.
Until the 20th century, navigation on the Rhône was difficult due to fierce currents, floods in the spring, and droughts in the late summer. Before the advent of the steam boat in the late 18th century, passengers traveled along the river in coches d'eau (water coaches) pulled by men or horses on shore. Trade flourished via giant barges which were pulled upstream by as many as 80 horses at a time.
One of the earliest experimental steamboats was built in Lyon in 1783, but regular services did not begin until 1829. Steam vessels strolled down the river at a leisurely 12 miles per hour, and could make the downstream trip from Lyon to Arles in a day.
In 1933, the French government established Compagnie Nationale du Rhône to increase the navigability of the river. Some progress was made, but World War II brought work to a halt. In 1942, Italian military forces occupied southeastern France up to the eastern banks of the Rhône.
After the war and liberation of France, the government started construction once again on a series of locks and canal cuts, improving the flow of the river and generating electricity. Today, about eight percent of France's electricity is now supplied by the harnessed power of the Rhône.
Flowing away from its Alpine origins, the Rhône rolls through Lyon, France. Located in the heart of the country, Lyon is central to the history of French cuisine, cinema and industry. With a history spanning more than 2,000 years, the city features magnificent Roman ruins, winding medieval alleyways, and exquisite examples of Renaissance architecture. Beaujolais is the wine of choice in the region, the grapes for which must be picked by hand.
Sail by fields of lavender downstream from Lyon to visit the twin cities of Tournon and Tain l'Hermitage, nestled between the river and the vineyard-covered slopes of The Hermitage. Tournon, one of France's oldest medieval cities, impresses visitors with its imposing 16th-century castle. Vienne and Viviers, quaint villages that line the shores of the Rhône, are surrounded by breathtaking beauty and bathed in history.
Further south, the white-stoned city of Avignon is located in scenic Provençe. Known as the "City of Popes," it was the center of the Catholic Church in the 14th century and its immense papal palace overlooks the river. Nearby, visit the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape for a taste of more than six centuries of wine-making tradition.
As the Rhône rolls toward the Mediterranean, Arles is a sparkling city full of inspiration. In fact, Vincent Van Gogh spent one very prolific year along these banks, painting more than a dozen masterpieces. The city also boasts a pristinely-preserved coliseum from Roman times, the church of St. Trophime, and an ancient Gallo-Roman burial road — earning it the nickname "Little Rome of Gaul."
A cruise along the Rhône River is perfect for travelers who delight in French cuisine and viniculture. Whether you're a life-long connoisseur or a novice, opportunities for indulgence can be found around every bend. For those with a keen interest in history, shoreline villages offer an enchanting combination of cultures that have inspired some of the world's most enduring artistic personalities.
The overarching theme of the Rhône is relaxation. It's nearly impossible to hold on to stress or worry as you float alongside fragrant fields in bloom, sleepy hillside villages and lost-in-time castles and churches. In short, it's the perfect place to simply let go and soak in some of the world's finest pleasures.
Did You Know?
- Tradition dictates that the Beaujolais Nouveau, cultivated near Lyon, is tasted for the first time on the third Thursday of November each year.
- An ancient bust of Julius Caesar was discovered in the Rhône River near Arles in 2007. The unique statue, which archeologists believe dates back to 46 B.C., depicts the famed Roman ruler with aging features, worn eyes and a wrinkled brow.
- In 1308, Pope Clement V relocated the papacy to Avignon. Clement V and the subsequent "Avignon Popes" were said to be great lovers of wine. The 70-year Avignon Papacy did much to promote French wine.
- In 1750, Lyon was the silk-weaving capital of Europe, with silk weavers making up 40 percent of the city's workforce. By 1850, the city had tripled in size, boasting a population of 340,000 people and 100,000 weaving looms.
- In the rocky soil of the northern Rhône regions, Syrah is the dominant grape. As you travel south, more grape varieties come into play. As an example of this anomaly, Red Hermitage is generally 100 percent Syrah while Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the south permits thirteen different varieties of grape in its red wines.
- In addition to his famous sunflower and interior still life masterpieces, Van Gogh painted "Starry Night Over the Rhône" in Arles, featuring the lights of the city blending with the stars in reflection on the river.