The complete guide to: The Rhÿne Valley

From the Thames to the Rhÿne - that's the prospect opened up by Europe's newest rail link. And there's more to this mighty river than the bridge at Avignon
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The Independent Travel

When people talk about the Rhône, they usually mean the navigable part which flows through the southern half of France, but this is only about a third of the river's total length – and arguably its most prominent feature is a body of water in Switzerland, Lake Geneva.

Remind me where it is

When people talk about the Rhône, they usually mean the navigable part which flows through the southern half of France, but this is only about a third of the river's total length ­ and arguably its most prominent feature is a body of water in Switzerland, Lake Geneva.

The river is just over 500 miles long. Its source is the Rhône Glacier, near Gletsch, in the Valais region of Switzerland. From here it runs west, towards France, but at the Swiss town of Martigny the young river abruptly turns north, flowing into Lake Geneva near Montreux. It leaves the lake at Geneva itself, and meanders through France as far as Lyon, where it is joined by the largest of many tributaries, the Saône.

From Lyon the Rhône heads south, and irrigates some of France's most productive agricultural land. Between Avignon and Arles, the river splits into two ­ the Petit Rhône, which flows to the west of Les Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer, and the Grand Rhône ­ and dissipates into a delta, which eventually empties into the Mediterranean west of Marseille.

Is it something of a swamp by then?

Yes. Over time, the silt from the river has created an area of marshes and lagoons. But it is well worth visiting: much of it is now the Camargue National Park, celebrated for its horses and pink flamingos.

Les Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer, an ancient village with a fortified church, is the best-known town in the Camargue, and is the starting point for the regular boat trips taking visitors into the park. These leave from the Port Gardien (00 33 4 90 97 84 72) during the summer. An alternative service, which runs throughout the year, is the 90-minute trip on the paddle steamer Tiki III (00 33 4 90 97 81 22); this departs from the point where the Petit Rhône meets the sea, about a mile from Les Saintes Maries.

How can I get to the Rhone?

Catch the brand-new Rhône Valley express train from Britain. At 2.37 this afternoon, the very first Eurostar (08705 186 186, www.eurostar.co.uk) is due to arrive in Avignon, perhaps the loveliest city on the entire river, after a six-hour journey from London Waterloo. The service will run on Saturdays only until September. At other times, a combination of Eurostar and a French TGV will take you there with change in Lille. The fare is £115 return in second class, £195 is first.

You could instead fly to Geneva, Grenoble, Lyon, Marseille and Nîmes (handy for Arles and Avignon), depending on which part of the river you intend to explore. Swiss (0845 601 0956, www.swiss.com) flies from Heathrow and London City to Geneva ­ which is also served by easyJet (0870 600 0000, www.easyJet.com) from Luton, Gatwick and Liverpool. British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) flies to Geneva and Lyon from Heathrow and Manchester, to Lyon from Birmingham, and to Marseille from Gatwick. Air France (0845 0845 111, www.airfrance.com) flies from Heathrow to Lyon.

The remaining destinations are served from Stansted by various no-frills airlines: Go (0870 607 6543, www.go-fly.com) to Lyon; Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) to Nîmes; and Buzz (0870 240 7070, www.buzzaway.com) to Grenoble and Marseille.

What are the landmarks?

The most celebrated sight along the Rhône is a bridge to nowhere: the Pont d'Avignon. Only four of the original arches remain, and it juts out halfway across the river before coming to an abrupt halt; it was partially destroyed by floodwater during the 17th century. The bridge of St-Bénézet is celebrated in the well-known French folk song, "Sur le Pont d'Avignon", according to which people used to dance on the bridge in a circle ­ hard to imagine, given how narrow it is.

St-Bénézet, for whom it was named, was, according to legend, a shepherd from the Ardèche, higher up the Rhône valley. He heard voices telling him to build a bridge across the river, and was led to this spot by an angel. The chapel of St Nicholas, where St Bénézet's remains are now buried, was built on the bridge in the 14th century, and is dedicated to the patron saint of bargemen. In fact, the current bridge, or what remains of it, is the third to have been built at Avignon; a wooden bridge was built across the river by the Romans.

Avignon ­ The new Rome?

It was for a time. In 1309 Pope Clement V moved out of Rome to escape the factional struggles in that city. Avignon replaced the Holy See until 1403, after which a mere cardinal was left as the most senior cleric in the city.

In all, nine popes were based in Avignon, although the last two were Anti-Popes, elected by the French cardinals after Pope Gregory XI had returned to Rome; this marked a period of division in the Catholic Church known as the Great Schism.

During the course of the Avignon Papacy, the existing bishop's palace was deemed inadequate, and was replaced by the imposing Palais des Papes, the fortress that dominates modern Avignon. The complex (00 33 4 90 27 50 00) is open daily to visitors, and the courtyard is one of several venues used for the Avignon Festival, an annual festival of music, dance, drama and exhibitions held in July (reservations 00 33 4 90 14 14 14, www.festival-avignon.com). The last Anti-Pope, whose position was extremely precarious, ordered the building of the city walls, which still surround the oldest part of the city.

Before the arrival of the Popes, Avignon had been an unremarkable town; their influence turned it into a flourishing cultural centre. It boasts a number of interesting museums, including the elegant Musée Calvet on rue Joseph Vernet (00 33 4 90 86 33 84), which has a collection of paintings and sculptures from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

Avignon also boasts millionsof tourists

True, but if the crowds get too much, move to Villeneuve-Lès-Avignon, a quieter town facing Avignon from the west bank of the Rhône. The attractions of Villeneuve are often ignored in favour of the larger city across the river. This was once a frontier town: the Rhône marked the dividing line between France and rival territories such as the Holy Roman Empire. Even now, Avignon is in Provence, while Villeneuve is in Languedoc, an important distinction to the inhabitants of each community.

As befits a town in such a potentially vulnerable position, Villeneuve is protected by the Fort St André; another notable building is the restored Carthusian monastery, the Chartreuse du Val de Bénédiction, founded in the 14th century by one of the Avignon popes.

Avignon and Villeneuve comprise one of several pairs of towns that face each other from opposite banks of the Rhône. A little further south are the attractive towns of Tarascon and Beaucaire, each with a well-fortified château, while to the north Valence faces St-Péray, and Vienne is opposite Sainte-Colombe.

Can I take a cruise?

Yes, along the lower part of the Rhône, between Lyon and the Med. Inghams (020-8780 4433, www.inghams.co.uk) offers a seven-night trip embarking in Avignon and sailing up as far as Lyon, before continuing northwards along the Saône to Chalons. Cruising Holidays (01756 693609, www.cruisingholidays.co.uk) also offers a week's holiday, embarking in Arles, sailing to Macon, on the Saône, and finishing in Lyon. Peter Deilmann Cruises (020-7436 2931, www.peter-deilmann-river-cruises.co.uk) has a similar itinerary. The website www.cruise-in-france.com is a useful source of information.

If you only have time for a short river trip, there are several to choose from in Lyon, operated by Naviginter (00 33 4 78 42 96 81). The city cruises, with a commentary on local sights, depart from the Quai des Celestins, and there are trips down the Rhône and up the Saône leaving from different parts of the river.

A more extensive programme of trips is available if your starting point is Avignon. Self Voyages (00 33 4 90 14 70 00, www.self-voyages.fr) runs several day-trips combining a cruise with a coach trip. To avoid road transport completely, Grands Bateaux de France (00 33 4 90 85 62 25) sails from the quay on the Allées de l'Oulle in Avignon. It operates hour-long river cruises as well as longer trips to Arles, and to the nearby vineyards; this trip includes a tasting-stop at Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

I'll find some decent wines, then?

The Rhône Valley is ideal territory for wine lovers, with vineyards flanking the river for around 125 miles. The region's Route des Vins is well signposted, starting on the N86 road at Vienne. It meanders through the main wine villages, although there are plenty of possible detours into communities set back from the river. The route covers many names familiar from restaurant wine lists or the shelves of the local wine merchant: Condrieu, Château-Grillet, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas; this is the territory of the Côte Rotie and the Côtes du Rhône.

If you visit only one village, go to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the place where the Avignon Popes had their summer residence. Wine producers explain the wine-making process, often ending with a tasting. Tastings are held regularly at Le Pavillon des Vins, on Avenue Pierre de Luxembourg (00 33 4 90 83 58 34, www.henry-bouachon.com); and the staff at the Domaine du Vieux Lazaret, on the Avenue Baron Le Roy (00 33 4 90 83 73 55) are particularly knowledgeable. If your interest in wine is academic, visit the wine museum at the cellars of Laurent Charles Brotte, at Maison Brotte Le Clos in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (00 33 4 90 83 70 07, www.brotte.com).

Further upstream are the red wine villages of Gigondas and Vacqueyras, and Beaumes-de-Venise, home of the famous dessert wine. About the same distance from the river, but on the west side, are Tavel and Lirac, centres of rosé wine production.

Anyone planning to sample significant amounts of wine should not, of course, drive (or cycle). You could join a tour, such as the packages arranged by Arblaster & Clarke (01730 893344, www.arblasterandclarke.com). A six-night walking tour in the mid-Rhône, with three or four tastings a day, costs £1,199, including rail travel and three-star hotel stays.

How about some finer arts?

Wend your way downstream. The Provençal town of Arles is one of the most interesting places on the banks of the Rhône. Modern life is best observed in the extensive Saturday market that takes place along the length of the Boulevard des Lices and brings the town to a standstill.

Art lovers will be familiar with Arles through the paintings of Van Gogh, who lived in the town for just over a year towards the end of his life. Although none of his paintings are on display in Arles, many of the original locations are still recognisable. The Café La Nuit in the Place du Forum (00 33 4 90 96 44 56), immortalised in the picture of the same name, is still a thriving café.

Van Gogh also painted the Alyscamps, the Roman burial ground that is one of several memorable Roman ruins in Arles. The most famous of these is the amphitheatre, which is among the oldest in the world, and is still used for bullfights. Other ruins include the baths, which were the largest in the Roman Empire, and a theatre. The Musée d'Arles Antique, on the Presqu'île du Cirque Romain (00 33 4 90 18 88 88) explains the legacy of the Romans in Provence.

Did the romans go far upstream?

Yes, and Roman remains survive at several places in the region ­ notably Orange, a few miles east of the river. It has the best-preserved Roman theatre in Europe (00 33 4 90 51 17 60), on the Place des Frères-Mounet. The acoustics are excellent; an operatic festival, Les Chorégies (00 33 4 90 34 24 24, www.choregies.asso.fr), is held in July Just opposite, on rue Madeleine Roch, a small museum (00 33 4 90 51 18 24) is devoted to Roman relics.

Going north, the most significant Roman towns on the Rhône were Vienne and Lyon. Vienne was conquered by the Romans as early as 121bc, and remained an important part of the empire for four centuries. The most important Roman relic is the Temple d'Auguste et Livie, built before the Christian era but later turned into a church. Extensive excavations have revealed evidence of what would have been the residential and commercial districts of the Roman town. There are some interesting medieval buildings in Vienne, too, and the church of St Pierre, which was begun in the 4th century, is one of the oldest churches in France.

Lyon was a regional capital under the Emperor Augustus. The city's Roman past is well documented in the Musée Gallo-Romain on rue Cléberg (00 33 4 72 38 81 90); two Roman theatres are located next door to the museum.

Helped by its location at the confluence of the Saône and Rhône, Lyon became a prosperous medieval trading centre, and there are many beautifully restored houses in the oldest part of the city below Fourvière Hill.

In more modern times, Lyon's most notorious citizen was Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo leader known as the "Butcher of Lyon". His headquarters at 14 Avenue Berthelot have been turned into a fascinating museum: the Centre d'Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation (00 33 4 78 72 23 11, chrd@mairie-lyon.fr).

Where can I find out more?

The French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1J 9AL (09068 244 123, 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com); or, if you are aiming way upstream, the Switzerland Travel Centre at the Swiss Centre, 10 Wardour Street, London W1D 6QF (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com).

Sweet treats

Montelimar: The home of nougat

Nougat has been made at Montélimar, on the east bank of the Rhône, for centuries; the sticky treat is thought to have been imported into France by the Greeks. It was known in earlier times as nut cake, or "nux gatum". The essential ingredients are almonds and honey; these days egg whites, pistachios and vanilla are added, and the honey is usually flavoured with lavender.

Nougat was originally made in two varieties, black and white, and formed two components of the traditional "13 desserts" that were served before midnight mass on Christmas Eve. It became known more widely when motorists driving down the congested RN7 between Paris and Nice would stop off at one of the local stalls for a snack.

The best-known maker of nougat is Chabert et Guillot (00 33 4 75 00 64 84), which is creating a visitor centre and museum at the factory on the Route de Marseille in Montélimar's Industrial Zone. This should open in September. Currently, the factory shop is open, and the company's nougat sold here is cheaper than elsewhere.

Another nougat producer, Gerbe d'Or (00 33 4 75 01 17 72), in the Parc d'Activités Fortuneau runs daily tours around its factory; morning visits are more interesting, since this is when the production lines operate.

For more options, contact the Syndicat des fabricants de nougat de Montélimar on 00 33 4 75 00 82 00.

Gypsy festival

A place of pilgrimage and dancing

According to legend, Les Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer is the place where two Marys landed with their black servant, Sara. They were Marie-Jacobé, sister of the Virgin Mary, and Marie-Salomé, mother of the apostles James and John. They had been marooned at sea after being driven out of Palestine. Since then their remains have become the object of a lively pilgrimage. Sara is the patron saint of gypsies, and a colourful gypsy festival is held in the village on 24 and 25 May every year. Following a mass in the local church, the statues of the women are paraded into the sea, accompanied by a crowd of pilgrims and gypsies, singing and dancing, and dressed in local costumes.

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