A Tour Through The Center Of France
Recently we spent a little over a week visiting the Rhône region of France which extends from Marseille, through historic Avignon, Arles, the Roman city of Vienne, Lyon, France’s culinary heart and west of the Rhône in the Beaujolais wine region including visits to some quaint Provençal villages.
The Rhône River winds its way from Switzerland into France beginning at the Rhône Glacier in Valais, and flows to join the Saône River in the city of Lyon. From there it winds on past some of the region’s most significant landmarks dating back to the Roman era. Going on south past the Ardèche, the river moves past expanses of lavender and sunflower fields before it empties into the Mediterranean west of Marseille.
Most people, when they think of France, picture Paris, the French Riviera – Cote d’Azur, the beaches of Normandy, not Roman ruins and Medieval castles. Travel up the Rhône through the heart of France and you will discover Avignon, the “City of Popes,” and the historic Papal palace, the massive Roman Colosseum of Arles, still hosting bull fights today, the ancient Roman city of Vienne, a number of castles and riverside villages dating back over eight hundred years.
If you are thinking of visiting the region we might recommend going in late June or early July. Usually the temperatures are moderate (the 115° weather in 2019 is not common), the skies are clear and there are a number of fantastic seasonal festivals well worth attending.
Avignon, the “City of Popes” is usually the starting point for the river cruises going north. This walled city’s name dates dates back to the 6th century BC. The first citation of Avignon (Aouenion) was made by Artemidorus of Ephesus. The historic walled city, which includes the Palais des Papes, the cathedral, and the Pont d’Avignon, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. The Papal Palace, the medieval monuments and the annual Festival d’Avignon have helped to make the town a major centre for tourism.
The Festival d’Avignon is an annual festival held every summer in July in the courtyard of the Palais des Papes and other locations in the city. Founded in 1947 it is the oldest festival in France and one of the world’s largest. In addition to the official festival, often hundreds of shows are presented in Avignon at the same time of the year adding to the festivities.
Near to Avignon is Arles. The Arles Colosseum and Amphitheater are one of the most popular tourist attraction in this city. They were built around the 1st century BC and the Colosseum was capable of seating over 20,000 spectators on three tiers. Today it has been mostly restored and is home to regular bullfights. After the Roman Empire fell the amphitheater became a shelter for the population of Arles and the Colosseum was transformed into a fortress with four towers added.
Tournon Lamastre Steam Railroad
In the Rhone valley you’ll also find the Tournon Lamastre Steam Railroad line. Enjoy full day or half day excursions on the Train of Ardèche as it travels through the mountainsides overlooking the gorges.It features open-air cars (in the warm months), beautifully restored old steam engines and incredible scenery. The train travels through rugged scenery in Doux Gorges, in Saint-Jean-de-Muzols. At the station of Colombier le Vieux – Saint-Barthélémy le Plain, the locomotive has to be turned round on a turntable and placed at the front of the train for the return trip.
Wines of the Rhône
Nobody should spend time visiting this region of France without sampling French wine. Some of the more widely recognized names include Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Beaujolais.
Côtes du Rhône are the basic AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) wines of the Rhône region, and exist as red, white and rosé wines, generally dominated by Grenache for reds and rosés, or Grenache blanc for whites.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape Not far from Avignon is a region famous for the production of red wine classified as Châteauneuf-du-Pape Appellation d’origine contrôlée which is produced from grapes grown in the commune of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and in portions of four adjoining communes. The name comes from the designation of the wine of the Pope. A ruined medieval castle sits above the village and was built in the 14th century for Pope John XXII, the second of the Popes to reside in Avignon. None of the subsequent Avignon Popes stayed in Châteauneuf but after the schism in the church in 1378 the antipope Clement VII sought refuge in the castle.
Beaujolais Our trip included time visiting the Beaujolais wine region to the north of Lyon along with a number of quaint Provençal villages. Today the region is known world wide for the popular Beaujolais nouveau. It is the most popular vin de primeur, fermented for just a few weeks before being released for sale on the third Thursday of November. This ‘Beaujolais Nouveau Day’ is recognized everywhere, with races to get the first bottles to different markets around the globe.
The Village of Beaujeu
The village of Beaujeu is the heart of the region and where Beaujolais gets its name. The French tradition is to name a region after a central town. This region is famous for its growing conditions with lots of sunshine and its granite-based soils lending a unique character to their wines. The Gamay grape is used to make all Beaujolais wines with the exception of white Beaujolais, or Beaujolais blanc, which is made of Chardonnay grapes. Most of the harvesting is made manually in the Beaujolais region. Handpicking means entire bunches are vatted to allow a specific sort of maceration. This winemaking is specific to the Beaujolais region.
Traveling through the hilly Beaujolais we were struck by the shear number of acres devoted to vineyards. From whole hillsides down to small backyard vineyards, grapes are growing everywhere and most everything seems to involve wine. We visited the Chateau de Varennes for a wine tasting. It’s an estate that is listed as a “VMF Historic Heritage” site and has been in the same family since 1809 with buildings dating back to the 11th Century. The Château itself is a beautiful period castle from the 16th century located in the heart of vineyards and overlooking the Samson valley. It’s a beautiful location with panoramic terrace views and an impressive Renaissance entry court.
We recommend putting the Rhône Region on you list of places to visit and the trip can be combined with a river cruise on a longboat. A great way to get an overview of the area.