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THE RHÔNE VALLEY & THE ALPS



Olive Trees and Edelweiss

The land that lies between the tumultuous Rhône—a river the historian Michelet called “a raging bull”—and Europe's loftiest peaks, a land that embraces glaciers and olive trees, ancient cities and untamed wilderness, is still in the process of forging its modern identity. Comparable in size to Switzerland or Belgium, Rhône-Alpes is France's second-largest region. It forms a counterweight in the nation's southeastern sector to Paris-Ile-de-France in the north. Though it is swiftly becoming a major European crossroads, Rhône-Alpes is more a political construct than a coherent cultural or geographic entity—the Région Rhône-Alpes is a very recent creation. Paradoxically, perhaps, the stunning diversity of the region's topography counts among its prime assets, and is surely its primary attraction for travelers.

Mont-Blanc

Follow the course of the Rhône River, and look east to majestic Mont-Blanc, as it surveys the Chablais, Faucigny, and Aravis massifs. Climb still higher to the Vanoise, Belledonne, and Chartreuse massifs, to L'Oisans and Le Vercors: you are enveloped in infinite blue. Listen to the fury of torrents rushing down the mountain at the Rouget waterfall (called “Queen of the Alps”), or the 30 thundering cascades that come alive in summer at the Fer-à-Cheval near Sixt in Haute-Savoie. Then hear the sudden stillness as these mountain waters spread silently into Lake Geneva, Lake Annecy, the lakes of Le Bourget, Aiguebelette, Monteynard, Nantua, Paladru... The water stretches out and lies in lake and riverbeds down in the plains as far as Dauphiné, giving the Rhône-Alpes more shoreline than any other region. Travel farther south now, still following the Rhône. Endless vineyards and orchards promise huge harvests of fruit. The Drôme wears a mantle of lavender. Everywhere gnarled olive trees spread their low branches, and in the fragrant herb-filled scrub of Ardèche cicadas chirrup at the sun.

The Rhône Valley and the Alps preserve thousands of acres of unspoiled nature. Sure-footed chamois skitter through Alpine pastures dotted with edelweiss, hide under pines or behind a rhododendron, then skip upward to join their ibex cousins on the snowy peaks. Beavers busy themselves by mountain streams while otters tease and frolic. The four national and regional parks of the Écrins, Vanoise, Vercors, and Pilat, as well as 28 nature reserves, including the Ardèche Gorges and the Aiguilles Rouges mountains, invite you to discover forests, lakes, high pastures, craggy peaks, and austere plateaus.

Sports for Every Season

Cheese Fondue

In winter 3,700 miles of manicured, well-marked ski runs show why the Rhône-Alpes region was chosen three times to host the Olympic Games, at Chamonix, Grenoble, and Albertville. With 220 ski resorts ranging in style from chic—Courchevel, Méribel, Megève, or Alpe-d'Huez—to rustique (Gex, Vars in the beautiful Queyras), there are plenty of opportunities for Alpine and cross-country skiing. The département of Savoie alone boasts well over 500 miles of ski trails that thread through the awesome mountain scenery of La Maurienne and La Tarentaise. Resorts at Corrençon, Autrans, and Villard-de-Lans provide fabulous cross-country terrain for novices and veterans alike.

In summer the mountains are a paradise for climbers and hikers. At Chamonix, where alpinism was born in the eighteenth century, the history of the pioneers who first scaled Mont-Blanc is retold at the Musée Alpin. No one should leave Chamonix without making an excursion to the enormous glacier known as La Mer de Glace, but only the daring will want to climb 12,000 feet in a cable car to the Aiguille du Midi peak. The Isère River, which rises in the Alps and flows down to the Rhône, challenges whitewater rafters to descend its turbulent rapids, but these trout-filled waters also invite anglers to try out their fly-fishing techniques.

Mountain air rouses the appetite, whetting it for hearty Alpine fare. While the tonier spas and ski resorts boast world-class tables, simple auberges also have their charm. Their menus feature mountain charcuteries (Pormonier sausage), raclette—melted cheese with potatoes—and fondue, both convivial après-ski favorites, and such local fish as trout, pike, and lake char, often accented with wild mushrooms. The cheese course is always worthwhile in the French Alps, where superb Beaufort, Reblochon, Tomme de Savoie, and crumbly Bleu de Gex are made.

An Age-old Artistic Legacy

The art and architecture of the Rhône Valley and the Alps tell a mesmerizing story of the region's past. An artistic legacy built up over thousands of years still bears the visible signatures of the civilizations who crafted it. The wall paintings of the recently discovered Chauvet Cave in Ardèche reveal the talents of Magdalenian artists who lived 20,000 years BC. The Orgnac Caves lead spelunkers into a spectacular subterranean maze; above ground, the Prehistory Museum illustrates early humans' workshops, shelters, and tombs. At the Marzal Caves a prehistoric “zoo” recreates the huge monsters that roamed this land long ago. Down in the shivery Choranche Grottoes of the Vercors, an underground lake and amazing stalactites await, along with the ghosts of Resistance fighters who launched guerilla attacks against the Nazis from these caves and hills.

The huge Gaulish fortress of Larina at Hières-sur-Amby near Grenoble was occupied from Neolithic times until the eighth century of our era. The archaeological park on the site documents the life of the Gauls—Allobroges, Ambarres, Segusiaves, Helvians—who passed through the region, paving the way for settlements of the kind the Romans discovered when they came to conquer. The Temple of Augustus and Livia in Vienne, the Temple of Diana and the Baths at Aix-les-Bains still speak of the glory that was Rome. On a smaller scale, and perhaps more moving because of it, are the second-century Roman villas of Saint-Romain-en-Gal not far from Vienne. Set amid fountains and colonnades, the dwellings were decorated with vivid polychrome mosaics of seascapes and floral motifs—the latter were copied throughout the empire. There is an instructive Archaeology Museum on the site.

The vigorous spirituality of the Middle Ages still radiates from the abbey church at Cruas on the Rhône, the Alpine cathedral of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, and the cathedral of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux in the Rhône Valley near Grignan. The Gothic style made few inroads in the region, but the austere elegance of the Romanesque reaches a pinnacle of perfection at the monastery of La Grande Chartreuse (which does not admit visitors), at the abbey of Talloires, in its splendid site on Lake Annecy, the Cistercian abbey of Léoncel, and at the Chartreuse du Reposoir in the Aravis massif. On the western shore of Lac du Bourget, in a sublime, isolated site stands the abbaye of Hautecombe, founded in 1125 by Saint Bernard. A community of Benedictine monks continues to lead a life of meditation inside this abbey, the burial place of the dukes of Savoie.

As heir to disputed borderlands and to the powerful medieval states of Savoie and Dauphiné, Rhône-Alpes bristles with a legion of fortresses and châteaux. Just as Savoie's ducal castle watches over Chambéry, Annecy is guarded by the twelfth-century fortress of the counts of Geneva. Viewing the ramparts built in the 1600s by Vauban at the Forts de Maurienne, one can easily imagine the onslaught of an invading army... A less bellicose spirit imbues the Renaissance châteaux of Grignan (immortalized by Madame de Sévigné), Tournon (in a ravishing town), and Vogüé.
The venerable urban centers of the Rhône Valley and the Alps preserve notable examples of civil architecture. With Pérouges, in the nearby Bresse region, Crémieu is one of the finest medieval villages in France, rivaled perhaps for sheer loveliness by Viviers on its perch above the Rhône. Early Renaissance town houses in the old quarters of Vienne, Valence, and Romans-sur-Isère irresistibly evoke Italian exuberance. So, in a more stately fashion, does Grenoble's Palais de Justice, built under Louis XII. As you travel through the upper Maurienne and Tarantaise massifs, don't be fooled by the sober façades of the churches and chapels in Valloire, Lanslevillard, Peisey-Nancroix, Saint-Nicolas-de-Véroce: inside, the Baroque explodes in an orgy of gilt, twisting columns, and polychrome altars.

A Huge Fruit Basket

Vieux Lyon

Industry developed early in this part of France. As far back as the fifteenth century Romans-sur-Isère prospered from a booming trade in clogs and shoes. Still the capital of French footwear, it honors the shoemaker's art in its unique Musée de la Chaussure. Hats have their own museum in Chazelles-sur-Lyon, where they have been manufactured since the Renaissance (though the industry is in steep decline), and Sévrier on Lake Annecy hosts a museum that commemorates the famous bells cast at the Paccard foundry. The silk industry that flourished in nearby Lyon until the nineteenth century fostered the spinning, weaving, and printing factories that once were scattered throughout the Vivarais and Dauphiné. Today pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and nuclear energy fuel the economy of the Rhône Valley, while the Alps, with their immense hydroelectric resources, continue to draw industries (steel, aluminum, chemicals) that require tremendous reserves of energy.

Heavy industry isn't the whole story, of course. Grenoble still employs watchmakers and leatherworkers. Quality handcrafts abound: the pottery of Dieulefit in the Drôme is renowned, but all over the region you can visit glass blowers, stained-glass artists, and wood carvers who open their workshops to the public. And skilled cabinetmakers perpetuate the traditional country furniture for which Savoie, in particular, is noted. Farmers and winemakers, cheese-makers and sheep herders account for a cheering proportion of the population.

Hermitage

From vineyards around Ampuis and Tain-l'Hermitage come the mightiest of the northern Côtes-du-Rhône wines—Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, Cornas. Ardèche also produces delectable little country wines, and the herb-fed lamb and tangy goat cheeses that partner them so well. The Drôme supplies local markets with honey and truffles, as well as olives and their gloriously perfumed oil pressed in the mills of Nyons. In fact the entire Rhône Valley is one huge fruit basket, overflowing with strawberries, cherries, melons, raspberries, blueberries, peaches...

Charming Towns and Cities

The exceptionally beautiful cities that grace the Rhône Valley and the Alps are a pleasure to explore. Rising mountains surround Grenoble like the tiers of an amphitheater: “au bout de chaque rue, une montagne“ (“at the end of each street, a mountain”) is how Stendhal, the novelist who is Grenoble's most famous son, described the city where he was born in 1783. Ride a cable car up to the Fort de la Bastille, a citadel set above the Isère River, and take in the heart-stopping view. You'll understand why Grenoble is called the “Gateway to the Alps.” Recover from your emotion at a café on Place Grenette, then make time for a visit to the distinguished Musée de Grenoble, an art museum that opened in 1994 on Place de la Lavalette in the city's historic center, with collections that range from Egyptian antiquities to Pop Art.

Noble Chambéry, the heart of Savoie, still beats with the glory of its ancient dukes, whose (heavily restored) château gazes down on Place Saint-Léger and old Chambéry. In this artfully refurbished vieille ville shoppers and strollers amble through narrow, winding streets unimpeded by traffic, among Italianate houses that date from the Middle Ages to the Empire. Jean-Jacques Rousseau made his home in Chambéry. His spirit lingers at Les Charmettes, just outside of town, where he lived with Madame de Warens in idyllic happiness.

Chambéry's eternal rival, Annecy admires its reflection in the limpid mirror of its lake. The city's pride is understandable: the exquisite harmony of mountains and pure, blue water make Annecy resemble a jewel poised in a setting of snowy peaks. Masses of flowers brighten the quays along the canal, and the old town's cobbled streets brim with charm. The best way to see the lake is by boat (cruises leave from Quai du Thiou), for fabulous views of castles at Duingt and Menthon-Saint-Bernard, or fabulous meals at Talloires (L'Auberge du Père Bise) and Veyrier-du-Lac (La Maison de Marc Veyrat).

From the feudal fastness of Aubenas in Ardèche to the bustling market town of Valence on the Rhône and the Alpine crossroads of Gap, charming and historic towns are scattered throughout the region: romantic Aix-les-Bains, Vienne with its summer jazz festival staged in a Roman theater, the nostalgic spa towns of Thonon-les-Bains and Évian on the shores of Lake Geneva... The Rhône Valley and the Alps offer more varied sources of wonder and excitement than a traveler could exhaust in several lifetimes.

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Images courtesy of La Maison de France


(Updated: 01/07/13 CT)

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