Rhône

The meltwaters of the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps cascade down as a torrent as far as Lake Geneva, afterwards rushing through the Jura Mountains before joining the Saône at Lyon, where it continues south through Valence, Avignon and Arles to the sea. The Syrah grape, known as Shiraz in Australia and grown in the Rhône's southern reaches, was once thought to have been brought here by the Greeks from Persia, but DNA analysis suggests it is native to the region. And of course if you enjoy a nice glass of Côtes du Rhône you'll be in no doubt about its origin in this famous wine-growing area.

  • Arles

    Once-mighty Arles for a time even eclipsed nearby Massalia (Marseilles) in importance. A Roman theatre was built here, plus a triumphal arch, a circus with 50ft granite obelisk, and an amphitheatre. Its Alyscamps necropolis became such a famous des-res of the dead, like Highgate Cemetery for Romans, that sarcophagi had to be stacked three-deep. Emperors chose Arles as their regional military base, and Constantine I built baths and had a family here. Many of these Roman structures still exist today, including the Alyscamps, the theatre, the circus obelisk, the baths and in particular the magnificent amphitheatre, which went through a medieval phase as a fortress and then a walled village.

    The importance of Arles as a river port declined somewhat in later years and especially with the coming of the railway, but its historic sights and old-world tranquility made it seem exotic to artists. Vincent Van Gogh described Arles as 'another world' and painted some of his most famous works here including Van Gogh's Chair, The Night Café, The Yellow House, Bedroom in Arles, Starry Night over the Rhône and Café Terrace at Night. After a visit from Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh became so unstable that he cut off his own ear, an event which alarmed Arles residents so much they petitioned for him to be locked up. He left soon after.

    Things to look out for, aside from the extensive Roman ruins, are the museum, which contains one of the biggest collection of Roman gravestones and sarcophagi outside Rome, the Van Gogh centre, and the 12th century Church of St Trophime, which boasts some of the finest Romanesque sculptures to be found anywhere.

  • Avignon

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  • Lyon

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