by Joanna Booth, The Telegraph, November 27, 2018
Flowing from the vineyards and châteaux of Burgundy through sun-drenched Provençal farmland down to the sleepy Camargue delta, the Rhône carves its way through some of France’s most beautiful landscapes. As if challenged to match nature’s glory, the historic towns and villages are good-looking too, from Pope-hosting Avignon to Van Gogh’s favourite, Arles.
Provence is noted for its sprawling fields of lavender and sunflowers, but you’ll need to make sure you travel at the right time of year to enjoy the vivid blooms. Mid-June to mid-July is the peak season for these crops, and you’ll need to book early to secure a spot on a sailing during this period.
The capital of Provence reached the peak of its powers in the 13th century, when it was temporarily home to the Papacy, and there’s still a medieval feel to the city. Ancient walls ring its riverside old town, and you’ll want to see the vast Palais des Papes, a much-crenellated Gothic fortress built from the area’s local, buttery limestone. This material also forms the famous incomplete bridge – it’s officially called the Pont Saint-Bénézet, but you can see why the songwriters opted for an easier rhyme. You’ll get the best angle for a picture from up on the city walls.
2. Lavender Fields
Few views are more quintessentially Provençal than serried ranks of lavender, turning fields into swathes of gigantic purple corduroy, under an endless blue sky. A cruise on the Rhône will bring you into the fragranced heart of lavender country, but you’ll need to pick your time carefully. Cruise between mid-June and mid-July to see the crop at its height, sometimes set off by a buttery expanse of sunflowers. If you miss the season, you’ll still be able to buy soap, cosmetics, honey and even sorbet infused with lavender oil year round.
3. Pont du Gard
This triple-tiered Roman aqueduct has stood over the River Gardon since the first century AD, when it took 1,000 workers five years to complete. At 49m high, and more than twice the length of a Premiership football pitch, it’s colossal, and as you reach the end of a mulberry-tree lined walkway and get your first glimpse of the structure, you’ll be momentarily silenced by its grandeur. If you’ve a good head for heights, buy a ‘Pass Aqueduct’, and walk along channel in the highest arches, where the water once flowed.
Perhaps the most beautiful of the Luberon’s hilltop villages – and competition is fierce – Roussillon replicates the ochre tones of the surrounding earth in its higgledy-piggledy houses. Shades of red, orange, yellow and pink are set off by brightly-painted shutters and doors, and the whole place seems to glow against the blue sky. Wander the narrow cobbled streets, then stroll through the nearby abandoned ochre quarry, a somewhat otherworldly landscape of apricot-tinged rock formations.
5. The Ardeche Gorge
You’ve seen some spectacular man-made bridges; now marvel at what nature can do. The Pont D’Arc is a craggy curve of limestone rising 54m over the Ardèche River, and is just one of the highlights of what’s been dubbed Europe’s Grand Canyon. Take an excursion by road and get views of this Rhône tributary carving through the emerald-green plateau from atop 300m-high cliffs, or choose to canoe and experience the winding curves and soaring walls from water level.
6. Van Gogh’s Arles
Describing Arles as ‘pretty as a picture’ isn’t lazy, just literal – Van Gogh painted hundreds of works in the hugely productive year he spent in the city. Take a walking tour of sites from famous paintings including the Langlois Bridge and the courtyard at L’Espace Van Gogh, formerly the hospital where he was committed after famously cutting off his left ear. Choose a cruise with overnight docking in Arles and you can search for the spot where he sat to paint the gorgeous Starry Night over the Rhone.
7. The Camargue
Embraced by the two arms of the Rhône as it nears the Mediterranean Sea, the Camargue is Western Europe’s biggest delta, a place where the horizon seems endless and sunsets get the space to really show off. Its reed-covered marshes, salt flats and farmland provide a habitat for some of France’s most colourful creatures, from flocks of blush-tinged flamingos to the region’s signature black bulls. You’ll also see herds of the semi-feral indigenous white horses, used to herd the bulls by gardians, the cowboys of the Camargue.
Choose a cruise that pairs the Rhône with a venture up its principal tributary, the Saône, and you’ll sail slap bang into Burgundy country. While your tastebuds will be celebrating the chance to enjoy some of the world’s finest wines, your eyes will find plenty to delight in too. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines trace neat rows of verdant green or burnished gold depending on the season, surrounding some rather splendid châteaux, financed by years of Grand Cru harvests. Further south, you’ll find Côtes du Rhône vineyards around Tain L’Hermitage, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, outside Avignon.