The Rhône valley stretches down from the compelling city of Lyon, the second-biggest city in France, to just north of Orange, in Provence. The north–south route of ancient armies, medieval traders and modern rail and road, the valley has experienced some industralization, but this has done little to affect the verdant, vine-dotted beauty of the countryside. Following the River Rhône is of limited appeal, with the exception of the scenic stretch of vineyards and fruit orchards between the Roman city of Vienne and the distinctly southern city of Valence. The nougat capital of Montélimar, further south still, also wears its charms well. But the big magnet is, of course, the gastronomic paradise of Lyon, with its unrivalled concentration of world-class restaurants.
Around 30km northeast of Lyon, the countryside becomes increasingly hilly as you approach the Beaujolais region, where the light, fruity red wines hail from. Fashionable to drink when it is young, Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape, which thrives on the area’s granite soil. Of the three Beaujolais appellations, the best are the crus, which come from the northern part of the region between St-Amour and Brouilly. If you have your own transport, you can follow the cru trail that leads up the D68 to St-Amour, before wending your way along the D31. Beaujolais Villages produces the most highly regarded nouveau, which comes from the middle of the region, while plain Beaujolais are produced in the vineyards southwest of Villefranche-sur-Saône.
If you didn’t know it before, you’ll soon realize what makes the attractive town of Montélimar tick: nougat. Shops and signs everywhere proclaim the glory of the stuff, which has been made here for centuries. The vieille ville is made up of narrow lanes that radiate out from the main street, rue Pierre-Julien, which runs from the one remaining medieval gateway on the nineteenth-century ring of boulevards at place St-Martin, south past the church of Sainte-Croix, and on to place Marx-Dormoy.
St-Étienne, 51km southwest of Lyon, was until recently a bland town. Almost entirely industrial, it is a major armaments manufacturer, enclosed for kilometres around by mineworkings, warehouses and factory chimneys. Like many other industrial centres, it fell on hard times, and the demolition gangs have moved in to raze its archaic industrial past. Only in the last decades has equilibrium been restored thanks to a concerted programme to revitalize the town, which includes a number of appealing museums. St-Étienne has also become an important design centre, as evidenced by the excellent Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne in March/April of odd-numbered years.
Across the Rhône from Vienne, several hectares of Roman ruins constitute the site of St-Romain-en-Gal, also the name of the modern town surrounding it. Before exploring the excavations, you enter the vast glass and steel building holding the Musée Gallo-Romain, which is dominated by some superb mosaics, though those on display are just a fraction of the 250 or so that were discovered along the river bank; the most outstanding example is the olive green coloured Punishment of Lycurgus, which is placed in a separate room on the upper floor.
The site itself – discovered as recently as 1968 – attests to a significant community dating from the first century BC to the third AD, and comprises domestic houses, a craftsmen’s district including the significant remains of a fulling mill, a commercial area with market halls and warehouses, and, most impressive of all, the wrestlers’ baths, complete with marble toilets displaying some remarkable frescoes.
At an indefinable point along the Rhône, there’s an invisible sensual border, and by the time you reach Valence, you know you’ve crossed it. The quality of light is different and the temperature higher, bringing with it the scent of eucalyptus and pine, and the colours and contours suddenly seem worlds apart from the cold lands of Lyon and the north.
Valence is the obvious place to celebrate your arrival in the Midi (as the French call the south), a spruce town made up of tidy boulevards, large public areas and fresh-looking facades as well as a very pleasant old quarter. While Valence is not particularly big on sights, the opening of the superb new Musée de Valence has finally given the town a key cultural focus; gastronomy, meanwhile, has always been important here, and there are also many convivial bars in which to while away a few hours in the sun.
As you head south from Lyon on the A7, a twenty-kilometre stretch of oil refineries and factories, steel and chemical works may well tempt you to make a beeline for the lavender fields of Provence further south. However, a short detour off the autoroute leads to Vienne, which, along with St-Romain-en-Gal, just across the river, once prospered as Rome’s major wine port and entrepôt on the Rhône.
Many Roman monuments survive to attest to this past glory, while several important churches recall Vienne’s medieval heyday: it was a bishop’s seat from the fifth century and the home town of twelfth-century Pope Calixtus II. The town has undoubtedly maintained its character and sense of purpose, and the compact old quarter makes for enjoyable wandering. Moreover, the Saturday market is one of the largest in the country, and you’ll find all the main squares and streets choc-a-bloc with merchants selling everything from cheese, fruit and veg to textiles and pottery.
Vienne takes great pride in hosting Jazz à Vienne, arguably the country’s finest international jazz festival. Taking place from the end of June for two weeks, not only does it attract some very big names (Sting, Gilberto Gil, George Benson), but most concerts are held in the fabulous surrounds of the Théâtre Antique. That said, you’ll find events also occurring in restaurants and bars all over town – it’s a great time to be here.