Rendez-vous in Rhône-Alpes
A region of infinite variety
In a country of superlatives and infinite variety, the Rhône-Alpes is a region of extraordinary contrasts. One of France’s largest regions, it certainly offers more than most for the active, the curious and the bon viveur.
Stretching from the shimmering shores of Lake Geneva to the bleak hills of the wild and rugged Cévennes, encompassing the lavender fields of the Drôme Provençal and the craggy gorges of the Ardèche, the landscape is constantly changing as you travel.
Scintillating scenery The Rhône-Alpes is defined, in many ways, by mountains, rivers and lakes. The Alps need no introduction as the vast backdrop to the region and an imposing border. The mighty Rhône has long been one of Europe’s major highways, flowing south from Geneva to Lyon then straight down to the Mediterranean. And the lakes, both natural and man-made, are vast, from Lac Léman (Geneva) in the north to Lac de Sainte-Croix in the south.
Some of the scenery in this most French of regions is pure French stereotype: snow-capped Alpine peaks, lavender fields, vineyards, olive groves, provincial southern towns and villages with their tabacs, squares and severely pollarded trees.
Activities for the active The French do lakes very well indeed. The Rhône-Alpes has a number of large lakes including Lac de Bourget, north of Chambery, the largest in France. Further south, to the east of Gap, is the dramatic Lac de Serre-Ponçon. Here the turquoise waters are almost Caribbean, luring families and windsurfers alike to its shores on weekends.
The spectacle of dozens of windsurfers, kitesurfers and dinghies zipping across the water is always an invigorating sight. Families lounge on the grassy slopes beside the water, grazing on lunch and gazing on the views.
Off the water, walkers and cyclists are drawn to the region by the stunning scenery and challenging roads. The Alpine peaks are not just for skiers. Popular in summer, the national parks of the Vanoise and Les Ecrins attract hikers and serious cyclists in search of fresh mountain air and exercise.
And in spring, once the harshest of winter has passed, the pastures and meadows of the Vercors foothills of the Alps are carpeted with wild flowers. It’s a real bonus to fall back on to a swathe of wild flowers for a moment’s rest after a particularly gruelling cycling ascent.
Canoeists paddle down the Ardèche river, through the steep and jagged gorges. Depending on the stretch, the waters can be slow moving or more challenging white water, but it’s always pleasant to take a break for lunch on a deserted riverside beach and watch the birds of prey circling above the cliffs. The canoe capital is probably around Vallon Pont d’Arc. Not far down the gorge is the Pont d’Arc - a natural bridge and more or less the gateway to the twisting, turning Ardèche gorges. The 54 metre high arch spans the river and is one of France’s truly great sights. The Caverne du Pont d’Arc is worth a visit for its detailed replica of the prehistoric cave paintings found close by.
At the region’s highest altitudes, the Alpine ski slopes have their own charms of course: Chamonix, Val d’Isère, Méribel, Courchevel, Les Arcs and Tignes are all world class centres around Mont Blanc and form part of the largest ski area in the world.
Cuisine to savour With then region bordering Bresse in Burgundy, Italy to the east, Switzerland and the Rhône to the south, it’s no surprise the region has a fabulous diverse cuisine. This has long been regarded as the ‘stomach of France’, giving rise to numerous world beating and egg beating chefs like Paul Bocuse and countless Michelin stars.
Wines from the Côtes du Rhône, Beaujolais and lesser known appellations are outstanding. Cheeses from Beaufort, Gruyère, Tomme and Reblochon are classics. Alpine digestifs like Chartreuse, Savoy génépi, various gentian based aperitifs (Suze is a venerable example) and vin de paille all hail from here.
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