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Rhone

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The Rhone rises in Switzerland but most cruises on this long and beautiful river take place in France. Some combine with its tributary, the Saone and venture into the gorges and valleys of the Jura, a region of pretty hilltop villages and tinkling cow bells. Others pass through Burgundy, a place of medieval villages, stunning cities – Dijon, Beaune, Lyon – abbeys and castles. Perhaps the most popular part of the Rhone is in the south – Provence with its sunflower and lavender fields, foodie markets and vineyards. Wine is inescapable on this river which did, after all, give its name to the region’s own Cote de Rhone.

The river meanders past the poor, stony hillsides that slope down to its banks and produce the famous grapes. Some parts of the river are canalised with monumental locks, the biggest with a drop of 23 metres. As a result the Rhone no longer has the floods and fierce currents that used to make navigation hazardous – not that anything could stop it being a major route for trade and travel for millennia. The Romans planted vines and lavender and built magnificent aqueducts such as the Pont du Gard near Avignon. Gladiators fought in the amphitheatre at Arles though now they have concerts and the unique Provencal form of bullfight – they don’t kill the bull; instead the “bullfighters” try to pluck the ribbons tied on to its horns. Painters have been drawn here too by the miraculous light. Van Gogh painted his luminous portrayals of Arles including the night-time pavement café on the Place du Forum – it still looks exactly the same today. And besides painters? Popes. Avignon’s Palais des Papes was home to the popes in the fourteenth century. The city has both Roman and medieval roots – but it buzzes with life especially during its famous summer arts festival.