Explore the cultural highlights and sights along the great rivers of France by motorhome or caravan
France is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful travel destinations in Europe. Its cultural richness is as unique as its landscapes. And many a traveller to France has succumbed to the picturesque appeal of its small villages and modern cities. Anyone who travels along the rivers Saône and Rhône in a caravan or motorhome will get to see and experience a kaleidoscope of European history, great religious architecture and castles, wide riverscapes and valleys as well as wild gorges. Not forgetting an exceptional cuisine. Our selection of some of the most beautiful spots along and near these two rivers encompasses a diverse range of French landscapes, regions, cities as well as savoir-vivre that is hard to find elsewhere.
Starting point Burgundy: what makes this region so special?
We start our journey in Burgundy. The region sounds almost mystical, and not just when it comes to its wines. Even if you didn't always pay attention in your history lessons, everyone has at some point heard of the dukes of Burgundy. And the legendary castles, fortresses, churches and monasteries of the Middle Ages seem to have only known one home: Burgundy. There is hardly a region in Europe today where its course of history has not only left such an impressive presence, but is also a part of everyday life as in Burgundy. So, after travelling through southern Burgundy on a sunny late summer's day, roaming the hilly landscape, admiring the small villages with their Romanesque churches and sharing a bottle of red wine with the farmers in front of an inn, the inevitable question arises: do I really have to leave and continue my journey?
Well, you would miss out on a lot if you didn't because here at the intersections of the most important trade routes of the Middle Ages you can clearly see what has shaped our western Christian culture, where we come from and where Europe is heading. Although the Burgundians were unable to form a continuously prosperous nation state despite the eventful history of this region, Burgundy has nonetheless remained one of the most important cultural, religious and social origins of contemporary life in Europe. Located in the heart of Europe, this region has produced counts, dukes and kings, yet its neighbours had always been interested in occupying it to increase their own power. The Song of the Nibelungs also tells stories of legendary Burgundians who have lived in this area since the 5th century.
Stopover #1: Autun and Beaune
Only around 40 km northwest of Chalon-sur-Saône are Autun and Beaune, two cities that are a must on any motorhome itinerary for this region. With a population of 14,000 and surrounded by extensive mixed forests, Autun is seen as the gateway to the southern Morvan. Founded by Emperor Augustus as Augustodunum in 10 BC, the city was on the important Via Agrippa trade route. More than 20 towers of the ancient city wall are still preserved. The clocks seem to tick differently in the winding alleys of the picturesque Old Town and along the Arroux river. In addition to a Roman amphitheatre, the other main attraction is Saint Lazare Cathedral. The Romanesque basilica towers over the city like a guard from a bygone era. The tympanum of The Last Judgement above the west portal was created by Gislebertus, a Burgundian sculptor, in the 12th century as were the beautifully carved capitals depicting biblical scenes.
The city of Beaune is undoubtedly the wine capital of Burgundy. Highlights include the yearly charity wine auction at the Hospices, which also acts as a reliable economic barometer for the region. Moreover, the pretty Old Town with its markets and festivals as well as the Hôtel-Dieu/Hospices de Beaune are some of the most important sights here. Incidentally, the latter is the most beautiful building in town. Featuring a colourful rooftop, this gem was founded by Nicolas Rolin, the chancellor of the duchy at the time, in 1443. It is the most significant testimony to the region's history of hospitals – a palace-like property, but constructed for the poorest citizens, and an outstanding example of Flemish/Burgundian architecture. The huge Room of the Poor is just as fascinating as “The Last Judgment” polyptych created by Rogier van der Weyden between 1446 and 1452. The intensity and physicality of these nine oil paintings on wood are still far superior than any digital photograph.
Stopover #2: fascinating Cluny
Follow the river to the south, and you will see one of France's most important monasteries near Mâcon. Founded in 910, the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny grew as an imposing maior ecclesia throughout the Middle Ages to become the most important educational, artistic and religious centre with a pan-European influence. The highest vaults in the Romanesque world show the importance of this place, which is surrounded by grand parks, a large forecourt with lovely cafés and a charming old town with a granary, municipal museum and Romanesque houses.
Long before the Dukes of Burgundy made European history in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Burgundian Romanesque style flourished at the hands of the monks who acted as architects, teachers and farmers after the the Cluniac and Cistercian orders were founded. It is astounding to see to what extent the Cluny monastery complex was able to change an entire city, region and then Europe. Around 1100, Cluny had 100 other monasteries in France, Spain, Italy and England. The abbots of Cluny gained power and independence never seen before. The city is still fascinating today, with its architecture and religious buildings radiating a timeless beauty.
Stopover #3: World Heritage Site in Lyon
The Saône and Rhône rivers converge in Lyon and continue to flow south to the Mediterranean Sea. Lyon is well-known for its quality of life. A gourmet metropolis, architectural treasures and an interplay of light and water: a World Heritage Site between these two rivers. The rhythm of the water and wealth of fountains influence life in Lyon, but its face then changes in the evenings. As part of the “plan lumière”, more than 150 buildings are illuminated and a light show transforms the city into a sea of colours.
The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière then looks as though it has been dipped in deep blue ink, the dome of the town hall shimmers in gold and the opera designed by the architect Jean Nouvel shines in purple. This event makes it even more fun to take a stroll through the alleys and to meander through the "traboules", the doorways and the arcades in the Croix-Rousse silk district – and the perfect opportunity to try the Lyon sausage and ham specialities or some Beaufort cheese accompanied by one of the ten Beaujolais Grand Crus in one of the 3,000+ restaurants. Lyon makes it so easy to enjoy the pleasures of life!
Stopover #4: Ardèche and Pont d'Arc
After leaving Valence and Montélimar behind you, ignore the Rhône for a moment and drive to the Monts d'Ardèche Regional Nature Park to see the gorges and the Pont d'Arc. The imposing stone bridge over the Ardèche river is an impressive 60 m long and 54 m high. There is ample parking space nearby, but it can get overcrowded in the high season. Therefore, it is best to visit the nature park early in the morning or later in the evening when the main stream of tourists has subsided. You can also rent canoes and paddle to your heart's content – great fun and easy for people of all ages. Incidentally, the breakthrough dates back to the Early Pleistocene epoch 1.8 million years ago.
The Chauvet Pont d'Arc Cave is also nearby. It contains some of the earliest known Palaeolithic cave paintings and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in June 2014. Since 2015, tourists can visit a replica of the cave and the visitor centre, which was built to protect the original cave 3 km away.
Stopover #5: Avignon and Pont du Gard
There are people who say that if you go to Provence you shouldn't stop over in Avignon because you won't be able to get away. Well, this marketing exaggeration is slightly true as Avignon undoubtedly has a unique flair. Others will feel transported back to their school days, having learnt a certain song about a bridge that has inevitably stuck in their memory. When you finally get to stand in front of this renowned bridge, you might feel a little disappointed as you have probably imagined it to be either small and cute or large and imposing, but not something in-between. However, if you turn around and go through the city wall, where the city centre awaits you, you will be surprised by its mix of important history and modern city life. Avignon takes you prisoner – there's definitely some truth in that.
Avignon was the seat of the Papacy at the beginning of the 14th century. The Gothic Palais des Papes, the Episcopal Ensemble and the Pont Saint-Bénézet (Avignon Bridge) are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The 4 km long city wall from the 14th century with 39 towers and seven gates still protects the Old Town. If you visit Avignon in July, you can experience the great Avignon Festival with theatre, dance and music performances. In any case, you should make time to visit the Pont du Gard, 25 km to the west, on the river Gardon. This Roman aqueduct from the 1st century has three well-preserved levels of arches. It also has a new visitor centre and ample parking space for motorhomes.
Stopover #6: Arles and Vincent van Gogh
Arles is the last major city before the Rhône flows into the Mediterranean via its delta. It is inextricably linked with the life and work of the famous artist Vincent van Gogh. Go on a sightseeing tour and learn more about the painter's tragic life. Even the graceful garden in the courtyard of the Maison de Santé takes on a wistful note. Bullfights are still held in the magnificent amphitheatre, which was built around 90 AD. The Provençal-style "course camarguaise" bullfight is bloodless as the real heroes are not the matadors, but the bulls who have even had monuments erected in their names. Numerous ancient buildings, including a Roman theatre, and the Church of Saint Trophime, formerly a Benedictine abbey, with a magnificent portal give Arles its unique flair – a town steeped in history combined with Mediterranean lightness and joie de vivre.
Stopover #7: Camargue and the bulls
Our motorhome trip from Burgundy to the Mediterranean ends in the Camargue. The wide, flat landscape by the sea, where the wind constantly blows over fields, meadows and pastures, is the final highlight that couldn't be more magnificent. The light over the landscape is very clear, shapes and colours are of an exceptional beauty that can also seem rough at times. And then there are about 150 bull farms in the Camargue with roughly 27,000 Camargue bulls and 12,000 Camargue horses. The last stopover is at the fortified church in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where the relics of the saints Mary Salome and Mary of Clopas rest. Along with Mary Magdalene, they are said to have been the first witnesses and messengers of the resurrection of Christ. In 45 AD, they reached the coast of the Camargue and proclaimed the message of the Risen Christ in Gaul, from where it spread throughout Europe. Which brings us full circle to the Burgundy monasteries.