After a decade of planning and construction, a 900km (560 mile) cycle route following the River Rhone from source to sea is nearing completion, and has been accepted by the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) as EuroVélo route EV17. Cicerone’s new guide to Cycling the River Rhone Cycle Route is the only English language guide to this route. Here author Mike Wells describes the ride and some of the sights you will find along the way.
Flowing from the Swiss Alps, through Switzerland and France to the Mediterranean Sea, the River Rhone is one of Europe’s great rivers. The cycling authorities in both countries have spent the last few years defining and implementing a continuous cycle route following the river from source to sea.
The Swiss section – part of an integrated system of cycle tracks spanning Switzerland – is known locally as ‘R1 Rhone Route’ and has been complete for some years. It is well waymarked and easy to follow. The French section is a stand-alone cycle route known as the ‘ViaRhôna’ and is being built to French voie verte standards, which means 3m wide traffic-free cycle tracks, or protected cycle lanes, with mostly asphalt surfaces, alongside roads. Infrastructure, construction and waymarking on the Franch section is over 75 per cent complete in 2016, making the whole route a viable option for an exciting and interest-packed 900km ride that can be cycled in under a fortnight. Moreover it’s almost all downhill!
Getting to the start of the Rhone Cycle Route is straightforward. Swiss trains (which, for a small fee, carry cycles) whisk you to Andermatt or Oberwald in the high Alps. A regular, cycle-carrying post-bus, which operates from mid-June until mid-October, connects these two towns by way of the Furkapass. This passes within 400m of the Rhone’s source at the outflow of the Rhone Glacier, reached by an easy walk over bare, ice-scoured rock from a bus stop beside the Belvédère hotel and restaurant complex on the pass.
The Rhone glacier
The Rhone is the only major river in western Europe with an active glacier as its source. The Rhone glacier is currently 7km (4 miles) in length, greatly shrunk from the 140km (87 miles) it reached 14,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. It is retreating at the rate of about 10m/year, at which rate it will be another 700 years before it disappears altogether. Ice caves, which are renewed every spring, allow visitors to walk inside the glacier and provide opportunities for scientific study. The glacial meltwater gives a milky colour to the first part of the river, flowing down the deep glacial valleys of Goms, Valais and Vaud, and only disappears when the river reaches the tranquillity of Lake Geneva.
Having left the source and followed the fast-flowing river downhill through the Goms valley, after Brig you come across one of Switzerland’s best kept secrets, Swiss wine. The sides of the long, straight valleys of Valais and Vaud, together with land around the shores of the lake, contain thousands of kilometres of impressive stone retaining walls, tiered along the hillsides and the lake shore, which are planted with vines and produce high quality Fendant dry white wine (made from Chasselas grapes and similar to Chardonnay), and easy drinking, medium bodied Dôle red wine (made from Pinot Noir grapes). Almost all the output is consumed by the Swiss, and very little is exported. Between Vevey and Lausanne the cycle route leaves the lakeshore to wander through the vineyards.
Creative (and sporting) connections
The attractive villages, towns and cities along the shores of Lake Geneva have for many years attracted literary, musical, thespian and sporting glitterati of many nationalities. Lord Byron visited Château de Chillon, where he wrote a poem, ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’, and allegedly carved his name into a stone pillar where it can still be seen. Russian composer Igor Stravinsky lived in Montreux, where he wrote two of his greatest pieces, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. The concert hall, which hosts an annual jazz festival, is named after him. More recently Freddie Mercury, singer with the popular band Queen, lived his final years in Montreux. He is commemorated by a bronze statue on the lakeshore. Charlie Chaplin settled at Corsier near Vevey after exclusion from America for alleged un-American activities: a museum celebrating his work has recently opened in his former home. While living there Chaplin became friends with English novelist Graham Greene, who lived in nearby Corseaux. Thackeray, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, Henry James and Arnold Bennett all spent time living and writing in Vevey, where the Grand Hotel du Lac was the inspiration for Anita Brookner’s Booker prize-winning novel Hotel du Lac. Dickens wrote Dombey and Son while living in Lausanne, a town that was also home to Gibbon, Southey and T S Eliot. Voltaire, who fled France to escape religious criticism, lived for a few years in both Lausanne and Prangins. Former racing driver Michael Schumacher lives in a secluded manor house near Gland, recuperating from a skiing accident that has left him paralysed and in a wheelchair.
The world’s most cosmopolitan city
Geneva, in Switzerland but close to the French border, claims to be the most cosmopolitan city in the world. This internationalism started in the 16th century, when thousands of protestant Huguenots fled Catholic France to escape persecution during the French religious wars and brought with them skills in banking and watch making, still two of the city’s principal industries. The first Geneva Convention, which established the Red Cross as a neutral organisation to care for wounded soldiers, was signed in the town hall in 1864. Over the years this was followed by three more treaties defining, among other things, war crimes and the treatment of prisoners of war, and banning the use of chemical weapons. After the First World War the League of Nations was set up here in the Palais de Nations, a building which became the European headquarters of the United Nations after the Second World War. Other trans-national bodies followed, including the International Labour Organisation, World Health Organisation, World Trade Organisation and World Meteorological Organisation. These international bodies, together with banks and the European offices of several major companies, have contributed to 48 per cent of Geneva’s population being foreign nationals.
A quiet corner of France
After Geneva the Rhone enters a gorge between the Savoy Alps and Jura Mountains. The route passes through this gorge past a series of little visited but attractive villages. Seyssel, which until 1860 was a border town between France and Sardinian-controlled Savoy, is the limit of navigation on the river. The old wharves that once bustled with goods being shipped overland to Geneva are long gone, but a few pleasure craft make the 461km (286 mile) journey up from the Mediterranean. Chanaz is a flower-bedecked village whose situation beside a network of canals, connecting the river with France’s largest natural lake, Lac du Bourget, has led to the soubriquet ‘little Venice of Savoy’. Further downriver, at La Balme-les-Grottes, an extensive cave system contains a 130m (426ft) long underground lake and many speleological features.
France’s second city
Lyon, sitting at the junction of the Rhone and its largest tributary the Saône, is the second largest French city with a metropolitan population of nearly 2.5 million. The oldest part of the city sits on Fourvière hill overlooking the Saône where, beside the extensive ruins of Roman Lugdunum, are the cathedral, bishop’s palace and other clerical buildings. This religious presence gives the hill the nickname ‘the hill that prays’. Between the rivers another hill, Croix-Rousse, was formerly the site of many silk mills (Lyon’s principal industry) and was given the contrasting name ‘the hill that works’. Lyon claims to be the gastronomic capital of France – a powerful boast, given the high level of gastronomy encountered throughout the country. Local dishes can be tried in bouchons, local restaurants that once fed silk workers but nowadays cater for tourists and middle class residents. These include rosette de Lyon (cured pork sausage chunks), cervelle de canut (savoury cheese and herb spread) and quenelles de brochet (creamed pike mousse).
The Sillon Rhodanien
Below Lyon the Rhone flows south through the Sillon Rhodanien, a gap between the Alps and Massif Central, where it is accompanied by three railways (passenger, freight and high-speed) and a number of roads, including the old N7 main road and Route de Soleil motorway. The valley is mostly wide enough for the cycle route to follow a quiet course away from these incursions, often following the river or navigational canals. There are, however, one or two places where the valley narrows and the route follows a main road. A short (33km, 20 mile) stage between Lyon and Vienne, where the local council has yet to construct a dedicated cycle route, can easily be bypassed by taking a train from Lyon to Vienne.
A great papal city
After historic cities like Vienne, Valence and Montélimar the route reaches the flat lands of the Mediterranean littoral, passing the papal city of Avignon. During the 14th century nine popes ruled from Avignon, after the French-born Clement V was elected pope but was prevented by political tension from moving to Rome. This period brought great wealth and a building boom to Avignon. A huge papal palace was built, and was added to by subsequent popes. The city was surrounded by the best preserved defensive walls in medieval France, while a 22 arch bridge spanned the Rhone. Although this was destroyed by floods in 1669 its ruins are immortalised in the words of the popular children’s song Sur le Pont d’Avignon.
Where van Gogh went mad
The last major town encountered is Arles, an ancient Roman city with a well preserved arena and theatre, both still used for performances and spectacles. Twice-yearly bullfighting festivals are accompanied by bull-running through the streets, where local residents attempt to wrestle the bulls to the ground. Attracted by the slow pace of Provençale life and the light and colour of the countryside, Vincent van Gogh spent a hectic 15 months in Arles during which time he produced over 300 paintings before going mad, amputating his ear and being confined to an asylum. Some of his best known works were painted in Arles, including Starry Night, Sunflowers and Bridge at Langlois.
At Arles the Rhone divides into two channels to reach the sea. Between these channels is the Camargue, a low lying delta area of marais (reed-covered marshes), étangs (salt lakes) and salt flats. The cycle route crosses this delta, giving the opportunity to see free-running white horses and black bulls on the flats and flocks of pink flamingos on the lakes. The route ends at the small port town of Pont-St Louis, from where a 7km (4 mile) detour can be made to reach and paddle in the Mediterranean to cool down after completing your ride.
The Cicerone Guide describes the route in 20 stages, averaging 45km (28 miles). A reasonably fit cyclist should be able to complete the route in 12 days, averaging 75km (46 miles) daily, and the guide contains an appendix showing how this can be achieved. Most stages are well equipped with places to stay, eat and have your cycle repaired. Nearly all towns and many villages have a tourist office (listed in the Guide) that will help you find these services.