Situated along the banks of the Rhone, the French city of Avignon has a rich history dating back even before the famous three-month siege of the town that took place in the summer of 1226. A little over a century later, the Black Death swept through the town, killing over two-thirds of the population. To get a better idea of the kind of history present in Avignon, consider this: the University of Avignon was first established in 1303 and has historically focused on law. Some seven-hundred years have passed since then and yet the University remains.
Avignon became a papal territory in 1348 and remained that way until 1791, when it was sold back to France during the turmoil surrounding the French Revolution. Today, chances are you’ll recognize parts Avignon even if you’ve never been there before. The Palais des Papes and the Saint Bénézet bridge are some of the most photographed structures in Southern France.
Known for its remarkable Roman ruins, Arles so inspired Van Gogh that he painted some 200 paintings here, including Sunflowers and The Yellow House. It was here that the Romans built their first bridge across the Rhône River, creating a vital overland route between Italy and Spain and facilitating the expansion of their empire. A short distance from Arles is the ancient and charming town of Tarascon. Its many medieval sites include a 12th-century church and a 15th-century castle that is rich with tales of a beloved ruler and a ferocious dragon.
An enchanting village where time seems to have stopped centuries ago, Viviers has a long and storied past that goes back for more than 1,600 years.Sycamores line some of Viviers' stone-paves streets, and houses here bear the watermarks of floods over the years. Explore the fountain squares in the Old Town, which combine Roman and medieval influences, and cobblestone lanes so narrow you can stand in the middle and touch the medieval houses on either side. Viviers climbs a hill crowned by 12th-century St. Vincent's Cathedral and happens to be the smallest cathedral in France, but it contains a marvelous organ.
Nestled on opposite sides of the river in the heart of the Côtes du Rhône, the twin cities of Tournon and Tain-l'Hermitage are an ideal destination for connoiseurs of fine wine. Tournon may be a small town, but stirring events took place here: A castle was raised on the hilltop in the 10th century to protect the region, and new fortifications were added over the centuries, including two "new" towers built to defend against Protestant attacks in the 16th century. You'll see the handsome houses constructed by wealthy merchants and garrison officers when you walk through the Rue de Doux area, and you will pass the 14th century church - unusual for the number of houses incorporated in its walls - and the oldest secondary school in France. Cross the pretty flower-decked Marc Seguin suspension bridge to Tain-l-Hermitage to visit local wine cellars or browse through the shops or the Valrhona chocolate factory.
The pace of life is decidedly more relaxed in Burgundy, where endless rows of grapes hang heavy on the vine. The capital of the region's wine trade, Beaune, is renowned for its history, beauty and highly prized wine, as well as its medieval-era hospital - the Hospices de Beaune. Founded as a charitable institution by the duke's chancellor in 1443, the hospital became a model for charitable giving in southern France, one with a unique fundraising tradition that continues today. Over the centuries, the hospice monks were given wine and vineyards, and they began selling the wines at auction in order to support their charitable work. The wine auction is now world-famous. Located in the southernmost part of Burgundy, Mâcon, a Saône River port, is your gateway to Beaune.
As the epicenter of French gastronomy, Lyon is a city of tantalizing contrasts. There's much to explore here, from the work of culinary visionaries to silk weavers' secret passageways. Some of the sights to behold...two rivers: one tranquil, one torrential; two hills: one for labor, where the sound of silk weavers' looms used to echo, the other for prayers, crowned by a spectacular basilica. Two cities: as different as night and day: one boasting colorful Old World facades, medieval mansions and hidden passageways; one with a sophisticated urbanity reminiscent of Paris. Situated at the confluence of the Rhône and Saôane rivers, and with roots stretching back over 2,000 years, Lyon is a place of fascinating dualities.