Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes

Travel Guide Europe France Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes

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Introduction

Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is a large region in southeastern France. It is popular with all kinds of visitors, from mountaineers and winter sports enthusiasts, to gastronomes, wine buffs, and those looking for a city break. To the west, Auvergne is a mostly rural area of medium volcanic mountains (the Massif Central) and an abundance of interesting churches. Visitors to the Rhone Valley in the centre of the region can enjoy a temperate climate, rocky canyons, extensive vineyards and the urban area of Lyon, one of France's most important cities. In the east, the stunningly beautiful French Alps are havens for all manner of outdoor activities, not least skiing. Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes was created in 2016 with the merger of the old regions of Auvergne and Rhône-Alpes, as part of the national territorial reform. Unlike elsewhere in France, local politicians were unable to agree on a brand new name for the larger region (other exciting proposals included "Auvergne-Alpes" and "Rhône-Alpes-Auvergne"), so the provisory alphabetic amalgamation of the old names stuck.

Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes has a huge diversity of landscapes due to its climactic and topographic variation. The topography of the region consists of two areas of high elevation, divided by the Rhône Valley, which runs north-south. The western mountains are part of the Massif Central. It is an area of high hills and plateaux, mostly made of old, acidic metamorphic rock. There are several recently extinct (geologically-speaking) volcanoes in this range. East of the Rhône Valley are the Alps. These tall, young mountains are themselves very diverse, and should be divided into at least two groups. A central part of the region is occupied by a north-south line of well-defined mountainous massifs: from north to south, Bornes, Bauges, Chartreuse, Vercors and Baronies. These mountains are mainly made of limestone and are becoming a karst landscape. Another, less prominent valley divides this central area from the eastern part of the region, the Alps proper, which contains some of Europe's highest mountains, most notably Mont Blanc. These mountains are made of acidic rocks such as granite.

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Geography

The region borders Occitanie and Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur to the south, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté to the north, Nouvelle-Aquitaine to the west, Switzerland (Cantons of Geneva, Valais and Vaud) and Italy (Aosta Valley and Piedmont) to the northeast and east. Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes comprises twelve departments : Ain, Allier, Ardèche, Cantal, Drôme, Haute-Loire, Haute-Savoie, Isère, Loire, Puy-de-Dôme, Rhône, Savoie.

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Cities

  • Lyon - capital of the region and one of France's largest cities.
  • Annecy - charming old town and stunning lake, with a wealth of canals.
  • Aurillac - the end of August brings the annual street theatre festival.
  • Chambéry - once the capital of the Duchy of Savoie, and the birthplace of the Rights of Man.
  • Chamonix - the heart of Alpine France; the natural base for exploring Mont Blanc.
  • Clermont-Ferrand - a city of modern industry ringed by extinct volcanoes.
  • Grenoble - large academic centre surrounded by mountains.
  • Saint-Étienne - perhaps best known to football fans, this is a topographically interesting city.
  • Samoëns - a charming and typical example of a French mountain village.

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Sights and Activities

Mountains! There are literally hundreds to explore, across two primary ranges:

  • In the west, the Massif Central is a medium-height range with lush green slopes and extinct volcanoes to explore. In fact, the Auvergne is the largest volcanic region in Europe, though the volcanoes themselves are all dormant or extinct. The Puy-de-Dôme is the most well-known of these. You can also visit an interactive volcanic theme park, Vulcania.
  • In the east, the majestic Alps tower white and grey into the sky, culminating in Mont Blanc. The highest point in western Europe, the 'White Mountain' can be easily viewed from the mountain town of Chamonix. In the summer months, the slopes of the Alps are places to linger among sweet-smelling grass and wildflowers, listening to the tinkle of cow and goat bells and perhaps enjoying a picnic of local produce.

The region is liberally sprinkled with fascinating Romanesque churches, often dating to before 1000 AD. Visit, and you will quite likely hear some beautiful music, and definitely see a lot of gorgeous stained glass, set in stone dripping with history. Many parish churches have their pillars painted the way they were when they were built.

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Events and Festivals

  • Fête Nationale (14 Juillet) is celebrated on 14 July to commemorate the storming of the Bastille prison, during the French Revolution, with festivities on the Champs-Élysées attended by the President of France and other dignitaries. There are fireworks displays in many cities, with the largest display in Paris against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. This holiday is informally known as Bastille Day.

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Weather

The diverse climate of the region is due to a blending of four weather influences: Mediterranean in the south, Alpine in the east, Continental in the north, and Atlantic in the west. The region is well-known overseas for its agriculture, and particularly its wine industry. Lyon is considered the culinary capital of France, if not of all Europe, and there are many dishes of great renown from all around the region; see the Eat and Drink sections for more information on this.

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Getting There

By Plane

  • Geneva International Airport (GVA IATA), though not in either Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes or even France (it is just over the border in Switzerland), Geneva has by far the widest range of international flights of any airport in the area, due to its important role in world diplomacy. The airport welcome flights from pretty much everywhere in Europe and the Middle East, as well as transatlantic crossings from New York JFK, Newark and Washington Dulles and a solitary far-eastern link to Beijing Capital. Passengers on 'domestic' flights from France leave the airport on the French side, without ever having to officially enter Switzerland, while all other passengers must leave on the Swiss side. As Switzerland is a member of the Schengen agreement, this should pose no additional visa troubles.
  • Lyon–Saint-Exupéry Airport (LYS IATA), named for pioneering aviator and Lyon native Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, handles flights from all over Europe and North Africa. The only transatlantic flight is an Air Canada service from Montreal Trudeau.
  • Chambéry Airport (CMF IATA) operates in winter for the annual skiing season. It receives flights from plenty of European cities, including several competing services from Moscow Domodedovo. Outside of winter, don't expect to be able to fly there.
  • Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne (CFE IATA) is a small airport serving a limited number of regular flights from around France (including Paris Charles de Gaulle and Orly) and Europe (Amsterdam Schiphol, London Luton, London Stansted and Porto)
  • Grenoble Isère Airport (GNB IATA) is also pretty much entirely seasonal. During the winter ski months, there are direct services from many British and European airports, and even from as far afield as Tel Aviv Ben Gurion, while the rest of the year, only Ryanair offers regular flights from London Stansted.

By Train

Paris to Lyon was the first TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, high-speed train) route to be unveiled all the way back in 1981, and it is still the SNCF's flagship route. Journey times from the appropriately named Paris Gare de Lyon are an impressive 2 hours, much quicker than driving. Lyon is also only 1 hr 45 from Marseille, and around 3 hours from Lille, which has many connections all over northern Europe. Many other destinations in the eastern half of the region are accessible from Paris at around the 2-3 hour mark as well.

The western half of the region is not yet on the high-speed rail network, so Intercités journey times from Paris Gare de Bercy to Clermont-Ferrand and the rest of the Auvergne are a more leisurely 3-4 hours. From parts further west (e.g. Bordeaux, the Loire Valley), train connections are poor, with very few direct city to city services, though there is a daily Intercités service from Nantes, Tours and Bourges.

From the United Kingdom, Eurostar now travel direct from London St Pancras and Ashford to Lyon Perrache up to five times a week, taking a respectable 4 hrs 41 mins from London and 4 hrs 12 mins from Ashford. There is also a winter (Dec-Apr) ski service, also from London and Ashford, to Bourg-Saint-Maurice, Moûtiers and Aime-la-Plagne. Despite the rather gruelling 7 hour journey time, these services are popular with the English winter sports crowd. Eurostar sells through tickets to many other places in the region, where travellers are required to change onto the local network at Lyon.

By Car

From Paris, Lyon is around 5 hours in good traffic on the A6 autoroute (motorway), while Clermont-Ferrand is around 6 hours via the A10 and A71 autoroutes. The A89 brings traffic from the west - Bordeaux and the rest of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, while the A7 is the main highway bringing traffic from the south, that is to say Marseille and the rest of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. There are two tunnels through the Alps from Italy, both leading from Turin. The A6 passes near Dijon, which is a hub for autoroutes from the east of France and ultimately Germany.

If you're driving from the United Kingdom, count on 7-10 hours non-stop from Calais, traffic depending. Many people doing this journey like to stop overnight, often in Reims or Troyes.

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Getting Around

By Train

Aside from the TGV, which links the main cities and ski resorts in the eastern half of the region (i.e. the former Rhône-Alpes), the main provider of rail services is TER Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. The network is extensive, as you can see on this network map, but the service can be rather slow if you're going a long way. You will find the train to be very good value, however. The few towns which don't have direct rail access are served by SNCF buses (autocars) which link in with the train network and use the same tickets and fare system.

This being a mountainous region, many of the rail journeys are scenic. Highlights include the Mont Blanc Express which makes the spectacular climb from Saint-Gervais-les-Bains to Chamonix, before tunnelling under the Alps and heading down to the Swiss town of Martigny. While this and other gorgeous journeys are integrated into the regular rail network, there are also lines which are purely destined for the tourist market, such as the AGRIVAP Discovery Trains which operate a mixture of steam and electric trains with panoramic and open-top carriages through the Livradois-Forez Natural Regional Park between Lyon and Clermont-Ferrand.

By Car

The main motorways (autoroutes, denoted by A##) and routes nationales (denoted by N##) of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes are:

  • A6: Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, from Beaune/Paris, Mâcon, Lyon (A42, A43, A46), continues as A7.
  • A7: continuation of the A6 Lyon, N88, Vienne, Valence (N532), Montélimar, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, towards Marseille.
  • A40 / N205: from A6 near Mâcon, A39, Bourg-en-Bresse, A42, Geneva (A41), Cluses (for Samoëns, Le Grand Massif, Portes du Soleil), (continues as N205), Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, Chamonix, Mont Blanc Tunnel, Italy towards Aosta and Turin.
  • A41: Geneva, A40, Annecy, Aix-les-Bains, A43 (W), Chambéry (runs as N201 and A43 around Chambéry), A43 (E), Grenoble (A48, A51).
  • A42: Lyon (A6, A7, A43, A46), A40 near Bourg-en-Bresse.
  • A43: Lyon (A6, A7, A42, A46), A41 (N), Chambéry (runs as N201 around Chambéry), A41 (S), Vanoise, Fréjus Tunnel, Italy, towards Turin.
  • A46: passes east of Lyon, as a bypass to the A6 and A7 which go through the city centre. Links to A42, A43, A47, A432.
  • A47 / N88: Givors (A7 / A46), Saint-Étienne (A72), Le Puy-en-Velay.
  • A48 / A51: A43 (from Lyon), Chartreuse, Grenoble, eastern Vercors.
  • A49 / N532: A48 (from Grenoble), western Vercors, Valence (A7).
  • A71: Centre-Val de Loire, from Bourges, Montluçon, A719 (for Vichy), A89 (for Clermont-Ferrand).
  • A72: A89 from Clermont-Ferrand, Saint-Étienne (N88).
  • A75: Clermont-Ferrand (A89), Massif Central between les Volcans d'Auvergne and Livradois-Forez, Occitanie, towards the Cévennes and Montpellier.
  • A89: Nouvelle-Aquitaine, from Bordeaux and Brive-la-Gaillarde, les Volcans d'Auvergne (for Mont-Dore and Puy-de-Dôme, A71, Clermont-Ferrand (A75), Thiers, A72, Lyon.
  • A430 / N90: A43 after Chambéry, Albertville, Vanoise, Bourg-Saint-Maurice, Italy, towards Aosta.
  • A432 links Lyon Saint-Exupéry Airport to the autoroute network.

All the ski resorts of the region are connected by major highways and paved mountain roads, but be sure to carry change though as most of the motorways are pay roads. Toll motorways are marked by the word péage.

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Eat

Lyon is known as the capital of French gastronomy, and since France has a highly credible claim at possessing the greatest national cuisine in the world, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is undoubtedly one of the best places for a bite to eat. The regional cuisine is heavily influenced by the mountains, both in the types of product historically available and the need to provide comfort and warmth through the winter. Expect plenty of smoked meats, sausages and of course cheeses.

Yes, nearly everything is made with melted cheese, potatoes and onions! The key to French cuisine lies in a small number of high quality locally-sourced ingredients cooked in extraordinary ways, and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes fits neatly into this groove, presenting fabulously simple cooking beloved by many a traveller. Unusually for France, most of the signature dishes are (or can be, with minimal modification) vegetarian friendly, but vegans and those intolerant to gluten or lactose will probably be disappointed with the preponderance of dairy.

There are numerous kinds of local cheese. In Auvergne, the most celebrated are bleu d'Auvergne (blue and pungent), cantal (firm and ancient in heritage), and saint-nectaire (the "holy nectar", semi-soft). The Alpine regions are known for producing gruyère although in France this is generally called comté to avoid upsetting the Swiss, who claim gruyère as their own. Reblochon is an extremely soft and creamy cheese used in cooking. American cheese aficionados may particularly wish to seek this one out as, due its unpasteurised status, it is banned in the United States. Finally, tomme is a generic name for circular cheeses produced all over the region, and which can be made from cow's, ewe's or goat's milk. You may see such varieties as tomme de montagne, tomme de Savoie and tomme de Beaujolais.

Pâté-wise, it should come as no surprise that one of Auvergne's chief recipes is pâté aux pommes de terre; potato pâté! Elsewhere, caillette de Chabeuil is an excellent little pâté made of liver and pork meat flavoured with herbs and spices.

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Drink

The regional wine scene is dominated by the Rhone Valley (Côtes du Rhône). Wines of this appellation generally use Grenache grapes for reds and rosés, and Grenache blanc for whites. More premium varieties have a legally-required higher Grenache content, because the French government has its priorities sorted. The superior versions are called Côtes du Rhône Villages, while the very best are known as Crus, which use the name of their home village rather than the Rhone label. Rhone bottles are known for their longer than average necks, meaning nerdy oenophiles can pick out such a wine even without even reading the label.

Other important appellations of the region are Beaujolais (see right), Côtes d'Auvergne, Côte roannaise and vin de Savoie. With the exception of Beaujolais, you will most likely only find the best of these in their home areas, as production isn't as extensive as with the better known French labels.

The Isère is known for its extremely strong (40-55% alcohol content) herbal liqueurs collectively known as Chartreuse. The most common variety is a kind of pea green colour, and is made with no fewer than 130 species of plant. As with many of Belgium's finest beers, Chartreuse production is in the hands of local monks! How the hours of prayer and contemplation must fly.

The health-conscious, teetotal or hungover may prefer to sample some of the region's excellent mineral water. Volvic is bottled at source in the volcanic massif of Puy-de-Dôme, while Évian comes from the town of the same name on the south shore of Lake Geneva.

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Sleep

The accommodation base in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is extensive and varied. Every town has at least one hotel, while large cities such as Lyon and resorts such as Chamonix have dozens. The self-catering (gîte) options are abundant as well, from cozy cottages and urban apartments to luxury chalets. The French are keen campers, and so most villages in even vaguely touristy areas have campsites with hookup points for caravans and campervans. Much more information can be found on individual destination articles.

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This is version 2. Last edited at 13:44 on Nov 29, 18 by Utrecht. 1 article links to this page.

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