A BRIEF HISTORY OF FRANCE'S RHÔNE AND SEINE RIVERS
Early Civilizations Along the Rhône & Seine
Numerous Celtic tribes were among the early residents of the Rhône River basin; these included the Allobroges, Helveii, Seduni, Sequani, Segobriges, Segusiavi and Vocontii tribes. Exploration and trade along the river by the Greeks helped spread their influence among the Celtic peoples of the region, including the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures of the Iron Age. From about 1000 BC the Gauls (a Celtic tribe) lived in pockets along the Seine. The Parisii tribe settled on Île de la Cité, on the right bank of today’s Paris.
The region of Europe known as Gaul (present-day France, Luxembourg and Belgium, and parts of Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany), comprising the Rhône basin and home to the Celts, came under Roman domination during the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, cemented by Julius Caesar’s victory in the Gallic Wars in 51 BC. The Rhône region remained under Roman rule until the 5th century AD; the capital of Roman Gaul for much of that period was Lugdunum (present-day Lyon) on the Rhône. The Romans called the Seine Sequana, expanded river trading, fortified the settlements along its banks, and built up the Gallic city of Lutetia, the ancient forerunner of Paris.
The “Dark Ages” (Early Middle Ages, 5th-10th centuries)
The Roman Empire gradually crumbled during the 4th and 5th centuries AD, in part due to constant attacks by German tribes. Gaul eventually fell under the control of the Franks, culminating in a victory at the Battle of Soissons in 486. Clovis I, King of the Franks, became the first Christian king to rule Paris. Over the next 300 years, the Franks consolidated their power in the region; by the 9th century their Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne would begin evolving into the state of France and the Holy Roman Empire.
Medieval Period (High Middle Ages, 11th-15th centuries)
From the middle of the 11th century, the Rhône region was largely controlled by the house of Savoy, which would eventually become part of France. The medieval period saw the establishment of cathedral towns, abbeys and a great winemaking tradition throughout the Rhône region that exists to this day; in the 14th century, Avignon became the seat of the Roman Catholic papacy for nearly 100 years. In the Seine region, French kings made Paris the economic, political, religious, and cultural capital of France, while Normandy became English territory and fought unsuccessfully to take Paris and environs.
Renaissance Period to 18th century
As part of France, the Rhône region’s winemaking traditions brought it to prominence among the most important wine-producing regions in the world. The official designation Côtes du Rhône has been in use since the 16th century; within the next hundred years, a set of rules was established by royal decree to guarantee the provenance of the wine. The Rhône itself was an important trade route at this time, but navigation could be hazardous due to the river’s strong currents, shallows and frequent flooding. The area around the Seine, centered on Paris, was the seat of the Crown of France, the personal domain of the king of France, while the rest of the country continued to be ruled by feudal lords; this situation persisted until the French Revolution of the 1780s and 90s.
19th & 20th Centuries
As the Rhône region established its pre-eminence in wine production and distribution around the world, the advent of regular steamship service on the Rhône (begun in the 1820s and continuing through the early 1950s), dramatically increased the speed of commercial trade on the river. An integral part of Parisian culture, the Seine was the site of the rowing, swimming, and water polo events of the 1900 Summer Olympics, and the Olympic rowing events in 1924. In 1944, during World War II, it figured prominently during the closing phases of the Battle of Normandy following the Allied D-Day invasion. After World War II, the introduction of powerful diesel-propelled motor barges and the construction of canal locks and other navigational improvements made river trade and passenger transport on French rivers even more efficient.
Geopolitical & Economic Importance Today
Today, the Rhône Valley continues its prominence as one of the greatest wine regions on Earth, with more than 6,000 wine growing properties – including over 1,800 private wineries and more than a hundred wine-making cooperatives – producing, distributing and exporting wine to the rest of the world on a massive scale. The Seine remains central to French life, culture, and identity. The port of Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine is France’s largest international shipping port, and the river runs through the wealthiest and most populated of the twenty-seven administrative regions of France, known as Île-de-France or the Paris Region. Economically, Île-de-France is the world’s fourth largest – and Europe’s wealthiest and largest – regional economy.
FRANCE'S RHÔNE & SEINE RIVERs IN EUROPEAN CULTURE
Over the centuries, the civilizations along the Rhône & Seine rivers have contributed mightily to some of the most significant artistic movements in European history – and the rivers themselves have inspired a wide range of works across the artistic spectrum.
Art and Painting
The Rhône region has spawned many artistic works and movements across the centuries, ranging from the religious art of the Middle Ages, to painting and sculpture of the Renaissance period and beyond. But it its the Impressionist painters of the 19th century whose works and lives became intertwined with the region, its landscapes and its people. Provence – and Arles in particular – inspired the troubled Dutch Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, who produced hundreds of works while a patient in an asylum in the area, including many that attempt to capture the effects of night. Four famous “starry sky” paintings are among the legacy of van Gogh’s most productive period in Arles.
The Seine – along with nearby towns and villages – has been the inspiration and the subject of painters for centuries, and none more so than the Impressionists. The forerunner of the Impressionist movement, l’école de Honfleur was launched in Honfleur, the small picturesque trading port at the mouth of the river. Drifting down the Seine, from Rouen to Giverny, Auvers-sur-Oise, Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, and, of course, Paris you’ll see sight after sight that has been famously interpreted and depicted in light-flecked detail by 19th- and 20th-century artists, including Monet, van Gogh, and Seurat.
From the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower, the Place de la Concorde and the Grand and Petit Palais, the evolution of Paris and its history can be seen from the Seine. The Cathedral of Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle are architectural masterpieces, while the wide squares and boulevards built by Baron Haussman for Napoleon III influenced late 19th- and 20th-century urban planning all over the world. Rouen also possesses a rich architectural heritage in its medieval streets of half-timbered houses and notable Gothic and Renaissance edifices, as do the quaint villages of Les Andelys and others communities along the Seine.
The Rhône region has spawned numerous writers of note, including novelist Alphonse Daudet (1840-97) and his contemporary Paul Arène (1843-1896), both from Provence; the famous Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, 1873-1954); and the author and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol (1895-1970). In addition, the region (especially Provence) has greatly influenced émigré and expatriate writers who have resided in the area, including Americans Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Russian Ivan Bunin, Britons Somerset Maugham and Peter Mayle, and New Zealander Katherine Mansfield.
As for the Seine, there is virtually no beginning or end to the list of writers from around the world who have lived in Paris and written about it. Some of the French writers who are most closely associated with Paris include Balzac, Zola, Hugo, de Beauvoir, and Sartre. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Paris also became a renowned refuge for celebrated expatriates such as Oscar Wilde, Hans Christian Andersen, Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and James Baldwin. Rouen is famous as the home of Flaubert, who set part of Madame Bovary there; Corneille, the great 17th-century dramatist; and de Maupassant.
A wealth of universities, monasteries, libraries, museums and other key cultural institutions – including some connected with the area’s incomparable culinary and winemaking traditions – have flourished for centuries in the Rhône River region. A few examples follow:
Les Halles de Lyon, Lyon: This celebrated indoor food market, occupying various locations in Lyon since 1850 and currently housed in the city’s Part-Dieu district, offers an unbelievable array of breads, cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables, sausages, specialty spices, poultry, seafood from fish to oysters, wines, chocolates and other desserts. Everything is fresh and delicious, and it is said that the best chefs in Lyon shop here. Markets like this one are an indispensable culinary tradition in a city famous for its food.
Palais des Papes, Avignon: During the 14th century, the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church saw fit to move the papacy from then-troubled Rome to the fortified Provençal city of Avignon on the Rhône River. Although they stayed for less than a century, the popes who ruled from Avignon built themselves the impressive Palais des Papes – today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the largest and most impressive examples of medieval Gothic architecture in all of Europe.
Viviers: In the Middle Ages, the town of Viviers on the Rhône had two distinct parts which reflected the equally distinct social divide of the time. “Common folk lived in the Lower City on the river plain, while the bishop and the well-to-do resided in the hilltop Upper City. This well-preserved medieval city is crowned by the Cathedral of St. Vincent; largely built during the 14th century, it boasts flamboyant late-Gothic elements added in the 16th century and carved choir stalls and tapestries from the 18th century.
In cities and towns along the Seine, innumerable universities; abbeys; churches; museums; orchestras; opera, theatre, and dance companies; and other major cultural institutions, such as historic châteaux now open to the public, have flourished– many for centuries. A few prime examples are noted here:
Musée D’Orsay, Paris. This superior museum, housed in a renovated former railway station, is home to an exceptional collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works.
Musée du Louvre, Paris. One of the world’s great museums, the Louvre is famous, of course, as the home of the Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory, but this vast and sumptuous royal palace, in its successive architectural incarnations, has dominated central Paris since the late 12th century. Today the Louvre’s collection covers Western art from the Middle Ages to 1848, formative works from ancient civilizations, and works of Islamic art.
Claude Monet’s House and Gardens at Giverny. Preserved as they were during the painter’s lifetime, Monet’s house, studio, and gardens provide an eye into the painter’s life and creative process, and, through him, into the heart of the Impressionist movement itself.
With bucolic vineyards that produce a bounty of wines, lush landscapes fed by the Rhône River and cities like Lyon – long considered France’s culinary capital – producing some of the finest gourmet cuisine anywhere, the Rhône region is renowned for its cooking schools and culinary creativity. Master chefs perform their magic... pot au feu, quintessential quenelles, salade Lyonnaise and savory coq au vin. A trip to a local market yields a vast array of fresh fruits and vegetables, locally produced cheeses, warm-from-the-oven baguettes, spicy sausages and pastries that make their way to the plate in delectable variations... washed down with a glass of wine this area is famous for.
Dining along the Seine is an encounter with the essence of French cooking. Starting in Burgundy, you will find hearty, earthy dishes such as classic boeuf bourguinon, coq au vin, and escargot. Dijon mustard hails from here. Farther north, Parisian food needs no introduction. Suffice it to say that Paris has taught the world to cook. The birthplace of the definitive cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu, Paris is the ultimate place to enjoy haute cuisine, bistro fare par excellence, or even a simple – and simply perfect – crèpe suzette or baguette jambon. Normandy’s cuisine is known for the four C’s: camembert, cream, cider, and Calvados; the region’s apple orchards have made cider-tasting a regional sport, and its dairy farms supply the world with cheeses renowned for their richness.
In the stretch of Alpine foothills and sloping valleys along the Rhône that begin around Lyon are vineyard-covered hillsides, some on nearly vertical slopes, representing the pinnacle of the vintner’s art in Europe, if not the world. Here, in regions including Provence and Burgundy, vineyards thrive in the Mediterranean climate, with more than 200 days of sunshine and cold, biting rain-bearing mistral winds that enable the soil to store water for the long hot days of summer. Round pebbles double as thermal furnaces that store heat at night and help coax the vines to maturity. Magnificent châteaux in the area are emblematic of the importance of French appellations from the Rhône Valley, including Côtes du Rhône, Pouilly-Fuisse, Beaujolais and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The Seine springs from the earth in Burgundy, one of France’s legendary wine regions, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes are grown and harvested. As the river winds north, past Paris, it reaches Normandy, whose gift to the drinking world is an exquisite apple brandy called Calvados. This precious golden brown liquor, from more than 200 distinct varieties of apple, has been produced in Normandy since the 16th century. A small drink of Calvados is often taken between courses in a very long meal to revive the appetite, as an aperitif, or with coffee.