The Rhône begins as outflow of the Rhône Glacier in Valais, Switzerland, and flows out of the Alps, through Lake Geneva and on into France, where it meets the Saône at Lyon; it eventually flows into the Mediterranean Sea. The name “Rhône” is descended from the Celtic name, Rodo or Roto, meaning something that rolls—a frequent ancient Celtic river name—via Greek Rhodanos and Roman Rhodanus.
The Rhône has been an important “highway” since Roman times, connecting the cities of Arles, Avignon, Valence, Vienne and Lyon to the Mediterranean ports of Fos, Marseille and Sète. But its strong current, especially in spring and early summer, made it rather difficult to navigate. Passengers used to travel in “water coaches” that would be drawn by men or horses on the shore. There were also barges that traveled under sail or were dragged upriver by teams of horses. Eventually paddle steamboat service was instituted and ran from the 1830s to the mid-20th century. In the early 20th century, lock systems were installed to aid river travel and irrigation and to produce hydroelectric power. Traveling down the Rhône used to take three weeks; now it only takes three days.
This area formed a prominent part of the Roman Empire; ruins of Roman roads, aqueducts, baths, arches, arenas and theaters can be seen throughout the countryside. Some of the Roman structures were dismantled and the materials used to build new structures, but many of the ruins are very well preserved. The area eventually became part of the Franconian Empire and was for a time an important center of the Catholic papacy; many of the towns retain their medieval charm.