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History of the Rhône-Alpes

Pont d'Arc - Ardèche
Pont d'Arc - Ardèche

Ancient ancestors

It was some 30,000 years ago that humans first occupied the area, with early settlers congregating around the Chauvet caves of modern-day Ardèche and daubing some of history’s foremost examples of art on the interior walls. Such records of life in the region were just a precursor of what was to come, however, with first the Celts making the Rhône-Alpes their base in the 6th century BC, followed in 218 BC by Hannibal and the Carthaginians, and, of course, the might of the Roman Empire.

For more than five centuries, the Romans called the Rhône-Alpes home, constructing a huge network of roads and aqueducts to improve the lifestyle of the region’s inhabitants. And, with many of the Roman remains left in exceptional condition, the fall of the Empire didn’t hinder continued development.

Royal rule

Like so many areas of the French south, the Rhône-Alpes would find a suitable replacement for Roman rule in the form of the French nobility; the dauphins took stewardship over the regions of the Dauphine, and the counts of Savoie commanded the higher Alps. In 1349, the French monarchy bought the land from the last dauphin, securing it for heirs to the crown only. It wasn’t until 1481 that the Savoie came under sovereign rule, with King Louis XI inheriting the region and temporarily unifying the separate areas of the Rhône-Alpes.

Conflict and commerce

Quai Jean-Moulin
Quai Jean-Moulin

Throughout the turbulent 16th century, the Wars of Religion meant that the Rhône-Alpes was at the centre of conflict between warring factions, leading to the destruction of many towns and villages. Two centuries later, the city of Lyon – now the major commercial centre of the French silk industry – resisted Revolutionary forces, ultimately retaining its prosperity and growing to become the nation’s second city after Paris.

More recently, the region was unable to escape the influence of war, yet Lyon proved itself a capable area of resistance against the Nazis. It was due to this staunch opposition, however, that much damage was suffered, but through the bravery and valour of Jean Moulin, the city and Moulin himself have become emblems of French pride and wartime honour.

Much of what constitutes the Rhône-Alpes region today is hugely influenced by the past. Whether it’s the ruins of ancient cultures, the prosperity of trade and industry in Lyon, or the quaint settlements dotted around the land, each element harks back to these eras of occupation and development, and enable discerning visitors to glimpse the area’s fascinating past.