The Rhone was the entry point for Romans into France (Gaul at that time) and all along the river there are Roman ruins. But the flow of the Rhone which begins in the Swiss Alps can be turbulent so it was long considered dangerous. It was not until after World War II that the river was tamed with locks and dams which provided a degree of control to prevent local flooding and to river more consistently navigable.
So today, we can take a cruise down the Rhone and visit the historic cities between Lyon in Central France and the Mediterranean. Ships also often sail northward on the Saone into the Beaujolais region. Without these locks, river cruising would not be conceivable, since the river depth would more commonly be too high, so boats could not go under bridges, or too low, so there would not be enough depth for the boat to float. If you are going on a river cruise you should be aware that river conditions do sometimes cause the cruise lines to cancel or substitute a land trip for a river cruise. It is not common, but it does happen.
European riverboats are built to precisely fit into the locks and bridges on the river where they sail. One of the more dramatic evenings on the AmaCello was the night we went under the lowest bridges. A group of us went up to the top and ducked when going under these bridges. We also watched as the captain lowered the ship’s bridge so it could fit. The clearance was often no more than a few inches. There was a palpable tension as we watched these bridges approach. It was very clear that you could lose your head if you were not careful.
Between Lyon and the Mediterranean the Rhone has 12 locks which are part of the adventure of river cruising. Unlike on the Rhine cruise we did last year, we often traveled through these locks during daylight hours so we could observed the operation. But the deepest lock came after dinner and we were lowered more than 50 feet.
The locks are not actually built on the river, but on canal cuts parallel to the river. Locks are a part of dams which produce hydroelectric power. The French have built other kinds of power generation facilities along the river as well – nuclear (using river water for cooling), wind and even coal plants. However, virtually none of France’s electricity is produced in coal plants today.
For me the primary attraction of the European river cruise is the amazing history. But the technology was fascinating as well.