The French Alps, the most westerly and also the highest part of the great arc of the Alps, lie mainly within the regions of Savoy and the Dauphiné, extending also into Provence in the south. The historical province of the Dauphiné borders Savoy on the south. With an area of some 20,000 sq. km/7,700 sq. mi, it corresponds broadly to the present-day départements of Isère (chief town Grenoble), Hautes-Alpes (Gap) and Drôme (Valence). Its capital is Grenoble.
The Dauphiné is bounded on the east by the French-Italian frontier and on the west by the Rhône. To the north it extends to the latitude of Grenoble, and to the south its boundaries are marked by the passes into Haute Provence and by such towns as Gap and Barcelonnette. The landscape of the Dauphiné is dominated by the Pelvoux massif, one of the most magnificent parts of the Alps, which rises to 4,100 m/13,450ft to the southeast of its beautifully situated old capital of Grenoble. To the east is the high Alpine region of Upper Dauphiné, to the west the pre-Alpine region of Lower Dauphiné, an agricultural area in which plateaux alternate with valleys.
The French Alpine regions are made easily accessible by deeply indented river valleys running in different directions, and they also have most of the pass roads through the Alps, including the Route de la Bonette (2,802 m/9,193ft), over the highest of the Alpine passes. The finest of the passes are linked by the Route des Grandes Alpes (Route d'Eté), while the Route Napoléon and the Route d'Hiver, which follows a similar course, run through the Alpine foreland.
An additional attraction is provided by a series of wild gorges lying close to the Routes des Alpes (Gorges de Daluis, Gorges du Cians, Gorges du Verdon, etc.)
The Dauphiné was inhabited by the Allobroges and other Gallic tribes when it was conquered by the Romans in 121 B.C. Around 443 A.D. it was occupied by the Burgundians, coming from the east; then in 532 it was taken by the Franks. In 933, along with Lower Burgundy, it became part of the kingdom of Burgundy. In 1349 the territory was sold to the French crown. The name of the Dauphiné comes from the Counts of Albon, who took the forename Delfinus (French Dauphin) as their title and after conquering the County of Vienne in the 12th century began to call themselves Dauphins du Viennois. Under an agreement reached when the territory was sold the Dauphiné became an apanage of the heir to the French throne, who then took the title of Dauphin and the heraldic emblem of a dolphin. During the religious wars of the 16th century the Dauphiné was one of the strongholds of Protestantism.
The first stirrings of the French Revolution were felt in Grenoble and Vizille in 1788, and in 1791 the old province was divided into the départements of Isère, Drôme and Hautes-Alpes. Napoleon's return in 1815 and his passage through the Dauphiné aroused great enthusiasm for the Emperor: the troops stationed here came out in his support, and the people of Grenoble unbarred the town gates to let him in. Napoleon himself says in his memoirs: "Until I came to Grenoble I was an adventurer; in Grenoble I became a prince."