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."
Briançon (pop. 11,287), chief town of the Briançonnais, is Europe's highest town, picturesquely situated at an altitude of 1,200-1,326 m/3,940-4,350ft above the junction of the Durance and the Guisane. It was fortified by Vauban in the 17th century as a stronghold guarding the frontier with Italy on the Col de Montgenèvre. In 1815 it withstood a siege by Austrian forces 20 times superior in numbers, and in 1940 held out against Italian attacks.Near Briançon are the winter sports resorts of Serre-Chevalier and Montgenèvre.
Briançon Old Town
In Briançon, to the northeast of the newer district of Ste-Catherine, built on the slopes above the valley, is the old town or Ville Haute with its triple circuit of walls. The church of Notre-Dame (1718) was also designed by Vauban.
In Briançon, the Pont d'Asfeld, built in 1734, spans the Durance in a single arch 40m/ 130ft across and 56m/185ft high.
Station Alpine du Lautaret
With a fine collection of high altitude plants, this garden - Station Alpine du Lautaret is one of the highest gardens in Europe. It is of particular interest to those interested in examining a variety of plants grown mainly for a high altitude environment.
Massif de Chamrousse
In the Massif de Chamrousse, to the east of Grenoble, are Chamrousse itself (alt. 1,650-1,750m/5,410-5,740ft), with its excellent facilities for winter sports, and Uriage-les-Bains, at the foot of the Belledonne range. The dominant feature of the landscape is the Croix de Chamrousse (2,255 m/8,383ft; cableway), from which there are extensive panoramic views.
Embrun (pop. 6,703) lies at an altitude of 870m/2,855ft on a crag 70m/230ft above the Durance. Once the residence of a Prince-Bishop, it is now a popular summer and winter resort. The Romanesque church of Notre-Dame, considered the most beautiful in the Dauphiné, dates from the end of the 12th century and contains fine examples of Lombard sculpture, 15th century stained glass, one of the oldest organs in France and a valuable church treasury.
Col du Galibier
The Col du Galibier, in the northern Dauphiné, reaches a height (in the tunnel) of 2,556 m/8,386ft and ranks with the Col de l'Iseran, 200 m/650ft higher, as one of the highest passes in France, offering magnificent views on both the ascent and the descent. It may, however, be impassable on account of snow from October until the end of May. It is possible to climb, or take the chair-lift, to a height of 2,704 m/8,872ft, the panoramic view from which is one of the most impressive in the French Alps. At the south entrance to the tunnel is a monument to Henri Desgranges, who initiated the Tour de France cycle race in 1903.
Gap is a popular heath resort in a beautiful setting, backed by the Alps. It is located along the Route Napoléon.
Barrage de Serre-Ponçon
La Grave, France
La Grave, situated at an altitude of 1,526 m/5,005ft in the upper valley of the Romanche, is a good center for mountain walks and climbs, particularly in the Meije group, with its mighty glaciers, which rear above the village.
In the little town of Hauterives, north of Romans on N538, is the "Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval", a fantasy building erected in the late 19th C by the local postman, Ferdinand Cheval (b. 1836): an extraordinary structure 10 m/33ft high, up to 26m/85ft long and 15m/50 feet across, built with his own hands and inscribed with a variety of mottoes.
Dauphiné Route Napoléon
The four lakes of Laffrey, on the Route Napoléon, are the main features on the barren plateau of Matésine. Here, on March 7, 1815, Napoleon won over a battalion which had been sent to prevent him from advancing any farther.
On the Route Napoléon, between Gap and Grenoble, is the little township of Corps (pop. 1,000). From here a side trip can be made to the pilgrimage church of Notre-Dame de la Salette, situated at an altitude of 1,170m/3,840ft amid grand Alpine scenery. The church was built after an apparition of the Virgin to two children on September 19, 1851. Every summer something like 100,000 pilgrims make their way to Notre-Dame de la Salette.
The Pelvoux massif is perhaps the most impressive group of mountains in the French Alps after Mont Blancentury. It is now designated as a National Park, with glaciers, mountain valleys and breathtaking panoramic views. The highest peaks are the Ecrins (4,102m/13,459ft), the Meije (3,983m/13,068ft), the Ailefroide (3,953m/12,970ft) and Mont Pelvoux itself (3,946m/12,947ft).
The Queyras area, in the eastern Dauphiné near the Italian frontier, takes in some 45km/28mi of the valley of the Guil, a tributary of the Durance. The valley, dominated by the 3,841m/12,602ft high Italian peak of Monte Viso, is one of the most unspoiled parts of the Dauphiné and has a number of resorts (Abriès, Aiguilles, Guillestre, etc) which attract visitors in both summer and winter.
Vallouise, so named in the 15th C in honor of Louis XI, lies in a side valley of the Durance, to the west of Briançon. In this expanse of lush green pastureland under a southern sky is the holiday resort of Ailefroide (alt. 1,510 m/4,955ft), a good center for walkers and climbers. The Cézanne Hut above the village is at the near end of the Pelvoux National Park (area 13,000 hectares/32,000 acres).
Château Queyras, above the village of the same name, was built in the 13th century and restored by Vauban. The original keep has been preserved.