The longest rivers of France are impressive and beautiful. They flow through the landscape, through cities, towns and villages. Think of France and you conjure up the mighty Loire with its banks lined with châteaux or the Seine running through Paris. But do you know the others?
The mighty rivers are the main reason for France’s hydroelectric achievement. France is Europe’s third largest producer, just behind Norway and, rather surprisingly, Turkey.
Rivers criss-cross France. As you drive through the countryside, every time you come across one, however small, there’s a signpost by the bridge giving its name. Even the Arques which is just 6 km long and flows into the English Channel is proudly signposted.
My house in the Auvergne is near the source of two rivers: the Loire, which rises in the Cevennes just outside my department of the Haute-Loire, and the Allier, which rises in Lozère. I’ve included information about the glorious Allier (my house looks down into the gorges) at the end as it is not one of the main rivers included here.
The Allier is a glorious river, supremely unspoilt by industry or large cities as it flows through the remote, very rural and very beautiful Auvergne region.
France works in logical ways. Look at the names of the French départements; most are named after the major rivers that flow through them. More about French Departments here.
There are two types of rivers in France. Une fleuve flows into the sea, and une rivière doesn’t.
There are six major fleuves in France:
Longest Rivers of France
The Magnificent Loire River
At 630 miles (1,013 kms), the Loire is France’s longest river. It rises at the foot of the Gerbier de Jonc, 1,240 metres (4,430 feet) high in the Cevennes mountains in the Ardèche department.
Last year I spent an afternoon at the source, unable to locate it as it was summer and the three streams that feed the source were dried up above ground. But it was a fun afternoon. It’s a favourite tourist attraction in the area. There are walks, guided if you want to, up the Gerbier to where the main source is. There’s also an excellent Cevennes information centre and an incredibly busy restaurant which you must book in advance if you go at a weekend or during peak summer season (Tel: +33 4 75 38 81 51). If not, buy bread, cheeses, ham and local jams at the excellent farmer’s market for a picnic.
The Loire flows through the Massif Central and in the first stages is relatively small. It flows through my local town of Le Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne then is joined by the Allier west of Nevers. The eastern part of the Loire goes through the rich wine-producing areas of Pouilly and Sancerre up to Sully-sur-Loire. This part (280 kms/173 miles) up to Orleans then south west to Chalons-sur-Loire is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the châteaux lining the banks gleam like pearls on a necklace.
Now wide, deep and impressive, the Loire continues through Tours, Angers and Nantes before reaching the Atlantic at Saintt-Nazaire.
Departments the Loire gives its name to and/or flows through: Allier (03), Ardèche (07), Cher (18), Eure-et-Loire (28), Haute-Loire (43), Indre-et-Loire (37), Loir-et-Cher (41), Loire (42), Loire-Atlantique (44), Loiret (45), Maine-et-Loire (49), Nièvre (58) Saône-et-Loire (71).
Read about the main Loire Valley towns and cities from Le Puy-en-Velay to Saint-Nazaire.
Great attractions to visit between Orléans and Blois along the Loire Valley include some of the most beautiful châteaux and some lovely gardens. This section is called the Valley of the Kings for good reason.
The Seine Flows through Paris
The Seine rises at 471 metres (1,545 feet) above sea level on Mont Tasselot in the Côte d’Or, around 30 kms (18 miles) northwest of Dijon. It’s 776 kms long (482 miles) and begins flowing northwest to Troyes in Champagne, then past Fontainebleau up to Paris where it’s joined by the Marne.
This is the river of Paris, dividing the city’s left bank from the right, the river which barges still use, along with those famous sightseeing bâteaux mouches. It picks up the Yonne river then goes northwest through Mantes-la-Jolie and Rouen in Normandy to the estuary in the English Channel between Honfleur and Le Havre.
Departments the Seine gives its name to, and/or flows through: Aube (10), Côte d’Or (21), Calvados (14), Essone (91), Eure (27), Hautes-de-Seine (92), Marne (51), Seine-St-Denis (93), Seine-Maritime (76), Seine-et-Marne (77), Val-de-Marne (94), Paris (75).
The Rhône in France
The Rhône river may be the biggest in France in depth and volume, but it’s third in length. It’s 813 kms (505 miles) long from source to sea, but only 545 kms (339 miles) within France.
The Rhône rises in the Alps in Valais in Switzerland at 1,830 metres (6,000 feet) above sea level in the Rhône Glacier. At Lake Geneva it marks the frontier between France and Switzerland then comes into France in the southern Jura mountains. It runs through the city of Lyon where it’s joined by the Sâone (480 kms/298 miles long).
Then the Rhône runs south down the Rhône valley, connecting the towns of Vienne, Valence, Avignon and Arles. At Arles the river enters its delta, dividing into two. The Grand Rhône empties into the Mediterranean at Port-St-Louis-du-Rhône, Martiques. The Petit Rhône ends at the Mediterranean near Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The two rivers effectively enclose the strange Camargue region.
The river produces significant hydroelectric power through its series of dams, particularly along the lower reaches while trade from Lyon to the sea has always played a huge part, joining up with a huge canal network to ports like Marseille.
Departments the Rhône gives its name to and/or flows through: Ain (01), Ardèche (07), Bouches-du-Rhône (13), Drôme (26), Gard (30), Loire (42), Haute-Savoie (74), Isère (38), Rhône (69), Savoie (73), Vaucluse (84).
The Garonne in South West France
At 575 kms (357 miles) long (526 kms/327 miles inside France) the Garonne is the fourth longest river in France and the most important in the southwest of the country. It starts with two streams rising in the Arragon region of the Spanish Pyrenees at 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) above sea level.
The Garonne flows north before crossing into France. It goes northwest to Toulouse, is then joined by the Tarn west of Moissac and the Lot below Aiguillon. It flows into Bordeaux where the river is 1,800 feet broad, between the two major wine growing areas of Entre-deux-Mers to the east and Médoc to the west. It joins with the Dordogne 16 miles north of Bordeaux, forming the huge Gironde Estuary.
It’s regulated with 50 locks and is not navigable at high springtime levels and low levels in August and September. But the Canal du Midi connects the Garonne southeast with the Mediterranean from Toulouse.
Departments the Garonne gives its name to/flows through: Haute-Garonne (31), Lot-et-Garonne (47), Tarn-et-Garonne (82), Gironde (33).
The Meuse in North France
The Meuse runs from Pouilly on the Langres Plateau and flows mainly north for 950 kms (590 miles) through Belgium and the Netherlands to the North Sea.
But in France it’s only 486 kms (301 miles) long. The part of it known as the Canal de la Meuse in France is around 270 kms (169 miles), used by small commercial barges. It makes a natural barrier to the Paris Basin from the east and was strategically vital to defend Verdun, suffering hugely during World War I. In World War II, the Germans finally broke through into France when they crossed the Meuse in May 1940.
It passes through Verdun, Sedan and Charleville-Mézières before crossing into Belgium.
Departments the Meuse gives its name to/flows through: Ardennes (08), Haute-Marne (52), Meuse (55), Vosges (88)
At 483 kms (300 miles) long, the Dordogne is the fifth longest river in France. It rises in the Massif Central at Puy de Sancy, 1,700 Metres (5,600 feet) above sea level. The first part of the journey takes it through the gorges of the Auvergne through spa resorts into the Avèze gorges. It’s damned at various points to produce hydroelectricity to Argentat in Correze, then goes into the Dordogne department.
The very beautiful river flows past the remarkable sights of Lascaux and Les Eyzies-de-Tayac where the prehistoric art in the caves is astonishing, making this France’s oldest river.
Pretty towns and long ruined castles line the banks; this was one of the prime areas of battles between the English and the French during the Hundred Years War. It finally runs into the enormous Gironde estuary at Bec d’Ambès, and joins the Garonne at the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic coast.
Departments the Dordogne gives its name to: Ardennes (08), Dordogne (24), Haute-Marne (52), Vosges (88)
More rivers in France
The Lot (rivière) is a beautiful river. It rises in the wild Cévennes near Mont Lozère in southern France. It flows 480 kms (300 miles) west past Entraygues-sur-Truyère, where it’s joined by its most important tributary, the Truyère. It goes past Cahors and medieval Villeneuve-sur-Lot before joining the Garonne near Aiguillon.
Departments the Lot gives its name to/flows through: Aveyron (12), Lozère (48), Lot (46), Lot-et-Garonne (47).
The Allier (rivière) rises in the Cevennes Regional Park near a small town called La Bastide-Puylaurent. It has 3 sources, all rising at Moure de la Gardille. All these appear at 1,503 metres (4,931 feet) above sea level at the top of a steep hill in the Lozère department. The Allier’s 410 km (255 mile) course takes it north up into the beautiful Gorges of the Allier.
And that’s where I come in. I bought my house in a tiny hamlet looking over the gorges many years ago. It’s an inspiring place – just like the river it looks down onto.
Take the tourist train through the gorges of this part of the Auvergne; it’s a spectacular ride beside the last river in Europe in its natural state. It was once one of the great salmon rivers of Europe as well as a river with remarkable protected plants and animal species. With damns being built, the salmon departed, but recent rebuilding and salmon farming is returning the noble fish to its waters.
More about the Auvergne.
The Allier rises near the Loire and follows its neighbour nearby, at some places the two river are just 25 kms (15 miles) apart.
The Allier goes up towards Clermont Ferrand, though skirting the city, then on to Vichy. It’s joined by the Sioule above Moulins. It runs into the Loire 6 kms (4 miles) west of Nevers.
Departments the Allier gives its name to/flows through: Allier (13), Ardèche (07), Cher (18), Haute-Loire (43), Lozère (48), Puy de Dôme (63).
Rising in the Massif Central south of Mont Lozère at a height of 1,575 metres (5,167 feet), the Tarn (rivière) is a close neighbor to the Loire and the Allier. It runs for 375 kms (233 miles) up to the Garonne which it joins just below Moissac. It passes through magnificent gorges for 30 miles between Florac and Millau. It makes a beautiful drive but beware slow traffic, and particularly caravans and motorhomes in the summer.
At Millau you’re rewarded by the sight of the spectacular viaduct over the river.
The Tarn flows into Aquitaine, going through Albi, the city best known for its famous artistic son, Toulouse-Lautrec. Just below Montauban it’s joined by the Aveyron.
Departments the Tarn gives its name to/passes through: Aveyron (12), Lozère (48), Tarn (81), Tarn-et-Garonne (82).
The Charente (fleuve) rises in the southwest Haute-Vienne department in the Limousin uplands at Chéronnac, 295 metres (970 feet) above sea level. It runs for 360 kms (225 miles) then flows west to the Bay of Biscay. It flows through Anglouême, Cognac and Saintes before being joined by the Boutonne river. It then goes south round Rochefort and 8 kms (5 miles) on, flows into the Atlantic, east of the island of Oléron.
Departments the Charente gives its name to/flows through: Charente (16), Charente-Maritime (17), Haute-Vienne (87), Vienne (86).
The Adour (fleuve) rises in the central Pyrenees Basque region, south of the Midi de Bigorre Peak and flows 309 kms (193 miles) into the Atlantic after passing through Bayonne.
Departments the Adour gives its name to/flows through: Gers (32), Hautes-Pyrénées (65), Landes (40), Pyrénées-Atlantiques (64).
The 263 km (163-mile) long Somme (fleuve) in northern France is a lovely river that rises at Fonsommes at just 86 metres above sea level just north east of St-Quentin in the Aisne. It flows through Amiens and Abbeville before entering the estuary leading out into the English Channel at the delightful little town of Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme .
Departments the Somme gives its name to/flows through: Aisne (02), Somme (80).
Vilaine might translate as ‘ugly’ but it’s a pretty Brittany fleuve that rises in the Mayenne department and flows into the Atlantic between Muzillac and Pénestin in the Morbihan department. It’s 225 km (139 miles) long.
Departments the Vilaine gives its name to/flows through: Ille-et-Vilaine (35), Loire-Atlantique (44), Mayenne (53), Morbihan (56).
The Rhine (fleuve) is Europe’s longest river, running 1,320 kms (820 miles) from its source in the Swiss Alps to the North Sea. It runs along the Swiss-German border down to the Basle region. It then forms the French-German border and so runs through France for 184 kms (114 miles) passing by Strasbourg and taking in the l’île du Rohrschollen park.
Departments the Rhine flows through: Bas-Rhin (67), Haut-Rhin (68)
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