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The Rhône Valley and Drôme Provençale
There has never been a better time to visit Rhône-Alpes. Sights, history and views are breathtaking. Chefs, hotels, and wineries are providing visitors with the best the region can offer. In the summer you’ll inhale the aroma of lavender; in the autumn you’ll dine on fresh truffles and all year round you’ll enjoy spectacular wines.
By Carole Kotkin
and Simone Zarmati Diament
After reaching Lyon or Grenoble by air or train, to take in as much of the region as you can in the time slot you’ve allowed yourself, rent a car, rev up your engine and hit the road. It’s easier- and so much nicer - to navigate the highways in France where directions are very clear and drivers are courteous than most anywhere else.
South of Lyon, the gastronomic center of France and a region also famous for its cheeses --, the River Rhône meanders through a large and beautiful region characterized by it hilly landscape cultivated with vines plunging all the way down to the river bank, the diversity of its soils, its history and its people.
THE EVERLASTING CHARM OF VIENNE
Off the highway, 19 miles south of Lyon, the charming city of Vienne is nestled between the hillside and the Rhône which it wears like a collar of precious landmarks. Inhabited since early ancient times it became the preferred residence of Roman Emperors, which the remarkable Roman monuments attest to. They are all incorporated into modern life.
Smack in the middle of town the precious Temple of Augustus and Livia built in 10BC in the Roman Forum has been restored in the 19th century and is surrounded by narrow car-packed streets and sidewalk cafes.
Not too far from the marketplace, where every weekend hundreds of stalls creak under the weight of freshly baked breads, produce, handicrafts, foods and clothes while groups of musicians and dancers work their way in the narrow alleys– undoubtedly a Must-See when you go to Vienne – the magnificent 13,000 seats Roman Theatre built about 40 AD and restored in 1938, is used for the performing arts and the Jazz Festival that takes place every summer in Vienne.
The Pyramid which is the last remnant of the Roman circus and hippodrome is how the famous three-star Michelin restaurant and hotel with a grand history: La Pyramide got its name. It was the creation of Fernand Point, the legendary super-chef who was considered the foremost restaurateur in the world, earning the very first three-star Michelin award, in 1933. Point was a teacher as much as a cook and five of his pupils became three-star chefs, including Paul Bocuse and Pierre Troisgros, the founder of Nouvelle Cuisine in the 1970s.
Romans living in the colonies never skimped on luxury and built bigger and better than in Rome. It is not unusual to find remnants of Roman villas and baths when digging for the foundations of new constructions. These find their way on the right bank of the Rhône into the Saint Romain en Gal Archeological Museum where the most gorgeous mosaics can be viewed and where the lifestyle of rich Romans has been re-created down to the baths. These were the meeting place where Romans of all wakes of life gathered to talk politics and exchange gossip.
But Vienne was a very important Christian city as well, which can be seen in its many churches and cloisters, but especially the St. Maurice Cathedral. Built between the 11th and 16th centuries it is a jewel of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and art. Its imposing steep staircase leading to the three portals of the exquisite façade is often crowded with newly weds and their colorful parties.
A BOAT PROMENADE DOWN THE RHÔNE, A TASTE OF GRAND CRUS
Food is great everywhere you stop, whether in little sidewalk cafes, in stands at the market or in a bouchon, the local bistros. But one way to have a great lunch with local wines, and rest you feet, is taking a delightful 2-hour boat ride on the Rhône River as the fantastic views of the vineyards of the Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu planted on steep granite hillsides glide by the Livia.
The Rhône Valley is France's second largest wine region, after Bordeaux. More than a dozen different grape varieties are planted on about 200,000 acres that offer some of the world’s most exciting wines. The Rhône Valley became a big orchard in the late 19th century, when phylloxera (a serious vineyard pest) spread in old vineyards -- some of which predated the Romans – and till today, some old timers turned winemakers can still remember when their primary crops were apricots or vegetables, and many still earn a portion of their living with fruit production.
But believing in their appellation they planted vineyards. Over time better wines brought more recognition and higher prices, which led to the creation of even more vineyards, such as those in the property of the 16th century Château de Montlys on a hill so steep that no one but winemaker and grower Christophe Semaska is able to climb up to tend the vines or harvest the grapes.
When Mr. Semaska rented the hill, it was woodsy and wild. But he was young and tired of being an ambulance chaser or a notary. He rolled up his sleeves and cleared the ground, inch by inch, planting vines which would turn out to produce some of the most exciting wines under the label CWhen Mr. Semaska rented the hill, it was woodsy and wild. But he was young and tired of being an ambulance chaser or a notary. He rolled up his sleeves and cleared the ground, inch by inch, planting vines which would turn out to produce some of the most exciting wines under the label Château de Montlys. At crush time, he harvests and climbs down the hills umpteen times a day with baskets brimming with ripe grapes which he then presses with an old 18th century hand-press. This he does with four of five of his best buddies until he is able to buy a modern press. « It won’t take much longer, » he assured us. The wine is selling well and has caught the attention of a distributor in the US. Until it reaches this point, it is aged in wood barrels in a cave inside the mountain which needs no temperature control since it is always cold and damp in there. He then bottles and labels the wine himself. . At crush time, he harvests and climbs down the hills umpteen times a day with baskets brimming with ripe grapes which he then presses with an old 18th century hand-press. This he does with four of five of his best buddies until he is able to buy a modern press. « It won’t take much longer, » he assured us. The wine is selling well and has caught the attention of a distributor in the US. Until it reaches this point, it is aged in wood barrels in a cave inside the mountain which needs no temperature control since it is always cold and damp in there. He then bottles and labels the wine himself.
NYONS AND THE AMAZING ‘PERCHED VILLAGES’
To the east lies the Drôme Provençale, an area where the Alps and Provence meet. Just as beautiful as Provence but less well known and therefore less frequented, acres of grape vines share the landscape with lavender fields and olive groves.
Nyons, in the center of the Drôme, is a medieval village set on a hillside with a Roman bridge over the river Eygues and the 14th century Place des Arcades, with ancient houses dating back to the 1300’s and animated sidewalk cafes surrounding the town square. There, on Thursdays and Sundays the whole town is taken over by a sprawling regional market where stall after stall are laden with a bounty of foods, fresh produce and products. In between mouthfuls of ripe fruit, freshly baked country breads and cheeses you can stock up on lavender products and buy the famous Provençal tablecloths and quilted individuals for a fraction of the price you’d pay in any store in the US.
Lunch at any cafe of the marketplace is a treat and will include freshly pressed olive oil in salads, on bread and at the table.
Whereas it is a rich region producing a vast variety of crops, no other place in France has so committed its identity to the olive. In Provence olives have been traced to 8000 BC. Fossilized olive branches and leaves can been seen at the Olive Museum in Nyons. Olive oil from the famous La Tanche, the shrivelled black olive from Nyons, is the only olive oil to be accorded "Appellation d'Origine Controlee" (AOC). Every December at harvest time, the Fête de L'Olive Piquée animates the streets with fairs and marketplaces with the first press of the black olives of Nyons. Hand picked in full maturity the olives are immediately pressed and their taste with hints of green apple and freshly cut grass gives an inimitable freshness to the smooth oil with subtle aromas of hazelnut and almonds.
The town is peopled with artisans who use the local bounty: wine, honey, fruit, aromatic and medicinal herbs for their business. They all welcome visitors: Lavender Factory Distillerie Bleu Provence, where lavender is processed into soaps, perfumes, essences and quaint artifacts. The Vinegar Factory, Vinaigrerie de Nyons where Raphaël Delaye-Reynaud produces a variety of unique and innovative oak-aged vinegars from some of the best Côtes du Rhône wines infused with sage, hysope, elder tree, shallot, lavender, thyme, or raspberry.
One of the most unique characteristics of the region are the bizarre “Perched Villages.” Little
Further south, Mirmande and Cliousclat are perfect little ramparted medieval villages. Perched on top of mountain hills and accessible via narrow roads and hairpin curves, the villages are set among trees, orchards and open meadows. Their heyday ran from the 12th century to the 17th century. Cliousclat sits on a hill with breathtaking views and is itself overlooked by the pretty Church of Saint Foy. After a delicious lunch al fresco at Restaurant Hotel la Fontaine, as you wander among the streets there are lots of interesting architectural details to admire in the stonework, doors and windows. Five minutes away on the next door hill, Mirmande has, in addition to the required castle and church, a lovely artist colony and workshops worth discovering as you wander in the shaded narrow alleys.
FAIRY TALE CASTLE OF GRIGNAN AND NOUGATS OF MONTELIMAR
After climbing down the dizzying hairpin curves of the perched villages, the road leads you to a genteel and flater land, with good road signs and fruit stands on the curb. Irresistible fruit beckon for a stop. Being in your own car makes you kind of happy that nobody sees you stuffing yourself with gorgeous apricots, for which the region is well known for, succulent peaches, plump cherries... Vendors are kind enough to let you buy just as many as you want and will even wash them for you. But, keep napkins at hand if you want to be presentable when you get to Manoir de la Roseraie in Grignan for the night.
This is a land full of surprises. As you get closer to Grignan, the turrets and towers of a 12th century fairy-tale-like castle silhouetted against the sky is a wondrous sight. The Castle of Grignan dominates the town and the surrounding countryside. A citadel in the middle ages, it became a Renaissance castle in the 16th century, and in the 17th century it became a haven to the Marquise de Sévigné, a French aristocrat remembered for her letter-writing. Most of her letters, depicting life and customs of the times along with interesting gossip and celebrated for their wit and vividness, were addressed to her daughter Françoise, who upon marrying the would be lieutenant governor of Provence became the Marquise of Grignan. Madame de Sévigné was very close to her daughter, and spent years at a time visiting. The Castle is now a museum that offers delightfully informative guided tours in English, after which you can wander the picturesque streets and stone paths with houses and archways dating from the 12th and 14th centuries.
Nearby, the enchanting Manoir de la Roseraie dating from 1850, is set on 5 manicured acres of parkland. Every room is different and could very well be the quarters of an 18th century nobleman or woman, with all the modern comforts and amenities. At the famous restaurant with a gorgeous outdoor terrace, the unctuous cheeses of the Alps--Reblochon, Beaufort, Abondance--round off delicious meals, or if you prefer something sweet, try the white, pistachio-studded nougat hand made in Montelimar with sugar, honey, egg white, vanilla, almonds, pistachio nuts or crystallized fruit.
Montélimar, the second largest city in the Drôme department after Valence, has been populated since the Celtic era and was rebuilt by the Romans to include aqueducts, thermae and a forum. Built in the Middle Ages Château des Adhémar dominates the city silhouette even today. But it became famous as Capital of the Nougat when the railroad was built: travelers stopped to buy nougat de Montélimar on their way to or from the south of France. But since the advent of the fast TGV train and the construction of the A7 highway, many nougat factories have closed and the town has kept the quaintness of centuries past. It is definitely worth a visit especially if you go to the Nougaterie Arnaud Soubeyran, to have coffee or hot chocolate, tour of the factory and enjoy the interactive nougat museum.
There is more to Montélimar than meets the eye: the fields of lavender, sunflowers, acacia, mimosas and other trees are honeybees territory. Honey, especialy lavender honey is a delicacy you can buy at local stores. The wines of the Côteaux du Tricastin are produced along the Rhône between the villages of Grignan and St. Paul Trois Chateaux. The grape varieties: Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvèdre (which you now see on labels from California and Washington State in the US) produce delicious red and rosés, while the Marsanne, Rousanne, Viognier, White Grenache and Clairette make great, refreshing whites.
What’s wine without food? From November to March you can eat Truffles, the “Black Diamonds” of the region, which you can also buy on any given Saturday and Sunday at local markets. East of Montélimar is a special area for the production of garlic and was accorded IGP or protected status in 2005.
It is in the Plain of the Valdaine that Mr Franck Brochier, the largest garlic producer and President of the Union of Garlic Producers in the Drôme (Président du Syndicat des Producteurs d’Ail de la Drôme) works on his fields and exports quality garlic to the rest of the European Community, including large consumers such as Italy and Greece.
Another Must Stop on the way:Vineum Jaboulet, at Châteauneuf sur Isère, is the place to buy and taste the great wines of the region. In 1992, Maison Paul Jaboulet Aîné acquired caves in the commune of Châteauneuf sur Isère. This village marks the limit of the appellation Crozes Hermitage. The great red Hermitage, which was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, is made from Syrah grapes. In Roman times, these monumental galleries were quarries, from which blocks of "molasse" were extracted for use in the building of numerous cathedrals, including those of Strasbourg, Marseille, Valence and Romans. The German army occupied these caves during the Second World War to repair aircraft engines. Since then, the caves were used for mushroom farming until Jaboulet discovered that the caves would be ideal for the maturing of wines. They acquired three caves of different sizes and ages. It wasn’t until 2000 that the consolidation of the vaults began. This type of storage allows for wine to spend a certain time in the bottle: a beneficial and well-earned rest before the final tasting.
Between Drôme and Ardèche you will find Valence, a dynamic city -- the capital of the Drôme department -- in one of France's loveliest rural regions. At Restaurant Pic you will discover a very special island of calm. A lovely hotel and a restaurant which over the past sixty years has earned a reputation as a shrine of French cuisine. Curnonsky, "the prince of gastronomes," said early on "there are three creators of modern cuisine: Escoffier, Pic, Point." And it was certainly no accident that the three men were friends. Anne-Sophie Pic carries on the tradition of her father Jacques and is the first woman to ever earn a Three Michelin stars rating, above colleagues such as the 2-Michelin Stars rated Philippe Barbot and Christophe Rohat's l'Astrance, Frédéric Anton's Le Pré Catelan, Yannick Alléno's Le Meurice.
There has never been a better time to visit Rhône-Alpes. Chefs, hotels, and wineries are providing visitors with the best the region can offer. In the summer you’ll inhale the aroma of lavender; in the autumn you’ll dine on fresh truffles. All year round you’ll sip great wines. To take in the entire region, a full week is best.
Le Pyramide, 14 Boulevard Fernand Point, 38200 Vienne, 33-4 74 53 01 96
www.lapyramide.com When Fernand Point died in 1956, one of his three Michelin stars faded with him, lighted again by his wife, who carried on the traditions under the restaurant name Chez Point-Pyramide. When Mme. Point died in 1986, the restaurant was razed to be reborn as a beautiful 22-room inn in a park-like setting. Patrick Henriroux took over La Pyramide's kitchen in 1989. Henriroux's stunning, Mediterranean-influenced cuisine has won the refurbished restaurant two new Michelin stars. La Pyramide is also a Relais & Châteaux hotel.
Maison Pic, 285 Avenue Victor Hugo, 26000 Valence, 33 4 75 44 15 32 www.pic-valence.com Between Drôme and Ardèche you will find Valence, a dynamic city in one of France's loveliest rural regions. At Restaurant Pic you will discover a very special island of calm, which over the past sixty years has earned a reputation as a shrine of French cuisine. Anne-Sophie Pic carries on the tradition of her father Jacques and has recently earned 3 Michelin stars.
Restaurant-Hotel la Fontaine, Le village, 26270 Cliousclat, 33 4 75 63 07 38
The “perched” villages of Mirmande and Cliousclat are perfect little ramparted medieval outposts, each perched on top of a hill, set among trees, orchards and open meadows. Its heyday ran from the 12th century to the 17th century. Cliousclat sits on a hill with lovely views and is itself overlooked by the pretty Church of Saint Foy. As you wander among the streets there are lots of interesting architectural details to admire in the stonework, doors and windows.
Manoir de la Roseraie at Grignan, Route de Valreas, 26230 Grignan, 33 4 75 46 58 15
www.manoirdelaroseraie.com The Manoir de la Roseraie is within striking distance of the Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail. Thousands of roses, superb lawns, swimming pool, tennis, and other delights can be enjoyed by those staying in the 21 deluxe guest rooms and suites. Enjoy the delicious cuisine prepared from home-grown fruits and vegetables and wines from the restaurants’ estensive list.
La Pyramid, Vienne, Hotel La Pyramid, 14, Boulevard Fernand Point, 38200 Vienne, www.lapyramid.fr. Part of the Relais & Chateaux chain, this recently refurbished beautiful 24-room inn in a park-like setting is centrally located for visits to the surrounding vineyards.
Maison Pic, 285 Avenue Victor Hugo, 26000 Valence, 33 4 75 44 15 32
www.pic-valence.com Comprising a bistro, a three-star Michelin restaurant and a hotel that is part of the Relais et Châteaux network.
Distillerie Bleu Provence, Lavender Factory, 58 Promenade de la digue, 26110 Nyons, 33 4 75 26 10 42, www.distillerie-bleu-provence.com
Vinaigrerie de Nyons (Vinegar Factory) La Para 26110 Nyons, 33 475 261 299,
www.lapara.fr Raphael Delaye-Reynaud produces a variety of unique and innovative vinegars, the base of which is wine from the Dome region.
Nougaterie Arnaud Soubeyran, (Nougats), Zone Industrielle 26200 Montélimar, 33 4 75 51 01 35,
www.nougatsoubeyran.com Visit the nougat museum and tour of the factory.
Boat Trip on Rhône, Bateau Livia, www.bâteau-livia.com Vienne
Gallo-roman Museum, Route départementale 502
69560 ST ROMAIN EN GAL (Vienne)
Vineum Jaboulet, at Chateauneuf sur Isère, Route de Bourg de Péage, 26300 Chateauneuf sur Isère, 04 75 47 35 55,