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Drôme Provençale

Where Provence begins

Somewhere between Vienne and Valence in the valley of the Rhône is a roadside monument demarcating the 45th parallel of north latitude, exactly halfway between the North Pole and the Equator, and this convenient geographical attribute was heartily endorsed by the English novelist and critic Ford Madox Ford, who during his travels in the south of France proclaimed: “somewhere between Vienne and Valence the South begins...between Valence and Montélimar...Eden!” Also known as the Provence des Papes or the Haut Vaucluse, the Drôme Provençale occupies the southern third of the Drôme department in the Rhône-Alpes region, and is not as well-known as the increasingly tourist-trampled Luberon/Vaison-la-Romaine area, but here is the true beginning of the “Midi”. The climate and landscape change, become drier, rockier. Olive groves, lavender, thyme, the annoying Mistral, golden-red sunshine on glowing yellow-ochre stone hilltop villages, the first views of the iconic Mont-Ventoux: to the southbound traveller of any era, all of Provence begins here.

To many of us, Provence also means wine, and some of the best vintages from the south of France are to be found here. Cultivated since Roman times, the sun-drenched vineyards produce a variety of AOC wines: Côtes-du-Rhône, Cotes-du-Rhône-Villages, and a number of fine cru vintages named after the villages where they are produced, among them Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage. The Avignon popes were early enthusiasts, especially John XXII. Elected in contentious circumstances, the Pope was a sickly man, and his numerous adversaries and pretenders to the papal throne were counting the days until he would have “bought the farm” (i.e., snuffed it). Instead, he purchased the estate: John discovered and developed such a strong liking for the local wine from Valréas and Visan that he acquired the region “for the Church”. The wine was blamed for keeping him hale and hearty for nearly a couple of decades. His successor Clement VI also knew a good thing when he drank it, and added several more villages (and their vineyards) to what became known as the Enclave des Papes.

The picturesque landscape of the Drôme Provençale is dotted with interesting and lively towns and villages, rivalling the more famous locations further south in all but perhaps their antiquity; the Romans obviously preferred more consistently balmy climes. Montélimar, in the north, is a prime example of a medieval fortress, and gets its name from Monteil Adhémar, an early representative of one of Provence’s oldest and most famous dynasties. It is the world capital of nougat, and its Museum of Miniatures, in an old hospital chapel, presents fascinating smallest-scale objets-d’art from all over world. Heading southeast from the Rhône, Grignan is dominated by its château looming over the countryside; an old Gallo-Roman fortress, it was the family seat of the Adhémars. It was developed in the 16th century into a magnificent Renaissance château by Louis Adhémar, and in the 17th century was often visited by Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, otherwise known as Madame de Sévigny, whose hundreds of letters to her daughter provide a fascinating chronicle of life in the Paris of Louis XIV, as well as loads of mouth-watering local recipes. The fanatics of the Revolution, as was their wont, pillaged the château, but according to one story also took the extraordinary step of exhuming Madame’s head and sending it back to Paris for examination. Now why would they have done that?

Valréas, on the Coronne River, features the 12th century Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth church ringed by concentric narrow medieval streets of stone houses, and the 17th century Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs with a fine painted wooden ceiling. Don’t miss the Museum of Cardboard and Printing! and the Château du Simiane with its book museum including some invaluable rare editions going back to the 1500s. Further along the road is Nyons, world famous for its black olives, but also boasting two exceptional listed Historic Monuments. The 14th century Romanesque stone bridge boldly spans the River Eygues, and the Tour Randonne is a spectacular neo-Gothic three-story arcaded pyramid atop a castle keep, with a statue of the Madonna from around 1280. There is a very pleasant café scene in the Place des Arcades in the quaint medieval quarter, and the St-Jacques gate is all that’s left of the town’s 13th century fortifications.

Suze-la-Rousse gets its name from another lady from history, but little is known about her except that she had flaming red hair. Its 12th century château looms over acres of AOC vineyards; a Historical Monument, it was transformed over the years by the Les Baux, another important provençal clan, until its inevitable destruction by the Revolutionaries, and now houses a University of Wine. Richerenches was an important commanderie of the 12th century Knights Templar and is the self-proclaimed black truffles capital of France, with the largest market in Europe between November and April, but a good deal of the trading is somewhat surreptitious wheeling and dealing among the pros. Black truffle market or truffle black market? We wouldn’t want to say. In January an annual Truffle Mass is celebrated, with truffles given as an offering instead of money. Vinsobres is a beautiful hilltop village built in luminous yellow-ochre round stones with a 12th century priory perched on top. It is surrounded by vineyards producing a highly-regarded Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages, although the village’s name has been invoked in the past as a built-in admonition to “enjoy responsibly”.

The list of interesting and charming sites to visit goes on: the picturesque perched village of Montbrun-les-Bains; the medieval ruins at the melodiously-named Mirabel-aux-Baronnies; the 12th century château and 100-year-old plane trees around the Place de la Bourgade at Grillon, and the Museum of Truffles at St-Paul-Trois-Châteaux. Two of France’s Plus Beaux Villages in the area offer remarkable glimpses into their medieval past: La Garde Adhémar, and Le Poët-Laval (from the Latin for “hill in the valley”), with its château once a commanderie of the Knights Hospitaller. And nestling in the Jabron River valley in the heart of the Drôme Provençale is Dieulefit (“God made it”). Local legend has it that it was this area that God used for his blueprint for the rest of creation, and on the sixth day fashioned mankind from the rich local clay. Ford Madox Ford was right, after all. Dieulefit has been a potters’ paradise since Gallo-Roman times, and contemporary artisans have developed their own town trademark and school, the Maison de la Terre du Pays de Dieulefit.

Getting there

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© OT Mairie de Suze-la-Rousse

Views of Montbrun-les-Bains 
© OT Montbrun-les-Bains

Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, Valréas
© OT Valréas

Château de Simiane, Valréas
© OT Valréas

Views of Montbrun-les-Bains
© OT Montbrun-les-Bains

© OT Richerenches

© OT Richerenches

© OT Mairie de Suze-la-Rousse

Views of Montbrun-les-Bains
© OT Montbrun-les-Bains

Our villas in the Drôme

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