During the current testing times for France and it’s people, I’m thinking back to June this year, visiting the Ardèche, Provence and the Rhône Valley, regions in southern France, which seemed immune to the troubles of the outside world.
Hurtling towards Avignon on a high speed train, watching the rural French countryside of late spring flash by, a troubled world seemed a million miles away. Time permitting, travelling overland by train is the perfect way to travel in mainland Europe, boarding in St Pancras, a short station hop in Paris and soon I was disembarking in the south of France. The stress free journey leaving me refreshed, but teased by the fleeting glimpses of lavender fields, though not yet fully in bloom, row upon row of uniformed pastel colour stretching into the distance, had my camera finger itching.
Arriving in Avignon to find they were throwing a party was a pleasant surprise, unfortunately not to celebrate my arrival. It was Fȇte de la Musique or Make Music Day, celebrated throughout France on 21 June every year since 1981. Founded by former Minister of Culture, Jack Lang it encourages amateur and professional street performers in even the smallest villages to take to the streets and make music. A great idea, and France was partying that night with bands, solo artists, colourful lights and food vendors everywhere, catering to the people’s appetite to enjoy themselves.
Being fortunate to arrive a day earlier than my companions, I was able to explore Avignon the following day on one of my favourite modes of transport; a Segway with Mobilboard. It’s a fun way to discover any city, and much easier than walking up some of the hills which provide the best views across the Rhône river, of the bridge Pont d’ Avignon or more correctly titled Pont Saint-Bénézet and the city. The half bridge is world famous, and of course a ‘must see’ in Avignon, although the song which all French children learn to sing off by heart is possibly even better known.
“Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse,
Sur le pont d’Avignon,
L’on y danse en tout”
It’s a song about dancing on the bridge, with ladies, handsome gentlemen and officers all dancing in their own special way.
Before the others arrived the Segway unfortunately had to be returned, if I had my way the whole trip might have been done on these great little vehicles, though it wouldn’t be our last encounter with one on this trip.
Once the merry band was all rounded up we were whisked off for a fascinating wine blending workshop at the Lavau-Château Maucoil estate and then on to medieval Vaison la Romaine for some wine tasting, after all this is wine country. Dinner that evening was a typical meal of regional cuisine at La Belle Etoile.
A welcome and good night’s sleep in simple accommodation allowed us to awake refreshed, getting up early to explore the vibrant market of the town, one of my favourite pastimes. It did not disappoint either, with a variety of stalls selling fresh fruit, vegetables, baked breads and cured meats, a feast for the senses, with eye popping, colourful bag stalls and the aromas of the fresh foods mingling with the herbs and spices also on offer.
Provence is well known for lavender, but the Rhône valley region is even better known for it’s wine, and this itinerary of hopping from wine estate to wine estate is ideal for those that love the produce of the grape. We walked among the vines, on rocky soil, tasting a variety of excellent white, rosé, and red wines from estates in Gard such as Château Mourgues du Grès to those in the Ardèche region, even taking to Segway again at the St. Joseph Vineyard, near Tournon.
We sniffed, sipped, spat, rinsed and lets face it swigged our way through a variety of appellations, our taste buds overwhelmed by the the multitude or flavours they were treated to. A road trip which many would be the envy of many wine lovers.
Particular highlights included “Le Mastrou”, known as “The Chemin de Fer du Vivarais” the steam train de l’ Ardèche which winds its way for 33 kilometres through the spectacular gorges of Doux and meeting a witch in the charming village of Brantes. The witch in question is a lady called Jessica, who armed with baskets combs the steep, narrow cobbled alleyways of the village in search of wild herbs, edible flowers and other natural ingredients for the dishes of Les Aventurières du Goût.
Possibly the most enjoyable and unusual activity of the week, foraging for our lunch with baskets in one hand and a cumbersome camera in the other was challenging and entertaining. We then prepared a lunchtime feast under the watchful eyes of the chef, her clear, entertaining instruction and diligent supervision enabled us to produce an acceptable meal despite our constant preoccupation with those beloved cameras. A tasty lunch was enjoyed with a stunning view from the balcony, good conversation and of course washed down with some excellent wine. An culinary foraging experience which is thoroughly recommended.
We even managed to fit in time to visit the impressive Pont du Gard, the UNESCO site near Nimes is celebrating its 30th anniversary as a heritage site this year. A tour with a knowledgeable and informative guide including a visit to the interactive museum is a worthy way to spend a few hours.
Our accommodation ranged from a simple room in a friendly hotel to the rustic charm of Domaine des Clos, a modern ‘farm’ estate, the labour of love, is owned and run by David and Sandrine Ausset. Distinctive, individual design features are everywhere around the small estate, appearing to have more to do with David’s attention to detail than ease of completion. The rooms reflect this passion, almost obsessive approach and Sandrine is equally fastidious in the production of the excellent menu. A leisurely breakfast on the paved patio area is the ideal way to start any day.
The final night before catching our various high-speed TGVs home was in the chic Hotel de la Villéon, a mansion located in the heart of historic Touron, which coupled with a fine meal at restaurant Comako, which provided an tasty set menu was a suitable climax to our Rhône trip to French Wine.
Better times in France; land of culture, history, heritage, superior cuisine and wonderful wine; “Liberté, égalité, fraternite”, long may the Tricolour fly high over it’s cities, a unifying symbol against the forces of ignorance, bigotry and fanaticism.