Just North of Provence

Just North of Provence

Say “The South of France” to just about anyone, and a vision will appear of the Riviera—white sand beaches, blue water and swaying palms.  Provence sprawls across the bottom of France nearly from west to east, taking in a number of different historic areas and offering many diversions. The area is well covered by any number of guidebooks and has been the destination for many Americans in recent years, thanks to the Peter Mayle books.  But to the adventurous soul, a trip just north of Provence is a glimpse into the village culture that is uniquely French.  

Just above Provence lies the lesser-known area of the Drôme, named for its principal river, which rambles across the département from the eastern bank of the Rhône until debouching above the town of Luc in Provence. People are beginning to refer to the Drôme as 'Northern Provence', and little by little the countryside and its charming towns and medieval villages are being discovered by French tourists. The English, though, discovered this area long ago, but only now are Americans finding their way into this fascinating area of France.
Reaching the secluded Drôme requires spirited determination: it is necessary to get off the TGV at Valence and drive south through the Rhône Valley or stop at Avignon and head back north. However you approach the Drôme, there is much to see and even more to enjoy.
Montélimar is famous today not just for its link with Napoléon, who spent a night at the Relais de l'Empereur hotel when he marched his army north to Paris, but for its luscious white nougat. This confection is produced by a number of candy-making operations in and around the town and can be purchased just about anywhere in the area. The nougat also can be found in a black version, but the most delicate is the variety flavored with just a hint of lavender. Nougat can be found throughout most of France, but the nougat of Montélimar is justly famous and absolutely seductive.
Montélimar always reminds me of Aix-en-Provence on a smaller scale: the same wide main street shaded by overarching trees, tinkling fountains, a lovely small park with deer and birds…and a variety of excellent restaurants and cafés. It's a town to linger in on a warm day, especially when local artists set up stalls exhibiting their wares or when you want to shop for folk art, such as santons--or for that yummy nougat, of course.
About 20 miles to the east is the small town of Dieulefit, the center of the local pottery trade. The town itself is charming, with narrow streets and old shops filled with all manner of decorative items to take back home; in the surrounding countryside lie a number of noted potteries producing tableware and other ceramics of Provençal design.
Along the road from Montélimar to Dieulefit are a number of interesting medieval villages, of which La Bégude de Mazanc and Le Poët-Laval are particularly pleasant to visit. The latter was once a stronghold of the Knights of Malta, and it has been lovingly restored over the years by Yvon Morin, owner of the hotel/restaurant Les Hospitaliers, which perches atop the village and offers magnificent views over the valley to the French Alps in the distance—as well as exceptionally fine meals.  Also near Dieulefit is the Château de Grignan, once home to the letter-writing Mme. de Sévigné. The château--still containing its furnishings--may be visited, and in its environs are a number of other interesting sights: the church of St.-Saveur, the Rochecourbière cave, and Taulignan, an agricultural town still surrounded by its medieval fortifications.
Running south of Dieulefit is a road leading to Nyons, a town famous for its olives. The scenic road is lined with olive trees, twisted and gnarled under the summer sun, recalling the paintings of van Gogh. The regional olives are so sublime that they have their own appellation controllée, just like the better wines of France, and the best place to check them out is the Cooperative du Nyonsais. The Cooperative lies just a few blocks down from the D538 on the Place Olivier-de-Serres and is, as the Michelin guide might say, worth a detour. The shop's walls are lined with shelves bursting with olive products: oils (in both tall cans and bottles), green and black olives, dried olives to eat like potato chips, olive-oil soaps, olive gift packs, dried lavender, local honey…and of course tapenade, that distinctly Provençal spread of olives, capers, sometimes anchovies, sometimes garlic, always absolutely delicious.
Off to one side of the room sit huge hoses connected to the wine vats below the building. Here you can still see local people bringing in their jugs to buy and take home wines “en vrac,” although bottled wine is also available. It's a great place to shop, and you can buy a good deal for not many Euros. Shipping to your home is available if your purchases exceed the capacity of your suitcases.
The town of Nyons makes for a delightful afternoon stop, especially as the Cooperative closes for the lunch hour. The central square, where the well known truffle market is held, offers easy parking and public conveniences, and from there you can walk up the hill and visit the old part of town. About a block up on the right, just off the central street and small car park, is a wonderful small gift shop featuring high-quality santons of all sorts and sizes and beautifully made tablecloths, place mats, and napkins in Provençal prints as well as olive-wood products and clothing. The outfits for children are particularly charming, but the vests for gentlemen would be very dashing for a summer party.
South of Nyons the true Provence begins, led by the Roman towns of Orange and Vaison-la-Romaine. But the lingering flavor of the Drôme always calls me back. If you are ready to get over to France, and quick... Air France!
by Jean Underhill, Bonjour Paris contributor.

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