“Carpe diem"....Latin words to live by! Usually translated as “Seize the day”, the Roman poet, Horace, exhibited the gift of insight when he penned that phrase. It just happens to be carved in the cornerstone of the rock manor-house we are renting in Vaison la Romaine and is a good reminder for us to live each day to the fullest.
Not that we need it! It is pretty easy to remember to find pleasure in every moment when surrounded by a landscape carpeted with vines and studded with the quaint, stone villages of the Côtes du Rhône. So far, we’ve either cycled or driven to twenty-one of them (I counted!), yet there are still many that remain unexplored and on our “must see” list.
Most are hilltowns that evolved during Medieval times. Many have outer ramparts that provided protection in that dangerous era and a chateau (or castle) capping the hill which was the final safe haven when the place was under siege. Each has the requisite chapel (with steeple or bell tower), at least one fountain (usually more), hidden squares and narrow, cobbled streets that twist and turn through crowds of traditional stone houses. They’re so atmospheric...I love aimless wandering - just to see what village secrets I can discover.
One of my favourites is Gigondas, famous for its red wine (considered comparable to the prestigious Châteauneuf-du-Pap - but cheaper). This "I-could-live-here" village is tucked between vineyards and the limestone teeth of the Dentelles de Montmirail. Because of it's proximity to the mountains, it is also know for hiking. The geological event that resulted in the formation of this range must have been catastrophic. It's rugged peaks and crests, which resemble the spiny back plates of a stegosaurus in Jurassic times, make for kilometre after kilometre of pretty dramatic rambling. Incroyable indeed!
Don likes the village of La Roque-Airic (population 70). It clings to the flanks of the Dentelles and a natural rock outcropping pierces the centre of the village like a sentinel.
We are both captivated by tiny Suzette. The villagers there couldn’t afford a library, so they rescued and repurposed a telephone booth, transforming it into a little “Bibleocabine” (or book cabin).
Ancient Crestet is so authentic you feel medieval just ambling it’s rugged rock lanes and staircases. Linked to Vaison la Romaine by a footpath, it melts into the landscape of a high mountain ridge, blending so well we drove by it for at least a week before I even noticed it above the highway.
Oh, and then there’s the sweeping valley views of lavender fields (not yet in bloom) from Brantes, a fortified mountain village impossibly perched on high slopes north of Mont Ventoux.
A little further a-field (about 60 km from Vaison la Romain), Roussillon is a sight to behold. It sits atop (appropriately named) Mount Rouge and the world’s largest deposit of ochre. Not only the surrounding cliffs, but the entire village is distinctively and flamboyantly a brilliant red/orange colour. Going underground, we toured the cathedral-like, spire-filled caves of the former ochre mine. Fascinating stuff! Apparently Roussillon was Europe’s capital for ochre production until World War II. In those days they lacked science, so they determined the level of ochre in the sand by tasting it. The guide told us the tasters were very well paid, but didn’t live a long life! If you visit, stroll the multi-coloured labyrinth of cliffs around the village and you'll think you're in Bryce Canyon, Utah.
For all of you who love cycling, I don’t want to rave – but sorry, I can’t help myself! The biking in this area is outstanding. I have only one caveat: be careful of the little yellow signs. They aren’t meant for road bikers - hikers, maybe...but more likely goats. Following one, we found ourselves on a progressively deteriorating, rutted dirt and rock track at the top of a mountain. Surrounded by a sea of vines and nothing much else, the views of the vast Provençal landscape were fantastique - the terrain not so much...the skinny tires of our road bikes were not happy.
The quiet, country roads that wend their way through row upon terraced row of vineyards and olive groves are meant for exploring on two wheels. The remote little villages I just described seem to appear at the top of every hill – oui, there are lots of hills. In one direction, the ragged Dentelles provide views so spectacular we’re often compelled to get off our bikes and gape. In the other, is the barren top of Mount Ventoux of Tour de France fame. In 1967, one of the great dramas of the Le Tour unfolded about half a mile from its summit when cyclist Tom Simpson collapsed and died - still clipped into his pedals.
Ventoux is visible from every corner of the region and when it pops up on the horizon, as it inevitably does, it strikes me as strange that it’s never where I think it should be. It’s a magic mountain – honestly I swear the damned thing moves!
It’s on our bucket list to do the gruelling 22 km. climb on our bikes, but the road is closed. Right now, the gleaming white top of the Beast of Provençe is caused by snow – not by limestone as it is in the summer. We hear the road will open around mid-May! I better start serious hill training before that, if I don’t want to share Tom Simpson’s notorious fate!
I’m proud to say, Don is now driving like a local...well, almost! Anyone who has rented a car in France knows, the AutoRoute system consists primarily of toll roads. When you enter a toll booth, you take a ticket and when you exit you pay!
Earlier this month, we were racing to Montpellier for an appointment. Upon entering the toll station, the barrier didn’t come down to block our path immediately after the vehicle in front of us proceeded through the gate. Thinking it was a malfunction, Don followed. Not a bonne idée! Suddenly, the gate descended, hitting the roof and hood of our rented Renault. Thankfully those barriers are surprisingly flexible and it sort of bounced off our car – I suspect we’re not the first to run the tolls. No damage was done, but then we were on the other side of the gate with no toll ticket. No ticky – no exit from the AutoRoute. To make a long story short, after several faltering intercom conversations with French toll attendants, we were allowed to continue to our rendez-vous. The moral of the story - patience pays! Wait for the bloody ticket!
I hope everyone had an extraordinary Easter! We spent a joyeuse Pâques with my French cousin and her lively brood on her farm in the middle of France in the Champagne region. Just maybe that will be the subject of a future instalment...in the meantime, carpe diem, mes amis!
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