When In Rhône…
We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.
The Okanagan Valley! Our secret is out. Where else can you find Canada’s sunniest weather and a sparkling 135-kilometer lake, nestled between terraced hillsides in the heart of a world-class wine region? We’re blessed and we know it.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore the riches offered by other parts of our planet. A vacation provides the opportunity to escape the daily grind, expand your horizons, meet new people and create some indelible memories that will sustain you until…well, your next vacation.
Might I recommend…
Do you have an urge to wander hills streaked with lavender? How about sipping delicious wine, while savoring never-ending views of vines and almonds trees? Have you a yearning to amble cobbled streets of mysterious medieval villages? What about experiencing, first-hand, rural life à la français?
If you’re already nodding your head and drooling, add to your Bucket List the village of Vaison la Romaine and the heavenly hill towns that surround it. In the south of France, about 140 kilometers north of coastal Marseille, the region is perfectly Provençal and in the heart of Côtes du Rhône country, a region famous for its namesake wines.
Autumn is the perfect time to visit. The crowds have dissipated, returning Provence to the locals, and the days remain warm and sunny well into the fall. Sprawling vineyards and rolling fields are painted in hues of rust and gold, and best of all, it’s La Vendange (the grape harvest), a time to discover how that Syrah you’re having with dinner ends up in your wineglass.
Vaison la Romaine
Like an open-air museum, Vaison la Romaine hails from a time when Romans were flexing their Imperial muscles, scattering arenas and baths across the countryside.
They came. They saw. They conquered. Then they disappeared. Two thousand years ago, “Vasio”, as it was then known, was a prosperous Roman settlement of six-thousand people. Only recently has the population returned to that level.
It’s mind-altering to stroll to your favourite boulangerie for daily bread, passing ruins of mansions, bath-houses, shops, even an amphitheater interfacing seamlessly with contemporary buildings.
On a hilltop on the other side of the Ouvèze River is Old Town. Wander over the two-thousand-year old Roman bridge, through the ramparts and fortified gate and voilà, you’re magically transported to the Middle Ages. If a knight and his damsel emerged from one of the stone buildings, it would seem perfectly natural.
Soaking up the lifestyle in Vaison la Romaine, you begin to understand that elusive, but oh so seductive, French concept of “Joie de Vivre”! Imagine relaxing on the terrace of a funky wine bar in the sun-kissed main square. The smell of fresh garlic and aromatic herbs wafts over from the bistro next door. On your other side, a lively càfe is humming with locals speaking beautiful French. Just listening to them makes you feel chic. You sip your crisp, cool rosé, and nibble the best olives you’ve ever tasted, while you watch the world pass by.
Villages: Pretty, Petit and Plentiful
Vaison, the largest town in the area, makes a great base for exploring the many tiny villages studding the neighbouring hillsides. I lived in the region for a couple of months and managed to visit twenty-one (yes, I counted). Many more still remain on my Must-See List.
Evolved during the sixteenth century, these places have outer ramparts that provided protection from marauding nastiness and a chateau capping the hill as a final safe haven when 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, aimless wandering will become your new passion.
Here’s a few of my favourites: Ancient Gigondas, a haven for walkers and wine-drinkers, is tucked between its vineyards and the Dentelles de Montmirail. The rugged cliffs and rocky crests of this mountain range look like the spiny back plates of a stegosaurus in Jurassic times, and they provide kilometer-after-kilometer of dramatic hiking.
Overlooking the lavender fields below, the fortified mountain village of Brantes sits high on the slopes north of Mont Ventoux of Tour de France fame. And tiny Suzette is not much more than a wide spot in the road, but oh-la-la, those hilltop vistas!
The village of La Roque-Airic (population 70) clings to the flanks of the Dentelles and, like a sentinel, a natural rock outcropping pierces through the centre of the village. And then there’s ancient Crestet. It melts into the landscape of a high mountain ridge and is so authentic you’ll feel medieval just ambling its rugged rock lanes and staircases.
For cyclists, this area begs to be explored on two wheels. Consider pairing wine tasting or a relaxed lunch with a pedal from village-to-village. These picture-perfect places are usually perched on hilltops, so beware! The difficulty of the ride increases in direct proportion to the amount of vin consumed en-route. Don’t worry, your efforts will be well rewarded. Sweeping views of the limestone teeth of the Dentelles and the barren, wind-swept top of Mount Ventoux, the Giant of Provence, are so spectacular you’ll be compelled to get off your bike and gape.
The Art of Eating and Drinking
Mon dieu, do not attempt to diet! The French take their food and wine seriously. Much of their (considerable) leisure time is spent shopping for, preparing and enjoying great cuisine – after all, they invented the word!
Go ahead, indulge in the “Holy Trinity” (bread, cheese and wine), and, those decadent patisseries. You’re on vacation! Revel in these pleasures of life like the French, with ritual self-indulgence and not an ounce of guilt.
To truly immerse yourself in the essence of this region, you must stroll through a weekly open-air market, an integral part of the culture of France. In Vaison, the Tuesday morning market has been a central feature of life dating back to 1483.
From artfully displayed meat, fish, cheeses and sausages to golden, crusty baguettes; from truffles, pasta, spices to a dizzying array of olives (who knew they came in so many colours?), you can buy almost anything you need and a lot you don’t in a Provençal market. Le marché is on a different day in each village and everything is farm fresh and impossible to resist!
The grapes in the region, grown on the côtes (hillsides) of the Rhône River Valley, produce wines of character without breaking the bank. You can pick up an entirely drinkable bottle of Côtes du Rhône for about four or five Euros! And the reds for which Gigondas is so renowned, are considered comparable to the prestigious Châteauneuf-du-Pap - only much cheaper. Drink up, mes amis? “When in Rhône…”
There’s no place like home…
All good things must come to an end! With a suitcase of dirty laundry and a myriad of belle memories, it’s always good to be home.
Even after a trip of a lifetime, the natural beauty of the Okanagan reaffirms how lucky we are to live here. Returning, we see our Valley with new eyes and fresh appreciation. That’s what travel does! W