We love long, scenic drives, but as we left the Rhone Valley town of Chavanay (home of Faury wines) on Monday afternoon to check into our hotel in Cliousclat, we both came to the same unspoken conclusion: it doesn't make sense to come back to the Northern Rhone tomorrow. In our excitement to visit as many of our favorite producers as possible, we booked tastings in Cote-Rotie two days in a row even though our hotel was well over an hour to the south. A two hour round-trip wouldn't normally bother us, but this particular trip is through one of the more industrial and congested parts of France. With regrets, we canceled our appointments at Ogier and Delas Freres and used the day to do a whirlwind tour of Provence.
Although we didn’t venture into Aix, Avignon, or Orange, we covered the Provencal countryside pretty well, thanks to Rick Steves and GPS. Combining some recommendations from Steves’ book with a few from our hotel hostess, we stitched together a scenic loop around the Dentilles de Montmirail – a famous rock formation in the heart of the southern Rhone wine regions of Vacqueyras and Gigondas.
Our first stop was in the quaint little town of Marsanne, where we stumblingly managed to order a late breakfast from a local café. We ate in the shade of one of the town square’s massive elm trees and devoured fresh bread with preserves, honey, and sweet French butter, washed down with café au lait. The weather has been quite hot, but in the morning shade, it was delightful – a pleasant glimpse of village life here in the southern part of the country.
Our route took us along winding backcountry roads just barely wide enough for two cars to pass. Fortunately, traffic was light and we had the scenery – mostly oak and olive trees, fields, and craggy hills – to ourselves. The occasional field of lavender or sunflowers provided bright splashes of color in an otherwise sunbaked landscape. The villages in the south are distinctly Mediterranean, with tile roofs and shady central squares.
We passed through several quaint little towns, often driving through cobbled streets only inches wider than our car. We didn’t feel a need to stop often – we were satisfied to watch the scenery roll past. Later, as we entered the town of Nyons, we decided to stop for lunch. Nyons is a prosperous-looking place with a large central park area that includes a very popular swimming pool, athletic courts, and lots of trees. Of course, cafes are ubiquitous.
After a light lunch in Nyons and strolls through Suzette and Gigondas, we drove through the hilly country to the Dentilles – so named because their jagged profile looks like teeth. And speaking of teeth... Steve has a toothache. We have an unfortunate habit of damaging our teeth in foreign countries. Last year in Amsterdam, Melissa lost her crown to a particularly sticky caramel, and held it in place through sheer will until we got home four days later. Advil helps, but if Steve's tooth gets any worse, we may need to look up the French word for "dentist".