Rhône-Alpes is a region not only overlooked by the French Alps, it’s also often overlooked by tourists and travellers.
I have a reoccurring dream. No, I’m not naked at work, falling, being chased by wild dogs, or shooting ridiculously slow bullets. (Actually that last one I seem to have often, but that’s beside the point.)
In this dream I’m wandering through a medieval village, it’s crumbling walls surrounded by fields of scarlet poppies. A river runs through its centre and old men sit in silence, hand rolled fags hanging from the corner of their mouths, eyes squinting from the smoke, their fishing lines dangling in hope. There’s a market on and the church bells chime, hastening the step of the locals seeking the freshest bread, cheese and berries. Suddenly a glamorous southern belle starts talking to me in rapid French, and her dog lunges at me and licks me in the face. Amid the slobbering I realise I’m at home and it’s actually my labrador trying to rouse me because she wants a walk, and I snap out of my fantasy, but that’s OK, I’ll return again soon enough.
There’s just something about central and southern France, and for those prepared to look beyond the allure of Bourgogne, the Loire Valley or Dordogne regions, Rhône-Alpes serves up everything you would expect, and all that you could wish for.
And so here we are again.
We base ourselves in the southern most department of Drôme, near the town of Dieulefit, about half way between Lyon and Marseilles. This part of Rhône-Alpes is quite rural, yet close enough to the charm of Saint-Rémy and Aix-en-Provence, and the glitz of the Cote D’Azur so as to not feel isolated. The towns are small, the mountains close and cathedrals plentiful. There are more castles and châteaux per square kilometre than just about anywhere on earth, each providing a close view of the next, and a distant view of more beyond.
After a hair-raising trip along a one way hilly rural road that I, to this day, blame on our baffled GPS, we find our accommodation in Truinas – a stone farmhouse now converted into three cottages draped in roses and vines, overlooked by a stunning springwater pool. Meals and drinks on the deck watching both sunrise and sunset over Le Drome valley won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
The roads and rivers continually wind, not satisfied with the tedium of straight lines, and our days are spent exploring, absorbing history, meeting and becoming acquainted with locals and travellers alike. The pursuit of produce is perpetual, and our evenings pass as such times with great friends and good wine should – filled with music, conversation and laughter.
Between expeditions to Nyons, Valreas and Salle-sous-Bois, we explore hilltop castles, forests of green and sample local specialities. The area is littered with comparatively affordable farmhouses and cottages in various states of need, and our eyes scour the windows of every real estate agent, while our minds needlessly whir with the logistics of currency conversion, plastering and plumbing.
Our host Jane’s knowledge of the region is superb and we cant seem to put a foot wrong following her wonderful scribblings, left in a variety of locations, like clues in some sort of gastronomic treasure hunt.
Our visit culminates in an unforgettable afternoon at a recommended restaurant (by both our host and the Michelin guide) in Vesc – Chez mon Jules – which serves up Rhône-Alpes on a plate: quirky, fresh, classy and decadent.
Run by a delightful couple who chose this rustic lifestyle over their previous Parisian existence, Chez mon Jules is exactly what we’re looking for to round off our week. Jules sources the best produce from local growers and works his magic in the small kitchen, whilst Alexandra serves and makes conversation (and jewellery!).
Lunch resembles a small specials list, with a mere two choices per dish. We start with a devine cold zucchini soup with a creamy foam (my first time!), and baguettes as fresh and light as the mountain air. Superb slow roasted pork belly on mash with seasonal vegetables follows, accompanied by some well chosen local wine. Chocolate soufflé with a dark ale rounds the meal off perfectly, yet we linger on the deck for hours, absorbing our surrounds, each of us procrastinating our inevitable departure.
Soon enough it’s time for an afternoon coffee and apertif, Alexandra spins her favourite Amy Winehouse record, and we are once again seduced by the coziness of this establishment and our hosts undeniable charm.
Finally we return to base, there’s neither time nor room for another meal, so we satisfy ourselves with a final glass of wine on the balcony while the sun sets in slow motion on the mountain scene before us.
On our final morning Jane’s farewell resembles her greeting – like we’re old friends – and we reluctantly leave to meet our next adventure.