It sounded like a romantic notion, when we first heard it: walking village to village through the French countryside, picnicking along the way in fields or orchards, and strolling through the cobblestone streets of picturesque villages. And although it sounded like a romantic notion, our first trip to France proved that it was entirely do-able.
We could have chosen a travel company to organize our trip for us, but instead we adopted a “lets figure it out ourselves” attitude. And so we found ourselves in the south of France, in the village of Vaison-la-Romaine.
Our plan was to walk a circumnavigation of the Dentelle Mountains. The Dentelles de Montmirail, as they are known, are a system of jagged rocky peaks that stretch like a vertebrae for nine miles in the Northern Vaucluse area of Provence. Along the way we would visit the tiny villages that were strung around this range of delicate mountain peaks like beads on a necklace, each one tucked into a fold or contour of its valleys and foothills.
We intended to take about five or six days to complete the fifty kilometer circuit, booking our hotels as we went. We were traveling light — we had left our suitcases behind in Paris, to be picked up on our return and had trimmed our clothing and toiletries down to the basics. We would each be carrying about nine or ten kilograms in our backpacks.
Upon arriving in Vaison-laRomaine, we visited the tourist bureau and picked up some pamphlets and a list of the hotels we would be encountering on our walk. At a tobacconist we picked up a one of the blue IGN maps depicting the trails in the area. At a scale of 1:25,000, these are very detailed and are available all over France.
Vaison-la-Romaine is well worth exploring. This former Celtic settlement was conquered by the Romans in the second century, B.C. The population quickly sprang to ten thousand, as wealthy Romans moved in and built luxurious villas, a six thousand seat theatre, baths, an aqueduct and a bridge that is still in use.
Today, visitors can take in the many Roman ruins left behind, including statues of Claudius and Hadrian, the remains of a Roman temple, villas, mosaics and baths, including one with a six seater latrine. There is also a musem to visit. and the Roman theatre has been restored and in July and August plays host to both music and drama.
We spent the day exploring the village and the next day crossed the old Roman bridge and found our trail and began our walk. The trail would lead us to the village of Malaucene, with a stopover in the hamlet of Crestet for lunch. And so the rhythm of our days began.
We were in a different world–a world of red tile roofs and old country charm. History was around every corner, from the crumbling ruins of bygone ages to villages built upon and added to. Time and culture were both at work here and it was all coming to us one step at a time.
In Malaucene, with its avenue of plane trees, we found men engaged in a game of boules in the late afternoon. We rewarded ourselves from he labours of our hike with wine and cheese at one of the local sidewalk cafes. And, since most restaurants in France don’t open for dinner until 7:30 or 8:00pm, there was still plenty of time to explore the village before dinner.
The next morning was market day in the village, and it gave us an opportunity to buy food and wine for a picnic lunch for later in the day. At the market, we encountered the waiter from the restaurant of the previous evening. He seemed genuinely glad to see us, and upon enquiring about our packs and learning of our trek, he voiced his enthusiasm. Shaking our hands he wished us a “bon voyage”. His enthusiasm may have been tempered by the healthy tip we had given him the night before. Only later did we learn that in France, the tip is almost always included in the price of the meal.
From Malaucene we hiked to le Barroux, enjoying the clean country air and marveling at the beauty of the scenery unfolding before us. We had started at the northern end of the Dentelles, and now at the southern end we were definitely in wine country – the marked route led us literally through vineyards and orchards. As well as having maps to follow, the route was also indicated by frequent signposts, and the red and yellow trail markings had been painted on rocks, fences, and sometimes the side of buildings.
We passed through Beaumes-deVenise, known for its sweet Muscat wine, and then headed towards Gigondas and Seguret, sun bleached villages that seemed to be carved right out of the tooth shaped peaks that harbored them. These villages and others around them, such as Vacqueras and Rasteau are home to the Cotes-du-Rhone wines. Grapes have been grown here since Greek and Roman times, but it is only in the last twenty years that the wines of the Rhone Valley have truly come into their own. This only came about by slashing yields and planting better quality grapes. At a shop in the village square of Gigondas, it is possible to sample free many of the fine wines from the surrounding hillside vineyards. Now we were truly “winewalking” in the south of France.
Travelling on the western side of the Dentelles now, we approached the final village in our circuit and discovered that we had truly saved the best for last. Seguret has the official designation of being one of France’s “most beautiful villages.” Perched on a cleft on the side of the Dentelle mountains, it blends itself so successfully that some of its buildings actually use a face of the mountain cliffs for an interior wall. It is almost as if the mountain has grown a village. We entered the village, enchanted, following the cobblestone streets ever higher to find our hotel, La Table du Comtat, at the summit of the village. Some of its rooms date from the sixteenth century. The sunset, viewed from the dining room windows, was spectacular, and combined with the food, the wine, and the friendly service, made it a night to treasure.
Bidding goodbye to Seguret, we hoisted our packs one last time and hit the trail for the final hike. It was with a feeling of elation and exhilaration that a few hours later we saw the familiar pinnacles above Vaison-laRomaine come into view and knew that we had come full circle.
While it is true that we had seen only a tiny corner of France, we had seen it in an intimate way that few will ever do. We had met its people and interacted with them in a novel and unexpected way.
For a short while, we had become a part of its landscape.