Walking holidays in France: Fill your boots
A restaurant and rambling tour of the Rhône valley, which comes with gourmet picnics and luxury pit-stops, is a recipe for the ideal hiking holiday
Thursday 14 August 2014
There are picnics and there are pique-niques. The menu for our first Provençal picnic, if you could reduce it to that single dismissive word, read thus: goat’s cheese clafoutis. Caramelised tomato tart. Gossamer-fine charcuterie and brie de meaux. Fresh-baked ficelle. Salad with sun-dried tomatoes, herbs and hand-mixed vinaigrette.
The fact that we were tucking in alongside a pine-scented farm track, gazing across a tablecloth of goldening vine leaves towards a fairytale walled village, made that dressing all the more piquant. The victuals matched the view: a vista of plenty.
Not, then, your typical cheese-and-crusts fare for a long-distance walking holiday. But this wasn’t a typical walking holiday. That moveable feast was savoured an hour into a five-day meander through the Vaucluse in Provence, between Venasque and Vaison-la-Romaine, north-east of Avignon.
It’s a self-guided trek that does everything a good hike should – winding amid villages-perchés (perched villages), vineyards and châteaux, among the foothills of Mont Ventoux – but pitched, in the tourist-marketing vernacular, as a kind of restaurants-with-rambles, named after an AOC rather than a historic route: Côtes du Rhône. And with hotels hand-picked for their skills in expressing the terroir (that quintessentially French concept of flavours endowed through local geography and climate), providing real insights into this most respected culinary region of Provence, walkers are provided with gourmet food for thought, both literal and metaphorical.
Venasque, a gorgeous village crowing over surrounding plains from its rocky eyrie, set the bar high – in topographical, historical and culinary terms, as we discovered at the charmingly rustic and gastronomically blessed Hotel Les Remparts, our home for the night before setting out. Its panoramic terrace offered far-reaching views over those eponymous medieval walls, while aubergine cake and ballotine de joue de porc gave an inkling of the next day’s lunchtime delights.
Post-picnic, our first afternoon’s walk was a gentle 20km through bucolic loveliness – vineyards, pine forest, cherry orchards – marred only by an eyesore quarry. That, and the angry black clouds that shadowed us for three hours before emptying themselves in a prolonged deluge. We shuffled sheepishly into the Château de Mazan – erstwhile residence of Donatien Alphonse François, the Marquis de Sade, now a boutique hotel – with puddles seeping from our muddy boots. But the smiling welcome was, thankfully, at odds with our expectations of the home of the man responsible for The 120 Days of Sodom. So too were the playful decor and knowingly chic restaurant, which did at least offer a suitably sinful selection of local vintages.
After we set out the next morning from the château’s pristine reception, Mazan’s old walled centre seemed incongruously scruffy, a maze of squeezebelly-narrow alleys miraculously plied by battered old Citroen 2CVs and Peugeot 205s.
We paused long enough to raid the exceptional artisan boulangerie and a market vending high-quality jambon cru for just a couple of euros. Then we were swallowed by countryside, tramping trails between a series of hilltop redoubts that provided our feasts and beds over the following days.
First, a couple of hours beyond Mazan, came Crillon-le-Brave, haughty on its rock outcrop. A steep haul up through the winding lanes from the imposing gateway brought us to the main square, dominated by a statue of the eponymous 16th-century gallant. Perching on benches overlooking the town walls, we munched pain aux céréales and gazed over the plains towards Avignon and the Rhône, glinting hazily in the distance.
As we descended through Crillon, roads became tracks, and lizards on walls gave way to grasshoppers and a particularly belligerent praying mantis on the gravel. The post-noon heat built rapidly, and we gratefully delved into the shady woods above the Lac du Paty on a path little short of magical, lined with wizened oaks and pines, shaggy inkcaps and copper toadstools, air herby and fresh.
That night’s halt, Le Barroux, was as neat and charming as Mazan was appealingly gritty, its flower-decked streets encircling a slightly tumbledown castle. The château, founded in the 12th-century chapel and revamped in Renaissance style, was left to crumble after the revolution, then wrecked by vengeful German soldiers in 1944. Its hotchpotch remains, quirky rather than grand, are well worth a peek, not least for panoramic views across to the jagged rock formations of Les Dentelles de Montmirail, their name a wonderful linguistic portmanteau: “dentelles”, recalling the pins of a lacemaker’s loom and the Latin mons mirabilis – “admirable mountain”. Admittedly, lacemaking is a mystery to me, but to my eyes the sharp outcrops more closely resembled the spine-plates of snoring stegosaurus. Don’t ask me the Latin for that.
We enjoyed closer views the next day, first from the Pas de l’Aigle (where, yes, birds of prey rode thermals) and lofty point St-Amand, then from below as we strode down into Gigondas. The Romans who founded this settlement called it right, naming their new town Jocunditas – “delight”.
Delightful it remains, an island of honey-hued stone in a sea of vines, awash with caves offering tastings of the grenache, syrah and cinsault blends for which it’s toasted. Family-run Hotel Les Florets was no less of a joy; the wine list alone was the size of a Gutenberg Bible and nearly as impenetrable, its cuisine as accomplished as any we’d encountered.
Three hours’ undulating woodland rambling next morning brought us to the St-Maurice ridge, on which teeters the hamlet of Le Crestet, its walls jealously guarding a medieval heart. The façade of the 9th-century château on the village square now fronts a private residence, but the real delights are buried in car-free, cobbled lanes below: duck beneath arches and past tiled, shuttered stone houses to find the 11th-century church, well and ancient laundry.
Our final approach to Vaison, an hour along a wide track followed by an asphalt road, was a bit of an anticlimax, passing suburbs, modern villas and a blocky castle. But the cité médiévale picks up where Le Crestet left off with the cobbles, shutters and fountains.
So it was with reluctance that we wound our way down to our taxi rendezvous point alongside the Roman bridge; fittingly, it divides the ancient town from the modern, and marked our own transition from hungry hikers to homeward-bounders.
Skimming my journal on the Eurostar back to London, I detected echoes of Bridget Jones. (Paul’s Diary, 27 October. Exercise: 21km walk. Calories: 3,226. Glasses red wine: four.)
Perhaps I’d overdone the gluttony. But you could hardly blame me. As an example of how to blend robust rambling with vintage villages and refined local flavours, our Côtes du Rhône hike was the perfect dégustation. µ
Paul Bloomfield travelled with On Foot Holidays (01722 322 652; onfootholidays.co.uk), whose Côtes du Rhône self-guided walking itinerary costs from £940pp, including seven nights’ B&B, five excellent evening meals, five picnics, luggage transfers, maps and route notes, but excluding transport to Venasque and from Vaison-la-Romaine. He travelled from London to Lille by Eurostar, then by TGV to Avignon courtesy of voyages-sncf.com (0844 848 5848).
In summer, weekly services run London–Avignon direct; return fares start at £119. Regular buses link Avignon with Carpentras, from where a taxi to Venasque is about €30 (£24).
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