Driving along a winding highway in the Alps in Southeast France last August, I thought back to the Romans. When they came charging down the mountains into the Rhône River Valley in the first century B.C., how did they ever maneuver their chariots around some of the hairpin curves I was navigating? Did they ever stall, as I once did, at a pivotal juncture at the foot of the Vercors Massif, drawing the ire of Gallic motorists — or the ancient equivalent — honking behind? (As a recent convert from automatic to stick shift, it was my “baptism of the road,” as my French wife, Claudie, put it.)
One thing I knew: They braked long enough to establish the colony of Delphinatus Viennensis, which would eventually blossom into Le Dauphiné — the one-time French province where personal and ancient history are intertwined for me in a place that Claudie once lyrically called “the geography of my heart.”
I came, I saw, I was conquered. For 31 years and counting, I have had privileged access to this charmed enclave of roughly 7,695 square miles in the southeast corner of France, ringed by the lavender fields and olive groves of Provence, the vineyards of the Rhône River Valley, and the plateaus and peaks of the Alps. On past visits we invariably dashed from Claudie’s native town, Valence, near some of the country’s finest vineyards, to arrive in time for dinner at her father’s ancestral village, Les Savoyons, in the Alps. But my beloved in-laws have died. There was no one awaiting us at table this time, so we took it slow.
The French Revolution divided the royal province into three departments — the Drôme, Isère and Hautes Alpes — and though the geography varies from fertile plains to rolling hills, to highlands and vertiginous summits, the regional identity remains distinctly Dauphinois. The mood is laid-back, down-to-earth, modulated by a midday siesta and a chilled sip of pastis.
But behind that mellow mood lie centuries of upheaval.
The area was the Roman military and commercial corridor of choice between the Alps and the Rhône; the Punic general Hannibal passed through with his elephants up from North Africa to challenge Rome, allegedly leaving behind the pintade (guinea hen), a succulent cousin of the turkey, traditionally raised in the Drôme. (It also became our favorite holiday fare, best roasted with chestnuts from Ardèche, across the Rhône.)
In the Middle Ages, the Dauphiné was a quasi-independent principality. Its rulers were called Dauphins, until the impecunious Dauphin Humbert II sold his holdings to the King of France in 1349, when the title fell to the king’s eldest son. The rugged terrain made it an optimal refuge for French Huguenots fleeing persecution during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century. In the 20th century, Jews fleeing the Nazi army and the Vichy Regime hid out here. It is hard for a visitor to square the scenic splendor of gorges like Grands Goulets and Combe Laval with the turmoil that took place on the Vercors where the French resistance made a valiant stand.
Valence, the capital of the Drôme, has a restored historic center, including a jewel of Renaissance architecture, the 16th-century Maison des Têtes, a palace in the late Gothic flamboyant style featuring the sculpted heads of allegorical figures and Roman emperors. The future French emperor Napoleon was posted in Valence as a young lieutenant. But the city’s present claim to fame is Pic, a Michelin three-star-rated restaurant run by Anne-Sophie Pic, France’s most celebrated female chef, where we once had my mother-in-law’s birthday, over seared fresh foie gras. (Our budget forbade a return visit on this trip.)
Next door to Valence is the Rhône River town of Tain-l’Hermitage, one of France’s wine meccas. The big names here are Paul Jaboulet Aîné and Michel Chapoutier, the latter a seventh-generation vintner. We took an electric-powered bicycle tour of Mr. Chapoutier’s vineyards, bursting with red syrah and white marsanne grapes, tended according to biodynamic principles. I’m ashamed to admit that the steep slope and hot sun got the better of us and we were forced to park our bikes below and hike up on foot. But our reward remained: a chilled glass of crisp white Chante-Alouette sipped in an old hunting lodge at the summit.
We had lunch at the home of friends, but should have skipped dessert: Our next stop was La Cité du Chocolat Valrhona, an interactive chocolate museum created by one of France’s leading commercial chocolate confectioners. For a sensual experience à la “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” you can touch, smell and taste your way through the process of chocolate production “from bean to bar.”
On our friends’ advice, we rounded out the day at the Domaine Bernard Ange in Clérieux, whose signature red Crozes-Hermitage is aged in the cave of an abandoned quarry. The genial Monsieur Ange hosts tastings in an open-air wine bar decorated with vintage insignia and advertisements.
That same quarry yielded the molasse rock that makes up the core of the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval, a marvel of outsider art about 18 miles northeast of Tain in Hauterives. I will never forget my first impression 20 years ago. The Palais Idéal looked to me like a termite hill disgorged mid-gurgle by a colossal oyster. The effect has not diminished over time. Part Khmer jungle temple, part Egyptian tomb, part Gothic cathedral, crawling with all manner of sculpted wildlife, it is the work of Ferdinand Cheval, a country postman inspired by the pictures of exotic places in the magazines he delivered. Posthumously recognized by the Surrealist André Breton and admired by Picasso, Cheval’s creation was preserved thanks to André Malraux, then the French Minister of Culture.
The Drôme is rich in artifact complementing scenic splendor. Fortified hilltop villages, like Le Poët-Laval, La Garde-Adhémar and La Motte-Chalancon, where local lords took refuge from passing marauders and where artists hide out today, are scattered among the lavender fields and forests of a pristine preserve in the Drôme Provençale, a southern subdivision of the department, much of it thankfully off-limits to industry.
Commerce made its mark elsewhere. We stopped at Saillans, in the Drôme River Valley, to visit a working magnanerie, a facility dedicated to silk farming and extraction. Silk thread was the economic mainstay of the region in the mid-19th century. A small grove of mulberry trees, the leaves of which make up the silk worm’s rarefied diet, is all that’s left of the thousands of mulberry trees that once thrived in the region. We toured the winding back streets of old Saillans with a garrulous Franco-Irish guide, David Gourdant, a blue-eyed giant who laughingly described the history of his hometown, a buffer between the embattled Catholic town, Crest, and Protestant Die, as “an ass between two chairs.”
After stopping off, as was our custom, at the Jaillance Cave Cooperative for a sip of Clairette, the local bubbly, we visited the ramparts of Die that I had long admired from afar. On closer inspection I found that the walls I had assumed to be medieval were, in fact, of Roman provenance, as is the sole surviving city gate. We found history going much further back in the form of a reconstituted Neolithic cave at the Musée Historique et Archéologique, a rich cache of ancient stones, which houses a menhir from 4,500 B.C., the tombstones of local gladiators and fragments of lavish Roman mosaics.
Die and the neighboring town of Luc-en-Diois were once important Roman outposts. But the Romans located their colonial capital in Vienne, in the department of Isère. The Musée Gallo-Romain, in Saint-Romain-en-Gal, situated beside excavated ruins on the opposite bank of the Rhône, features remarkable Gallo-Roman mosaics, including a haunting second-century depiction of Orpheus stroking his lyre.
Modern minstrels still strum their strings every summer at Jazz à Vienne, the annual festival held in a perfectly intact first-century Roman theater. We were too late this time for the festival (this year’s runs from June 28 to July 15), but I retain a vivid memory of the virtuoso guitarists George Benson and Gilberto Gil making the old stones vibrate some years back.
There is little left of the Roman presence in Grenoble, capital of Isère, though the Musée Archéologique, ingeniously conceived in the shell of a 12th-century church built atop a Gallo-Roman necropolis, reveals a layered history. But the locals still celebrate another conqueror. In 2015, they marked the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s escape from Elba via a route that passed through town, still referred to as the Route Napoléon, in his fleeting 100-day-long return to power. A Grenoblois friend, Jean-François, recalled feeling a chill at the sight of an actor impersonating the emperor. “I stared in disbelief,” he said. “History winked back.”
Grenoble’s greatest draw is its geographic site. You can hop a cable car to the Bastille for a sweeping view, weather permitting; in winter drive a mere 15 minutes to the ski slopes of Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse; or seek serenity, as we did, about 25 miles due north at the 11th-century Carthusian monastery of La Grande Chartreuse, one of France’s architectural marvels. You don’t have to be a monk to commune with the surrounding mountains.
From Grenoble we took the scenic Route Napoléon (N85) through the pretty old mountain town of Corps, at the border between Isère and Hautes Alpes, proceeding to a lone 11th-century chapel, Mère-Ėglise, that pokes out of the cliff like a petrified tree above the hamlet of Saint Disdier. It was a pilgrimage of sorts. We’d last stopped by years ago to sample the trout at La Neyrette, a country inn. Someone suggested a digestive hike up to the chapel.
“Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it,” Père Théo, the parish priest, had quoted Matthew 7:14 with a chuckle on our first visit way back when, leading us in through a narrow door. Père Théo died in 1999, but a plaque on his tombstone perfectly bespeaks the spirit of the place: “If you be Christian or not, from these parts or just traveling through, joyous or distressed,” it reads, “this is your house too.”
It was the same welcoming spirit I felt at many an outdoor family banquet that lasted till the stars lit up the sky. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in the Dauphiné — well, though I am still lovingly referred to as “l’Américain,” I sip pastis and play a pretty good game of pétanque. Yet though I’ve mastered the stick shift, I still drive defensively, ever on the lookout for careening chariots.
Les Domaines de Patras, 2300 Route de St. Paul, Solérieux, Drôme Provençale; 33-4-75-00-13-89; lesdomainesdepatras.com. Rooms start at 120 euros (about $133), breakfast included.
Prieuré de Veras, Oze, Hautes Alpes; 33-6-08-89-38-49;prieuredeveras.blogspot.com. Rooms start at 95 euros, breakfast included.
Pic (also Maison Pic, or Anne-Sophie Pic) is a Michelin three-star gem in Valence (285, avenue Victor-Hugo; 33-4-75-44-15-32; anne-sophie-pic.com).
For the foodie hiker:Auberge de Moissière (Rabou, Hautes Alpes; 33-4-92-57-95-85; auberge-moissiere.fr).
Café de la Table Ronde in Grenoble is one of France’s oldest cafes (7,place St.-André; 33-4-76-44-51-41; restaurant-tableronde-grenoble.com).
The bilingual, Franco-Irish guide David Gourdant, based in Saillans, knows Le Dauphiné like the back of his hand. Book throughandarta.org.
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