We left behind us the beautiful city of Avignon to head just a little way further north, following the Route du Vin into the Rhône Valley region, with our first stopover in the celebrated town of Châteauneuf –Du-Pape.
We parked up in the empty car-park at the original Chateau, high on the hill overlooking the town, in what was classed as the official aire for motorhomers visiting the town. The views were spectacular, but the open gravel parking was fully exposed to the harsh winds and we were battered and rocked wildly for the short time we were there. Fearing we would be unable to sleep with the weather as it was, we went in search of an alternative option.
We first walked down the hill into the wine-dominated town, passed stone-built restaurants and many winery merchants offering dégustation gatuit, free wine tastings that we would definitely partake in later. We saw the neat stone church as we descended through the town’s cobbled streets. We reached the main street and spoke to helpful locals in the central tourist office who suggested we could stay in the local car park at some nearby playing fields, if we preferred. Due to the high winds and open isolation of the official aire, we most definitely did prefer. We later returned to Benny and relocated to the sheltered car-park spot that was also conveniently positioned nearer the town centre.
Only a few minutes away, on the other side of the street, was another ‘dégustation and vende’ wine producer’s showroom, so we walked over to investigate. We undertook a self-guided wine tour around their small museum, with a complimentary audio guide that taught us more than we had ever wished to know about viticulture, soil types, production history, harvesting and bottling techniques and many other technical aspects of the wine industry. Afterwards, we met with their sommelier and had free tastings of several of their wines, learning a little about the subtleties of various flavours and how the type of soil affects the output.
We had a second free tasting later that afternoon in a different cave, feeling a little fraudulent as we sampled some quite expensive Châteauneuf –Du-Pape reds that we never had any intention of buying. But it was a lovely experience for us to sit with the sellers and learn a little more about the region and its wines; very enjoyable indeed.
Day 2 – Around Châteauneuf-du-Pape
The following morning when we awoke in the town, the strong, cold mistral winds were still blowing hard, so we decided a walk was a more suitable activity than a cycle to explore and help clear cobwebs. After a warming breakfast we headed off, first around the town again and then out into the open countryside south and west. There were vineyards galore, all with their vines in various stages of being pruned back to encourage next year’s growth. We passed a neat little whitewashed chapel nestled into the junction of two roads. We passed many more Domaines advertising their wares, each step taking us further away into the many hectares of vines that blanketed the countryside.
We continued along a river with a side canal, walking through rough scrub countryside where we lost the path, before we passed some private houses that were really run-down. They looked more like squats, poorly maintained properties with old, broken junk littering their overgrown gardens. Only the multitude of barking dogs and old cars parked up outside betrayed that they were currently inhabited. After discovering our wrong turning, we retraced our steps away from the ramshackle houses and back along the canal banks, through more overgrown forest trails.
We finally arrived at the Chateau de L’Hers, an ancient castle that now gives its name to a celebrated local winery. It is in private ownership, so we couldn’t visit, but it was an impressive construction. The site, strategically important on the river concourse throughout history, had been occupied since antiquity. Although many buildings have occupied the site, the existing stone keep was built in 1077, with additional improvements being added in 1316 by the then Pope John XXII, the former Bishop of nearby Avignon. The chateau sits in ruins now, but still provides historical interest and a strong physical presence.
We later played a little frisbee in empty car-park whilst we still had some light, as an introduction to the inaugural opening of ‘Games Night’, our new weekly night of cards, dominos and board games, all served up with laughter and wine. We have to find some way to keep ourselves occupied after our daily explorations.
Day 3 –
The morning was another cold, sharp, but thankfully quite still day. After saying our goodbyes to the lovely town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we drove a short distance to the nearby village of Bennarides, to use as an intermediate base from which to cycle. We found the small but spacious aire in the village, with only one other visitor parked up, in a huge off-road truck with wheels nearly as tall as Nicky. It looked the sort of extreme vehicle meant for crossing the Sahara or the Gobi desert on a serious expedition, not one to be casually exploring the cultured wineries and small villages of Provence.
We had a planned cycle route through the vineyards, a large circular loop that would take us back into Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the nearby regions. We unpacked our bikes and set off, first around Bennarides and then out into the vineyards on small, empty roads. It was a cold day, but bright and clear. It was proving easy now for us to distinguish the different shapes of vines, and the soils they were planted in as we passed. Four main soil types dominated the region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with large volcanic pebbles called galets roulés being the most common. Our route took us back through the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape , our recent home.
We reached a locally famous bridge, Le Pont de Armeniers, that formed a beautiful reflection on the still water below. The bridge construction began in 1925 as the result of much hard work by the combined local population.
We finally returned to the aire in Bennarides, after a relaxing 30km loop, where we packed away our bikes and readied ourselves to move on, slowly with tiny steps as we explored the region closely, to our next stop at another winery with dégustation at our favourite price.