Most people know of the main attractions of France. Paris, the French Riviera, the Loire valley, the Alps and others. But it can be just as spectacular and exciting to visit the regional areas also. They hold a certain intrigue. A secret that hasn’t yet been exposed on the front of postcards or within tourist brochures that is instead ready to be discovered by the intrepid traveler.
The Dentelles de Montmirail are a segment of the mountains in northern Provence which contain a unique formation of rock piercing out from the top, giving to their name of the Dentelles (or ‘lace’). The mountains themselves are not extremely high and many walking tracks have been carved out into the mountains, including a few roads that will get you most of the way there.
A trip to the Dentelles on a bright sunny day can be a highlight for many reasons. One of the first is simply the drive there. Winding country roads navigate the car through fields and vineyards, with cellar doors popping up around each corner. The vineyards perched below the Dentelles offer stunning views and amazing photograph opportunities.
On approaching the Dentelles, the small town of Grignan is encountered. Grignan situates itself at the foot of the Dentelles but works its way slightly uphill. It presents itself just as most other villages in the region with an historic and antique appearance and an accommodating charm.
Soon the climb up the Dentelles (still within the car) becomes steep. In an instant, the car progresses from behind a tree and the incredible view below is exposed. This pattern occurs continuously, each exposure presenting a new angle of the view at a higher altitude and you find yourself in a constant state of amazement.
Eventually a small parking spot is reached close to the top of the Dentelles. Here there are tables and flat areas to accommodate the hikers that frequent this region. And it’s the older population that seem to enjoy coming to this part of the mountains as the summit is easily accessible by car and the walking tracks are not too advanced. I talk to a few of them as we prepare to have lunch and it’s evident that their sense of adventure has not waned one bit. Ask them about the region and they will, with excitement and pleasure, tell you all about the various sights to see before leaving. The people of this region are very proud of it, and for good reason.
A well constructed staircase leads up to one of the many lookouts in the Dentelles and the view is as spectacular as expected given the ascent to the current position. The mistral blows strong up here and it’s important to hold on to your hats or cameras tightly, as it is a long way down if you lose them.
Although the Dentelles are far from tall in respect to the other mountains in France, a clear and sunny day allows you to see for miles from the lookout. It’s views like this that give you the sense of satisfaction. Not just of climbing the mountain – eighty percent was achieved in a vehicle, but of the adventure that you have undertaken. The adventures that are yet to come and the excitement that they create.
Afterwards a slightly more difficult walking path is embarked upon. These paths are still clearly marked with coloured dots (to indicate correct direction) or crosses (to indicate incorrect) and numbers to indicate the hike route that one is on at the time. The terrain is a bit more challenging and it’s easy to tell that some of these paths haven’t been explored often as vegetation begins to become thick along the way. Each path reveals it’s own secrets. Our’s abruptly ends at a vineyard perched in the middle of the Dentelles.
The descent is pretty easy going. A different path is taken. Not just by ourselves but by the car also. Here in the countryside of France, the roads can resemble the walking paths through the mountains. The many tiny villages that are spread out across the region mean that there are also a multitude of roads, and the route to get from one town to another can be taken in many different ways.
A satisfying and beautiful day in the Dentelles.
But the day was not finished yet.
The secrets are many here and on the return to Rousset-les-Vignes we pass by Vaison-la-Romaine, another small village in the area. But this town is much older than most of the others. This town contains a lot of history.
Here, ancient ruins of the Roman days can be observed in the middle of the town, exposed to all. The sites have been sectioned off, to ensure that visitors must pay for entry and profits are gained. But the fee is small and the sites are large. They are well documented with plaques as you pass each site. One a former kitchen, the other a bathhouse.
It’s spectacular to stand in a spot and realise that more than two thousand years ago the Roman civilisation was standing in that same spot, developing and shaping the European world. Or to touch the same stone columns that so many other Romans have touched years ago.
The highlight of these ruins is beyond the hill, where the ancient amphitheatre lies. It’s size is by no means comparable to the modern stadiums of today but it is still immense considering the era that it was created in. Walk through the tunnels, up the stairs and into the stands and feel like what it must have been for the performers all those years ago.
The amphitheater was in surprisingly good shape and as I sat in the stadium alone I wondered who else may have been sitting in the exact same spot, and what shows must have entertained them. The exact same stone, or so I thought.
Yet no. The audioguide informed me that the amphitheater had been restored since it’s discovery, originally with wood and later with stone. A bit disappointing, but perhaps it was unrealistic of me to expect a two thousand plus year old stadium to still be standing with original materials.
The amphitheater is actually still used to this day for modern shows in the area, and it is understandable therefore that the authorities may want to renovate it for safety reasons.
And so a magnificent day was finished. Well, there was still the drive home which of course was taken down a different road to that which took us there in the morning but presented just as picturesque views.
It just goes to prove that sometimes the best days and sights when traveling can occur in the most unknown of places.
This is why it’s necessary to explore rather than to follow a guidebook.