A Special Place in Provence
Story and Photos by Richard and Jean Truman
Imagine finding a small, charming, country-style hotel, in a magical setting, owned and operated by a warm and distinguished French family, lying in the heart of one of France’s premier wine countries. A hotel not yet overrun by tourists, but only a short trip by car to many of the popular tourist destinations in Avignon, Orange, and Vaison-la-Romaine. We found such a place one bright and sunny day in Gigondas, a small hilltop town in the Rhone Valley, at the foot of Mont Ventoux in Provence.
We had awakened early that morning in a small hotel overlooking the Cours Mirabeau, the picturesque main street of the historic medieval city of Aix en Provence. The day before, this now quiet street had been teeming with tourists and local residents, strolling under the high canopy of plane trees, exploring the cafes, restaurants, and the multi-colored canopied booths of the weekend marketplace. A market where many of the fine products of Provence, lace, linens, cheese, wine, foie gras, and tapenade, to name a few, were on display. We were looking forward to the next leg of our two month tour through Europe, a road trip into the heart of the Haut Vaucluse. The Vaucluse area of Provence, known for its vineyards, Roman ruins, truffles, lavender, fine wines and hilltop towns, is a two hour journey by car to the northeast of Aix. This is a land of rolling orchards and vineyards lying at the foot of Mont Ventoux, a mountain peak towering 6263 feet abov e sea level.
Our final destination that bright October day was Gigondas, described as the loveliest of all Mont Ventoux, Cotes-du-Rhone, wine villages and the home of the formidable, Grenache based, red wine that bears the name of the village. With 40 plus “caveaux”, or tasting caves, in the village and nearby countryside, there would be many opportunities to visit these vineyards and to taste and buy this legendary local red.
As we drove toward Gigondas on the D-8 highway, an ocean of green vineyards surrounded us on all sides, expanding out across the countryside as far as the eye could see. The sky was a clear azure blue with a few pillowy white clouds drifting across the horizon. This view was broken only by the occasional chateau, home to the owners of the vineyards and wineries in the vicinity. In the distance, the hills and limestone crags of the majestic Dentelles de Montmirail, wrapped in a silky white mist, rose to the sky from the tree covered hills below. The Dentelles, a cluster of limestone spires crowning a group of hills, weathered into a patchwork of lace-like ridges and needles, stand guard like gigantic sentinels over the town.
A brief stop in town for lunch at a charming restaurant with tree covered, outdoor dining, a walk through the shops and a few tasting caves, and a stop at the local Tourist Information Office, assured us that we had come to the right place.
A short five-minute drive up the mountain road in back of the town, toward the Dentelles, brought us to our home for the next few days, the beautiful Hotel les Florets. There we were warmly greeted by the owner, Monsieur Terry Bernard and his staff. The hotel occupies a unique location. It sets up above the town at an elevation of 1200 feet. It faces the Dentelles and overlooks the vineyards in the countryside below. It is a simple hotel, done in a traditional French country style, with the colors of the walls, drapes and bed covers decorated in the bright colors for which Provence has become well known. Antique period pieces can be seen and enjoyed throughout the hotel. Inviting walking trails are also available to the hotel guests. The Bernard family also owns a local wine estate, and guests are welcome to make arrangements for tastings.
Since our room was not quite ready on our arrival, we were treated to a glass of the local wine, served in the garden terrace located at the front of the hotel. While we were sitting in the garden contemplating our good fortune in finding this magnificent spot, we were surrounded by pots of blooming impatiens geraniums, and hydrangeas, and shaded by the broad ash colored limbs and green leaves of the plane trees that encompass the terrace. Looking out away from the hotel we could see the gray stone spires of the Dentelles towering nearby.
Our room was cheerfully decorated, and the windows opened out to a clear view of the terrace below. The bathrooms had been recently renovated with modern plumbing fixtures and tiled floors and walls. Each room has a shower or a bathtub. In the evening the lights in the garden terrace created a shadowy and fairyland effect. It was at this time that the numerous pet cats, that had made the hotel grounds their home, came out for their evening walk and to receive their evening meal, served to them by the hotel staff at the back door of the kitchen.
Since the hotel restaurant had the reputation for being the best in the area, we decided to dine there that evening. We were not disappointed, as the four-course gourmet meal, served by the Bernard family and their staff, was outstanding and, at a fraction of the cost, comparable in quality and service to some of the fine restaurants of Paris. Other amenities include a bar/lounge, telephones and TV in the room, and a private car park. Pets are welcome.
Using the Hotel Les Florets as our base, we spent the next several days exploring the caveaux and vineyards surrounding Gigondas and Vacqueyras, a nearby town also well known for the quality of its red wine. Vacqueyras was the latest of the Cote-du-Rhone wines to earn its own appellation. This is the right to put its village name on the bottle instead of the generic, less prestigious, Cotes-du-Rhone label, a right that Gigondas has had for some time. The old fortified village has had vineyards for centuries. Pliny the Elder mentions it in his writings, and the Saint Cosme Estate cellars, dug into the ancient Miocene sands, indicate that vines existed here when the armies of Rome controlled the land .
The number of wines from this area are too numerous to name here, but some of the best that we experienced, at moderate prices, include 98 Grand Bois Cotes-du-Rhone, 95 Jean Roux, 98 Chateau du Trignon, 99 Domaine du Grapillion D’or and the 99 Domaine Les Palliesres. As described by an international wine guide, “Gigondas wines have a high level of alcohol, 14 to 14.5 percent, and an assertive sappiness and strength. They have a complex bouquet suggesting ripe fruit and spices and an aromatic woodland aftertaste….” However you choose to describe them, you will agree that they are excellent wines, and you will not be disappointed.
Gigondas is a convenient location from which to take day trips to some of the other attractions in the area. The historic cities of Orange and Avignon are close by. The magnificent hilltop towns of Gordes and Rousillon, with their never to be forgotten views of the towns and valleys below, are an easy drive by auto. There are many other lesser-known villages with small shops and markets that are minutes away. Our hosts at the Hotel Les Florets were extremely helpful in providing us with information about these villages, activities in the area, and where the best restaurants could be found.
A week after our arrival we said farewell to the Bernard family and their staff and drove to the train station outside of Aix to catch the bullet train to Paris. We had had an unforgettable experience in Gigondas, the Hotel Les Florets, the caveaux, vineyards, and other hilltop towns of this enchanting area. We had made many new friends, were well rested, and looking forward to our next adventure in Paris, but we were both in agreement that someday soon we would return to Gigondas and the Hotel Les Florets, this very special place in Provence.
Directions to Gigondas: From Carpentras take D7 for Beaumes de Venise and Vacqueyras, after Vacqueyras go right on D7 to Gigondas, 2km
Hotel Les Florets
Route des Dantelles 84190 Gigondas Vaucluse, France
Tel: 33.04.90.65.85.01 Fax: 33.04.90.65.83.80
14 Rooms and 1 Apartment: 90 to 120 Euros, double occupancy with shower or bathtub