Provence is often thought of as the place in the sun where winter weary northerners can take that all important five weeks of paid vacation to come and rest among the lavender and sunflowers with the song of the cicadas serenading a friendly game of petanque accompanied by a cold pastis with water.

But the hidden gems that have seemingly fallen by the wayside of the A7, bypassed by white knuckled tourists racing to the seaside, are indeed the castles.  The good news for the Provence savvy voyageur is that some of the coolest communities in Southern France lie in proximity to these ancient giants, as though by some magnetic force, the medieval hamlet with its cathedrals, churches and cafes are pulling inward as tight as two cards in the hand of a Texas hold em gambler with four showing on the table.

Autoroute A7

Montelimar is known by travelers heading south on the A7 from Paris as “the doorway to the sun”. Could it be because there is a large sign on the A7 roadside about the size of the “Welcome to Wisconsin” sign on I-94 that says “Doorway to the Sun”?   Well anyway, Montelimar is a good place to start for the castle hunter because beginning in Montelimar one can wind down the national routes, or the wine road, on day trips to find some really interesting castle properties that are open for visits.  One simply needs to orient oneself with the “castle network”.

Chateau Grignan

Starting with Rochemaure Castle at Montelimar and heading southeast, it does not take long to get to the Chateaux Grignan. This is a magnificent property and certainly would be a main feature of any day trip. In fact any of the castle visits should be approached like a really good wine by taking one’s time and sipping easily. Other castles within easy shot of Montelimar include Suze-la-Rousse and Rochegude. A bit further south one would land in Avignon, home of the Palace of the Popes, which is a must see for every castle hunter’s itinerary.

Visiting each of these castles and diving into their history reveals a tightly interwoven story involving economic history and trade dating back to the Roman occupation, struggles for power and politics, warfare, invasion and other points of interest such as the crusades.

Chateau Rochemaure

Rochemaure Castle is essentially the lead castle in the wine road castle network, with her hamlet bordering the Rhone River and only 6-7 minutes by car  to Montelimar’s commercial district.   Around 100 B.C. the Romans colonized Rochemaure in Provence, constructed a Roman spa resort and named it Fontes Collaxionis which means “spring that dilates”. It’s meaning is uncertain but it is probably due to either the claimed medicinal properties of the water for digestive trouble or the skin pore opening qualities the bathers experienced. The Romans actually brought to market the mineral water from Rochemaure’s springs which originate deep within the pores and fissures of this ancient volcanic mount. It should be no surprise that in 145 A.D. the Romans took advantage of Rochemaure’s strategic elevation over “the Roman way of Antonin le Pieux” (a Roman emperor), which was the first Roman road through southern France, as a fortress. In 412 the Visigoths invaded Rochemaure and in 1843 Rochemaure actually seceded from France by way of the Treaty of Verdun, to become part of Lotharingie (which was an early demarkation of the region of Provence as we know it today.)  Here are some quick Rochemaure facts:

  • 1039-1308 A.D. – Rochemaure was part of the Germanic empire
  • 1120-1140 A.D – the first part of the castle of Rochemaure was constructed, which was the dungeon, or prison.
  • 1200 A.D. – Construction began on “the Lord’s house” and the walls surrounding the village of Rochemaure. At this time construction began on the church “Our Lady of Angels”  taking 50 years to build.
  • 1308 A.D. – Rochemaure again became part of France.
  • 1598 A.D. – Construction began on the Chateau de Joviac. Le Chateau de Joviac is today the location of an international watercolor painting (aquarelle) festivals each year in July.
  • 1628 A.D. – The worst epidemics of the plague hit Rochemaure, and in 1630 the castle was evacuated and vacated.
  • 1709 A.D. -The only time in recorded history, the Rhone River was completely frozen and people were able to cross it on foot at Rochemaure.
  • 1792 A.D. – A system of ferry boats were put in service for regular transportation across the Rhone. In 1842 the first bridge to cross the Rhone began at Rochemaure

    Pont Rochemaure

    making it a popular trading hub.

  • 1856 A.D. – A flood destroyed the bridge and it was rebuilt in 1858.
  • 1944 A.D. – The bridge was destroyed by allied airplanes in WWII.
  • 1944 A.D. – Rochemaure is liberated from Nazi control by the allied forces.

Today there are several springs that exist within the community of Rochemaure as in the “Cartier de Fontaines” neighborhood. La Bernarde is one that has a reputation for high quality water and is still in use. The Rochemaure community is trying to raise money to restore the suspension bridge across the Rhone as landmark for pedestrians.  If you are curious about the fantastic people of Rochemaure history and the “castle network”, you can begin to learn more about her lords and ladies here:

Adhemar de Monteil carries Holy Lance

 

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