Backroads of Provence: The Castle Network Tuesday, Mar 15 2011 

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


Now you can have a TechVoygeur experience in Provence –


Backroads of Provence: Robinhood Forest where Kids Swing in Trees Monday, Feb 7 2011 

How about this for a day of vacation adventure?  Head to the Forest of Robin where you will suddenly find yourself surrounded by kids swinging in trees.  There is a small French village in the Drome of Provence called Marsanne which holds a true “backroads” secret. 

Marsanne, Drome Provence

Marsanne is only about 20 minutes north of our favorite destination in Provence, the city of Montelimar which is named after Lord Montelimar who funded Rochemaure Castle.  Driving through beautiful rolling countryside, one must choose whether to gaze at the snow capped peaks of the Vercors mountains in the distance or catch the farms and aquestrian training centers that line the highway along the way.  The objective of the adventure, however, remains top of mind; finding the hidden Forest of Robin, or what is affectionately known by our kids as “Robinhood’s Forest”. 

Foret de Robin

This is no ordinary forest.  This is a pristine primeval wood at the top of a mountain looking over the village of Marsanne and “La plaine de Roubion” which is a small river that feeds into the Rhone.  In those woods lies an attraction that is a “must do” for the entire family.  Accrobranche is where kids swing in the trees.  Adults swing in the trees.  In fact anyone who cares to feel like a kid again can strap on the climbing harness, pay the $25 -30 euros for the day and start climbing into the canopy of the Forest of Robin. 

The trees are huge and spectacular.  So large, in fact, that there are multiple levels of accrobranche courses, ranging from beginner to advanced, layered on top of one another in this roughly 40 acre section of the national park.  Accrobranche is a network of thick metal cables that are connected to trees.  Each cable line represents a section of the course.  The cables can be only a few feet of the ground or way up at the top of the forest canopy depending on the skill level of the course. 

You start low and as you become more adventerous you work yourself higher into the canopy.  Each run has its own unique method of crossing between the trees from one wooden platform to the next.  For example, using mountaineering caribiners you lock your rock climbing harness to the cable and begin to cross between the trees by walking on a suspension bridge made of wooden planks.  Or you could walk across on a cable tight rope or perhaps a series of swinging wooden logs lined up with the ends touching eachother where you would take a few steps then cross over to the next swinging log.  Before you know it, you are 100 feet off the ground and there are dozens of squealing kids, moms and dads beneath you all making their way from one tree to the next. It’s really like being one of the lost boys in “Peter Pan”.  I actually heard one old guy with red socks, bad shorts and a scruffy complexion a couple of trees away muttering to himself in a British accent “Now I remember Wendy…I’m Peter!”

At the very top of a giant pine tree is a wooden platform fit for about a dozen climbers.  It looks like a huge tree fort.  I was probably as frightened looking up at it as I would have been looking down from on top.  There was laughter and bird calls coming from the tree tops.  When I heard the “cockadoodledoo!” bellowing out I figured either a picnicker had too much pastis for lunch, or a bus full of Packer fans pulled in.  It couldn’t have been a bus of Vikings fans, because as a Vikings fan I absolutely can tell the difference between a “cockadoodledoo!” and a “boobradchildressboo!” echoing through the trees.  One sounds like the offense successfully converted on 4th and one and the latter sounds like the mating call of a defeated arctic yak.

I then heard my name being called.  I zoomed in with my camera and located my 8 year old daughter stepping out onto the ledge of that advanced climbing platform 100 feet up.  She was th only kid up there and my heart was in my throat.  The run is called a “tyrolienne”.  The climber snaps the two carabiners to a metal pulley fastened to the cable to flies about 75 yards down to another very large pine, landing on a military cargo net.  The trick is to start climbing as fast as possible so the next climber doesn’t come crashing into you.  My daughter made it look easy as she flew past through the tree tops.   My wife, of course, helped here get safely attached and the followed our daughter to help her scramble up when she hit the net.

So with such a large adventure park a few clicks away from the village of Marsanne, why would one “suddenly” find themself surrounded by kids in trees?  Because the place is tricky to find.  At the end of the sleepy main street of Marsanne, a hard left turn that is not well marked is required.  Then climbing steep switchbacks up the mountain, one really doens’t know how far to go.  Just when it seems sensible to turn around and head home, there lies a parking lot with cars and picnickers playing petanque and running across the forest road to the accrobranche equipment chalet out in the woods.

Accrobranche is remote and there is no electricity.  That means that there is no credit card machine.  So if you are bringing your family, you need to plan on having around $100 euros cash on hand for the park tickets.  As we discovered, heading back down the mountain in search of cash, the sleepy town of Marsanne has but one ATM machine in the center of town which seems to be always out of cash.  I think the locals get a kick out of watching the frustrated tourists pull out their ATM card, then read the out of order sign and stomp away.   

Accrobranche is a great way to spend a day having lots of fun and see a area of Provence many would otherwise pass by.  Pack a lunch to keep in the car and don’t hesitate to bring the entire family, no matter their age.

Ciao for now!

For a real TechVoyageur experience, visit historic Rochemaure Castle in the heart of Provence!

Backroads of Provence: Drink Fruits and Flowers at Domaine Eyguebelle Monday, Jan 3 2011 

If you find yourself on the backroads of Provence near Montelimar and exploring the wine road area you may run across Domaine Eyguebelle just south of the city. If you are not in the area, then make a point of getting there. Bringing tasty items like fruit syrop back from Provence in your luggage is always an exercise in the art of compromise. Bottles are heavy and the luggage weight limits on international flights are down to 31.8 kilos per check in bag. So if I had a choice of bringing home a bottle of French wine or a bottle of Eyguebell syrop, it would have to be a fairly rare bottle of wine for me to leave the Eyguebelle behind. You can always find a bottle of French wine back in the states. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who sells or even knows who this greatest of all distilled fruit syrops and liquers is. Even if someone made a lucky guess and suggested that you can buy Creme de Menthe at their shop, it is unlikely that they would know that it was actually invented by the monks at the Eyguebelle Monastery.

Hai Karate Aftershave

Ah yes, that wonderfully green forgotten liquer that tastes like mint.  The first time I had a taste of this concoction it was back in the 1960s when I was just a boy.  I was at a neighborhood friend’s house and there was a crystal decanter on the living room coffee table filled with an electric green liquid.  I don’t know whether it was just a 1960s era attraction to anything that would look cool under a black strobe light, or a James Bond attitude of “suave and debonaire” having purchased Hai Karate aftershave for dad at Christmas that heightened my curiousity.  Perhaps it was simply a kid’s fascination of things like bug guts that made the green liquid too hard to pass up.  I took a snort and recall being somewhat underwhelmed.  I am not a real mint fan.

But I didn’t even find out that the Eyguebelle monks had invented creme de menthe until I was about 1/2 the way through the factory tour.  I had been drinking other syrops like Tessier for years.  My wife’s family would send them to us each Christmas and the kids absolutely love mixing real fruit syrops like raspberry, almond and cassis with Perrier, San Pellegrino or even ordinary tap water.  I realized that these commercially available syrops were indeed “kids stuff” when it compares to the world of Eyguebelle.  Following the short factory tour and museum walk we wandered into a factory store with a bewildering array of shelves loaded with bottles of syrops, aperitifs and liquers for sale.  The entire family drifted away in a state of wonder, looking at all the flavors.

Eyguebelle Syrops

There was syrop for just about every natural fruit extract you can imagine.  Then there is a complementary alcohol-based liquer that matches each syrop in the same selection of fruit flavors.  For example, I was drawn to the fig syrop.  It just sounded interesting.  So when I elbowed my way up to the syrop bar – that’s correct, Eyguebelle has a syrop bar long enough to serve about 10 people and the boy behind the counter asks you for your flavor, pulls a full bottle from the rack behind him, puts in a shot, adds spring water and delicately places an ice cube in the glass – I asked for the fig syrop.  Tasting that cold fig in ice water was heavenly.  Then the bartender asked with a smile if I would like to taste the creme de figue.  This alcohol-based version of the syrop I had just tasted, he explained, won the bronze medal at the 2006 industry competition in Paris.  He was right.  This liquer, not mixed with water but taken with a simple ice cube in th glass, was over the top.

Fois Gras & Carmelized Fig

I think the reason I was so attracted to the fig flavor is that during my recent gastronomic adventure across Provence, I was turned on to the fact that fois gras goes very well with a sweet fruit and figs are often served to be eaten with fois gras.  So I hatched the plan that during Christmas, when fois gras is served at our home with friends, creme de figue would be introduced and blow the guests away.

So much for fig.  My wife was not terribly interested in fig.  My kids were wearing out thebartender with everything but fig.  I guess nobody else connected the fois gras thing.  Sometimes enjoying top shelf gourmet cuisine can be a lonely adventure.  The reality is that kids just like spaghetti.

So my kids were downing the raspberry (of course) and the strawberry and then advancing to the more sophisticated tastes of mandarine and green bannana (wow!)  My wife starting dipping into the flowers (yes flowers) and shared with me the poppy and the lavender syrop.  I began to realize that we were arriving at an impasse, yes a battle of wills.  With luggage already filled to the brim, how many bottles would it take to get the bag weight to within a gram of 31.8 kilos?  Then she did it.  My wife pulled out the famous Melonade liquer.  That single ice cube floating merrily in a couple of shots of this light orange liquid all resting in a pure crystal glass is nearly impossible to beat.  It tastes just like you are biting into a cold slice of fresh canteloupe.  So now I am thinking of prosciutto and melon rather than fois gras and fig.  She had me dead to rights.

Prosciutto & Melon

But alas, three children means six extra suitcases!!  So I am looking at my bottle cabinet with creme de figue, melonade and syrop of lavender, poppy, raspberry all at the same time.  What’s that hidden back there?  Could it be?  Yes!  It’s green bannana! What a holiday it will be.

Ciao for now!

For a real TechVoyageur experience, visit historic Rochemaure Castle in the heart of Provence!

Backroads of Provence: A Repose for the Sweet Tooth Friday, Nov 26 2010 

If you have ever been afraid of returning from your vacation to Provence about 10 pounds heavier than when you left…then be afraid, very afraid.  The fears are warranted because the country of France is sometimes overlooked as producing  some of the best candies, chocolates, pastries and essences of fruit in the world.  Each department of France seems to have its own claim on one of more specialty foods; and sweets are usually part of the conversation.  The Drome region of Provence is no exception.  The pastry shops are phenomenal.  Les Patisseries are phemomenal all over France and the Drome has its own offering of special cookies, cakes and breads.  So in the interest of getting right to the point we will have to engage in a discourse on La Patisserie Francaise some other time.  Let’s talk candy; the sweets of Provence.

La Patisserie Francaise

If you venture into the wine road country, you will have to land in the city of Montelimar.  For many travelers this can be the beginning of a good wine road vacation in Provence.  It will be even more so when the new TGV station gets built in the Montelimar suburb of Allan in 2011.  An easy and cheap Iceland Air flight to Paris puts you at the TGV station in the Charles De Gaulle airport and viola, the fast train will put you right in Montelimar.  Oh joy!  You get to visit and see all the “fabrications du nougat” in Montelimar.  If you have never heard of a man named Arnaud Soubeyran before you will know him now.

Nougat Montelimar

Arnaud Soubeyran often gets credited for inventing the famous French candy called nougat.  Nougat was actually invented by artisanal candy makers throughout the Montelimar area and perfected by housewives, homemakers and grandmas over the years.  Mr. Soubeyran would never take credit for inventing nougat, but through his legacy he goes down in history as the young engineer who started from a modest beginning to become the “Henry Ford” of nougat manufacturing.  He made nougat famous throughout the world and he made Montelimar famous for nougat.  There are many small nougat factories and outlets around downtown Montelimar, but the place to start is the Soubeyran nougat museum and factory.

Museum Soubeyran Nougat

I am normally not a fan of museum tours when I am on vacation in the U.S.  Have you ever been on vacation and in the midst of Nowhereville, South Dakota had to put up with a screaming car of kids trying to get you to stop for a tour the famous Corn Palace, the Wall Drug Store, or some other tourist trap?  Then you sneak past when the family has fallen asleep and when the awake you say “aw shucks guys, I missed the exit and we’ll have to hit it on the way home”?  Well the Soubeyran museam is certainly not like that.  On the contrary, it is quite tasteful (pardon the play on words) and really pretty cool.  Unlike American “nougat” – like the stuff in the middle of a Mars candy bar – real nougat of Provence is a delicious, tender and fragrant artisanal confection made from pure and healthy ingredients like eggs, almonds, milk and honey.  It is spectacular, and there are so many different kinds. The museum store at the end of the tour will leave your head spinning and you wallet empty.

Furthermore, there is something for everyone on this tour.  For those who like to cook, there is the discovery that this seemingly simple confection is actually very difficult to do right. 

Nougat the Old World Way

For those who like manufacturing there is the history, continuity and change where the old way of doing things meets modern day marketing and brand management. The tour includes amazing machines that young Arnaud Soubeyran invented and patented to package and distrubute the nougat at larger volumes without compromizing the quality.  You might think of him as the Willy Wonka of France.  Indeed the old ways don’t change and you can actually see a batch of nougat in production at the plant and taste the fresh final product.  But if you don’t like candy and you don’t like history and if you don’t like manufacturing and if you don’t like learning about the empire of a young French entreprenuer, then you will love the coffee shop. 

At a small oasis away from the tour and the candy grabbing kids is the cafe.  You can sit there peacefully and be served the best coffee you’ve ever had.  Then as you enjoy the aromas and, of course, fresh nougat that the hostess places on your coffee saucer, you can just chill and watch her sit next to you at a cafe table to assemble boxes of nougat – yep everybody pitches in at the plant.  If you don’t like the coffee shop, then I guess I’m out of bullets and you’ll have to walk down to the wine shop, buy a bottle of champagne, sit in the parking lot with a plastic cup and listen to “You Know I’m No Good” by Amy Winehouse on the renta-car stereo.

In closing, the sweets in France are awesome.  There are  more sweet surprises to come in future blogs; but for now Soubeyran will have to do.  In my humble opinion, he is more than enough to satisfy the most demanding sweet tooth.

Ciao for now!

For a real TechVoyageur experience visit historic Rochemaure Castle in the heart of Provence.

Backroads of Provence: Cuisine Experience that is “Over the Top” Sunday, Nov 7 2010 

My wife and I were presented an anniversary gift from her sister Isabelle (merci beaucoup Isa!) during our last trip to Provence. (as an aside, Isabelle is a successful entrepreneur who has built an on-line clothing empire called Boutique Magique, specializing in unique wedding ensembles for the attendants to the bride and groom).  The gift consisted of a day touring an area of the Drome region of Provence located not terribly far from the area of The Wine Road discussed in my last blog.

The first part of the day was a visit to the Domaine St. Luc near Solerieux. (Both the Domaine and  Solerieux deserve blog entries unto themselves, so more on these later.) After the wine tasting and tour, we hit a short stretch of back road to enter the medieval village of La Garde-Adhemar from the south. 

Une Village Medieval

La Garde-Adhemar was a 12th century fiefdom of the Adhemar family and an outpost that guarded the southern route to the Adhemar’s residence in Montelimar.  I have always wondered whether the writers of the film A Knight’s Tale borrowed the name from this village and used it for the name of the villain Count Adhemar, played by actor Rufus Sewell.

The Black Count

After circling the tiny medieval roads of La Garde in our rental car, we finally parked at the top public parking lot near the North Gate of the village and took a quick promenade inside.  You could easily spend an entire day at La Garde-Adhamar wandering the sleepy hamlet, being stared at from local cats hanging on the balcony’s of quaint renovated apartments and choosing a shady alley bar to hang out and sip on a pastis, a Cotes du Rhone, or perhaps a nice Tricastin.

Ricard Pastis

Our little walk was short-lived when a local explained to us that our dinner destination was back down the hill towards the A7.  So down we went wondering where on earth the destination of our coveted gift certificate would be.  To find Le Logis de l’Escalin, one has to have a bit of the chasseur de truffes (truffle hunter) in them.  A couple of switchbacks down the hill we finally spotted an open gate and a narrow and concealed driveway heading into the hotel property.  We parked and sauntered down a short walk to what looked like a bed and breakfast.  Stepping through the landscaped entrance we found ourselves on a sprawling stone patio with fine linen tables and a small crowd of people thoroughly enjoying a brilliant orange sunset on the other side of the Rhone valley.  Wow, what a view!  We were given a patio table for two. 

The first gentleman to hit our table asked us what we would like to drink and I requested a Cote du Rhone from the Rochegude area.  He paused and explained “one moment while I ask.  I am the cheese expert.”  I knew at that point we were somewhere special.  This was a gastronomic meal that lasted four hours.  It was absolutely “over the top” magnificent.  I did not know that fois gras could be prepared in so many ways.  There seemed to be about 12 gourmet courses, but I lost count.  We had fois gras fried, layered with delicious fig, plates of assorted Provencal delights such as olive tapanade, pates and sun-dried tomato crostinis.  The main courses (yes of course there were two) included a delightful filet of beef and a succulent fish similar to a Chilean sea bass.  We had our cheese indeed.  The gentleman we initially met wheeled out the table.  It looked like a live encyclopedia of cheese.  He took the time to walk us through the varieties, but unfortunately that far into such a meal we could only whimper out a request for a few small slices of a chevre (goat) and a vache (cow).

Then came the unexpected.  The garcon approached the table with what appeared to be a watermelon puree cocktail and an assortment of delightful cookies.  Just as it seemed we had arrived at the end of the meal, he informed us that this was only the “pre desert.”  Following the pre desert was the dessert boat.  There were 7-8 small assorted desserts arrayed on a long white plate that looked like a work of art.  Sugar wafers in balls of ice cream, banana creme, fruit mousse, chocolate inventions and small pastries were all lined up and ready to go.  By the way, we each had our own plate of course.

Just as one’s mind cannot sufficiently wrap itself around the concept of the heavenly realm in a manner worthy to describe it, my description of the cuisine at Le Logis de l’Escalin cannot even begin to adequately describe our experience.  During our meal we were able to look through the large glass window of an addition to the original home and watch the head chef, his assistants and the sous chefs working like a well oiled machine moving hard throughout the evening.  They were absolutely incredible in their creations and control of the timing, temperature and delivery of every single item. 

Unfortunately we did not spend the evening there, but I would highly recommend Le Logis de l’Escalin to any traveler looking for a cool spot to crash for a night or two at the outskirt of La Garde-Adhemar.  And by the way, even if you are not a “chasseur de truffes,” you can always start any good meal with a champagne laced with oil of truffles…it is called a “Black Diamond” and it is out of this world.  According to P.T. Barnum in his book The Art of Money Getting, “You can’t work if your sick.”  Neither can you enjoy a vacation in Provence if you aren’t feeling well.  So we always start and end our day in France with a Reliv…unless you just at like we did and then it can be a bit of a challenge.

Ciao for now!

For a real TechVoyageur experience visit historic Rochemaure Castle in the heart of Provence!