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Now browsing: Hometown News > Columnist Archives > Travel - Margie Kinder

Discovering wine and vineyards in Provence
Rating: 2.91 / 5 (218 votes)  
Posted: 2007 Jan 19 - 02:59

If your heart is warm with happiness, you'll need a glass of wine.

If sorrow chills your heart, have two.

After centuries of neglect, Avignon, "a provencial city" in France, is rediscovering its rich ecological heritage.

In the 14th century, Pope John XXII built a summer chateau in the hills above Avignon, and its ruins remain the most recognizable monument in the famed wine village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, today.

However, since the popes' return to Rome in the 15th century, the city has concentrated on other forms of culture. These days, it is most celebrated for its music, museums, history and theater festivals.

My fiancée, James and I, were visiting the Papal Palace in Avignon where we strolled through the immense building that the "exiled" Pope Clement V, began constructing at the beginning of the 14th century. As our tour proceeded, monastic (monastery) simplicity and austerity (strict teachings) give way to bright frescoes (hand painted) and flamboyant ceilings, signs of how the initial papal asceticism (strict practices) faded over time. As we headed toward the exit, we made time to stop at the palace's new wine shop, "The Boutellerie."

James knows a lot about American, Italian, German and French wines, but nothing of Rhone.

We're finally realizing that gastronomy and wine can be part of our cultural attractions, as well.

The Boutellerie, which opened in July 1999, is the premier sign of this renaissance. More than 40 winegrowers from the nearby vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas are represented. This shop occupies a grand setting, the former papal artillery room. A tasting of five wines is offered for just $5. Director Joachim Autard, a former winegrower, chatted with us and the other guests in English and French.

Outside the palace, Avignon is a lively, cosmopolitan town of about 100,000 people. A new, high-speed TGV train line, which travels at speeds more than 186 mph, provides frequent service from the city of light to the magnificent Mediterranean Sea.

Thick medieval walls, circle the old city. Pedestrians have free run of many lovingly maintained old squares, closed to traffic, but open to cafés, and in the center of town, a splendid double-decker carousel.

During the July and August theater festival, these squares explode with street productions of puppets and marionettes, dance, mime and cabaret, as well as serious, Broadway-caliber presentations.

Historic sites include: the Palace of the Popes, the Pont d'Avignon(Pont de St. Benezet), the opera, the Hotel de Ville, various churches and Cloitre St. Louis and the Rocher des Doms.

If you like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., then you'll love these following museums: the Musee en Images (more than 1000 images of Avignon), Musee du Petit Palais (painting and sculpture from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance), Musee Calvet and the Musee Lapidaire (archeology, prehistoric times, paintings from the 16th to the 20th centuries).

Last, but not least, some activities to enjoy include theater, opera, galleries, horseback riding, tennis, squash, ice skating and boat rides on the Rhone River.

A visit to Avignon is a wonderful way to kick off a wine tour of this part of the Southern Rhone. From downtown, it takes just 20 minutes to drive north to Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

This picturesque village sits above the Rhone River, and the old castle is visible in the distance.

You'll find lots of shops owned by winegrowers there, most offering only their own production, often at inflated prices. An exception is Maison des Vins, located on the main street. It represents 60 different estates, and tastings are free.

We were one of those couples who didn't have the time to visit lots of different estates. We wanted to have a place where we could sample and buy a wide choice of Chateauneuf wines.

For visitors who had more time, the tourist office handed out clear maps with directions to the major estates, most of which were open to the public. Some, such as Chateau La Nerthe and Chateau Mont-Redon, don't require reservations.

A few of the most prestigious names, such as Chateau du Beaucastel and Chateau Rayas, do and are selective about who they welcome.

However, with so many others to see, this shouldn't dampen anyone's enthusiasm.

From Chateauneuf, it was only a short ride to the region's other leading wine village, Gigondas.

You will definitely need to budget some time to stroll the narrow, cobble stone streets of the villages. Rochegude offers views of vineyards and distant mountains.

Gigondas isn't the only lovely town on the eastern side of the Rhone River. From its left bank there fan out many delightful Provencial wine towns: Seguret, Cairanne, Rasteau, Vacqueyras and Rochegude.

They feature medieval castles and churches and sand- and rust-colored houses with tile roofs, surrounded by an ocean of vineyards growing on flat land and low hills.

In Grignan, in the Drome department, medieval streets run in circles around a massive castle that rises up on a hill. Stop by the Village Provencial Miniature, a re-creation of turn-of-the-century Provencial village life involving more than 1,000 little figures posed in vignettes (an un-bordered picture, often a portrait, that shades off into the surrounding color at the edges.)

In Coustellet, east of Avignon, there's an interesting museum devoted to lavender.

After a day of sightseeing and tasting, relax at one of the fine restaurants or hotels in the area, where tourists are made to feel welcome and comfortable wherever they go.

If you want to take a dip in a pool at sunset or dine at the edge of a vineyard, then this country is for you. Or, perhaps you would prefer to stay in Avignon, which pumps with energy by night as locals and tourists stroll the tree-lined streets and people-watch from dozens of outdoor cafés.

Once in Avignon, you won't want to leave, and the town is too interesting to let you go.

Avignon is full of history, life, youth, art, music and activity. This corner of the Rhone Valley is big, and there's something here for everyone.

Margie Kinder is a travel consultant with Gadabout Travel. She can be reached at (321) 253-3674.

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