If the warm weather is not arriving quite fast enough for you, push the season by heading south for the weekend. The northern Provençal borderlands in the Drôme region, on the east bank of the Rhône River, are within easy reach by rail. And for a maximum of rays, consider spending your Midi break on a bike.
The Drome Provençale is a popular destination for bicyclers, with marked trails for both road and mountain bike at all levels of difficulty. Equipment rentals are widely available, especially for mountain bikes (“vélos tout terrain,” or VTT). The best rail destination for the region is Montélimar, just under three hours from Paris by TGV. It is a pleasant but unremarkable town whose chief claim to fame is as France’s nougat capital. Its one outstanding monument is the 12th-14th century castle built by the feudal lords of the Adhémar family atop the “Mont-Adhémar,” whence the place name.
The roads of Montélimar’s hinterland are well kept and carry little motorized traffic this early in the season. The landscape alternates lavender fields (in bloom from around mid-June), vineyards, streams and woods. The hills east and south of Montélimar hide a wealth of Romanesque churches and are dotted with ancient villages, spectacular to see from the valleys below or, for the fittest riders, providing equally spectacular lookout points.
The literature on the region often calls these fortified hilltop sites “villages perchés.” Some come twinned with a modern town in the valley. An example is La Bégude de Mazenc, in the Jabron River valley about 15km east of Montélimar, whose old hill town is one of France’s innumerable Châteauneufs. Long after the denizens of Châteauneuf de Mazenc had fled their drafty hilltop for modern comfort below, it finally occurred to them that there was tourist gold on that thar hill.
A few kilometers up the Jabron valley lies Le Poët Laval, which from the 12th century to the 16th was a stronghold of the crusader Knights Hospitalers. In the 19th century it was all but abandoned for its valley twin, Gougne, and well on its way to ruin. But thanks to the Amis du Vieux Poët, founded in the 1920s, it was restored and is one of the best known sites in the region. Other hill towns include Puygiron, between Montélimar and La Bégude, which has no lower town; Allan, on the way to the Tricastin wine country, where the old village lies in ruins above the new town; and Beconne, just lonely ruins with no twin below, on the road from Dieulefit (known for its potters, with a pottery fair on Pentecost weekend) to Valréas, capital of the Enclave des Papes, former papal lands that belong to the Vaucluse but lie entirely in the Drôme.
Grignan, famed as the last home of the Marquise de Sévigné, also occupies a hilltop but is a bigger town with a Renaissance castle. It is marking the 300th anniversary of Madame de Sévigné’s death with a series of concerts, including two featuring Jordi Savall: in a viola da gamba recital May 11 at 9pm and leading his Hesperion XX ensemble on May 12 at 5pm (tel: 18.104.22.168, fax: 75.46.94.05, 130/110F).
Southwest of Grignan is one of the loveliest Romanesque monuments of the region, the cathedral at St Paul-Trois Châteaux. The town has never had three castles; its name is apparently a corruption of Tricastin, whose vineyards are among the oldest in the country. About the same distance from Grignan to the southeast is the olive-growing center of Nyons, which has a good Provençal market on Thursday mornings. Both towns are well worth a visit but may be a bit far to reach by bike.
The tourist offices at Dieulefit and La Bégude sell a packet of 13 VTT routes, with levels of difficulty ranging from very easy to very difficult (a mixture on some routes), distances from 15km to 31km and estimated times from 1 hour 15min to 5 hours. Also for sale is a kit of regular bike routes. (Office de Tourisme, Place de l’Abbé Magnet, 26220 Dieulefit, tel: 22.214.171.124; or, Route de Montélimar, 26160 La Bégude de Mazenc, tel: 126.96.36.199). The Fédération Française du Cyclotourisme in Paris is also a good source of info (8, rue Jean-Marie Jégo, 13e, tel: 188.8.131.52, fax: 184.108.40.206).
Should the mistral be blowing or otherwise inclement weather make biking impossible, Avis, Budget, Europcar and Hertz have offices at or near the Montélimar station.
Montélimar, Ets. Coustaury, 7, av Charles de Gaulle, tel: 75.01.26.70, VTT 80F/day, 120F/weekend (Fri-Tue), 1,000F deposit. Closed Mon.
Dieulefit, Garage Bels, place Chateauras, tel: 220.127.116.11, fax: 18.104.22.168, bicycle 80F/day, 60F/half day, 1,300F deposit; VTT 100F/day, 70F/half day, 1,800F deposit.
Teyssières, Franck Mucke, Auberge de Teyssières, tel: 75.46.40.04, VTT same prices as Bels but with 150F weekend rate and 2,000F deposit.