Cruising through France with was a great experience for many reasons, not the least of which was the opportunity to visit some smaller French towns I hadn’t seen before. That’s one of the many advantages to river cruising as I outlined in my review of Uniworld, the ability to visit some harder-to-reach towns that you probably wouldn’t experience otherwise. While they may not all have the glitz of Paris or the charm of Lyon, they are all worthy of traveling to and so with that in mind I wanted to share a few of my favorite French towns I experienced while cruising through Burgundy and Provence.
The twin towns of Tournon and Tain l’Hermitage sit across the river from each other in France’s famous Côtes du Rhône region. The chief draw to these small communities is apparent immediately when you look around at the surrounding hills completely latticed in row after row of vines. This is one of the most famous wine producing regions in France and the vintages produced here are amongst the most highly sought after. The first thing I did after the ship docked was to join in on a walking tour through those amazing vineyards, getting some exercise while enjoying the best views in town. Uniworld offered an excursion that included wine tastings in the vineyards for the ultimate Côtes du Rhône experience. There’s also another culinary treasure in town, one that surprised me – Valrhona Chocolate. Considered by many to be the best chocolate in the world, I was shocked to learn that they’re actually headquartered in this small French town. Even better, you can visit their store to pick up your own sweet treats to take home.
Just 20 kilometers from Avignon in Provence is the fantastically Mediterranean town of St. Remy. Walking through the city, it exudes relaxed calm at every corner. The white washed buildings with colorful shutters and more cafes and restaurants than any town this size should have, these were all my first clues that the people who live in St. Remy like to take life a little slower. It’s no surprise really, located in the heart of southern France, Provencal culture is more relaxed than anywhere else in France, and it’s easy to imagine living in this picturesque community, spending your days soaking up the warm sun and enjoying a glass of red at the neighborhood café. And that’s pretty much what I did during my free time in St. Remy, replacing the wine with an amazing chocolate crepe at a neighborhood café I discovered.
The tiny village of Viviers is home to only about 4,000 residents but it has a long and proud history, including being home to France’s smallest cathedral. Dating back to the 11th century, even though it’s small the cathedral is still important, as the bishops who have presided over it throughout the years can all attest. Centuries ago, high ranking clergy all came from the nobility, who brought with them refined tastes and a lot of money when they joined the ministry. When you visit Viviers, walk up the winding streets of the small town to visit the cathedral and to enjoy great views of the surrounding valley. But then walk back down through the quiet streets until you reach the current Town Hall, a mansion that used to be the official residence of those wealthy bishops. The estate is grand in every sense of the word, and wandering through the elaborately designed rooms inside you can truly get an idea of the lavish lifestyle these men of the church once enjoyed.
Perched high up on a mountain, it’s hard not to be impressed by this ancient, cliffside town as you approach on the winding mountain roads. Today it pretty much just exists for tourists, but its history is long and interesting and there is nothing quite like wandering around its labyrinthine streets and enjoying a coffee overlooking the valley below. Thanks to its defensive position, people have lived here for as long as there have been people in the region and holding it became an important strategic move for regional powers. Like many such towns though, its importance declined over the years and today only 22 people live there – a far cry from the 4,000 during its heyday. Expect a lot of shops and restaurants, and to pay a little more than in other towns, but the atmosphere and the views are well worth it. You can also pick up some regional specialties like cookies, nougat and lavender in every form imaginable.
Yet another community perched high up on a hill, this medieval town is another example of the many great, small French towns and villages found seemingly at every turn. Like so many other similar towns throughout Europe, this one grew up and around the massive castle found at its center. This delicately lined Renaissance masterpiece has been home to generations of nobility, most notably a certain Françoise-Marguerite de Sévigné. The letters sent to her from her mother are amongst the best preserved 17th century correspondences found anywhere in France and they offer priceless clues at what life was really like not only in 17th century Grignan, but throughout the country. Through her we get a sense of what being a member of the landed gentry was like and the almost too fantastic for words lifestyle once enjoyed at this castle. Getting there involved walking up steep, narrow alleyways and streets but is worth it to see this masterpiece of design and architecture in person. If you’re spending the night and decide to visit in the summer, be sure to check out the summer performances on the castle grounds.
What are some of your favorite smaller French towns?