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Armchair Uzès

la Vie Quotidienne

19 avril 2003
Uzès, France

A trio of chateaus in northern Provence
Un trio des châteaux dans la Drôme provençale
Move over Loire valley, here comes the Drôme! In the midst of the vineyards and orchards of the Rhône valley, between Valence and Avignon, lie three marvelous castles that are living museums as well as venues for music, art, and l’art de vivre. Le Château de Grignan towers over the village of the same name in the heart of the Drôme. Most famous for hosting the Marquise de Sévigné, famous letter writer of the 17th century, this elegant Renaissance structure is decorated and fully furnished with period pieces, including the desk from which Madame de Sévigné wrote many of her letters. The château also hosts a series of spring concerts, featuring classical, jazz, and improv music for all tastes. Not to be missed is the upper terrace of this impressive structure, which gives an incredible nearly 360-degree view out over the Drôme countryside.

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Click map to enlarge...

Click here for more about la Drôme provençale



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At Suze-la-Russe, a Renaissance castle...

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     Further up the road in the heart of Montélimar, the Château des Adhémar houses a contemporary art museum. The austere medieval fortress was built by the counts of Toulouse, and served as one of the popes’ palaces during the Avignon papacy. Its longest incarnation, however, was as a prison, from the 17th century up until the early 1900s. The castle today, in addition to showcasing modern art, also serves as studio, school and exhibit center.
     Back down the road toward Avignon, the Château de Suze-la-Rousse sits boldly on high, dominating the village below. The road up to the castle passes through a forest-like park that was once the hunting grounds for castle-dwellers. An impressive (but dry) moat surrounds the castle, with a small bridge leading into the fortress’s beautiful Renaissance courtyard. Although unfurnished, much of the castle’s original decorations and appointments remain. Particularly unusual for this region is an outdoor 16th century tennis court (jeu de paume) that was built in anticipation of the visit of the queen mother Catherine de Medicis and her son, Charles (aka IX). Today the castle hosts l’Université de Vin where sommeliers, winemakers, and wine marketers learn the wine biz and where amateurs can also take part in weekend or week-long courses in wine appreciation.

...and the University of Wine
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Deep in the heart of the Minerve
La Minerve profonde

Deep in the heart of the Minervois in Languedoc, prehistoric man hunted, Roman legions traversed, Visigoths swarmed, Simon de Montfort rampaged and burned. Today the peaceful town of Minerve sits prettily in ironic contrast to this savage history. Perched on a rocky slope over the Cesse river, its deep canyons, natural bridges, flowering landscape, and solid ramparts make Minerve one of the most beautiful villages of France.
     To cross the arched bridge into the village is to go back several centuries. The streets wind upward, turning, narrowing, darkening, with shops, homes, and galleries sprinkled throughout. At the top of the village is a promontory marked by history. There, in 1210, a group of nearly 200 protestants, called parfaits, practicing Cathars, either jumped to their death and or were burned alive by Simon de Montfort’s crusading mercenaries, rather than deny their faith. A plaque commemorating these Albingensian martyrs is chilling; the story doesn’t seem real in this charming spot; but the story is true, and was repeated in many other Languedoc cities and towns during that era. The wars of religion went on for centuries, but Minerve remained silent, unchanged. Not much has happened there since then, in this town clinging to the rocks over the river, feeling a bit like the farthest nowhere.
     The Minervois region itself today is a lovely place to visit, much less spoiled than other southern spots. Besides its history, it boasts good AOC wines, the Canal du Midi, and a dotting of quiet beautiful villages (including Aigne and Rieux) worth exploring from top to bottom. Boating, bicycling, hiking, wine tasting – the Minervois provides a less crowded (and often less expensive) alternative to Provence.

 

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The village of Minerve in the
heart of Languedoc-Roussillon

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Cross the bridge
 and go back several centuries

 

 

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Barges, boats, bicycles...
take a look at the Canal du Midi

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     Speaking of the Canal du Midi, we spent a recent weekend waterside near Olonzac, not far from Minerve. It was a bit early in the season, and the weather wasn’t particularly cooperative, so we didn’t go boating. But that didn’t stop us from strolling and enjoying the sights. Decked-out barges (péniches) line the shore, some funky, some elegant. In spite of the cool gray weather, families, friends and fisherman were cruising the canal, on their way to and from Sète and Toulouse, which the Canal connects. 
     We had a delicious dinner with friends overlooking the canal at the Auberge de l’Arbousier in Homps. We discovered, grace à Greta, a tasty muscat, Domaine de Barroubic from St-Jean de Minervois. And of course, we sampled and purchased a very nice local red wine, from les Vignerons du Pays d’Ensérune in the village of Capestang. In short, malgré le temps, we were immersed in la France profonde and emerged fuller and a bit more profound as a result!


What color is Chartreuse?
La chartreuse, c’est de quelle couleur?

The green goddess of alcohols, with its long and knotty history, is making a nice comeback these days. Appreciated by the likes of Charles DeGaulle, the Prince of Wales, Hunter Thompson and Jon Bon Jovi, Chartreuse has expanded its distribution around the globe, producing more than a million bottles a year of the greenish/yellowish elixir.
     Chartreuse is a uniquely French creation. Its origins are murky, but what is known is that in 1605 a certain Francois Hannibal d’Estrees donated the already ancient recipe of an elixir for long life to a group of monks just outside of Paris. These monks (of the Carthusian order, founded by Saint Bruno, more on that later) tried to figure out the complicated recipe, got busy with other things, and let the project lie dormant for more than a century. But in 1737 the recipe was rediscovered and reintroduced by the monks at their mother house, la Grande Chartreuse, in the mountains near Grenoble. With the French Revolution and the banning of clergy, production and distribution problems ensued. To preserve and protect, the recipe was memorized by a select few, then destroyed. It came back into production at la Grande Chartreuse in the mid 1800s and has been produced continually ever since. The Monastery’s museum, located between Lyon and Grenoble, is open to visitors from April to October.
     A bomb of a drink, originally sold at 71 degrees (142 proof), this concoction combines 130 different medicinal plants, with no chemical additives or preservatives. Musky in flavor, strong in its punch, it was “lightened” to 55 degrees (110 proof) to make it more acceptable to the general market. Chartreuse can be bought as Green, Gold (Jaune - lighter at 42 degrees) and V.E.P. Chartreuse ("Viellissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé" – 10 years rather than the usual 3). Try a few drops in a glass of champagne, à la Czar Nicholas…or add a few tablespoons when making chocolate mousse. Or try a few drops for flu or indigestion, as they do with cattle and racehorses. Just try it…after all, it’s green, it’s chartreuse, and it’s French.  


High in the mountains near Grenoble
stands the Carthusian monastery,
la Grande Chartreuse

 

Chartreuse Jaune,
the gold "lighter"  version...

so then, what color IS chartreuse?

Happy Easter!  Joyeux Pâques!

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