The Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes: France’s Best Kept Secret

France’s sun-dappled southern regions have long been a favorite with both locals and tourists alike.

Provence is perhaps too popular: most travelers journey only as far as Avignon; further north, Lyon becomes a food lover’s stop over on one’s pursuit of Paris pleasures. Consider a road trip through the bucolic Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France from Lyon to Valence, indulging your senses in the 12,383.9 arcadian kilometers of Provençal lavender fields, Rhône Valley vineyards, historic chateaux’s, charming villages and the rustic, rugged and rocky 28 kilometers of Ardèche river valley. Oh, and the wine: save time to sip Vignoble, St. Joseph, Condrieu, Crozes-Hermitages, Cotes du Rhone, Rhône Côte Rotie, St Joseph and St Peray. This truly undiscovered bit of France, her best-kept secret, is just waiting for you to taste and savour. Let  Skycanner  help you book your flights or hotels or take along this handy Lonely Planet guide to the Ardèche and La Drôme!

First Stop: Lyon

With 2000 plus years of history, Lyon is not only famous for her heritage but also for her gastronomy, as well as famous Chef sons, Paul Bocuse and Daniel Boulud and is an excellent historic and tasty home base to start your Rhône-Alpes road trip. Make the Marriott Hotel Lyon Cité Internationale, ideally situated in the beautifully imagined Renzo Piano’s Cité Internationale , your home as you savour food tastings at  Paul Bocuse’s Les Halles de Lyon and dinner at the Sofitel Lyon Bellecour’s romantic Les Trois Dômes. Hire a greeter, lace up your walking shoes and wander Le Jardin du Rosaire, directly below the beautiful Basilique Notre-Dames de Fourvière. Still high above Vieux Lyon and in her Parc des Hauters, take in views of the valley and rushing rivers Saône and Rhône with the  white-capped Alpes just beyond. The majestic and well-preserved Théâtres Romains de Fourvière welcomes various Jazz and other Festivals and is the oldest of its type in France: a must-see for history buffs. Push open an ancient, wooden door and explore the hidden, off the beaten track walkways of the Long Traboules, winding their way through the courtyards and alleyways of residential Vieux Lyon. Stroll the funky and fantastic Confluence, Europe’s largest urban redevelopment project, a newly reclaimed modern gathering point for the local Lyonnaise, literally where the Rhône and Saône converge. Enjoy shopping, superb dining or simply prends une verre and people watch. Enjoy the spectacular Antarctica exhibit, at Lyon’s stunning Musée des Confluences, running until December 2016,  a complete penguin overload for your senses! Lunch is a must at the Museums’s La Brasserie des Confluences where you will enjoy typical Lyonnais food served in a spectacular light-filled room.

Onto Vienne

Explore further south and enjoy the wine, food, and hospitality of the city of Vienne, perhaps most famous for it’s Jazz à Vienne where at sunset, you can grab a seat on one of the sun-splashed stones of the Vienne Roman Theatre and get your jazz on with such international artists as Diana Krall, Chick Korea, Seal and Tonya Baker. We enjoyed an animated wine tasting in the tourism office’s new Côte & Cuisine cooking and tasting room, dominated by the three story ‘Wall of Wine’ showcasing the incredible diversity of the wines produced in this Gallo-Roman region. Treat yourself to an overnight and dinner at the Relais & Châteaux listed La Pyramid Hotel and savour dinner at the hotel’s L’espace PH3, 2 Michelin starred chef Patrick Henriroux’s open kitchen concept restaurant, respecting its traditional roots but adding a very modern touch. Contemporary interiors in bright colours by Régis Dho delight!

Day Three Starts with Some Lavender:

Oh, the beautiful Ardèche region: a nature lover’s dream where hiking, kayaking, glamping and field upon field of purple lavender and a Paleolithic cave make this natural reserve a followsummer favorite. Tour de France enthusiasts will want to make the Ardèche their cycling home base during the famous race in July. A warm northern Provencal sun greets us as we continue south and an early morning stop at La Musée de la Lavande. We have a private tour of those great fields of purple and learn of the Museum’s distillation process and of lavender’s medicinal importance and uses. With the smell of lavender lingering, we continue into the mountainous area of the Ardeche and discover the beautiful Ardèche Gorge, the green and white cliffs perfectly framed by a beautiful blue Provencal sky. And of course, the famous and monumental Pont d’Arc. This beautiful natural reserve offers both campers and outdoor enthusiasts 28 kilometers of rushing river for kayaking, hiking or swimming. Lunch or dinner can be found at the rustic Prehistoric Lodge du Pont d’Arc where your family can enjoy a truly unique glamping experience right on the river.  Make sure you check out The Lodge’s soon to be opened and spectacular Silex, four upscale hotel rooms dug into the cliffs of the Ardèche mountain range and soak away your tired hiking feet in one of their opulent hand-hewed stone tubs. Take your history buffs with you as you visit Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, showcasing the world’s best preserved and earliest known  figurative cave paintings as well as other human and animal evidence of early upper Paleolithic life. You aren’t able to actually visit the original Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc although the Caverne du Pont d’Arc is a meticulously executed replica of the original cave and its 36,000-year-old paintings.

On the Steps of the Chateau Grignan

Located in the Drôme Provençale, the charming village of Grignan will welcome you with spectacular sunset views of Mademoiselle de Sévigné’s Château de Grignan perched high on an ancient Roman hill and offering sweeping views of the mountains of Lance, Mont Ventoux, and the Dentelles. Wander the quaint streets and listen to the mighty mistral winds that whistle and blow their cold winds through the town’s bell towers and church steeples. Must stay: Le Clair de la Plume is an incredibly charming and beautiful hotel that offers her guests classic french charm and ambiance while maintaining a sense of luxury and opulence. Dinner is a must in her Bistro dining room, and breakfast is a sumptuous buffet of coffee, croissant, viennoiseries and individually cooked eggs enjoyed in their conservatory or sunny garden. If you can, ask for the private Lover’s Pavilion, your own Petit Trianon where you can enjoy spectacular sunset views of the Chateaux across golden fields of wheat and purple rows of lavender. And should the Mistrals blow not too fresh, consider a private dip in the hotel’s pool with your special amour.

Medieval Valence:

As the capital of the Drome department, Valence is known as the Town of the Romans and primarily a leather and shoemaking center and is where a very young Napoleon, following his commission, joined the La Fère-Artillerie regiment,  which was stationed in Valence. Overlooking the Rhône River and in close proximity to vineyards producing Crozes-Hermitages, St Joseph and St Peray wines, this beautiful medieval town makes an excellent stop off for wine tours of the region. Often referred to as ‘the door to the south’ the city boasts unique and well preserved medieval architecture including the Maison des Têtes built between 1528 and 1532 and the beautiful the Saint-Apollinaire Cathedral, constructed between 1063 and 1099 and consecrated in 1095 by Pope Urban II. Make sure you hire a local greeter to fully appreciate the intricate and impressive medieval dialogue this city has to offer.  We were delighted with a special tasting of wines from Cave de Tain by the engaging and extremely knowledgeable sommelier Marie-Josée Faure of Terres de Syrah, a unique wine tourism group. We sipped special bottles of  Crozes-Hermitage Blanc and Cep Saint Jean while discussing the history and terroir of this special wine region of the Rhône-Alpes. Your final dinner in Valence must be a special one.  Make it at Maison Pic’s André, home to the 3-star gastronomic experience of the internationally-renowned chef, Anne-Sophie Pic, who shares her personal stories of the Pic family through iconic dishes made by her father and grandfather, paying homage to the French family and the great classics of French cuisine.

You can easily connect to Lyon and the Rhône-Alpes region of France as Air Canada has begun offering year-round service between Montreal’s Trudeau airport and Lyon–Saint-Exupéry Airport. Canadians now have a direct link to the second-largest metropolitan area in France. And with up to five flights a week with 37 international business class lie-flat suites and 228 economy-class seats, there isn’t any reason not to visit this lovely gastronomic, wine and lavender-scented destination, France’s best-kept secret!

followsummer was invited to enjoy the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France as part of a press trip sponsored by Air Canada, Auvergne Rhône-Alpes Tourisme, Rail Europe and Atout France.

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