Ah, France. Images of reveling in the culture and beauty of Paris, eating well in Lyon, wine tasting in Bordeaux, soaking up the sun in Nice, and visiting castles in Versailles and Carcasonne usually come to mind. If I may add one more to that dreamy list of things to do while in the world’s favorite tourist destination, it would be to spend a day in the countryside.
This part of my holiday started in the middle of the Rhone Valley between the French Alps and the Central Massif, beside the Rhone river. It was mostly by accident; I was planning to meet a friend in Switzerland for coffee, but he had returned to his hometown Valence and had extended the invite to show me around rural France. Since my schedule was quite flexible, and the call of cheese, wine, and chocolates from the countryside was too strong to resist, I took the detour.
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Valence is pretty much standard fare for your European city: cobblestone streets, centuries-old establishments, and a church at the center of it all. The real expedition begins as you leave the city and head 40 minutes north to Tain l’Hermitage, which is home to a rich winery region, Valrhona’s Chocolate City, and hills dotted with fruit orchards.
First, the vineyards. My hosts work in the vineyards on the hills ensuring that the grapes are well-nourished. This involves straightening vines along poles to get maximum sunshine, carving out furrows in the soil for balanced irrigation, limiting grapes to five per stalk ensure that each grape is filled with everything that the terroir has to offer. This was followed by heading to the caves where the grapes are juiced, fermented, and bottled. Tain l’Hermitage is surrounded by highly-regarded seven wine-producing regions, and it felt necessary to sample one from each region to compare the taste. (I seem to have forgotten the last couple of tastings though!)
Believe it or not, the most memorable part of the day came after this (and after a shot of espresso): visiting the fruit orchards. Rhone Valley is famous for apricot and cherry trees. I'm not a big fan of the former, but I consider cherries as a delicacy, especially since they are expensive back home. We went cherry-picking, well, more like cherry-eating for the next 30 minutes.
To burn all those calories, we sampled some of the walking trails around the hills. The main landmark at the end of the trail was a small chapel, a fantastic view of the vineyard-covered hills, and the Rhone river as it snakes through the valley’s towns.
As we descended the hills, just one more stop for a sweet ending to the day. Tain l’Hermitage is the home of Valrhona, premium chocolate maker, well used by French pastry chefs. Inside their Cite du Chocolat is a chocolate lover’s fantasy: wall-to-wall chocolates, and free samples abound. They source their cocoa beans from various places around the world, so the variety is tremendous. Pralines, baking chocolates, chocolate-covered nuts, you name it, the Chocolate has it. As with the wine, I did adequate “research” and sampled as much as I can. This was the perfect ending to a food-filled sojourn around the Rhone Valley.
For a similar experience around the hills of Tain l’Hermitage, Cave de Tain holds daily tours in English, and you get to tour the hills on foot or via segway. However, I got a more personalized visit, so a big merci to Yan and Laura for a great day trip to rural France!