Volume 10
An Online Literary Magazine
November 30, 2015


Adventure Paradise in Provence


Nick O’Connell


The magical Hotel Les Florets is situated below the peaks of the Dentelles de Montmirail.


t smells like a spice cabinet. Hiking up the trail, I catch whiffs of thyme, rosemary, and other herbs of Provence. The route heads upward through pine and oak trees on the lower slopes of the Dentelles de Montmirail, a jagged range of limestone peaks in the Côtes du Rhône region of France. At the base of the peaks, I turn to admire a patchwork quilt of silver-green olive orchards, vineyards, and houses with red-tile roofs. It’s a landscape that has inspired painters like Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, as well as outdoor adventure enthusiasts from around the globe.


The Dentelles de Montmirail include perhaps the most appealing concentration of climbing, hiking, and mountain biking in Europe. Steep limestone ridges contain hundreds of climbing routes while dozens of hiking and mountain biking itineraries crisscross the region. The word Montmirail comes from the Latin (mons mirabilis) for admirable mountain and serves as a perfect description of the fairy-tale landscape of oak, Aleppo pine, limestone towers, and endless rows of vineyards. The villages surrounding the Dentelles make some of the best wine in France—Vacqueyras, Gigondas, Beaumes-de-Venise, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape allowing visitors to combine adventure sports with world-class cuisine and wine tasting.


I was coming off a week of exploring the food and wine of Provence while teaching a travel writing class for The Writer’s Workshop. During the class, we had the pleasure of visiting Château La Nerthe, one of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s oldest, most distinguished estates, Château Pegau, a newer, innovative producer, as well as sampling some of the many outstanding local rosés such as Domaine Tempier and Domaine de la Mordorée.


These wines proved a perfect complement to the region’s simple but outstanding cuisine, including the rich, saffron-infused fish soup called bouillabaisse, crusty sides of baguettes slathered in aioli or garlic mayonnaise, fresh asparagus with morel mushrooms, roast lamb with rosemary, veal with olive tapenade sauce, ripe tomatoes swimming in olive oil, succulent melons wrapped in ham, heavenly chocolate and fruit tarts, and a marvel of cheeses including a mild Banon goat cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves, a creamy St. Nectaire from the Auvergne, and the smelly but delicious local sheep and goat cheeses found at the Lou Canesteou cheese shop in Vaison-la-Romaine.


After all this wining and dining, I craved some exercise and booked the Hotel Les Florets near Gigondas as a base camp for exploring the region on foot. Tucked up in the heart of the Dentelles, it offers bright, comfortable rooms, an excellent restaurant, and a wide outdoor veranda with views of the peaks.


Thierry Bernard, the friendly, energetic manager, helped me and my friend, Chris Olsen, choose an 8-mile circumnavigation of the Dentelles, which takes us deep into the heart of Provence. Our trail straddles the base of the cliffs with superb views out over Sablet, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Vaison la Romaine, and the triangle of Mont Ventoux in the distance, at 6,273 feet, the highest peak in the region.



Nick O'Connell hiking through the Dentelles de Montmirail
At a junction, we take a trail that descends and then parallels the Grand Montmirail, another limestone spire. We reach a pass where we can go left or right. The original directions said go left here, but I want to explore to the right where there’s supposed to be excellent rock climbing.


The trail follows the base of the cliffs and soon we see several people ascending climbing routes. I find a steep path heading up. “Let me see where this goes,” I tell Chris, who takes a break in the shade.


At a short cliff, I spot a steel handhold glued into the rock. I grab it and move up. Then I grab the next one. Finally, I pull myself up with the help of a steel cable. I’m getting a chance to do a little rock climbing myself. But at the top of the cliff, I glance down at a drop-off, way too steep to descend without a rope.


I carefully down-climb back to Chris. After trying several trails, we find one that heads down. I don’t know exactly where it’s going, but it seems to be heading in the right direction. It descends through groves of fragrant pine trees and rosemary bushes.


At a parking lot, I check the map, but am not sure where we are, so we head down an asphalt road toward Lafare, a small hamlet. The sun beats down. The weather heats up. I start to fantasize about a bottle of chilled rosé, beads of condensation dripping down it. The road veers left, past houses with pools and barking dogs. Finally, it angles up toward Lafare. We hike into town and spot Le Bistro de Lafare, a boisterous place absolutely packed on a Saturday afternoon.


Chris and I approach the shiny zinc bar festooned with beer taps. Without even asking us, the owner pours two pressions, or draft beers. We must look thirsty. “Merci, madame!” I say, sitting down at a table. The beer is wonderful: cold, tart, and foamy. After we finish the beers, we wander back into the town square to have a picnic in the shade of several large sycamore trees.


We share a baguette, slices of Banon cheese, prosciutto, and chocolate. It reminds me of my days as a college student in France. I had little money, but enjoyed many adventures traveling with a backpack through the country.


A fountain gurgles behind us. A French girl whizzes by on a scooter. We're deep in the heart of Provence and far from the well-worn tourist route. I drink in the quiet and peace of the place.


After lunch, we follow an asphalt road toward St. Christopher Chapel, which was part of our original itinerary. Now we’re back on track. The road slants upward, gaining elevation and opening up views of the surrounding valley.


Built in the 11th century, the small stone chapel is Romanesque in design with a simple half-barrel nave, and a small altar and cross. Light filters in through a tiny window, beautifully illuminating the altar. There are more famous churches in France, but few so inspiring.


“Leave your love here, not your garbage,” reads a sign on the side wall. I take this advice, bowing to the altar before returning to the sunshine.


We head up the road, feet aching from a full day of walking, making our way back to Les Florets. The circumnavigation is almost complete. As the road deteriorates, the cars disappear. We’re left alone with the sound of the wind in the trees and the smells of pine, broom, and rosemary, the essential perfumes of Provence.


After the hike, we relax on the veranda of Les Florets and share a bottle of chilled Domaine la Garrigue rosé, beads of condensation running down it, just as I’d imagined earlier in the day.


Later, we sit down to a spectacular dinner at Les Florets restaurant. I order a glass of champagne while Chris opts for the classic Provençal aperitif, the cloudy, anise-tasting pastis. We’ve worked up an appetite from the hike and choose the roast veal with shaved truffles, a dish that cries out for a rich, spicy red. Thierry suggests the 2010 Domaine la Garrigue Vacqueyras Cantarelle, made by his father from a blend of grenache and syrah from 80- to 100-year-old vines. It’s an ideal choice, complementing the richness of the veal and truffles and highlighting the fragrant aromas of the region. We toast our adventure and watch the evening sun paint the jagged limestone spires of the Dentelles with lovely apricot light.



Chris Olsen enjoying a well-deserved glass of ros after a long hike through the Dentelles.


Hotel Les Florets – This wonderful hotel/ restaurant is tucked up into the heart of the Dentelles de Montmirail, making it a great base for exploring the region. Hiking trails leave right from the hotel.


Hostellerie le Beffroi – Located in nearby Vaison la Romaine, this lovingly restored hotel with 16th-century wood-beam ceilings offers rooms with expansive views of the surrounding countryside and even boasts a bell tower. Enjoy a glass of Gigondas wine while sitting on the hotel’s spacious veranda or dine at the hotel’s intimate restaurant. Friendly, exceptional service provided by the two Nathalies and other hotel staff. A hiking trail to nearby Le Crestet leaves from the hotel.


Hotel Montmirail – Housed in a restored 17th-century building, this spacious hotel is surrounded by vineyards and olive trees at the foot of the Dentelles. It includes a large outdoor pool and an excellent restaurant.




Les Florets Restaurant – Offers classic French cuisine with a Provençal twist, using the freshest local products like Sarrians pigeon, Ventoux pork, or Carpentras strawberries to craft elegant, playful concoctions. Pair with nearby Gigondas wines, including Domaine la Garrigue wines made by Thierry Bernard’s father.


Oustalet – This restaurant mixes contemporary cuisine with the traditions of Provence. It excels at food and wine pairing as it’s the shared enterprise of the Perrin family, owners of renowned Château Beaucastel, and the chef Laurent Deconinck. Try the roast veal with truffles paired with a Domaine de la Mordorée Lirac red.


Les Genêts – This lively spot near the hill town of Sablet is very popular with locals and visitors alike. Try the foie gras with local figs or the pigeon with honey and local spices, all paired with delicious wines from Sablet.



Sablet with Dentelles in background.
Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Provence - May 21 - 27 - Travel writing, food writing and wine writing are some of the most appealing genres of nonfiction, calling on all of an author's skills—dramatic scenes, character sketches, concrete detail, point of view, scene by scene construction—to compose compelling, engaging travel narratives. This six-day intensive travel writing class will introduce you to essential techniques of travel, food and wine writing as well as giving you expert, insider advice about how to submit and publish finished travel stories.


In addition to learning these skills, you'll dine at outstanding restaurants, visit some of the world’s best wineries, and explore fascinating historic sights. You’ll enjoy exclusive behind-the-scenes tours unavailable to the general public. Best of all, you’ll receive up-to-date story ideas from local industry experts that you can turn into finished travel, food and wine stories by the end of the course and submit to newspapers and magazines for publication.


The six-day travel writing class will take place in Vaison la Romaine, one of the most beautiful medieval hill towns in Provence, and a center of the region's cultural and epicurean life since Roman times. The cost will be $2,600 per person, including accommodations and most meals. (single supplement, $500 per person). Plane fare, transit to and from Vaison la Romaine and some meals extra (see itinerary below).


To enroll, please send me a non-refundable deposit of $800 to 201 Newell St., Seattle, WA 98109. Enrollment is limited to 10.


For more information, contact me at nick@thewritersworkshop.net, 206-284-7121, or take a look at my website: http://www.thewritersworkshop.net/travel.htm.



Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List iconSign up for our Email Newsletter








Home | Search | About Us | Submissions | Mailing List | Links | The Writer's Workshop