In addition to the walking tours of Viviers in the morning, there were additional Freechoice activities available in the afternoon. One was to take a panoramic drive through the Ardeche National Park and visit a replica of the famous cave paintings discovered there. We chose the alternative option – a visit to a nearby medieval hilltop walled village named Grignan.
Grignan is famous in France because it is often referenced in a series of over 700 letters a lady named Madame de Sévigné wrote to her daughter, who had married the Count of Grignan and lived in the huge chateau atop the hill. Madame de Sévigné lived on the other side of France and only spent a total of four years staying with her daughter in Grignan, but the letters she constantly wrote about it have been widely read in France, and even have been studied in the school curriculum. Her statue, holding a quill pen, sits atop a fountain in the heart of the town.
As with other places we’ve recently seen here in France, our first sighting of Grignan was one to remember, like something out of a fairy tale. A small hill rises above the green fields of the surrounding plateau. Atop that hill is a dominant structure, in this case a castle, and there is usually a large fortifying wall surrounding the town. You catch a glimpse of such towns from far away and the sense of anticipation grows as you approach. Grignan did not disappoint. It was a really beautiful place to visit.
Between the parking bays and the entrance to the town is an avenue of plane trees, also known as sycamore. We’ve seen them in most towns on this trip. They grow to a huge size, and their branches have been regularly trimmed and shaped so that they spread out over the thoroughfares and their leafy green canopies provide shade in the hot summers. Napoleon was responsible for much of the planting of these trees.
Entering the town, we came upon a large wash house, constructed in the 1800s. People from the village could come here to wash and rinse their clothes. One section was for washing and the other for rinsing. You can see it in the photos below. It was a short walk through the town to reach the chateau, or castle, at the top of the hill. The roads here were sloped and winding, like those of Viviers we walked earlier in the day, but they were wider and some were used by vehicles. In other places, we walked along narrow lanes, typical of other places we’ve visited. The buildings mainly dated from the medieval and Renaissance periods. Many of them appeared to be in good repair.
What sets Grignan apart from other villages we’ve visited is that it has been officially designated as a ‘botanical village’ of the Drôme region of France. To earn this classification, a village is required to have a minimum of 150 different varieties of plants growing in order to enhance and improve the living environment of the village. Grignan’s focus has been on roses. Over 400 rose bushes have been planted here. They are often planted so that they grow up walls and over gates and doorways. Each is accompanied by a label, so that visitors to Grignan can learn the names of each rose. They vary in colour, shape, size and fragrance, but contribute to a harmonious whole as you walk through the village. Even the old cemetery is brightened by the presence of the rose bushes around the perimeter and by many of the grave sites. I think the photos below tell their own story.
The castle for many years belonged to the rich and powerful Adhémar family. Our guide told us that this family can be found in every family tree of the great European royal dynasties. In medieval times the castle was built as a fortress to provide protection in times of trouble. Eventually the castle passed into other hands when the last of the Adhémar family died without an heir. In the 1600s the castle was remodelled so that it became less of a fortress and more of a palace. When the last Count of Grignan, who I mentioned previously had married Madame de Sévigné’s daughter, was residing in the castle, he was visited by his famous mother-in-law. She was not impressed by the location of the entrance to the castle and convinced her son-in-law to construct a new entrance in another part of the building so that the grandest facade would now become the place that would welcome visitors. He dutifully did so, but this task also required him to reorient all of the rooms in the interior of the chateau. It must have been a time consuming and costly exercise. In the 1790s, during the French Revolution, the chateau was partially destroyed. In the early 20th century, its new owner, Madame Fontaine, lovingly restored the chateau to its former glory. Once again, this was a time consuming and very costly exercise.
Our visit took us through the rooms on the second level, the living quarters of the occupants. We also visited the church that adjoins the chateau.
In the evening, aboard the ship, we were entertained by Vili, who performed covers by artists like Elvis, Creedence, The Beatles, The Eagles, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton and Bill Withers. He plays a mean guitar.