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Some places in France are made for lingering and the Ardèche in the Rhônes Alpes region, just north of Provence is certainly one of them. It feels untamed at times with its rugged, craggy gorges and deep forests, serene at others, with grand old mother Rhône gliding majestically through her vineyards and hills. Start at Tournon sur Rhône If you’re planning on cycling in this beautiful region, you could do a lot worse than by starting your stay in the small town of Tournon sur Rhône. Just north of Valence (and south of Lyon) it’s delightfully quirky. One moment you’ll be exploring a labyrinth of ancient, narrow, cobbled streets (and a new one way system that will send you insane) and the next you’ll be bowing in reverence on the banks of the River Rhône, as she slowly sweeps passed in all her grandeur. There’s a large and rather beautiful 19th century, pedestrian suspension bridge which takes you to Tain l’Hermitage and the vine clad slopes and gourmand chocolate on the other side of the Rhône. I happened to follow two children across it from Tain to their school in Tournon’s large, shaded market square. The school is dripping in Mediterranean flowers and sits right on the banks of the Rhône and as the early September sunrise slowly unveiled the town, I had to wonder if the children appreciated what a stunningly beautiful spot their seat of learning is in.
With the castle right at Tournon’s heart (which dates back to the 10th and 14th century and is next to the square) the town is also overlooked by a steep hill and the old fortifications and church. Vines thread their way up the slopes like plaits on a head to give a curious effect. There’s occasional trompe d’oeil in the back streets and you can feel the mix of southern France and Alpine style. The bright orange and yellow turret of the Caisse d’Epargne in the old quarter even gives it an eastern feel. Hôtel de la Villeon Tucked away a short distance behind the very narrow main street, with its back against the hills is a hidden gem. A large old wooden door is the only clue to this grand old 18th century mansion that used to belong to one of the town’s long ago successful merchants. Now a 4-star hotel, it’s held on to all the integrity of its past. Limestone floors greet you as you enter the cool of the ground floor and the original grand staircase takes you into the hotel’s heart. It’s a listed building with many original features like the exquisite parquet flooring but still has a minimalist feel. The terraced garden which leads off from the restaurant, has an array of terracotta pots and a magnificent wisteria, which you climb up through to access the top terrace. On a Sunday night the hotel restaurant is closed so they bring your dinner from the nearby gourmand restaurant Comako. There’s a local trend in cuisine in the Ardèche so I’m told, which means my entire meal came condensed into 3 small glass pots (one for each course)! But, whether it’s hot coffee and some of the hotel’s fabulous breakfast or a potted picnic, the top terrace and its views, has to be a pretty fabulous way to start or end any day.
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