Rhone River Valley is rich in history, wine, food and sun

Scott McMurren
Looking up at the hilltop village of Menerbes from the vineyards below in the Luberon region of Provence, France.
Looking up toward the abandoned hill town of Oppede-le-Vieux in the Luberon area of Provence.
This is wine country! Innkeeper Jacques Rey keeps a cellar of Rhone wines underneath his garage at Le Vieux Figuier near Seguret.

It's not uncommon for travelers: We go to a place for one reason and stay for another. The Provence area in southern France is a mecca for food and wine lovers. All along the Rhone River Valley, it's almost impossible to get a bad meal. But the area also has a rich history that ties it to Rome.

France -- and all of Europe -- is easier to reach thanks to Condor's seasonal nonstop flights from Anchorage or Fairbanks to Frankfurt. From there it was a quick hop over to Lyons. There is a TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse -- or "fast train") station at the airport. We opted for the "local" train south to Avignon, which left from the downtown train station, 15 minutes away by bus.

Avignon was my destination of choice, primarily because of the "Palais des Papes" or Palace of the Popes in the middle of town. In the 14th century, the pope was threatened in Rome. After a Frenchman, Clement V, became pope, he moved to Avignon instead of Rome. For much of the 14th century, the popes resided there -- and built a beautiful palace on the Rhone River. Even after a protected return to Rome, Avignon became a Papal State -- and did not revert to French rule until the French Revolution in the 18th century.

Today the palace is essentially a castle with mostly empty rooms. The inner garden is used for concerts and festivals. You can go on a tour of the castle and the gardens and observe some of the remaining artwork and learn how the pope lived while in Avignon. The adjacent flower gardens afford a beautiful view of the river.

The highlight of the tour is a visit to the gift shop, where there is a wine store. Some of the world's best wines are available here. Vintners from around the region bring their best wines for sale at "street prices," which means it is the same price you would pay at the winery. It is a great place to sample and purchase some of the best Rhone varietal wines (we did!).

After checking off the tour of the palace, we were free to explore Avignon's cobblestone streets, the many open-air restaurants and markets where merchants sell everything from olive oil to fabrics to fresh produce.

We opted to stay in a comfy two-star hotel, the Hotel d'Angleterre, for 75 euros per night. It's inside the city walls, within easy walking distance of the palace, the town square and Avignon's famous bridge that only goes half-way across the river. Nothing fancy -- but this family-owned hotel has an attentive staff and it's on a quiet side-street.

The real action in Provence is in the country. A combination of quaint little inns, ancient hill towns, accessible wineries and a glorious countryside add up to a wonderful holiday -- especially for sun-starved Alaskans. Even in late May and early June, the weather is wonderful.

On the advice of AutoEurope, we picked up our rental car at a downtown location to avoid the extra surcharge at the train station. AutoEurope is a U.S. based agency that specializes in car rentals. They also told us to bring a printout of the terms/conditions of our credit card (Alaska Airlines Visa), which provides collision insurance on overseas car rentals. Further they confirmed that we could drop the car off at the train station when we were done without any additional charge.

While Avignon is right on the river, many of the older medieval towns were built atop limestone hills. We stayed near the hill town of Menerbes at a country inn called La Magnanerie. Nathalie and Vincent Rohart escaped the fast-paced Parisian lifestyle and did a complete renovation of this country home. The result is a quiet retreat with comfy rooms and a swimming pool. A delicious French "petit dejeuner" in the morning is included: breads, cheeses, jams and fruit. There is a lovely outdoor seating area. When we went to town, we typically picked up some meats, wine, cheeses and fresh bread for dinner too.

It is technically possible to drive your car up into these little hilltop towns -- but not advisable. Better to park on the outskirts of town and walk. That way you can duck into a bakery or restaurant that looks good. We made an effort to get up to the old city hall, where they have a wine store featuring local vintners -- and a great view of the countryside. Our favorite restaurant: Les Delices De Charlotte.

Near Menerbes is an ancient hill town called Oppede-le-Vieux, or the old village of Oppede. The modern town of Oppede is down on the flats. But the old village on the mountaintop was inhabited for more than 1,000 years. The church is intact (it was renovated in the 16th century), but the castle has crumbled away. It's an arduous hike up the steep cobblestone trails. Abandoned homes -- caves, really -- attest to what life was like for those who lived here. You're free to wander through the ruins, but the rocks are loose and the cliffs are steep.

Due north of Menerbes is some of the best wine country in the Rhone Valley. We settled near the village of Seguret at Le Vieux Figuier. Your hosts, Maite and Jacques Rey, have several spacious rooms in their home in the middle of acres and acres of grapes.

The Reys too are refugees from the hectic Paris lifestyle. Their quiet inn overlooks an oversized pool and affords travelers a central location to see the sights and explore one of the world's great wine-growing regions.

In fact Jacques made several recommendations of nearby wineries that offered great selections -- for about $8-$15 per bottle, including Domaine Notre Dame des Pallieres. This is in the Gigondas region. Another hit: Domaine des Nymphes near Rasteau.

So whatever your reason for choosing Provence -- history, food or wine -- there's plenty to keep you there. We didn't drive too many miles during our visit, because there's a new adventure around every corner. Hike up the hills, enjoy a rich meal and then return to a country inn for a quiet retreat. I could get used to that!

Scott's tips:

RICK STEVES GUIDEBOOKS: This guide knows Provence. His guidebook is detailed, with maps and descriptions. We used it and found it very helpful. www.ricksteves.com

BONJOUR PARIS: Karen Fawcett's online site is a great resource not just for Paris but for many of the best regions of France. Explore the site beforehand, then use it when you get home to start planning your next trip. www.bonjourparis.com

LA BASTIDE BLEUE: This is a beautiful restaurant in Seguret. Lovely wines by the glass and delicious local foods. www.bastidebleue.com

Daily News correspondent