Les Baronnies is a bit off the beaten track for most Provence visitors from abroad. This is the land of mountains, lavender, linden trees, olive oil and medicinal herbs. Les Baronnies is a historic name for the area East and North of Mont Ventoux. It is today part of four different Départements; take a look at the map here. The area of roughly 2.000 sq km (772 sq miles) is sparsely populated; the 1999 census counted only 22.000 inhabitants. Since the 17th century les Baronnies, especially its eastern parts, suffered from land flight due to harsh economic conditions. Starting in the 1980s land flight has stopped and the population is now increasing especially in and around the towns of Nyons, Buis les Baronnies, Mirabel aux Baronnies, Faucon and Puymeras. There are plans to create the Parc Naturel Régional des Baronnies protecting the area from unfettered development. In the more populated western part (Nyons, Puymeras, Faucon) this is strongly opposed by many landowners and the real estate developers behind them, who want to construct their unimaginative "lotissements", supermarkets and shopping malls. We sincerely hope that the project is successful. An ecologically friendly tourism benefits the small entrepreneur, the B&B and Gite des Étappes owner, the shopkeeper and restaurant owner. Big time development benefits real estate tycoons, Leclerc, Point P, Brico Marché and other national chains. So let's keep our fingers crossed, because les Baronnies is one of the great areas in France with incredible unspoiled nature. A paradise for hiking, mountaineering, rock climbing, cycling, mountain biking, horse-riding, hang gliding and paragliding. Or you can simply enjoy the natural beauty of the Southern Pre-Alpes with its historic towns and villages.
It is said that Hannibal, the Carthaginian leader crossed les Baronnies with his elephants during the Second Punic War (218 - 201 B.C.). Later the area, part of the "Provincia Narbonensis" of the Roman Empire, was settled by retired Roman soldiers, who as landowners ruled the native Gallic tribes. This was not choice land as compared to the region closer to the Rhône and remained relatively poor. The Roman empire collapsed in the 3rd century and after hundreds of years of invasions by Franks, Lombards, Saracenes and marauding bands, local fiefs started to fortify villages and consolidate power.
In 1032 King Rodolphe, the last ruler of the Kingdom of Arles and Vienne, ceded all his territories, including les Baronnies, to the Holy Roman Empire, a loose confederation of territories in Central Europe ruled by numerous secular and ecclesiastical princes, prelates, counts, imperial knights and free cities with the German Emperor nominally in charge. During this time a local fief, the Baron de Mévouillon, consolidated his power over a large part of les Baronnies. The Mévouillons ruled for roughly 300 years from their impressive Fort de Mévouillon (halfway between Séderon and Buis les Baronnies) and established their commercial capital in Buis les Baronnies. A family feud in 1125 resulted in a split, the western part of les Baronnies was now ruled by a different line of Mévouillons. They called themselves Barons de Montauban, hence the name "les Baronnies" (plural). They established their commercial capital in Nyons and their fortress within sight of the Fort de Mévouillon in Montauban. No love lost between the two tribes; lots of feuds and endless financial problems. In 1300 the Montaubans and in 1311 the Mévouillons had to sell their possessions to the Count of Vienne, nicknamed le Dauphin (the dolphin was his coat of arms) who ceded his territory to the King of France in 1349 in order to - you guessed it - pay his debts. The last Mévouillon ruler, Raymound VII, retired to a comfortable life in Carpentras. His nephew - enraged by the sale of his inheritance - bribed the cook to poison his uncle. This plot was discovered and the cook was dragged naked through the streets of Carpentras by a horse until dead.
Similar to the Luberon, les Baronnies was a stronghold of Protestantism in the Provence. It suffered heavily during the Religious Wars (1562 - 1598). Only a few Protestant communities have survived to this day. The most notable military leader of the Protestants in the Provence was a certain Charles Dupuy-Montbrun, from Montbrun les Bains in les Baronnies. His main adversary on the Catholic side was Faulque Thollon de Sainte Jalle also from les Baronnies, from St.Jalle. After a short lived economic revival the pest struck in 1629 and then again in 1652; the population was decimated. In the 1630's Richelieu "struck": he ordered a wide scale demolition of fortifications in France in order to reduce the power of regional nobility. The forts of the Mévouillons and Montaubans were erased, as were the fortifications of Buis les Baronnies, Nyons and many villages in les Baronnies. Ever wondered why the magnificent fortifications of Avignon were spared? It was Papal Territiory until the French Revolution! The period from the 18th century to modern day was marked by economic decline and land flight. Only in the 1980s were les Baronnies "discovered". Tourism started to develop and the area between Vasion la Romaine and Nyons started to become very popular with retirees and vacation home owners.
Towns and Villages
Les Baronnies has two historic towns (Buis les Baronnies and Nyons) and many rustic ancient villages. Many of the village houses have been beautifully restored by their owners as a vacation home or as a primary residence in retirement. Contrary to the Luberon the local population is still the dominating factor here, not absentee home owners. Exception are some remote hamlets in the mountains, previously abandoned but now restored by their absentee owners. Les Baronnies is a refuge for many artists priced out of the more expensive locations further south. An excellent choice for a quality vacation, but don't expect bargains here - this has become a very desirable area! Let's talk about the more important towns and villages of les Baronnies (in alphabetical order). There are so many other nice villages and hamlets, but we can't list them all.
We mention this tiny hamlet (pop.6), 8km from Montbrun les Bains, because of the Château de Aulan, a privately owned castle 8 km from Montbrun-les-Bains. Hugues de Montbrun acquired the castle in 1245 from the Mévouillons. In 1792 it was burnt down and rebuilt in the 19th century by the Suarez d'Aulan family, the current owners. Charles Suarez d'Aulan (born 1910), a friend of famous French writers Jean Giono, René Char and Albert Camus, dedicated his life to restoring this family heritage. The castle is open July and August (you need to make reservations, call 04 75 28 80 00). It contains paintings, sculptures, furniture and tapestries of the Suarez d'Aulan's family. The 12th century church also merits a visit.
This picturesque village (pop.88) is perched above the Toulourenc Valley, controlling the ancient toll road in the valley. Magnificent views towards Mont Ventoux - you can walk up from here, a long and exhausting climb (take plenty of water). The village contains many restored houses and artist ateliers. The well regarded ceramists Martine Gilles and Jaap Wieman offer classes during the summer season.
Origins of the 2nd largest town (pop. 2.500) in Les Baronnies goes back to the old Roman settlement of Vicani Boxani, a trading point on an important route connecting the Rhône Valley with Northern Italy. It became the capital of the Barons of Mévouillon, who ruled the region for more than 300 years until 1300. But the market place with its covered arcades reminds us of a town in Switzerland. And indeed, after a heavy population decline due to warfare and pests, King Louis XI settled immigrants from Switzerland and Saxony here in the 15th century.
You will enjoy this picturesque town nestled in the green countryside of the Southern Alpes. Its is sheltered from the Mistral winds during winter and early spring, but it can get quite hot here during the summer. This can be your starting point to explore the more remote eastern regions of Les Baronnies. Here you find excellent infrastructure in terms of accommodation, restaurants, shops and a great weekly market.
Park your car near the 18th century dyke, which protects the town from the Ouvèze' spring and autumn floods. It is called "Promenade des Princes de Monaco" reminding us of the short reign of the Grimaldi family here in the 17th century. Walking through the town you should visit the market place with its 15th century arcades, the Dominican convent (1594), now used as a holiday center and the Ursuline convent (1679) with its Renaissance door. There are some remnants of the town walls and the 13th century Saffre Tower. Visit also the 17th century Romanesque bridge over the river Ouvèze, the Pont Neuf. Otherwise lots of old town houses, shops, restaurants and cafés.
Historic village (pop. 1364) situated on a small hill between Vaison la Romaine and Nyons, also quite popular with vacationers and second home owners due to the great views to Mont Ventoux. It is surrounded by a bucolic countryside, vineyards and olive trees. Visit the ruins of the castle, a 12th century clock tower, the Chapel Notre-Dame de Beaulie and on the route to Châteauneuf de Bordette the Chapelle du Calvaire. All of this not a must do type thing, but should you stay in and around Mirabel these are the places to visit to learn more about your area.
A picturesque and nicely restored village (pop. 840) in the Ouvèze Valley, the "Gate to the Baronnies". The medieval castle overlooking the village is privately owned and not open to the public. Notable are the Dauphins' Fountain (1713) and covered lavoir (wash house) and the Chapel Notre Dame de Compassion (1670) near the Ouvèze bridge. This cute chapel was entirely renovated in the 1950s by a citizen of Mollans, fulfilling a vow made during the war for the safe return of his children. At the entrance of the nearby Toulourenc Gorge is a small cave, la Grotte de la Baume, where a carving representing two humans and an elephant are visible; a proof of the passage of Hannibal. Mollans and the Ouvèze valley are at the forefront of the many contenders in the Southern Alpes for a Hannibal crossing. During the summer season Mollans holds a Saturday late afternoon Provençal market (starts around 6:00 PM), really worthwhile a visit.
Historic village (pop. 440) perched on a hill; this was the southern outpost of the Barons of Mévouillon and later the stronghold of Charles Dupuy-Montbrun (1525-1575), "Le Brave Capitaine", the most notable of the Protestant military commanders in the Provence during the Religious Wars. In the Bas-Village (lower village) you find a couple of shops, a few bars/bistros and a classical building, the Château de Gipièrs, which houses the the thermal baths. There is a Provençal market on Saturday mornings. Further up is the "Moyen Village" (Middle Village) with a mixture of 18th/19th century houses and some houses from the 60's. Further up you pass through the gate of Le Beffroi (clock tower) and enter the Haut Village (Upper Village) with a great collection 16th century narrow stone village houses and the remnants of the Montbrun-Dupuy château with its magnificent gate on top of the hill. Overall a great place to stay, quiet, peaceful and with lots of character. Great staging post to explore Mont Ventoux and the lavender growing areas around nearby Sault. The Château de Aulan (see above), a privately owned castle, is 8 km from Montbrun-les-Bains.
La Motte Chalancon is a historic circular village in the Oule Valley, 36km northeast of Nyons. Beautiful to look at, the village houses with their red roofs with the church towering over them. Sheltered from the Mistral winds and with lots of sunshine, located in the beautiful Pre-Alpes with the Vercours Plateau nearby, no wonder that La Motte has become popular with vacationers. Yet it remains an authentic Provençal village. The church goes back to the 12th century, it was periodically expanded, a clock tower was added in the 14th century and major modifications were made in the 19th century. Visit also the ruins of the château (destroyed during the French Revolution), the three beautiful fountains and walk along the narrow alleys with their interesting names, le Trou du Curé, la Calade de la Contrabande, la Calade du Cornard and la Calade du Tambourinaire. In early August each year they hold a rock festival: "Rock on l'Oule". But otherwise a quiet place but with enough village life, shops, restaurants and B&Bs to make this an ideal place for your hiking or biking tours in the Baronnies.
The largest town (pop.7.000) in Les Baronnies, situated in the Eygues Valley and sheltered from the Mistral. They say the sun shines more in Nyons than on the Côte d'Azur. You will believe this if you look at the many exotic plants which flourish here. The town is the center of the local olive tree cultivation. Here you find various oil mills, an olive oil cooperative and an olive tree/olive oil museum. The olives grown in Nyons and les Baronnies have an AOC label, if you want to learn more about it click here.
Nyons is one of our favorite towns in the Drôme Provencale. It has a certain old fashioned charm about it. We hope it stays the way it is. As the old capital of the Barons de Montauban and later the administrative center for the region, Nyons has many historic buildings. The center piece of Nyons is the Place de la Libération. Lots of plane trees, palm trees, flowers, a fountain, curly wrought iron lampposts, cafés, brasseries and the charming Hotel-Restaurant Colombet, right out of a 1930's movie. East of Place de la Libération is the Place des Arcades, officially known as the Place du Dr. Bourdongle (a local leader of the Résistance). It was constructed in the 14th century in order to expand commerce in Nyons. One of the best arcaded plazas in Southern France. You find cute old fashioned shops under the arcades, like the Librairie Pinet and the Pâtisserie des Arcades. We are happy to report that half of this wonderful historic square has now been converted to a pedestrian zone instead of parking (the collective wisdom of the town council be praised!). The local cafés have expanded their seating to the square and the whole scene has changed from benign neglect to beauty.
Go further East on Rue de La Resistance and Rue des Desportes, dotted with lots of small shops and restaurants. Visit l'Eglise St.Vincent, rebuilt in 1614, the main church of Nyons. At the end of Rue des Desportes you find the Pont Roman, a 15th century stone bridge 43 m long and 18m high, which spans the river Eygues.
Go back on Rue des Desportes and walk up Rue de l'Ancienne Mairie, you are now in the Quartier des Forts, the oldest part of Nyons. Continue uphill until you reach, the Château Delphinal, of which tree towers remain as well as the Tour Randonne. It houses a 19th century chapel with its neo-Gothic pyramid topped by a statue of the Madonna. Walk down Rue Randonne, past the 11th century Vieux Château and turn into Rue des Grand Forts. You will be rewarded with a medieval arched passage way, which is 43 m long, leading you to the Place Joseph Buffaven and from there back to Place de la Libération.
Nyons has a good choice of hotels, B&B's, restaurants and brasseries. A great place to stay and explore Les Baronnies to the East and the Southern Côtes du Rhône wine villages to the West.
Small village (pop.127) in the Ouvèze Valley dominated by what appears to be from afar an out of proportion church - immensely tall. L'Eglise Perchée Notre Dame de Consolation (1895) is built on an elongated rock. The access to this sanctuary was inspired by railway viaducts. Except for the church and some pretty village houses there is nothing much here.
Situated in the middle of the Pre-Alpes, a lovely village (pop 284) 26km northeast of Nyons. The Vieux Village was abandoned in 1618. Its inhabitants moved lock, stock and barrel to the new village across the river Oule. What remains in the old village is the Chapelle St.Michel et St.Eutrope and the Grotte St.Eutrope, which was probably used for religious purposes in Pre-Christian times. New Rémuzat has many lovely stone houses with elaborate doorways, the Eglise St.Roch et Ste.Philomène. Visit also the Maison des Vautours showing a small exhibit about vultures, which were re-introduced here in the 1990s. Rémuzat has a wonderful and refreshing authenticity about it, the original Provence. Not surprisingly you find a number of artists living here. Infrastructure is good in terms of your daily shopping needs. There is a hotel/restaurant as well as B&Bs and gîtes. Surroundings are beautiful with rugged mountains and valleys where lavender, linden trees and fruit trees are cultivated.
A quiet historic village (pop.261) between Nyons and Valreas. Beautiful old village houses with views to Mont Ventoux and the plains dotted with vineyards and lavender fields. A refuge for artists who moved here from the more expensive villages between Vasion la Romaine and Avignon. Walk the narrow alleys leading you to the château, the priory with its beautiful renaissance façade and the Romanesque church.
Located in the quiet Upper Ouvèze Valley, a picturesque hilltop village (pop: 200). There are remains of an old fortification. The area is known for its chestnut and linden trees. Continue on Rt.D65 for about 6 km and turn right into a small country road Rt.D65A until you reach the small hamlet of Somecure (pop. 10).
It consists of working farms, the picturesque St.Pierre chapel (inside is a painting of St.Pierre with a monocle) and a rustic dairy store. The original rugged les Baronnies! Return to Rt.D65 and drive further east to the Col de Perty (1.302m); reportedly Hannibal let his army and elephants over this pass. You have great 360 degree views over les Baronnies. Rt.D65 is the old postal road connecting the Papal Territories in France with Italy.
This medieval village (pop. 270), is the center for the Ennuyé Valley, a lavender and wheat growing region. The village has a lot of history, it was the birthplace of Faulque Thollon de Sainte Jalle, one of the most prominent Catholic military commanders during the religious wars figures of the Religious Wars, the great adversary of Charles de Montbrun-Dupuy. Visit the ruins of the 12th century castle and its dungeons.
Sainte Jalle has one of the most beautiful little Romanesque churches in Les Baronnies, l'Eglise Notre-Dame de Beauvert. Constructed during the 12th century, its richly adorned portal has an interesting tympanum. There are several interpretations of the figures on the tympanum. The most likely one is that it represents the social spectrum entering the church: Man with walking stick and the cock on the left (the farmer), the man in the middle with the falcon on his shoulder (the noble) and the man on the right with the viola (troubadour). But where is the clergy? Well, inside the church of course, waiting for you! Right?
Sainte Jalle is a very quiet place with a small general store and a café, nothing much going on here but great for hiking and biking (if you don't mind mountains).
A historic village in an agricultural area. Between 1309 - 1790 it was an exclave of the Provence in the Dauphiné. Some nice village houses, shops, a good bakery, Sunday morning market and very friendly people. Otherwise very quiet and a fair way from livelier places. But it is quite well known to paragliders, one of the better locations in France with 7 take off and landing sites and a paragliding school.
One of the most Provençal villages north of Vaison la Romaine. Some people dispute it is part of les Baronnies. Hard to verify, the northern borders were always a bit fluid. In any case, it is a village worthwhile visiting. Situated on top of a hill, it is dominated by the 12th century church with an interesting interior (alas it is closed most of the time). The lavoir (wash house), the village houses, narrow alleys and above all the compact medieval character make this village an eyesight. Not much of an infrastructure here, post office, a café/bistro but it is quite close to Nyons. If you want to book accommodation here, make sure you end up in the right Venterol. This one is in the Département Drôme, there is another Venterol in the Département Alpes de Haute Provence.
Here is an unsolved mystery: What is the story behind "la femme nue en pleurs devant un tronc où s'enroule un serpent", the statue of a naked, weeping woman leaning on a pole with a serpent around it? You find this in front of one of the village houses near the lavoir. Nobody we spoke to in Venterol could tell us. Is it Eve? There is an inscription: "caro de carne mea", which could be a fragment from "Hoc nunc os ex ossibus meis, et caro de carne mea (this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh)" from a 14th century Benedictine script contemplating the crucifixion.