Cairanne is a well known wine village of the Southern Côtes du Rhône. The new village is pretty but not exceptional, the recently renovated school building, neat little shops, the Mairie (Town Hall) and an excellent bistro/wine bar at the main intersection. What makes it really noteworthy is the Vieux Village, the old village on top of the hill, with well preserved fortifications of the Knights Hospitalers (today's Maltese Knights) dating back to the 12th century. Like Crestet it has not yet been discovered by many tourists. You can enjoy a leisurely walk around the Vieux Village pretty much on your own.
A settlement "Queroana" was first mentioned in 739 and became later known as Cayrane and finally Cairanne. The small settlement became a fortified village of the Knights Hospitaller (the later Maltese Knights), who in 1123 began with the construction of the ramparts. As was usual during these times the ramparts served both as a fortified wall and as housing for the local population. Cairanne was added to the papal territory in 1317 under the reign of Pope John XXII. It was ruled by a succession of noble families, the last one being Jean-Jacques Vidaud, who was guillotined in June 25, 1794 during the French revolution.
During the 18th century Cairanne's fortunes started to improve as wine growing increased in importance. A serious setback came in 1863 when phylloxera first appeared and progressively destroyed the whole of French wine growing except for some vineyards on sandy terrain. At the beginning of the 20th century the winegrowers struggled to revive the ravaged vineyards and enhance the quality of their wine. Pivotal was the use of resistant rootstock from the Five Finger Lake region in upstate New York to guard against phylloxera as well as a focus on quality rather than quantity. Finally Baron Pierre Le Roy Boiseaumarié, a trained lawyer and winegrower from Châteauneuf du Pape, successfully obtained legal recognition of the "Côtes du Rhône" appellation of origin in 1937.
In the late 19th century the winegrowers started to move closer to the vineyards, which multiplied in the hills and plains around Cairanne. The lower village of Cairanne gradually became the focal point of commerce, education and local government. The old village fell pretty much into disrepair. In the 1960s the French government began an effort to preserve and renovated historic villages. The old Saint Martin church, which was totally in ruins, was rebuilt and dedicated as Notre Dame de la Vigne et du Rosaire (Our Lady of the Vine and the Rosary). Many of the stones of Saint Martin had been pillaged during the previous centuries and were used to construct houses in the area. The government sold to private owners, mostly from the region, the apartments and houses which had been built into the fortified walls constructed by the Knights Hospitaller. The revival of the old village had begun and by 1980 most of the work had been finished.
Tour of the Vieux Village
In the village center take the road to St.Roman de Malegarde and turn left after about 600m into the road leading up to the Vieux Village. When you see the massive fortified walls - still used as dwellings today - turn left and park your car in front of the Saint Roche Chapel (1), built in 1726 by the survivors of a great pest. It is attached to the oldest part of the ramparts, which were constructed by the Knights Hospitaller starting in 1123. The chapel is used occasionally for community events. Saint Roche is a much revered saint in Southern France. He died around 1379 and his good deeds are the assistance he gave to pest victims. He became really popular during the pest epidemics in 1630 and 1720. Between the Saint Roche Chapel and the Porte d'Autanne you can see the walls of the old hospital.
Stroll through the Porte d'Autanne (2) (Autanne Gate), on your left. It is also called Porte Saint Roch and was constructed in 1726. Turn left and you will see Notre Dame de la Vigne et du Rosaire (3), Cairanne's old church. It is actually a new church, which was built in 1960 on the rubbles of an old church, Saint Martin, making good on a promise given by the villagers during the German occupation. Next to it is the Gîte Communal - a tourist hostel run by Village of Cairanne. You have magnificent views from the terraces in front of the church over the Rhône valley, Massif Central and the hills of Drôme Provencale to the North. Walk down the steps on the Northern rampart to see an old stone vault and the Templar's Tower (4) (should be called Hospitallers' Tower actually), a square tower constructed probably around 1123 at the same time as the ramparts. Again, great views - the town to the Southwest is Ste. Cécile les Vignes. On your left is the Porte du Sergent (5), the Sergeant's Gate and the Belvedere du Sergent with great views. The road down the hill leads to Porte Notre Dame des Exés (6) and just outside the walls to the Chapelle de Notre-Dame des Exés (7), constructed in 1651 outside (= exés) the walls for the pest victims. It is in typical Provence style with the clock hanging just under one arcade oriented North-South, so that the Mistral wind can carry its sound far away. Walk back into the circular old village on top and you will see the Donjon (8), the clock tower, and old town hall. Parts of the building date back to the Knights Hospitaller. The Donjon was restored with the help of the Alary family, well known winegrowers from Cairanne. If you want to walk from the new village up to the Vieux Village turn left at the roundabout halfway up the hill and take the steps (9).