Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in Provence, in the south of France, is famous for its wines. The town’s name means “the pope’s new château” because many centuries ago a summer papal palace was built here. The main Palace of the Popes was in nearby Avignon. Popes need good wine to drink, so vines were planted, barrels were crafted, and the town’s fame for great wine began.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is known for more than its wines, though. It’s also famous for a law that bans UFOs from taking off, landing, or even flying over the town. How did this strange law come to be?
UFO spotters in France
In 1953, the movie War of the Worlds arrived in French movie houses and was a big hit. Before long, French citizens began spotting flying saucers everywhere. The first such spotter was Marius Dewilde, who lived in a small town in northern France.
As Dewilde recounted, he was reading a magazine on the night of September 10, 1954 when his dog started barking furiously. Going outside to investigate, he saw a large, dark shape nearby. Turning on his flashlight to see what it was, he discovered two strange creatures staring at him. Each was about three feet tall, with shiny round heads (“they reflected my flashlight like glass.”) A beam suddenly shot out from the dark shape—their spaceship—which blinded and paralyzed Dewilde. The tiny creatures then returned to their ship, which rose to the sky and flew off at high speed.
Dewilde reported his story to the police and soon it was in newspapers worldwide. This sparked a frenzy of UFO sightings across France, with dozens reported in the months that followed. The UFOs were described as having oblong shapes and became known as soucoupes volantes (flying saucers) or cigares volants (flying cigars.)
Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s quirky UFO law
UFO fever gripped France, and while some saw the threat of interplanetary conflict, the mayor of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Lucien Jeune, saw opportunity. His town was held in high esteem within wine circles but was unknown to the wider public. So, Mayor Jeune decided to take advantage of the frenzy and get some free publicity. He passed a law banning UFOs. On October 25, the following ordinance went into effect.
Article 1. The overflight, the landing and the takeoff of aircraft known as flying saucers or flying cigars, whatever their nationality is, are prohibited on the territory of the community.
Article 2. Any aircraft, known as flying saucer or flying cigar, which should land on the territory of the community will be immediately held in custody.
Article 3. The forest officer and the city policeman are in charge, each one in what relates to him, of the execution of this decree.
The law states… no UFO’s in Chateauneuf-du-Pape
As Jeune hoped, the law created a huge buzz, with media from all over the world descending on his town. And the buzz didn’t end in 1954. Decades later, the law was still so well known that the California wine maker Randall Graham, a fan of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, named his flagship wine after the famous law. This wine, Le Cigare Volant, has a label showing a mysterious spaceship floating over the vineyards.
Will Châteauneuf-du-Pape ever repeal its strange anti-UFO law? In 2016, then-mayor Claude Avril said no, he would keep in in place because, “It spices things up a bit.” And as winemaker Graham notes, the law has been effective—no UFOs have landed since it was passed!
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence. He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Keith & Val’s Adventures in Provence. Read more at Life in Provence.