Who doesn’t love a good French market? It’s such a thoroughly sensual and deliciously medieval experience, with people stacking their produce high and squeezing their stalls into any available space, even if they’re clinging to the edge of a roundabout. The market in Nyons is no exception and it’s just one of the reasons to visit this remote little town in Drôme, in the south of the Rhône Alpes region.
A gem of the Rhone Alpes
Nyons is some way off the beaten track to the east of Valence in the north and Avignon to the south. It feels like the last town before the frontier and it sort of is, as its position nestled in the Pre Alpes foothills means there are no significant towns beyond it for some time.
This region is famed for its olives, lavender, fruit trees and sunflowers and as you drive east from the Rhône, long, wide, straight, flat roads take you through the olive groves. There are giant terracotta olives just in case you were in any doubt and all the time, you can see the rugged rise of the mountains in the hazy distance. Eventually, as the mountains draw you gradually nearer, you bear right and as the road starts to gently undulate and bend, you know that you’re nearly in Nyons.
Nyons dates back to before the 5th century and you’re welcomed by a large open square surrounded by covered arcades, plane and palm trees and pavement cafés and bars. It feels Mediterranean and in the evening the trees are lit up, and there’s a holiday feel with helmetless moped riders buzzing about and old French cars that smell like they’re belching out 2 stroke. Because of its position tucked right into the foot of the hills, you’re sheltered from the Mistral and in September it’s still warm enough to eat lunch and dinner outside.
A very special French market
The Thursday market starts early and before the sun has crept fully into the streets. The gathering of hawkers may well wake you if you’re staying in the Hotel Colombet, overlooking the square. The market seeps out from the square into the veins of the town, including out through the Saint Jacques gate (the only gate in the defensive wall), into the medieval Place des Arcades and on through a series of narrow streets. Just north of the main square is another, the Place Josesph Buffaven and to the side of that you’ll notice a set of intriguing steps and a first floor corridor looking over the square.
If you’re up early and waiting for the market to get into full swing, now is the time to explore. This part is the Rues des Grand Forts and the old quarter that takes you up above the town. Tiny cobbled streets, only wide enough for a horse or a walker, take you slowly higher and higher and you feel like you’ve entered a secret world of picturesque but miniature houses and streets. You catch views across the hills in one direction as the sun climbs and glimpses of the scurrying ants of the market in the other and you’ll also stumble across the Tour Randonne. The 13th century chapel with its ornamental bell tower is quite a surprise.
Back in the town and the market has erupted into life. Nougat, apricots, roasting chicken, olives and lavender draw you in. The school in Nyons is right next to the square, making the smells and sounds of market day, part of their weekly education. It’s no wonder this fabulous market tradition survives.
Lavender and Romans in the south of France
Nyons has a vibrant economy and apart from olives and fruit, in this part of France, lavender is always going to be a key player. There’s a beautiful Roman bridge on the edge of the town and just before that, there’s a lavender distillery, the Distillerie Bleu Provence. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the harvesting and distilling process particularly if you care about the quality of the essential oils and products that you buy.
If you’re lucky enough to get a tour with the owner, Philippe Soguel, you’ll get a rare insight into the passion that drives lavender production in this area and the search for more efficient and more ecologically sound methods of harvesting and processing. You can also try some of their ice cream including geranium, lavender and thyme flavours, all of which are delicious, if different in their own distinct ways.
There are all sorts of reasons to linger here. Nyons is famed for its black olives and is an olive “appellation contrôlé”. You can discover the olive groves on foot as part of the “Sentiers de l’Olivier” and there’s also a “Jardin des Arômes” to explore with 300 different species of fragrant plants. Or just hire a bike and take to the vineyards.
Nyons is a wonderful mixture of sensual colours and flavours, history and nature. It feels special tucked away at the foot of the hills and you don’t want to leave Although it’s bustling, it feels strangely calm and welcoming and you should stay as long as you can.
Practical information for visiting Nyons
Where to stay: Hotel Colombet is ideally placed in Nyons centre, not far from the tourist office and with tables and dinning overlooking the square: www.hotelcolombet.com
Transport to Drôme:Valence has a TGV station and it’s possible to get trains from the UK or Paris: uk.voyages-sncf.com. Although valence has an airport, most flights are to Lyon or Grenoble.
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer and deputy editor of The Good Life France