Valence is in the department of Drome, Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes (formerly Rhone-Alpes).
Just an hour south of Lyon, Valence is a beautiful and surprising city. It’s known as the gateway to the south of France. From Paris, you can be there in a couple of hours on the TGV which steams its way through and on south to Montpellier and beyond.
The city is perched on the banks of the Rhône River, a stone’s throw from the Ardèche. A place of narrow cobbled streets, parks, canals, the regal Champ de Mars, a marina, and a diverse mixture of architecture. It has history, culture and cuisine in abundance and all basking in the reach of the Vercours Mountains and the Pre Alpes.
What to see in Valence
The TGV station is about 10km out of the centre and from here you can take the local train to the city’s Gare de Valence Ville. It’s a beautiful 19th century structure which brings you right into the heart of the city. From here walk straight down Avenue Pierre Sémard. You’ll find yourself in the grand Esplanade du Champ Du Mars. This 3-hectare site has lime trees, lawns and fountains and the romantic Kiosk de Peynet. With views across to the Vercours and Ardèche mountains and the old ruins of Castle Crussol, it’s a captivating start. The city has eight parks including the lovely Jouvet Park. With the impressive line of 19th century façades bordering the Champ du Mars you find yourself wondering why you don’t know more about this elegant city.
From the wide Boulevard du Général de Gaulle head into the narrow back streets. Here you’ll find a melting pot of architecture and intriguing pockets of interest. This city was on the pilgrims’ trail. The cathedral (built and rebuilt in the 11th, 17th and 19th centuries) has a special ambulatory for pilgrims. It also has a monument to Pope Pius VI, who died in Valence. Then there’s the Maison des Têtes. The 16th century house built on the cusp of the transition from Gothic to Renaissance is covered in sculpted heads representing wind, wealth and time, as well as theology, law and medicine. And there’s the Pendentif which, built in 1548, broke new architectural ground with its spherical triangles.
In fact, almost every twist and turn in the narrow streets of Valence reveals something intriguing. From narrow steps in the city walls to art galleries (the city has an impressive collection) to three Michelin starred restaurants. There’s even an Armenian centre here. What’s noticeable is that the different architectural styles seem to sway gently through the centuries.
Where to eat out in Valence
Valence has food and the gourmand at its heart. In every boulangerie you’ll find a local speciality: the Suisse and the Pogne. The Suisse is shaped and decorated as a Swiss soldier in honour of Pope Pius’ guards. It’s a sort of orange blossom flavoured brioche – while the Pogne is a rounded brioche.
The very best place to try these is the Boulangerie Nivon. It’s a short stroll from the station from where they’ve been serving these delights to commuters since 1856. They’re possibly the best in the city and the bakers’ passion is palpable, (or should I say edible?).
In every restaurant, you’ll come across another speciality, the tiny Raviole du Dauphiné, made of white cheese and parsley. Then there’s Anne Sophie Pic and her family. An award winning, third generation chef, she has followed in her grandfather’s footsteps by winning 3 Michelin stars. Their influence is felt everywhere and of course, they’re not the only Michelin starred chefs in the city or the region.
Valence for the gourmand
And then there’s the annual Fête de la Gastronomie, held at the end of September. At this time of year, the weather’s still balmy. The city throws its doors open to embrace all the flavours of the region as well as the cuisine of the world.
Centred on the Place des Clercs but spreading out through the city, you can enjoy local celebrity chefs preparing their favourite dishes. There are markets, musico–gastronomic (yes cooking to the rhythm of the DJ), workshops and a tour of 8 of the city’s historical monuments who host fine food tastings. The streets are filled with teasingly delightful aromas. And, lots of restaurants embrace the festival spirit with special offers and dishes.
Each year the festival celebrates a specific theme that encourages “the reflection and discovery of French Gastronomy”. In 2015, the festival saw some 2 million visitors. If you love France and you love food, it’s a little slice of the idyllic.
Lots to do in Valence
Valence feels sophisticated and elegant, yet quiet and very personal. There are regular markets here on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Cultural events going on throughout the year. In July there’s a large and free music festival on the Champ Du Mars. And, there are many places to visit beyond the city and in the surrounding Drôme. Valence is Lyon’s beautiful but shy cousin and a city that you should take the time to get to know much better.
Lucy Pitts is deputy editor of The Good Life France, a freelance writer, editor and Francophile…
Details for Fête de la Gastronomie at: valenceengastronomie.fr
Where to stay: Les Négociants is in the centre of the city, a few steps from the station and almost next door to the Boulangerie Nivon. It has a quirky and fun feel and is a great place to explore from. Details: www.hotelvalence.com
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