What a surprise Grignan is in southern Drôme in the south of the Rhône Alpes region. When the 11th century, fortified village suddenly comes into view, majestic and proud above the low lying lavender fields, it looks decidedly regal in an area that oozes rustic charm. In 2019, it joined the illustrious list of “Plus Beaux Villages de France” – the most beautiful villages in the country, officially.
There are a couple of different roads into the footings of the village and the one I chose felt very grand. Plane trees either side heralded my arrival as I swept through a small parkland area and arrived at the first wall of the fortifications.
A farmer was hard at work putting his lavender fields to bed right up to the village boundary. The wall is broken by an imposing gate with large stone pillars either side, suggesting a medieval village with a bit more of a story to tell.
A village with a secret
Turn the corner and a broad esplanade escorts you to the first steps up to into the heart of the village. There you will find a large, 19th century, circular bath surrounded by columns, known as the Lavoir du Mail. With the Mistral wind constantly pulling at your hair and the heat of an early September day, a quick dip and cool off is quite tempting.
As you climb on, what awaits you inside the walls is a charming medieval village. There’s a tiered system of narrow and cobbled streets that wind their way around and up to the apex of the hill. There are sweeping views across the lavender, vineyards and sunflowers. It’s predominantly pedestrian and makes a pleasant morning, walking fully around the village, stopping at the boutiques or at a pavement café.
Of course, you can’t help but be aware that the crowning glory of Grignan is its Renaissance castle. As with any medieval village you have an idea of what to expect. One way or another the narrow streets of the village lead you to a grand approach and a large and imposing wooden door at the rocky top of the hill. But you can’t see the chateau until you’ve entered the inner circle. And even then, there’s one last climb before you turn the corner and there she is. In all her magnificent, unexpected and spectacular glory.
It’s as if someone has transported Versailles or a large piece of Paris to this quiet corner of northern Provence. There’s a vast open forecourt at the far end of which stands the exquisite Renaissance façade. Mount Ventoux, the Pre-Alpes and the Dentelles are all visible behind you and for a moment you’re caught in a spellbinding silence. Horse drawn carriages spring to mind and you can almost see dainty feet topped by sumptuous ball gowns stepping out of the carriage doors to the sound of laughter from courtiers as they swish their way inside.
In the 17th century the famous aristocratic letter writer Madame de Sevigné often stayed here after her daughter married the Count of Grignan. There’s a statue honouring her in the centure of Grignan and the town holds an international letter writing competition each year.
Chateau with a troubled past
The originally 12th century chateau was completely transformed in the Renaissance period into this superb stately home. It boasts high and beautifully painted ceilings, grand ball rooms and galleries. Versailles style parquet floors and beautiful wood panels hung with huge tapestries. The ornate bedrooms have far reaching views to the south and east. The whole chateau is juxtaposed with the 16th century collegiate church who’s roof acts as an additional terrace for the chateau. A terrace on the church roof, I hear you say, that’s sacrilege and that’s what the people of the time thought too.
Perhaps predictably, during the French revolution the chateau, like so many others, was partially destroyed and looted owing to its strong connections with the establishment and the royal family. Over the next two centuries, Chateau Grignan struggled to recover its glory.
Famous one time owner, a Parisian dandy with a fabulous name – Boniface de Castellane, only added to its woes. He sold off many of its remaining treasures at the beginning of the 20th century to pay for his divorce from American heiress Anna Gould .
It wasn’t until ownership fell into the hands of Marie Fontaine in 1912 that a full programme of restoration began. Today it’s one of the most prestigious and leading examples of Renaissance architecture in the south. So unexpected, so splendid.
Take a break in Grignan
Back down at the foot of the village is the utterly delightful Clair de la Plume, a quintessentially French tea house. Its courtyard garden is a little oasis with tables hidden in amongst the sage, lavender, honeysuckle, hibiscus and thyme. A long list of teas, cakes and pastries served in floral crockery is hard to choose from.
This former ambassador’s house also holds a 17th century kitchen and a Michelin star restaurant. And, there’s a secret garden, a short walk from the courtyard. In the garden, behind the village wall, you’ll find a lover’s pavilion with views back across to Grignan, a Mediterranean garden and a natural swimming pool. If you’re looking for somewhere to stay while you explore, this is a sumptuous spot.
Grignan is a surprise and there’s just one last tip before you move on.
Just outside the village, in the industrial zone, is a gift shop. It’s called Durance and you probably wouldn’t have given it a second glance. But from lavender hand cream, poppy shower gel and camellia body lotion, it’s filled with all sorts of natural produce, everything locally sourced and deliciously fragrant. If you want to take home the smells of Provence and Grignan, it’s worth a quick deviation.
Practical details for a visit to Grignan
Transport to Drôme: Nearby Valence has a TGV station and it’s possible to get trains from the UK or Paris. From here you can take a bus to Grignan, there is no train station.
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