Mt Ventoux and the Ouvèze
The Côtes de Rhône, the Baronnies,
and the Dentelles de Montmirail

Getting orientated
Mt Ventoux and the river Ouvèze are in northern Provence. Here Mt Ventoux rises to 1909 m above a chopped up area of mountains and valleys just east of the Rhône. Familiarly known as the "Giant of Provence", it is seldom out of sight.
North of Mt Ventoux are Les Baronnies, to the south is the Luberon and in the west are the Dentelles de Montmiral. Further west is the valley of the Rhône.
We have hesitated to use the name "Provence" as this tag is as broad and about as useful as the expression "the south of France". "Provence" is, variously, a huge geographical region with vastly different landscapes, a historic province with flexible boundaries, or a modern administrative region with very broad boundaries. Perhaps also it is a state of mind - a place for holidays in a benign Mediterranean climate with an abundance of luscious food and wine.
On other pages we visit some other "Provences": those known to Cezanne and Van Gogh, also the Alpes Maritimes and the Grand Canyon of the Verdon.
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Mt Ventoux, the Ouvèze and the surrounding country
Another familiar name for the pyramid shaped giant is the "Bald Mountain". Snow covered in winter, in summer it deceptively appears to still have a coating of snow. As you get closer you see that this is white limestone in which tough little plants struggle to survive. Towards the summit none do survive.
A road winds sinuously up towards the summit, a killing climb favoured by cyclists throughout the year, and often famously celebrated as the stage finish of a gruelling day in the Tour de France. This gives the mountain its third nickname, the "Beast of Provence"
The Ouvèze river rises in the mountains of the pre-alps and runs west to join the Rhône just north of Avignon. It is a harmless clear turquoise stream most of the time but dramatically transforms into a dangerous muddy torrent after not infrequent torrential downpours.
The country round here is a walker's paradise. Trails run in all directions, following ridges and valleys and winding through deep forests. The GR9 traverses the area in a north south direction and its variant the GR91 climbs the mountain. The GR4 is another ambitious route passing through on its way east. More approachable are walks around the base in wooded and vineyard country. There are many GRP routes marked extending into the curious little range of limestone hills called the Dentelles de Montmirail and the area known as les Baronnies.
We have made two visits to this area. The first was in the early summer of 1997 when we rented a gîte in the tiny town of Rasteau. Sixteen years later, in the autumn of 2013, we returned to stay in Buis les Baronnies.
The principal town in the area is Vaison-la-Romaine, 17 km from Rasteau and 21km from Buis les Baronnies. It is something of a tourist mecca in summer but is worthy of its fame, clustered around Roman ruins in the shadow of Mt Ventoux. An important town from pre-Roman times, there are splendidly restored Roman ruins and a medieval haute-ville with attractive old houses and narrow streets perched on a hilltop. There are many smart restaurants and hotels and one of the best markets you are ever likely to encounter in all of France.
On market day the whole centre of the town becomes a maze of stalls selling fruit and vegetables so fresh and delicious that you want to buy some of everything. The very best buys in summer were local sweet and juicy Cavaillon melons, tomatoes that were everything a tomato should be, little bushes of basil in pots to put on the window sill and pick from as you cook or prepare meals. Year round, there are stalls displaying vat after vat of different types olives marinated in a host of different ways, a range of tapenades, and masses of cheese straight from the farm.
The town sits astride the river Ouvèze and for centuries has had to survive flash floods that are, historically, a frequent enough event. The most disastrous of these was in 1992, resulting in 37 deaths and almost complete destruction of the parts of the modern town along the river banks. Remarkably the old "Roman" bridge, which must have suffered many floods, remained standing. It says heaps for the ancient bridge builders, although it is unlikely there are many Roman elements left.
The Wine
The region is densely planted with vineyards and it follows that it is swimming in good wine with small caves dotted round the countryside offering degustation and special deals on the local product.
In Rasteau we enjoyed Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône-Villages, the tightly controlled AOC wines of the Rhône region. We found that most locals would go to the co-op with their containers and buy the local product ordering it by its familiar name of CDR. Lacking suitable containers we bought the bottled Rasteau CDR Villages and found it to be very good. When choosing to go more up market, the scope became bewildering, though some of the most memorable wines from this visit came from the celebrated cellars of Beaumes de Venise, whose muscat is truly to die for. Happily, we find that many of these labels are now available from specialist cellars in Australia.
In the Baronnies we found the very drinkable Côteaux des Baronnies and, from the southern slopes of Mt Ventoux the Côtes de Ventoux and Côtes de Luberon, which are well worthy of their AOC appellations.
Olives and Tapenade
Only in a market in the south of France will you really understand the place of olives in Mediterranean cuisine and will forever more disappointed when confronted in a delicatessen at home with a display that offers a choice between either giant grape size olives stuffed with something or the ubiquitous Kalamata.
In a Provencal market there is a bewildering choice from 40 or more barrels of different olives. Black, green and mottled olives of all shapes and sizes; seeded, unseeded, or cracked open to let the flavours into the fruit; flavoured with oils, herbs and spices; sometimes hot and tangy, sometimes full of the tang of local herbs and preserved citrus and sometimes just full of their own flavour.
Then there are the tapenades, based on olives and capers and used as a garnish or dip. You could find as many different tapenades as olives but the popular traditional tapenade is a combination of olives, capers, anchovies, sometimes tuna, sometimes mustard pounded into a pulp and thinned with the best quality olive oil and lemon juice. Delicious.
In the Baronnies, olive trees are as ubiquitous as vines and Nyons, just north of Buis les Baronnies, is widely accepted as the "Olive Capital of France". Its specialty is a plump black olive known as the "Black Pearl of Provence". Olives, olive oil and other olive based products are the basis of the local economy.
On our first trip, as we drove out from Avignon through the Côte de Rhône the signposts to the town of Rasteau were at first overshadowed by those to Vaison-la-Romaine. But after a while, signs to Rasteau began to dominate the roadside. First an inconspicuous brown sign on a rather wonky post "Rasteau", then a slightly bigger one in the colours of the vineyards "RASTEAU" then another like the billboards seen along country roads advertising local motels "RASTEAU", then at the cross roads outside the town a huge sign like a motorway structure promoting a multitude of small caves, depicting their individual labels, and finally on top of the local co-operative cave at the gateway to the town was a simply gigantic hoarding "BIENVENUE EN RASTEAU". We had arrived.
The town was tiny, boasting an épicerie, boucher and boulangerie and two bars all of which were clustered around a central square generously shaded by huge old plane trees. The proprietor of the épicerie was also a general handyman who helped us out when our gas bottles ran out. The old men of the village watched all activity in the square from strategically placed seats outside the bars and occasionally were persuaded to join in a game of boules.

In Rasteau our
gîte backed onto vineyards and all around as far as you could see were more and more vineyards. It was a splendid location
On our return visit we found a new sign at the entry to town. Our gîte looked as unlovely as before. The village seemed strangely deserted and the only commerce remaining was a boulangerie and one of the bars. The wine co-op, however, had expanded into shiny new premises with a wide range of wines to taste and buy. This we did.
for an uninspiring gerry built structure. The owner and her family had apparently been movers and shakers in the town, evidenced by a large wine establishment bearing their name but now falling into disrepair. She was a widow and, as we have discovered in other towns with other elderly widows, made a pastime of renting out one of the surplus family homes as a gîte.
Walking round Rasteau
The curious little range of limestone hills called the Dentelles de Montmirail lies between Vaison and Beaumes de Venise, They take their name from jagged outcrops of spiky limestone that form a spiny ridge jutting up from the plain below. Strategically perched villages look like part of the landscape. Pines, oaks and vines grow in the rich red soil, climbing as far up the slopes of the hillsides as they dare.
Using a somewhat unreliable local walking guide we had several days of excellent walking, though managing to get lost several times. Starting out from the villages of Gicondas, Beaumes de Venise, Séguret and Montmirail we could walk easy circuits. We would set out from the narrow streets of the villages, walk up through the vines and then through the scrawny trees to scramble up on to the peaks and stand on the rough, jagged rocky surface to survey the surrounding landscape.
There were also local walks in and around Rasteau itself. On one day we completed a circuit, starting and finishing in Rasteau. First following a Sentier Botanique up a little wooded valley to a plateau area which, at 350m is not exactly lofty, but which commanded a view over the surrounding countryside where the vines stretched to infinity. This route met up with a GRP which wound through farms and vineyards where it was possible to try the local Cairanne wine.
The track led us to Cairanne which is an attractive small town surrounded by its old walls with two medieval gateways. It sits on a small hill giving wide views across vineyards towards Mt Ventoux. Here there were more caves and a choice of restaurants for lunch. We returned to Rasteau on the GR 4 on its way eastward towards the Dentelles and Ventoux.
Les Baronnies
Les Baronnies is the name given to the delightfully unspoilt area in the foothills of the Alps north and east of Mt Ventoux . It is spectacular country where outcrops of limestone soar up to the sky like jagged breadknives or descend down to the valleys in great sweeping folds. Valleys and plateaus are bisected by narrow gorges and low passes. In the valleys are vines and olive trees, apricot trees and fields of lavender. Rustic villages and towns are dotted about, sometimes with the "Prettiest Village" designation, though these aren't always the most interesting villages.
The small town of Buis is situated on the banks of the Ouvèze, surrounded by some of the most stunning landscapes of les Baronnies. It has a history dating back to Roman times, becoming a major significant feudal centre in the 11th and 12th centuries. Vestiges of its old walls, towers and gateways remain in place and an arcaded 14th century market place is still intact. Narrow streets lead out from the market place and wind around the historic centre of the town. Tilleuls, or lime trees, are a feature of the streetscapes and a significant local industry as the flowers are harvested for the production of tisanes.
Buis is a thriving centre for active outdoor sports, in particular rock climbing, walking and cycling. The impressive Rocher Saint-Julien is a dramatic backdrop to the town - a majestic narrow knife edge where a newly constructed Via Ferrata (a series of iron ropes and ladders which cross the rock face) will be the longest in Europe. At weekends all the cliffs and rock faces in the area are dotted with brightly helmeted climbers making their way up and down the terrifying planes of rock.
We installed ourselves in a smart and comfortable gîte on the slopes overlooking the town. The Rocher Saint-Julien loomed up behind the house. From our terrace we looked through a remarkable V-shaped wall of rock to mountains beyond. The Ouvèze runs through the base of the cut.
Buis les Baronnies
Walking in Les Baronnies
The potential for walking around here is enormous though there are very few trails that do not involve steep climbs. The tourist offices in Buis and Vaison sell maps with walking instructions, with walks varying from short circuits to longer cross country trails.
Then we continued to climb up around a ravine to a ridge opposite Saint-Julien, now way down below us. At the top there was a clearing where we joined other walkers having lunch looking across to Ventoux, now quite close.
The V cut by the Ouvèze
We started close to home, dipping into our folder of Promenades and Randonnées around Buis les Baronnies. First and easiest were walks around the town and surrounding hillsides but it wasn't long before we were tackling some of the higher peaks. The first of these was called the Sentier de l'Aiguille, the track to the needle, and sure enough we climbed up to be level with a giant spiky rock, maybe a bit like a needle.

Then the climb continued up and up till we were level with the folding v-shaped cliffs that we could see from our terrace. By now Mt Ventoux was in sight and the town way below us. Higher and higher and we had a picnic, taking in the spectacular panoramas. The steep rocky descent was harder than the climb but it was a very satisfying walk.
The other big challenge was the circuit of Saint-Julien whose awesome jagged peaks just begged to be climbed every time we looked up. This was a distance of only 10km but a climb of 500m, following the GR9 for some of the time, then going along local trails.
Again the walk down was harder than the up - very steep, at times picking a way through spiky rocks rather than a path. We could now see the backside of the rocher.

Very soon we were down to where there was a school of
escalade and where climbers were spread-eagled all over the flat face of the rock.
It was a steep climb up through the trees but not too taxing and wonderful views opened up as we got up to the level of the rocks. We were now in a saddle and had views in the opposite direction across to a ridge which was to be our return journey.
To give the legs a rest, car trips into the isolated country east of Buis open up the possibility of visiting some lovely villages - Montbrun les Bains, Reilhanette, Savoillan and, best of all, Brantes which perches on a hillside full face on to Mt Ventoux.
There are many other walking possibilities in the Baronnies. There are circuits departing from the pretty villages nearby like Faucon where we did a very agreeable circuit walk.

Mollans, Pierrelongue and Entrechaux are other small villages linked by local walking tracks.
Nyons is well worth a visit and the hilly country to its north is off the beaten track and alluring both to the walker and car based explorer.
In fact there is so much more to see in this unheralded part of France we have resolved to return very soon.
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Mont Ventoux making clouds
Mont Ventoux on skyline
Rocher Saint-Julien in middle distance
Buis les Baronnies in the valley
Roman Bridge over the Ouvèze at Vaison la Romaine
In the Market
Vaison la Romaine
Top: view from Rasteau
Left: Gateway out of Rasteau
Right: Gateway into Rasteau
Top: les Dentelles
Below: Castle Wall, Cairanne. Ventoux in background
Two Gateways in Cairanne
Top: with GR4
Below: with Walker
Signage for Sentier Botanique
Landscape in the Baronnies
Street in Buis les Baronnies
Street in Buis les Baronnies
with Rocher Saint-Julien above
Rocher de l'Aiguille
Three Versions of Signage
Rocher Saint-Julien
Rocher Saint-Julien:
at the beginning
Rocher Saint-Julien:
level at the saddle
Rocher Saint-Julien:
now way down below us
Rocher Saint-Julien: brought closer
Rocher Saint-Julien: looking at the backside
See them
The Village of Faucon
On the walk near Faucon
with Mont Ventoux in background
The Village of Brantes
Mont Ventoux again
The GR4 passes through Brantes