Vaison-la-Romaine sits deep in the heart of the Provençal countryside. Cross the Roman bridge over the river Ouvèze that divides the town and walk up the hill away from the modern centre, and you enter the narrow streets of the medieval citadel. Above that, there is a ruined castle, on a rocky limestone promontory that offers a commanding view of the valley, which was built by the Comte de Toulouse in the 12th century in a gesture of defiance against the local bishops.
Slices of history, strata of life: there are more than 2,000 years of human habitation here, all stacked on top of one another, from Bronze Age remains to Roman villas, to the modern Place Montfort – the pretty central square surrounded by cafés where, every Tuesday, market traders gather under the plane trees to sell local lavender, soap and olive oil, pretending all the while that this is normal and everyday situation. It’s not. Vaison is a remarkable town.
More than 2,000 years of human history, and yet it’s a good bet that the view from the ramparts of the château on the hill has not substantially changed in all that time – a view over a landscape of gently rolling vineyards (Côtes de Ventoux, Gigondas, Côtes du Rhône), dense forests and cultivated lavender fields that have characterized the area since time immemorial.
The smell of umbrella pines, eucalyptus and herbs in the Provençal scrub, the sound of the cicadas and the hot sun beating down, and above it all the rocky slopes of Mont Ventoux eternally presiding over everything.
Vaison’s old town is a maze of winding cobbled streets too narrow for cars, which are instead left to locals sitting on shady benches passing the time of day, or tourists strolling hand in hand through patches of dazzling light and dark. Around every corner is a new vista, or a fountain chuckling gently in a cool square. Vines trail tantalizingly over high walls, hinting at gardens beyond, and open shutters allow a glimpse of opulent rooms within.
The older upper town on the colline du château (the castle hill) is built from limestone, so is bright white in the sun. Only in the newer town on the lower colline de Villasse do traditional Provençal colors begin to show – ochre wash on the walls, lavender shutters and pastel green or soft red paintwork decorating the summer.
The Tour de France is not stopping here this year. It is instead passing straight through on the main road below, which is a shame, because this tranquil, unhurried little town is a great place to stop – on a restaurant terrace with a cool glass of rosé while waiting for a goat’s cheese salad and a steak, perhaps. But neither is the Tour visiting Mont Ventoux, this year, one of its holy high places. Ventoux, whose bare rocky summit looks from afar to be permanently crowned with snow, has been the site of both drama and tragedy, and of battles between cycling’s greats since it was first introduced to the race in 1951; Ventoux, whose steep, arduous slopes exert a pull over professionals and amateurs as does the flame to the proverbial moth.
But there is no doubt that Tour will return to Ventoux soon, and also will return Vaison. And that’s OK. Vaison has seen a lot of excitement come and go over the millennia. It can wait.