Style on wheels: 2CV road trip
If you want to explore Nyons and its surroundings, why not do it in style? You won´t find anything more fitting than Karl´s red 2CV from 1985, a genuine icon of french culture.
Three years ago Karl decided to close his ecological products shop and he bought this little jewel with the idea to experience something new everyday, meeting new people and driving through different and unexplored roads.
If you decide to take this trip, you are going to get much more than a simple car ride: Karl will astound you with all his knowledge about the Drôme Provençale, and if you have any question he is more than happy to engage in a conversation that will be sprinkled with all kind of historical, geographical and cultural facts.
Naming every type of tree that we came accross, Karl drove us to the villages of Montalieu and Rochebrune; he really does know the best spots to get a panoramic view of the hills and forests of the Baronnies.
Of course, Karl also told us about the importance of the olive trees in Nyons, that´s the reason why he named his car 2CV-O´live, a more than suitable name that matches our Well-O-Live Project.
It is not easy to find such a kind soul, who can so easily transmits his passion for Nyons and the Baronnies. He would make a great ambassador, but i don´t think he would trade anything for the freedom of driving his old and dear 2CV through the roads of this beautiful land.
La vie en purple: Distillerie de lavande
When Christine Soguel was a little girl, she played around her grandparents while they were working hard in the lavender fields. Little did she know that one day she would be the head of the family business.
It is her who greets and welcomes us to show us around the Bleu Provence distillery, only a few metres from the Aigües river. Her ancestors picked this location back in the year 1939 because they also used the water from the river for the distillation process. One soon realises that the Aigües makes everything work around here.
The first thing that catches my attention, apart from the perfumed smell of lavender in the air, are the huge 3 metre deep stills where the mix takes place. A few minutes later a big lorry full of lavender flowers arrives to unload its precious cargo: they need one ton of flowers to produce only one litre of lavender essence.
She leads the way inside the building, where the store occupies the ground floor, full with lavender made products, and takes us upstairs where they have created a museum/workshop dedicated to this purple flower. Here she explains, among other things, that there are three different types of lavender plants, that they use to create cosmetics, perfumes, kitchen condiments and all kind of aromatic objects, like soap or candles.
It amazes me how the locals have preserved a lot of traditional businesses in Nyons, one of the traits that makes this town so unique and genuine.
One century of tradition: Distillerie Gilbert Nicoleau – Ferme d´Ollon
Not only in Nyons, but also in Buis-les-Baronnies people take the preservation of tradicional activities, like the distillation of spirits very seriously.
Gilbert´s grandfather, Gaston Nicoleau, opened the first distillery in this town in 1902, and more than a century later his grandson uses the very same still to distill his famous alcoholic beverages made from fruits.
Time seems to stop when you enter the shop to be greeted by Gilbert´s mother in law knitting peacefully. His wife, Chantal, runs the shop and invites us to a tasting of their finest spirits. I must say that´s the strongest apricot juice I have tasted in my life!
Although the old still continues working, today it is used mainly for demonstrations and is mostly a talking point.
We have to drive a few miles across the green fields and forests of the Baronnies to meet Gilbert, who is busy in his tree farm in Benivay-Ollon.
In his extensive terrains, Gilbert grows his famous apricots, but also cherries, pears, grapes and olives, all complying with bio agriculture standards. The farm also serves as rural accomodation, and there are several rooms waiting for the traveler to disconnect from everyday life and relax in the countryside.
Gilbert leaves the best for last; he ushers us inside and shows us his most recent treasure: a state-of-the-art still completely different from his grandfather´s old one. More than a century separates these two machines, but today they are both used to achieve the same goal: to maintain a way of life that has nurtured and provided for the same family through many generations.
Organic feast at Domaine l´Ancienne École
Anna and Wilson Thorburn, an english-scottish couple, had a dream: they bought an old school in the Drôme Provençale and transformed it into an organic winery.
With a superb view of the famous Mont Ventoux and only a few miles from the town of Vinsobres,which can be seen from the bottom of the hill, it is surrounded by vineyards and forests making of it an idylic location.
The first thing that catches our attention is the magnificent swimming pool with views of the vineyards; that´s something that the guests staying in the “gîtes”, or rural holiday homes belonging to the complex, will surely appreciate and enjoy.
Anna takes us inside for a wine tasting session; they produce both Cru Vinsobres and Côtes du Rhône which are often recommended in wine publications.
After that, they have prepared for us a meal outside with local products: all kinds of cheese, organically grown vegetables, ham, fruit salad… all a perfect match for their own produced wines.
I notice that the wine labels have the same orange flower that I have seen everywhere in the garden. When I ask Anna about that, she smiles and tells me that it is a Californian Poppy, a flower that they are very fond of since their stay in the californian vineyards.
The work and passion that they have put into creating this organic winery is truly remarkable, as is the effort they have made to keep everything eco friendly: they produce their own electricity with solar panels, have a treatment plant for the waste water, and so on.
It has been the perfect meal in the perfect place, the cherry on top before my trip back home.
The last scourtinerie in France
They say there is a story behind every object, and certainly there is one in a “scourtin”, or coconut fiber mat. The next time you find one you will see it with different eyes:
On the outskirts of Nyons, surrounded by tall trees and vineyards, an 18th century manor is the home of France´s last scourtinerie.
For four generations, the Fert family has been manufacturing scourtins since 1882. Today, Frédérique and Arnaud Fert have taken on the role of their ancestors and continue working in this factory, the last of its kind.
These coconut fiber disks were once used to filter the olive oil in the ancient mills. When modern times made this process no longer necessary, everybody thought that the scourtinerie would run out of business, but they were clever enough to think about other uses for their products: now the scourtins are a sought-after object for home decoration, and people use them as carpets or table mats.
The workshop occupies a huge space in the upper floor of the building, but there´s not much room to move as it is almost entirely taken up by huge 19th century machines still in use. Frédérick is struggling with one of them as the coconut fiber thread is stuck. In no time he manages to solve the problem and the room is filled again with the noise of the iron needles creating the circular pattern of the scourtin. In today´s world, where everything is powered by electricity, this is an absolutely remarkable experience.
Next time you have to buy a unique present for a house-warming, think of the distinctive rugs and mats from Nyons that can´t be found anywhere else.
Gliding through the trees: Les Barons Perchés
If you are a fan of Tarzan movies and used to climb trees as a kid, you are going to love what awaits you at Les Barons Perchés.
There is a hidden story behind this mysterious name: John, the creator of these zipline circuits, used to choose Italo Calvino´s “Baron in the trees” book as a bedtime story for his kids. Also, the name plays with the word “Baronnies”, which is how this area is also known in France. Altogether, he has chosen a witty name for these acrobatic circuits that he has been running since 2007.
Only 6km from Nyons, the way up to Les Barons Perchés is a winding road through oaks, pines and olive trees with brightly coloured leaves. Once at the top of the hill you will be welcomed by a microclimate, not too hot or windy, a wise location choice for a ziplining business.
With a reassuring smile, John teaches you the basics of how to hook yourself to the wires and gives you some tips to keep your balance. Once the training is over, you can try the 7 zipline circuits available with different difficulty levels.
John says that it took him and his son around four months to build each circuit, all of them cleverly designed to entertain and test your skills as a tree acrobat.
As you only live once, I built up the courage and tried the big attraction: a huge zipline 230 metres long hanging at 40 metres high above the tree tops. Adrenaline rushes through your body and the feeling of freedom is exhilarating.
John tells me that as things are going well they are planning to open a new zipline circuit at a new location, that his son will run to learn how to manage the business of flying among the trees.
Oil mills, witnesses of time: Les Vieux Moulins á huile
Have you ever been inside an 18th century oil mill? You will get your chance in your next visit to Nyons.
It is located just beside the 13th century romanesque bridge over the Aigües river, in fact one of its walls is part of the foundations of the bridge.
Gérard, the current owner, manages a shop where you can buy and taste all the typical products from Nyons, and has turned the mill into a museum.
I am pretty sure that this is the only place in the world where a talking black olive explains to you in a video all the interesting facts of the mills´ history.
Built a few years before the French Revolution, the millers used the river as an energy source. But when the water level was too low, they had to use mules to move the giant wheels; when that happened, it was called a “blood mill”!
Olives were so valuable back then that they nicknamed them “black pearls”: they kept the bigger ones preserved for eating while using the smaller ones for making oil. They even put the leftovers to good use, using them as oil for lamps and machinery.
The mill facilities include a small soap factory, where they used the olive skins to make soap in special stone basins… you get the idea of how important olives are in Nyons… and how shocking it must have been when in 1956 half the olive trees died due to a very severe winter. Luckily Gérard family were able to recover from these hard times.
Gérard is very proud of his heritage and passionately conveys the importance of the links between Nyons and the olive trees.
Nyons Market Day
The normally peaceful and quiet streets of Nyons fill up with people and movement every friday morning with the weekly town market.
You shouldn´t miss the atmosphere itself, as this is the best chance to see all the local products of Nyons at one time.
We head first to a big square with all the fruit and vegetable stands, following the flow of people. Above dozens of stands, the Tour Randonne projects its shadow as a silent witness of time: built in the 13th century by the Barons of Montauban as a symbol of power, it is unique in the world because of it´s three arched pyramid with a statue of the Virgin on top.
Vibrant colours, rich aromas and constant chatter surround us, everything I see is worth a photo or two. I engage in conversation with a few of the sellers, asking where the products come from. Most of them kindly offer me a taste with a smile on their faces.
I keep walking through the streets and see an oyster stall: the shopkeeper tells me he brings them from the port of Marseille. I pass through the flower sellers and by the church I stop to admire soaps carved in different shapes: they are so detailed that they look like little sculptures: flowers, leaves, animals…
A man who has seen me talking to everybody and asking questions tells me there is something I should see: he takes me to the main square, la Place des Arcades, and we stop in front of the old Hall of Justice, known in the past as “the King´s house”. He tells me that during the French Revolution, all the king´s supporters locked themselves in this building protected by its massive oak doors. Looking closer at the doors, I can see the marks he points at, made by spears, maces and other weapons carried by the rebels to try to break into the house. I follow the dents with my fingers, knowing that I will never be closer to the Revolution that changed the world.
Flying with vultures: Paragliding experience
If you think the Provençe is only for wine lovers and people who want to chill out, think again, as Nyons also has a lot to offer for adventure seekers.
Thanks to the Bureau des Guides des Baronnies, an agency composed by guides and specialists in this region, you can choose among several activities to keep the adrenaline rushing: climbing, canyoning, speleology, glacier hiking…
Our choice for the day is paragliding, an activity that I have never done before in my life. I do not know what to expect, so I keep my mind open and busy while I mentally prepare for the experience.
We meet the paragliding team an the Poët-Sigillat village and hop into their jeeps to ascend to the Col d´Ambonne following a bumpy dirtroad.
Once at the top, at 1170 metres high, I am given instructions on how to proceed and I meet my “pilot”, who helps me with the equipment and tries to add a note of comedy to this situation:
Me: “How many times have you glided before?”
Him: “Counting this one… two!”
The moment of truth has come, too late to chicken out: We strap our gear together, wait one minute for the perfect gust of wind, take 3 steps back for impulse, 3 more ahead and… we are flying!
Objects start to become smaller while the wind currents take us high into the sky. As I am sitting in my paragliding equipment, the feeling is like being in a flying chair.
Something is flying just below us: it´s a huge vulture, they´ve just been reintroduced in the region after having dissapeared, it must be my lucky day!
As I look around, I realize I have the best 360º view that anyone can experience in this land. I feel everything but fear, and as I´m confident, I accept the pilot´s invitation to try some stunts: he goes straight towards a descending current and makes the paraglider go upside down! Ok, maybe that was too much and makes my head dizzy, but when we land a few minutes later I´m happy to have lived this experience, a memory that will last forever in my mind.
Rock climbing experience: Via Ferrata of Saint Julien
When I saw the impressive Mont Saint Julien for the first time from the town of Buis-les-Baronnies, I couldn´t help but feel a shiver down my spine thinking that in the next few hours I would be climbing those same vertical white walls without any prior experience.
The Via Ferrata is composed of four specially equipped climbing routes along different rock faces.
As we are beginners, we are advised to do the route known as “La Petite”, the easiest one and 170 metres long. The other three, known as “La Têtue”, “La Coriace” and “La Casse-cul” are for experienced climbers, which is not our case… yet!
Franck, our guide from Baronnies Sports, has provided us with special equipment that makes our progress easier and ensures our safety, but even the easiest route is challenging and there are places with exposed sections.
Equipped with a helmet, a harness with a Y-shaped lanyard and special via ferrata karabiners, we make our ascension following the metal hooks and the vertical wire that signals the route. Its exhilarating leaving the ground behind and make progress by using only your arms and legs. Although we are always hooked to the wire, the Via Ferrata carries a degree of risk, so the adrenaline is pumping through your veins.
At some point we reach what Franck calls a nepalese rope bridge, which is basically two parallel wires, one for walking and the other for pulling yourself forward with your arms. Later on we traverse a hole in the rock and a wooden plank suspended several metres above the tree tops.
We are fully enjoying the climbing experience, and the only fear would be if we had to do the route without equipment, like in free climbing mode.
We reach the top and celebrate our small achievement, being our prize the superb 360 view of the Drôme Provençale, the houses of Buis-les- Baronnies looking like tiny dots in the distance.