Detours from la Route Napoléon
When we lived in Grenoble, capital of the French Alps, we spent many vacations in Provence, where we had friends and family. When we were going to la Côte d’Azur, we would take la Route Napoléon, named after the emperor who took it on his return from l’île d’Elbe in 1815.
It is a 300 kilometre drive through the Alps that is full of bends and not recommended if you are prone to motion sickness. On the other hand, to go to Arles, Avignon or Marseille, we would follow the path of the Isère river, in the direction of Valence, and then follow the Rhône river on its way to the Mediterranean.
On the road from Grenoble to Valence, there are lots of beautiful and interesting places to see, if you don’t mind taking a few detours, or they can be seen on day trips from Grenoble. Here are three of them: the medieval village of Pont-en-Royan (including the Choranche cave), the medieval village of Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye and Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval.
Pont-en-Royans and the Choranche cave
South of the village of Saint-Marcellin is the medieval village of Pont-en-Royans, famous for its colourful houses suspended above the river Bourne. To get there, you travel on a spectacular road dug through the rock of the Vercors Mountains.
It is worth a stopping at the Choranche cave, to see how well the architecture of this village is adapted to its environment, the houses seem to be one with the rocks. The Choranche cave was discovered in 1870 by some inhabitants of the village of the same name following the river upstream to get the water they needed so badly when there was a severe drought.
The cave’s stalactites and stalagmites are formed from a deposit of calcite transported by water during its journey through the rock. There are thousands of stalactites so thin and delicate they are called soda straws, it is a unique sight.
Then, east of Saint-Marcellin is another medieval village, Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye. It is on the Chemin de Compostelle (way of Saint James), so its Gothic abbey, built between the 12th and 15th centuries, has welcomed thousands of pilgrims. It has also welcomed many ill persons coming to touch the relics of Saint Anthony of Egypt which are known for their healing power.
After visiting the abbey, take the time to stroll through the medieval alleys of this beautiful village that has been so well preserved. Every summer, the village lives two days in the middle ages with costumed actors re-enacting a festival with songs, music, dance, crafts and tournaments.
Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval
Last but not least is Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval (ideal palace of the Postman Cheval), located in Hauterives, north east of Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye.
It is the work of a simple man, Ferdinand Cheval, who built a fantasy castle out of stones he collected during his daily 33 kilometre mail delivery run. He spent 33 years building a monument influenced by the nature that he lived in and by the postcards he delivered. There are plants and animals, mythical creatures, a mosque, a Hindu temple and an Egyptian monument, to name but a few.
His work received recognition from artists such as André Breton, Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst. This unique work of art is well worth a visit. As he said : “Son of a peasant I want to live and die to prove that in my class there are also men of genius and energy. The work is my glory and honour my only happiness. Now here is my strange story, where the dream became forty years later, a reality”.
This is only a sample of the attractions of this region that we love so much. After these detours, continue to Valence, and you will feel almost like you’re in Provence. It is much warmer and brighter than Grenoble, even though it is only 100 kilometres away. Continue on your way south and don’t forget to stop at Montélimar, famous for its delicious nougat.All images © Pascal Indard