The Invincible Charm of Vaison-La-Romaine
From Normandy's beaches to Burgundy’s enduring vineyards to the ancient fortifications of Carcassonne, the enduring beauty of France captures the heart. But the place where its centuries of endurance hit with a coup de foudre of love at first sight is the Vaucluse town of Vaison-la-Romaine.
Its name derives from its ancient history, visible today in extensive Roman ruins (baths, a Roman theater and hectares of grounds, possibly the largest archeological site in Europe) with the Theo Desplan Archeological Museum next to the Office de Tourisme on the Grand Rue. All of which are sit side-by-side with the contemporary town where nearby Place Monfort features cafes, small shops and branches into narrow stone-walled streets with tourist shops.
The medieval section, topped by a 12th century castle, is perched high above and across a river gorge and appropriately termed the Haute Ville. Getting there means walking or taking a narrow road that leads up to even narrower streets never designed for modern vehicles. On this, our first trip, we questioned if we should have taken the car up there at all but turning wasn’t an option. We found a miniscule Renault-sized patch of cobblestones so dragged luggage by foot to find our chambre d’hôte.
It was worth the struggle. L’Evêché had been a Bishop’s palace and is now renovated and run by the charming Verdiers who offered a drink on the stone terrace overlooking the rest of the city and Ouvèze river below. Massive destruction had destroyed the farther bank, with stone buildings crumbling over the gorge.
Our hosts described how the Ouvèze had torn through a few days earlier in this historic flood of 1992 as residents beside the river scrambled up stairs to escape water rapidly filling their homes and shops. Already, we saw men dangling from ropes over the gorge, repairing crumbling walls.
The 1st century Roman bridge that joined the Haute Ville with the lower town of Vaison survived but more modern bridges along the river had been totally swept away.
That first visit was obviously not at the best time, in driving through we'd had no idea that the floor had occurred, but, despite the destruction, we felt drawn to the town's incredible beauty and hospitality. And, in some ways, the damage proved its invincibility.
More than two decades later, you can still stroll through impressive Roman ruins, relax over lunch on the main place, and return to the medieval heights to the hospitality of charming hosts, including those of L’Evêché. All in a town with a resilience and beauty that endures across centuries.
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