There are still places like this. Where life is slow, people are friendly and locals trust strangers. It is reassuring and faith-restoring.
The thing is, sometimes you’ve just got to get off the motorway. Get behind a tractor and follow it. Trust your GPS when she insists you take the weird tiny roads seemingly leading to the middle of nowhere. Because sometimes the middle of nowhere is exactly where you want to be. And sometimes the middle of nowhere holds a surprise or two. Let us head to some of the middle-of-nowheres in the Drôme region in France.
The postman’s village
In the geographical sense, one of these places is Hauterives, just south of Lyon. A teeny-weeny village that appears just as you thought you were beyond the middle of nowhere and the GPS had gone mad.
At the Hôtel Relais, the friendly couple running it will take good care of you. No forms to fill in, no signature needed, just keys in hand and a surprise in the garden.
These übercharming Roulottes du Coté Bohème are indeed a surprise, and they’re circus and colourful and gipsy and really cute. Inside they’re comfy, wooden and warm like a Scandinavian chalet, with bunk beds for the children.
Now if you arrive in time for dinner at the cosy, traditional hotel restaurant – fine! If not, you could always walk to the nearby hole-in-the-wall pizzeria to order a takeaway. They gladly let you take a bottle of wine and soft drinks with you back to your roulotte while you wait and they’ll insist you pay when you come back for the pizzas (some of which have peculiar toppings such as pike quenelles). On a warm summer night, you’ll enjoy it on the porch, birdsong and smell of flowers for free.
Next morning, walking the streets of this teeny-weeny village, you might notice surprisingly many references to a postman named Cheval. This postman had a dream, it took him 33 years to materialize it, and 103 years later, his dream still draws crowds to Hauterives.
The Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval – Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace – is magic in the middle of nowhere. On one of his rounds, Cheval finds a stone that intrigues him and inspires him to build his ideal palace in his garden with stones like this one. As he finds other stones on his rounds, inspiration starts coming from postcards he delivers from all over the world, from the first illustrated magazines that were distributed, from the world religions and from mythology. The finished result, created by the hands and the imagination of a postman and inhabited by animals, fairies and strange creatures, belongs to no school of art nor architecture, yet has been admired ever since and by great artists such as Picasso and Breton. Today it is considered one of the most important pieces of naïve art, also called «outsider art», also called magic.
«Ma volonté est aussi forte que cette roche.» My will is as strong as this rock. Indeed it was, Monsieur Cheval.
Villages à 3
A bit further south, Mirmande is just a few minutes away from the motorway, yet taking you right back to the 12th century. Another tiny village with enough old charm and coquetterie to make your head spin. On the list of the most beautiful villages of France, it is very well kept, all the way to the top of the hill it clings to. And on a lazy off season Sunday it’s oh, so quiet, it’s oh so still.
Mirmande may be sleepy and lazy, but it sure keeps you alert. The visual details, from nameplates to medieval frescos. The smells, from the pine forest up above to the mustard sauce and lemon tart down below. Make sure you criss-cross the narrow streets to take it all in, and head into that pine forest if you can.
If you’d like to spend the night, try Margot, with an adorable restaurant and ditto rooms upstairs, or head over to the next village, Cliousclat, to make sure you OD properly on the askew charm of these typical Drôme villages. In Cliousclat, choose La Treille Muscate for an excellent dinner and a room with a view. If you have your apéritif at one of the small tables in front of the hotel rather than on your balcony, you might notice that the locals look kind of artsy, and then you might link that to all the pottery signs around town and head off the next day to get yourself a nice ceramic souvenir.
Now, if you manage to recover from your charm overdose and still want more, head south to Saint Paul des Trois Châteaux and go castle hunting among the oh so picturesque buildings in the old part of the village – a somewhat more shabby picturesque mind you, making a nice contrast to Mirmande. Join the locals for a glass of something on the jovial main square before heading to wherever it is you’re going.
Text and photos by Unni Holtedahl, May 2015