Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Wine Tasting in Provence…by Public Bus

I try to make it a rule to never turn down the chance to go to Provence. And a little over a month ago, I had the opportunity to spend exactly one day there.

Nick was headed to a work site near Provence on business, and then on to the Loire Valley area before heading back to Luxembourg. He would be gone for a few days, and, once he realized that he’d be in a car by himself for 20+ hours, decided that it might be a good idea to invite his charming, intellectually stimulating and always entertaining wife to join him for the ride. Oh, okay, fine: he really just wanted a co-pilot along to help keep him awake and to plug addresses into the GPS.

Figuring that four days in France would more than make up for the week of French classes I’d be skipping, I went along for the ride…with an ulterior motive, naturally. Hey, someone in this household has to build our French wine collection while Nick works, right?

(This is the part of this post where I have to warn you: this one’s a long one. But there’s a helpful how-to section at the end, if I do say so myself, and some pretty pictures along the way. So, just make sure you’re comfortable before you continue reading…)

My first time in Provence was two years ago when Nick and I were living in the U.S. and visited on vacation. Inspired by a New York Times article, we had decided to spend the first part of our vacation on a four day, self-guided bicycle tour of the region. The cycling trip would start and end in Avignon, which – luckily for us – was also home to François, who runs Avignon Wine Tours. He’s a former sommelier who traded in a life of late evenings and weekends for a more regular gig of driving six people around each day in his car to go wine tasting in the area. His tours are incredibly informative (among other things, you’ll learn the “six steps” of tasting wine like a pro) and wildly entertaining (wait until he cranks up a little “French Sinatra” on the ride home). If you find yourself heading to Avignon, I honestly cannot recommend this tour enough. The day of our tour, François drove us to Cairanne and Rasteau in the Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation, and to Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape; all towns that I hoped to be able to visit again. Assisting as navigator for Nick’s work week on the road was my ticket back.
Montélimar, the nougat capital of France.

Our first stop was Montélimar, the “nougat capital of France” and a stone’s throw from the border of Provence (tourism info here). Montélimar is less than an hour north of Avignon by train, so it was tempting to head back to spend another memorable day of wine tasting with François, but, after a few months of intro-level French classes and a bit of the lay of the land from my last trip, I was empowered. I decided to wing it and create my own adventure.

While Nick worked, I had a full Tuesday to myself, and, I hoped, enough roaming data coverage left on my cell phone plan for the month to get me through any unexpected twists and turns and travel hiccups. I decided to hop on a morning train to Orange and from there, catch the public bus into wine country.

Roman Theatre in Orange
Orange is a fine place to spend a couple of hours. The old town is full of shops and restaurants and is about a 10-15 minute walk from the train station. The old town is also where you’ll find the Roman Theatre, or Théâtre Antique d’Orange, a well-preserved theatre constructed by the Romans between A.D. 10-25. It’s an impressive sight to stroll around – or into, if you’re so inclined. Both the Roman Theatre and the town’s other major ancient structure, the Arc de Triomphe d’Orange (about a 10 minute walk north of the theatre) are recognized on the UNESCO World Heritage list (Watch their two minute video here.). 

With the Roman Theatre checked off my list, I sat down to enjoy an early lunch, where I also ate up every last bit of my cell phone roaming data to download a new bus schedule. I had been planning a return to Gigondas, my favorite of the towns we had visited two years ago with François, but decided that if I wanted to make this a “real” adventure, I should dive in head first and try something completely new. I decided on the towns of Sablet and Séguret, towns that seemed to be just 2 kilometers apart, according to Google Maps. Besides, the bus stop in Séguret was named “Cave”, as in wine cave. When I finished there, I would just walk the 2km back to Sablet to find places to taste and buy wine. I also knew that there was a bus to Gigondas from Sablet, so if I still wanted to visit a familiar spot, I could do that, too. Most importantly, however, all of these towns – Sablet, Séguret, Gigondas – were listed in my terrific new French wine guide (thanks, mom!), so I could read up on the way out of town. It sounded like a winning afternoon to me.
Not a good way to start the day.

Armed with the new plan, I headed back toward the Orange train station, where my bus to the countryside would depart. With a quick stop into a surgical clinic near the train station to beg for bandages for two nasty blisters that had already developed on each foot just from walking around that morning; I was finally ready to start my real adventure of the day.

The bus pulled up, I hopped on, paid the 2€ fare and grabbed a seat toward the front on the right so I could more easily monitor names of towns and bus stops along the way, within earshot of the driver…just in case. It was a short but scenic ride as we squeeeezed just barely past tight corners in small agricultural towns and whizzed past vineyards, most of the way in view of Les Dentelles, a craggy limestone range named for their teeth-like appearance. About 20 minutes later, I pressed the button and hopped off the bus at Séguret–Cave.

The Séguret–Cave bus stop.
Just as most of my stories end up at this point, the rest of the day didn’t quite go as planned. The Séguret–Cave bus stop was true to its word and was indeed across the street from a wine cave, a cooperative for winegrowers from Séguret and the neighboring town of Roaix. But that was it. I was much further in the middle-of-nowhere than I had expected to be.

There was still wine to be tasted, however, so I crossed the street and walked toward the door…which was locked. I checked my watch: it was 1:50pm, so of course the place was closed. This was rural France, after all, and everyone would be at lunch until 2pm. With ten minutes to wait, I strolled along the road, took some photos and inspected an educational garden planted with each grape variety grown in the area. At a respectful three minutes past 2pm, I went in to see what the Cave des Vignerons had to offer.

Inside the Cave des Vignerons.
I didn’t stay long. A woman had come out to the tasting bar to assist me and I got the feeling that she had much more important things to do than entertain yours truly. She probably did, so, fair enough. I hurriedly tasted three wines, bought two bottles to be polite and went on my way. As I departed, I asked her how to get to the actual center-city of Séguret. The blend of surprise, sarcasm and disbelief displayed in her single raised eyebrow was an artistic masterpiece as she reacted to me explaining, in elementary French, that I’d be traveling on foot, in flip-flops. Apparently, not many tourists swing through on the public bus.  

On the way to Séguret.
The direction she pointed was up a slight hill, which seemed to lead to another slight hill, and who knows where beyond there… As Nick will attest, whether I’m on foot or on a bike, I am most assuredly not a fan of climbing hills. So, I stopped for a minute to think about my options. On the one hand, Sablet was only 2km away down the road I had arrived on, but, the walk would be along a busy country road that was the main artery through the area and probably not the safest place to walk. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure how far away the actual town of Séguret would be on foot, and I wasn’t sure how far Sablet would be from there once I finally arrived, and I couldn’t check the distance on my phone because I no longer had roaming data service. But, the sun was shining and there wasn’t a single cloud cluttering the sky blue sky, I had a full bottle of water in my purse and there are worse things I could do to myself than get a bit of exercise. I decided to hoof it to Séguret. Honestly, it would have been silly to have gone to all the trouble of getting out there, just to leave without seeing even a peek of the actual town, right?

So, I walked. And walked. And about 3km (according to Google Maps) and 35 or so minutes later, I arrived at the final ascent to the hill town of Séguret.

View of Séguret, from the D23.
The name Séguret comes from the Latin word, securitas, and approaching this lovely little town, it’s easy to see why. The town is the hill; newer buildings are built into the lower part and the oldest section of town is at the very top, the most secure and hardest place to reach. There are cobblestone streets, a 14th century castle belfry and a 10th century church, as well as remains of old city fortifications. While the area has been occupied since the Stone Age, today’s Séguret is a charming village of about 900 that has landed a spot on a list of 155 villages in France deemed most beautiful by the organization Le Plus Beaux Villages de France.

Les Dentelles
Several photos and a large dose of charm later, it was time to leave Séguret and start the back road, 3km walk to Sablet. It took a bit longer than it should have because every time I turned around, I gasped out loud at the view and stopped to take another photo. If you go, the D23 heading northeast from Sablet is most certainly the best way to get to Séguret. From this direction, the hill town looks like an island oasis popping out of a sea of lush green vineyards. Add in Les Dentelles, which will be in close view the entire stretch of this road, and you’ve got yourself a jaw-dropping – dent-bearing, in fact – scene.

Approaching Sablet.
Finally, I reached the Sablet rotary that I had passed through by bus earlier in the day. I walked up the incline into town and immediately headed for a pâtisserie, to buy a few bottles of water. Not far from here, I finally saw it: the Caveau des Vignerons de Sablet, which advertised dégustation (wine tasting) and vente (wine sales), and also doubled as the town’s tourism office.

Inside, I found a small bar and a desk, behind which sat a woman at a computer. She stood and asked how she could help me, showed me around the wall of wines available for sampling and then handed me a book of prices and label information for each of the wines. Such a different experience from earlier in the day, and so many wines to choose from! There were even wines available from producers who also grew grapes in the Gigondas appellation, so I didn’t have to worry about trying to figure out the bus schedule to Gigondas, after all. What a relief!

I selected a first wine to try, but before she poured any of it into my glass, she poured a sample into hers and took a long sniff. She wanted to make sure the wine hadn’t gone off since being opened for the last visitor. As I made more selections, she repeated this test again and again, and on at least three occasions, opened brand new bottles because the tasting bottle had gone bad.

“Parlez-vous anglais?” I asked. She paused, gave me a studious look and said “En français.”

So, we chatted in French. I was so impressed with how slowly she spoke to me, and with her patience in general as I ravaged my brain for the latest vocabulary words and verb conjugations I had learned in class. I tried to ask simple questions about the wine and she asked me simple questions about where I was from, whether I was on vacation, where else I had visited in the area and whether I worked in wine – my dream job, for the record, and a question for which I wanted to jump over the bar and hug her for asking!

Every now and then, a townsperson or local merchant popped in with a question, some kind of news, or to drop off a fresh stack of tourist brochures. So far, I was the only out-of-towner. It was such a pleasant place to spend part of the afternoon, and never once did she indicate that I was bothering her…in fact, she reiterated two or three times that I could stay all day and keep tasting if I liked. What temptation!

Then, a woman walked in and addressed my new friend, Séverine, in a thick Australian accent: “Hello, I’m back. I’d like to book the boat cruise that we talked about when I was in here earlier today.”

I was stunned. 

“Your English is perfect!” I blurted, shocked. I couldn’t believe it. I had been there for at least 30 minutes by this point, struggling through my elementary French and never picking up on a single clue that Séverine spoke English. She smiled. As it turns out, she spent time in the United States as an au pair when she was younger, and, in an even more interesting twist: she lived in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, not that far from where I have relatives living in northern Ohio. Small world.

I stayed for a short while longer, but even with a dump bucket nearby, I was starting to feel a bit light-headed (surely from the long, hot walk and not from the wine sampling…wink, wink), so I sampled my last taste and made my selections. I bought nine bottles, bringing my tally for the day to a not-too-shabby eleven. Séverine boxed my purchase and offered to hold on to the wine while I took a stroll around town, an offer I took her up on.

Sablet bus stop.
My feet were sore and the rest of me was sun burnt and exhausted, so I chose to sit in the shade on the terrace of a nearby restaurant and make notes on my day instead of sightsee, but that’s a decision I’m regretting right now, as I type this with non-blistered feet. If you find yourself in Sablet, save time to stroll around and take in its history, from remains of old city walls to centuries-old religious sights such as the Église St. Nazaire, a 12th century church with a bell tower that stands higher than any other point in the town. (Click here for more information on the church and other chapels in Sablet.)

A hard day's work.
And Back Again
After a short rest in the shade, I stopped by the tourism office to pick up my wine and started walking down the road to the stop where I’d pick up the bus back to the Orange train station, to travel back to Montélimar. I had amassed quite a collection on my day of public bus wine tasting. And I have to say, from the bus driver to the train conductor and everyone in-between, it’s quite incredible how many polite Frenchmen will offer to “help” by taking a box of wine off a girl’s hands… 

Plan Your Own Public Bus Adventure
If I can go wine tasting in Provence on my own, in flip-flops and with a blistered and bandaged toe on each foot; you can, too. Here are the resources you’ll need to plan your own wine tasting tour by bus:

1. A giant map. Take a look at the full map of all bus transportation lines within the Vaucluse department to pick the towns you’d like to visit. View or download the comprehensive map here.

2. The bus timetable. Now that you’ve chosen the town(s) you’d like to visit, head over to the Département de Vaucluse public transportation page, here. On this site, you’ll find links to download the most recent PDF or text version of bus timetables.

(Heading from Orange to Sablet, Séguret, Cairanne, Rasteau or Roaix? Click here to view or download the bus schedule.)

3.  Remember the two hour lunch. The lunch hour – which is actually two hours, from 12-2pm – is sacred in France, even more so in smaller towns. Keep this in mind as you plan out your day and make sure you find yourself in an area with at least a couple of restaurant options so you can also eat during this window.

4. Have a plan. Unless you enjoy slightly-aimless wandering as part of the adventure, à la yours truly, do your homework before you go and save yourself the blisters. Know how many maisons, caves or wine cooperatives are in the town(s) you plan to visit, when they’re open and whether you need a reservation to taste, and mark them on a map so you know how far they are from your bus stop. Buses don’t always run regularly and a taxi back to your hotel will probably be pricey – so, make sure you’re never further than running distance from your bus stop!  

If you’re headed to Séguret, there is a list of wineries here (in French). If you visit Sablet, try this list (in French).

Bon voyage!

Link Roundup
  • Avignon Wine Tours This is a must-do if you’re visiting Avignon and taking in the wines of Provence for the first time. Tour routes change daily, Monday to Saturday, and visits are capped at 6 people per day, so reserve early. Owner François will tell you “Trust me, I’m French,” and you should – he knows his stuff. Cost is 75€ per person, and worth every penny. (In English.)
  • Orange Tourism Office The tourism web site for Orange. (In English.)
  • Département de Vaucluse bus map This is the full map of all bus lines available throughout the Vaucluse.
  • Département de Vaucluse transportation web site Once you know the bus line you need, this link will take you directly to the section of the web site that holds the most current bus schedule.
  • Sablet Tourism Office This web page lists information about the opening hours of the tourism office/wine tasting room, including wines available for tasting. Note that the tourism office is closed on Wednesdays and Sundays. (In English.)
  • Joseph, Robert. French Wines, London: DK Publishing, 2005. Currently my favorite wine guide on the planet. Read a synopsis of French wine history, learn how to taste properly, how to build a wine cellar, and more. This guide gives a terrific overview of all of France’s wine regions.   
  • Vignerons Roaix Séguret Web site for the wine cooperative located at the Séguret–Cave bus stop on line 4.
  • Village of Séguret The web site for the Village of Séguret. Still a work-in-progress, but it does include a helpful page of history of the town. (In French.)
  • Syndicat des Vignerons – Séguret A list of winemakers and cooperatives in Séguret, with guidance on who offers dégustation and who doesn’t (in French).
  • Village of Sablet The web site for the Village of Sablet. (In French.)
  • Sablet and its Church and Chapels A blog post written by a couple who owns a vacation rental home in Sablet. Worth reading for great ideas of places to visit in Provence and beyond.


  1. Excellent and helpful post you have here.

  2. What a workout this day of wine tasting turned in to. My feet hurt just from reading this. But, the scenery is so beautiful!