Chateau de Volan is one family-owned bed-and-breakfast option in France’s Pilat Regional Natural Park. // © 2015 Georgeanne Brennan
Feature image (above): The medieval village of Malleval // © 2015 ADRT Loire
The notion of “la France profonde,” the deep heart of France where the bucolic countryside lives in harmony with the simple life of small farms and villages, has long held an attraction for writers, artists and romantics like me. Having a home in southern France and having traveled throughout the Rhone-Alpes region many times, I was astonished to discover a true piece of la France profonde in Pilat Regional Natural Park. The mountainous region, just barely off the beaten path between Lyon and St. Etienne, feels like it’s a world away.
Established in 1974, Pilat Regional Natural Park welcomes visitors into the heart of rural France. It offers a vast network of hiking trails, including pieces of Camino de Santiago, and the opportunity to sleep and feast in chateaux. Clients can choose to visit wineries that produce some of the Northern Rhone’s most exceptional wines or discover the region’s artisanal entrepreneurs.
The regional parks of France function as a sort of agreement among the collection of rural hamlets, villages and other entities and the national government. With thousands of years of archeological ruins, historical sites and food and wine traditions, the collective mission of these parks is to assist in protecting the countryside and its way of life through official recognition of places of exceptional natural beauty and heritage.
Bed and Breakfasts
The roads of the Pilat are dotted with signs for “chambre d’hote,” or bed and breakfasts in private farms, homes and even chateaux. Some offer a “table d’hote,” a dinner cooked and served by the host. This style of accommodations takes the visitor right into the intimate life of the la France profonde, from meeting the owners and exploring their property to feasting on meals that showcase the best of the regional fare. Many bed and breakfasts tend to offer complimentary Wi-Fi access as well.
Follow the winding road high above the village of Roisey to Le Grande Noe. There, you can be welcomed by Catherine Bruneton, who will show you into her stunning home, a 17th century converted barn with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and a view of Mont Blanc to the east. Settle into the modern, but discreetly tasteful bedrooms, with glorious baths and heated towel racks.
Then, enjoy an aperitif in front of the fireplace or on the grassy garden terrace, depending on the weather. Finish the evening at Bruneton’s long farm table to enjoy a three-course meal with regional wines and local cheeses. At breakfast, bask in the morning light while sampling her homemade jams, a platter of cheese, baskets of bread and a steaming cafe au lait.
At another chambre d’hote, high above the medieval village of Malleval, Valerie Seneclauze welcomes guests through the narrow iron gates to her family’s chateau, Chateau de Volan. There are guestrooms in a wing of the 11th-century chateau itself as well as the option to stay in a separate building that offers a sitting room, a kitchen, a bath and two modest bedrooms.
Seneclauze has the reputation of being an excellent cook, and she provisions her table with wares from her orchards and caves. In the ancient caves of the chateau, Seneclauze raises hundreds of shiitake mushrooms, which she sells to restaurants and markets. For her visitors, she prepares a three-course meal that might include local squab or duck breast; shiitake mushrooms stuffed with escargots from a nearby producer; and desserts worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant.
In the summer, Seneclauze runs a small restaurant in one of the old barns. Year-round, her boutique is open and full of products from her chateau-farm, such as pickled and dried mushrooms, wild berry jams and specialty wine conserves.
Wine and Artisans
Pilat Regional Natural Park is home to some of the most notable wine appellations of the Northern Rhone: St. Joseph, Condrieu and Cote Rotie.
Condrieu — a dry, mineral white wine — is made exclusively of Viognier grapes and on less than 400 acres of vines, most of them located on exceedingly steep terraces. Many of the vines are situated along the right bank of the Rhone River and are inaccessible to tractors. St. Joseph, the largest appellation of the area, produces both red and white wine — Syrah, Roussanne and Marsanne. Cote Rotie is famous for its Syrah wine. Visitors can sample wines at the wineries along the Pilat's Rhone River borders, including the village of Chavanay.
In the village of La Chaize Pelussin, not far from Chavanay, visitors will find the La Cabriole cheese shop. The owner and cheese maker, Andre Boucher, specializes in the region’s Rigotte de Condrieu goat cheese. Boucher welcomes visitors to his small cheese shop, which is not much more than a counter in front of his cheese-making facility. The cheese shop is a short distance down the road from Boucher’s milking goats.
Also not far from the cheese shop is the butchery/delicatessen, Gaec des Hirondelles. A bright red door swings open to reveal a glistening showcase of house-made pork products, all produced from pigs raised by the owners. Buy some “saucisson” (sausage) to complement the region’s wine and cheese. At the next stop, only a few miles away in Veranne, buy a round of bread cooked in a huge wood-fired brick oven and then set off through the neighboring forests to picnic in la France profonde.