A visit to the Musee Alice Taverne d’Ambierle is like experiencing 100 years of French life. // © 2015 Georgeanne Brennan
Feature image (above): The village of Ambierle is surrounded by rolling vineyards and numerous wineries. // © 2015 Georgeanne Brennan
Driving along the gentle countryside northwest of Lyon, France, and the Loire River, rolling hills stretch to become vineyards. They skirt a village with noble structures that seem out of place in the simple, rural setting.
Ambierle is centered on a rocky promontory where, in the 11th century, a Cluny monastery was built to overlook the rich, rolling farmland owned by the monastery. Later, the monastery became a Benedictine priory, and in the 15th century, a member of the Balzac family became its prior.
Wealthy and well-connected to the French court, the prior had a fabulous church built in his name, using the architects, masons and glassworkers of the king. The building was unharmed during the French Revolution, and unlike many religious edifices in France, it retains original windows as well as interior and exterior sculptured stonework. It’s astonishing to see the St. Martin priory church — a mini-cathedral of rich yellow stone, splendid stained glass windows and multicolored, glazed tile roof — in this small, out-of-the-way village.
The village of Ambierle is surrounded by wineries and vineyards, and it also houses a privately funded ethnography museum about rural France from 1850 to1950. The Musee Alice Taverne d’Ambierle takes its name from its founder and is located in an old mansion. A visit guided by the excellent staff is like experiencing 100 years of French life, including a fully furnished reproduction of an inn’s main room (very humble, with only the fireplace to cook in); an early 19th-century school; and even a barn equipped with authentic implements and tools of the period.
A short walk from the museum is Demeure Bouquet, an elegant bed-and-breakfast with five lavishly furnished bedrooms, a swimming pool and an extensive garden. The rooms are carefully outfitted with a blend of antiques and contemporary art, comfortable beds with fine sheeting and modern bathrooms. The sumptuous breakfast is prepared and served by the Michelin-starred Le Prieure Restaurant, just across the road.
Chef Thierry Fernandes and his wife operate Demeure Bouquet in conjunction with the restaurant, which makes it easy for visitors to combine a luxurious dinner and outstanding accommodations in one reservation. The meals at Le Prieure are constructed with local foods raised and grown in the region, such as cheese from Fromages Mons, vegetables from neighboring farms and local foie gras and veal. The wine list includes offerings from the local Cote Roannais wineries.
Ambierle and the surrounding area are full of unexpected discoveries, including wineries. Wine grapes were first grown in the region by Benedictine monks in the 8th and 9th centuries, and viticulture has continued to be a mainstay ever since.
The Roannais appellation consists of a relatively small area, only about 494 acres along a 15-mile stretch of Gamay vines. However, within this area, there are more than three wineries and 14 villages, including Ambierle. The village of Ambierle is not only a good headquarters for exploration, but also a worthy destination on its own.