France’s Best Kept Secret

| By Sylvie Delaunay |

If you go from Paris to the Riviera, you will go through the Rhone Valley, home of the Côtes Du Rhônes wines. You will also most likely miss one of France’s best kept secrets; the county of Drôme nestled in Northern Provence. You will miss my gorgeous native region in southern France.

france1I have long dreamed of a way to help people connect with each other across cultures. After 9/11 and the political divide that emerged between France and the USA, I was asked many questions about my country that made me realize how little we know and understand about each other. I felt I had a mission to change people’s perspectives. My native secret corner of the world was my ticket and a good place to start.

So, like anyone with a secret, I could not wait to share it with others. After years of playing with the idea, in 2013 I took the leap. I quit my job in the field of early childhood education and took a few months off from the professional ring to design a tour. Provence De-Tours, a small tour company dedicated to taking clients to the nook and crannies of my native land, was born. For the last three years despite family challenges, a sixty hour job working again with young children, and raising my grandchildren, I hang in there. Despite sleepless nights wondering why I continue to pursue this dream, I get up every day remembering that I love it and believing that I have such a precious experience to offer. I often tell my friend “I just can’t let it go.”

Drôme, located at the northern end of Provence, is often referred to as the “Gateway to Provence” since many features of the region compare to those of its close neighbor: sprawling vineyards, lavender fields, perched villages, and sunny blue skies. However, Drôme has its own identity and culture, landscapes and local flavors, revealed only to those who take the time to stop, explore, and savor; a mosaic ready to be shared.

When people speak to me of their experiences visiting France, it is mostly about the landscapes and sites. People are rarely mentioned and if so, not always in great terms. The premise of the Village and Heritage tour is to offer authenticity and a sense of wonder away from big cities and heavily visited areas. The 10-day tour accomplishes its mission by providing a close encounter with the people, places, stories, and delicacies of the region. I want visitors to get to know the native people, their work, their struggle, and their laughter. I want locals to share with guests their livelihood, the beauty of their land. I want everyone to listen and tell their stories. We all have fascinating stories. They say that if everyone had a friend in every country, there would be no wars.

Accommodations are mostly local B&Bs or small locally owned boutique hotels set in the countryside among vineyards and lavender fields. There is no hopping, so clients can put their luggage down and soon feel quite at home. The group, limited to 12 people, takes daily excursions to remote medieval villages and provincial towns, castles, Roman ruins, caves thousands of years old, wineries, and much more.

The itinerary is well balanced between group activities and leisure time for individuals to explore. After a copious breakfast of homemade jams, cheeses, and fresh baked bread and croissants, the group heads out to the day’s destinations. Destinations are reached by traveling the tiny country roads alongside colorful and gorgeous landscapes, a delight for the eyes. Yes, sometimes we miss our turns. Signage can be inconsistent at best, non-existent at worse. Those roads are not for tourists and locals do not need signs!

Most days there is one scheduled visit in the morning and one in the afternoon, leaving plenty of time to linger at will. Castles, Roman ruins, villages, and a silk museum offer a look into the past and history that shaped the region. Wineries, a lavender farm and an olive mill offer perspective into the present and people’s livelihood.

france2Lunches are taken in local restaurants favorited by the natives or a picnic bought at the local market. The local markets are a feast for the senses full of flavors, smells, and colors. They give an opportunity to explore local fare and mingle with the natives. The days end early enough to enjoy a dip in the B&B pool or relax with a book on the terrace before dinner. Dinners are mostly served at the B&B and are cooked by the hosts with fresh local produce and accompanied by local wines. My father used to say that one should always drink local wines with local food because both were matched in heaven.

Our favorite B&B is a farm. The 200-year-old buildings made of thick limestones are typical of the traditional architecture. What used to be the sheep stables has been renovated into comfortable and charming rooms with all amenities. The rooms open on a terrace overlooking an olive grove and fruit orchard. Ah! Those apricots!! As a group, we have enjoyed many aperitifs (before dinner drinks) under the olive trees. The camaraderie that develops within the group and our hosts from sitting at the big long farm-style tables is a memory travelers have said they cherish long after the trip. Our host’s father was a champion in petanque the southern French version of bocce. She used to play on his team and several of us enjoyed playing under the linden tree late into the evening.

I am not a big tour operator and the castles we visit are not Versailles or Chambord. But, my little gem tucked away in southern France is well worth discovering, and I have much to share and much to tell. I am humbled by and grateful to anyone who takes a chance to come with me to a land they have never heard of. As a native, I have endearing stories about growing up there, and, so far, everyone has enjoyed listening and discovering. One of the tour participants once said to me “your passion and deep love for your native land are so contagious that one cannot escape falling in love as well.” Come, dare to discover this jewel of southern France. Dare to fall in love too.


Sylvie Delaunay, was born and raised in the region of the Drôme. She moved to the USA 30 years ago. She moved to Asheville over 10 years ago. She, her husband, and grand children live south of Biltmore village where she offers in-home child care for very young children while designing fabulous group or customized experiences in Drôme. Contact Sylvie at [email protected] Learn more at provencedetours.com

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