This past June, Peter Wortsman wrote a fantastic article for the New York Times Travel section. It’s titled Le Dauphiné, a French Region With a History Both Ancient and Personal. This is the ancient land where the Chastains came from.
Driving along a winding highway in the Alps in Southeast France last August, I thought back to the Romans. When they came charging down the mountains into the Rhône River Valley in the first century B.C., how did they ever maneuver their chariots around some of the hairpin curves I was navigating? Did they ever stall, as I once did, at a pivotal juncture at the foot of the Vercors Massif, drawing the ire of Gallic motorists — or the ancient equivalent — honking behind? (As a recent convert from automatic to stick shift, it was my “baptism of the road,” as my French wife, Claudie, put it.)
One thing I knew: They braked long enough to establish the colony of Delphinatus Viennensis, which would eventually blossom into Le Dauphiné — the one-time French province where personal and ancient history are intertwined for me in a place that Claudie once lyrically called “the geography of my heart.”
My wife and I visited the Dauphiné last June. I hope to write about my own experiences eventually, but, when I do, I doubt I’ll come up with anything as evocative as “the geography of my heart”. The phrase rings true. Memories of the Alps, lavender fields, olive groves, vineyards, markets, and medieval villages are firmly lodged in my mind and my heart.
I came, I saw, I was conquered. For 31 years and counting, I have had privileged access to this charmed enclave of roughly 7,695 square miles in the southeast corner of France, ringed by the lavender fields and olive groves of Provence, the vineyards of the Rhône River Valley, and the plateaus and peaks of the Alps. On past visits we invariably dashed from Claudie’s native town, Valence, near some of the country’s finest vineyards, to arrive in time for dinner at her father’s ancestral village, Les Savoyons, in the Alps. But my beloved in-laws have died. There was no one awaiting us at table this time, so we took it slow.
The French Revolution divided the royal province into three departments — the Drôme, Isère and Hautes Alpes — and though the geography varies from fertile plains to rolling hills, to highlands and vertiginous summits, the regional identity remains distinctly Dauphinois. The mood is laid-back, down-to-earth, modulated by a midday siesta and a chilled sip of pastis.
Wortsman even makes brief mention of the Huguenots in his love letter to the old province.
But behind that mellow mood lie centuries of upheaval.
The area was the Roman military and commercial corridor of choice between the Alps and the Rhône; the Punic general Hannibal passed through with his elephants up from North Africa to challenge Rome, allegedly leaving behind the pintade (guinea hen), a succulent cousin of the turkey, traditionally raised in the Drôme. (It also became our favorite holiday fare, best roasted with chestnuts from Ardèche, across the Rhône.)
In the Middle Ages, the Dauphiné was a quasi-independent principality. Its rulers were called Dauphins, until the impecunious Dauphin Humbert II sold his holdings to the King of France in 1349, when the title fell to the king’s eldest son. The rugged terrain made it an optimal refuge for French Huguenots fleeing persecution during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century. In the 20th century, Jews fleeing the Nazi army and the Vichy Regime hid out here. It is hard for a visitor to square the scenic splendor of gorges like Grands Goulets and Combe Laval with the turmoil that took place on the Vercors where the French resistance made a valiant stand.