I’m not a jaded traveler – but neither am I easily surprised. Valence did it, though, more than most of the places I’ve visited in France in the past year. It’s a lovely small city that feels much larger and more urban than I expected. It’s sophisticated for its size – one of its leading families put the city on the map as one of the great destinations for gourmet dining in France! And with one foot in the Midi and the other in the deep heart of the country, it’s ideally positioned to be your base for exploring a part of France you might never see otherwise.
Valence is ancient…
Some of Valence’s sophistication is easily explained: this is literally a city at a crossroads. Today, it sits at the intersection of the A7 (the famous autoroute du soleil that transports Parisians all the way south to the Cote d’Azur) and the A49 running east to west. A major TGV line brings dozens of high-speed trains through this area every day, connecting Valence to many other cities across France. (Paris is only about 2.5 hours away.)
In earlier times, you would have cited the town’s position on the Roman Via Agrippa, or its importance as a stop on the Route de Compostella. Until the 15th century, it was literally the gateway sitting on the border between the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. And since the Rhône River has been an important “highway” from north to south for centuries, Valence has always played an important role in river transport. It still claims to have the largest marina for private watercraft on the Rhône.
For better or worse, this situation at the crossroads means people from all over Europe have passed through here for more than 2,000 years. The center of town rises from the Rhône on 3 stair-stepped terraces, making it ideal for controlling traffic on the water. The Romans recognized that when their legions engaged the local tribes of Gauls here in 121 B.C.E., and they stayed for almost 500 years, building up a thriving colony with bridges across the Rhône and rampart walls.
Roman dominance ended, though, in 413 C.E. when the Visigoths came to town. For the next 700 years, Valence’s position at a crossroads put it at the center of many of the great upheavals that swept across medieval Europe. I won’t do all the details here, but the Wikipedia description of that period will give you an idea of how chaotic life must have been for the Valentinois for a very long time:
“[After the Visigoths] the city then fell successively under the power of the Franks, the Arabs of Spain, the sovereigns of Arles, the emperors of Germany, the counts of Valentinois, the counts of Toulouse, as well as its own bishops, who struggled to retain the control of the city they had won in the fifth century.”
It’s exhausting just to read about it from this distance! Oddly, there are few remnants of the Romans or any of these other occupiers aside from a stone tower from the original city walls. Most of the symbols of vieux Valence date from the town’s “golden age” in the 15th and 16th centuries. When you visit, you’ll want to see:
- The Cathedral of Saint Apollinaire. Built in the classic Romanesque style I love most in this part of France, the cathedral has been here since the 11th century. (It was consecrated by Pope Urban II in 1095 as he made his swing through France leading up to his declaration of the First Crusade in Clermont.)
- The flamboyantly Gothic Maison des Têtes (House of the Heads) in the city’s medieval quarter. A university professor had it built between 1528 and 1532 and decorated the façade with busts that are supposed to represent the winds, fortune, time, and theology.
- The Pendentif de Valence. It’s a family funeral monument standing next to the old cathedral, constructed in 1548, destroyed during the Wars of Religion, and later restored to its current state.
There are several other medieval houses worth searching out in the town’s center, but you might also want to find some of the more recent additions:
- The excellent Museum of Art and Archeology, also next to the cathedral. A contemporary wing was added to the old house once occupied by the Bishops of Valence, and they’ve assembled a massive collection of art as well as an extensive survey of this area’s rich archeological history.
- Some of Valence’s tributes to Napoleon Bonaparte, who was based here as a soldier in 1785-1786 and who returned several times in his life (including his passage in 1799 at the head of his celebrated Expedition to Egypt).
On July 3, 1791, 22 popular societies [...] met in this place in the presence of Lieutenant Bonaparte to discuss actions to followup after the flight of King Louis XVI"
- The Parc Jouvet, one of the most pleasant urban spaces I’ve encountered anywhere in France. Spread across the lower terraces of the city facing the Rhône River, it is 17 acres of woods, flowers, and open expanses of grass – a wonderful place for a long walk or just to take in the sun.
…but the city feels vibrant and modern
I had expected to find a small town. Although it’s the capital of the Drôme département, Valence barely makes it into the list of the Top 100 cities in France. (For comparison, the city I know best – Clermont-Ferrand – has about 275,000 people in its agglomeration, while Valence has 133,000.) Why, then, does this place seems so large, so thoroughly urban?
Here’s what I observed in a week of walking around town:
- Many of France’s smaller cities have one or two large central squares, and city life is largely organized around those big open spaces. Clermont-Ferrand has its Place de la Victoire and its great Place de Jaude, for example, surrounded by restaurants, movie theaters, an opera house, and a shopping center. Valence, though, has several such large squares. The town’s leaders have clearly been very generous over the years in dedicating public spaces around which restaurants and smaller shops can cluster. The payoff? A steady flow of people strolling through the centre ville every night I was there.
- There’s a lot of elegant classical architecture, especially along the wide boulevards like the Champ de Mars. Some blocks make it feel like you’re in a larger city like Lyon or Bordeaux.
- Several of the main shopping streets in the medieval quarter have been transformed into “pedestrian only” zones with brightly colored geometric art painted on the pavers. It’s an easy town to navigate and one of the most pleasant I’ve seen for just walking around.
- The broad presence of the Rhône, flowing past the city center on its way south to the Mediterranean Sea, adds to the illusion of larger size. And again, the city has been generous with its public spaces, allocating lots of land to riverside parks where I saw large family barbecues and a constant stream of joggers, cyclists, and flaneurs.
... but they also have a family that makes Valence one of the gourmet capitals of France!
Can you name another city this size that has three restaurants that have earned Michelin stars? Valence has two places with one star each – the “colorful, generous, slightly regressive cuisine” of Flaveurs (their description, not mine!) and the elegant Asian influences at La Cachette. But there’s a juggernaut of a family with a reputation-- and a real 3-star restaurant -- that are forever attached to this city: the Pics.
André Pic was the first in this distinguished line of famous French chefs; Michelin first awarded three-star ratings in 1931, and André got three in 1934 at L’Auberge du Pin and then again at his own place in Valence in 1939. His son Jacques reportedly saw how hard his father had to work to achieve this pinnacle of culinary success and decided to work in the auto industry instead. Fortunately, though, he came back to the family business in 1956 and by 1973 he, too, had earned back the coveted three Michelin stars.
No pressure, right? That may explain why Jacques’ daughter, Anne-Sophie Pic, went off to study business overseas rather than getting drawn into the restaurant – but, again, family ties brought her back. She was only 23 when she came home to Valence to train with her father – but he died three months later, and she took over managing the business. Three years later, Maison Pic was “demoted” to two stars by Michelin, and Anne-Sophie was said to be devastated to have lost what Jacques had earned; even with no real experience in cooking at this level, she took control of the kitchen in 1997 and ten years later the restaurant was again awarded its famous three stars.
She didn’t stop there. In addition to her properties in Valence, Anne-Sophie Pic has a flagship restaurant in Paris, a one-star in London, a two-star in Switzerland, and a restaurant in the storied Raffles Hotel in Singapore. She also has a couple of places called “Daily Pic” (with tasting menus that change every day).
But her presence is still very much felt in Valence. There’s a luxury hotel, two restaurants, and a kind of gourmet convenience store, all part of the Groupe Pic. At this point, you might expect me to tell you how it was to eat in the fabulous 3-star luxury of her place, now called the Restaurant Anne-Sophie Pic, but… well, it’s 350 Euros for a menu that is wonderful but “exotic” for my tastes, and that’s before you order the wine.
I chose instead to eat on the terrace at the bistro André, where Chef Pic honors the memory of her famous grandfather with recipes he inspired. It doesn’t have a star, but my food – roast duck in a berry sauce, Jacques Pic's copyrighted recipe for soufflé glacé à l’orange for dessert -- was some of the best I had anywhere on this trip, and the packed terrace was certainly less stuffy than the main restaurant next door. (And I can say confidently that my dinner at André made for a much more enjoyable evening than watching My Dinner With André!)
This is still a city at a crossroads, so you can literally go exploring in any direction from Valence. It’s only 60 miles south of Lyon and 40 miles south of Vienne; you can find some of the richest traces of Roman colonization along the Rhône and some of the world’s finest restaurants in both places. The Gorges of the Ardeche – the “Grand Canyon of Europe” – is only 90 minutes south of here, as are the prehistoric cave paintings at Chauvet. Grenoble and the Alps are 60 minutes to the northeast. And the Ardeche mountains lining the other side of the river across from Valence are a reminder that this really is the “Gateway to the South”, the beginning of the bright, sun-soaked lands between here and Provence.
For me, this trip will continue further west, in the rugged volcanoes of the Cantal. But as I drive away from Valence, I’m already trying to figure out how to make my way back to this “little” city that feels so large in my memory.
Where have you visited in France that caught you by surprise? Where have you found the best “gourmet” experiences in your travels? Can you recommend another place that gave you the impression of being something more than you expected? Please share your experiences in the “comments” section below – and please do take a second to share this post with someone else who’s interested in the people, places, culture, and history of the deep heart of France!
Unless otherwise noted, all photos in this post are copyright © 2021 by Richard Alexander