Black truffles, rich red wines, blue lavender, an intriguing history and a small but pretty mediaeval village are among the potent attractions of Richerenches in Northern Provence.
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A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
Richerenches is a bit of an historical oddity for several reasons. In 1136 a certain Lord Hugues de Bourbouton gave some land to the Order of the Knights Templar. It included Richerenches, then uninhabited.
The Knights Templar were fast-rising, rich and powerful, and the Commandery (fort) which they constructed in Richerenches became one of the most important in Provence.
Part of this complex was a suitably grandiose Maison Templière which was probably used for argricultural storage and accommodation.
It still stands proudly today in the middle of Richerenches and modern visitors are likely to be impressed but perhaps also a bit puzzled by the enormous building which totally dominates the tiny village (population: 600). Pictured: part of the vast, vaulted interior.
Two centuries later, the Knights Templar were in decline. But another strange chapter in the history of Richerenches had opened.
It seems that in 1317, when the Papacy was based in Avignon, Pope John XXII (the second of the Avignon Popes) visited the neighbouring village of Valréas.
Feeling unwell, he sampled some of the local wine as a tonic. It went down a treat and, to ensure a regular supply, he decided to purchase the town (the story is not too far-fetched, given all of the Avignon Popes' well-known taste for tipple).
Gradually his successors bought the surrounding villages too, including Richerenches, and the whole pocket of land became known as the Enclave des Papes. In more recent times the local population voted to keep this special administrative status.
The Enclave is demarcated by marker stones, some of which still stand, though they are rather small and not terribly imposing. There's one in front of the Tourist Office in Valréas, where you can also get a map with a little circuit of them.
WHAT TO SEE
The old village of Richerenches dates back to the 16th century and is guarded by mighty fortified walls and four great towers, one at each corner. One of the gates is called, amusingly, the trou de chien (dog hole), even if the village seems to be mostly colonised by curious cats!
It won't take you long to zip round Richerenches, but it's certainly charming, with its old stone clock tower and belfry, stone houses, well, washing place and fountain.
You can also peek inside the 17th century church, the Eglise Saint Denis, which has been recently restored. There are six plaques to help you round this mini-circuit, though when we visited in late 2015 these were in French only.
Today the Maison Templière houses the Tourist Office and a very good Petit Musée de la Truffe et du Vin. Despite the "vin", it mainly concentrates on truffles and takes you through the whole process, with panels in English as well as French.
On the upper level is a permanent display on the story of the Knights Templar, though the panels here are in French only. Entrance to it, and the Truffle Museum is free.
The village is likely to be sleepy and deserted outside the summer tourist season - except on Saturday mornings. The season of the black truffle (tuber melanosporum) opens with a flourish in mid-November with the Ban des Truffes, a procession and opening ceremony, pictured.
It's followed by the first of the winter's weekly Saturday truffle markets, one for professionals and one for the general public.
And Richerenches is further animated by truffle feasts, truffle hunts and a stream of other activities which continue until mid-March. In fact its main claim to fame is as the "truffle capital" of France. Click here to read our full guide to truffle tourism in Provence.
But wine is the real mainstay of the economy in Richerenches, which is part of the Côtes du Rhône appellation. Just on the edge of the village, the Cellier des Templiers wine co-operative is the place to go to taste and buy it. Its very large car-park is also the best place to leave your car. 233 route de Valréas, 84600 Richerenches. Tel: (+33) 4 90 28 01 00.
The combined arrival of the truffle season and the celebration of the year's new wine vintage mean that Richerenches is really buzzing in the late autumn and winter.
But, among all the other usual pleasures of Provence, summer visitors can enjoy the lavender fields. Richerenches is on a 130 km / 81 mile circular route through Northern Vaucluse and the Drôme Provençale.
July is the best month to see the lavender fields here in full bloom. The main festival to mark the lavender harvest is called the Corso de la Lavande and is held in Valréas on the first weekend of August.
The Richerenches Tourist Office is based in the Maison Templière in the Old Town, place Hugues de Bourbouton, 84600 Richerenches. Tel: (+33) 4 90 28 05 34.
Note that there are no banks or cashpoint machines (ATMs) in Richerenches, so come armed with cash!
How to get to and from Richerenches
By road: Richerenches is 35 km / 22 miles from Orange and 28 km / 17 miles from Montélimar.
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By train: the closest stations are Orange and Montélimar (both 35 km / 22 miles away).
By bus: Bus no.3 runs between Orange and Richerenches via Valréas, Visan and Serignan du Comtat. Click here for the current timetable (look for the link marked "horaires des lignes", then choose the relevant timetable from the list).
Where to stay: Just south of Richerenches, Lodges en Provence offers luxury self-catering chalets, plus a good restaurant, while La Parenthèseèse is a friendly, family-run chambres d'hôtes in the countryside just outside Visan.
Where to eat and drink: Nicolas Pailhès at L'Escapade creates gastronomic truffle-themed menus. We also had a great light lunch at Le Provençal, a simple, friendly bar-brasserie on the avenue de la Rabasse, where the bustling Saturday public truffle market is held. Book ahead or get there very early on market days!
Photo credits (from top): © Office de Tourisme de Richerenches, SJ for Marvellous Provence (two images).