Its compact historic kernel caught between major nuclear installations along the Rhône, the name of Montélimar conjures up very sweet images for French children. Before the A7 motorway was opened in the late 1960s, legions of families would stop in town to buy a bag or two of nougat, in part to keep the children quiet on the journey, their teeth almost literally glued together. Approaching the old town today, the relentless commercial zones hardly look appealing, although many a nougat shop still lines the way, while the trendy to tacky new art and craft centre Au Fil du Temps to the north calls for attention.
Traffic dashes incessantly round the boulevards that encircle the historic kernel. But the wonderful shade of layers of plane trees (up to six rows deep) of the Allées Provençales should tempt you to stop. Most of the historic streets are reserved for pedestrians. From a few, you get fleeting glimpses of the medieval castle on the hill, a short but steep climb away. Around the 11th century, the Adhémar family took up home here on Monteil hill, which became the Mont-Adhémar, hence Montélimar. Although you don’t feel the presence of the Rhône in Montélimar, their solid keep surveyed the valley down to the Donzère straights, where tough little mountains tighten their grip around the river’s throat. The Adhémar family subsequently split into several competing hilltop factions, one branch taking to La Garde-Adhémar, another to Rochemaure, a third to Grignan. As to the merchants of Monteil, they were early granted franchises from taxes. The acquisitive popes of Avignon, not far south, ensured that many monasteries were built in the town when they acquired control in the 14th century, but the place suffered terribly in the Wars of Religion. Calmer times followed with the planting of mulberries for silk making and almonds for nougat.
Montélimar’s semi-ruined feudal Château des Adhémar looks slightly Moorish. It has been given a new lease of life as a Centre d’Art Contemporain, holding retrospectives on major international artists, and inviting newer talents to fill the empty medieval chambers with bold works for a season. Montélimar’s ramparts brought down in the 19th century, one Ancien Régime gateway survives at the northern end of the main street, Rue Pierre Julien. Explore the maze of unfussy to scruffy streets and squares off this main artery. Many facades have been painted in cheerful powder-puff colours, one of the brightest, a former religious building, converted into the curious but stylish Musée de la Miniature dedicated to miniature works of art.
On the outskirts of Montélimar, fans of military aviation shoot off to the Musée Européen de l’Avion de Chasse. Golfers head for the 18-hole Golf de la Valdaine east at Montboucher-sur-Jabron.
For more information on the towns and sights along the Rhône valley between Lyon and Provence, read the Cadogan guide to the Rhône-Alpes.
Copyright text : Philippe Barbour 2004