Travelling in Ardèche: Aubenas
Aubenas was our first stop in Ardèche. It’s a town in the southwest of France, with a population of about 12,000 people. We parked at a outdoor parking lot on the outskirts of the city center, and walked just a few blocks to the main square.
It was just a short walk, but by the time we reached the square with a view of the Château d’Aubenas, we were all hot and hungry. We walked about a bit, but just settled a little too quickly on a restaurant that claimed to make their own pasta. The menu didn’t look bad, but our decision turned out to be a case of “coulda, woulda, shoulda.” When you see a restaurant, there should be some red flags that warn you not to go inside. Warning #1: Nobody was dining there during the lunch hour. Warning #2: The two guys working thereseemed more interested in sitting down and smoking outside than getting any new customers. Warning #3: When I asked for a specific menu item, they didn’t have it. Blind to the warnings, we marched ahead and ordered our food, eager to rest and enjoy some delicious, fresh pasta. I think I ordered linguine in truffle sauce. What I actually got was like very overcooked pasta swimming in lukewarm milk. It was certainly one of the worst meals I have ever had in France, or in the world, actually! So, can you have a bad meal in France? Yes, you can.
While the employees’ cigarette smoke wafted our way, the yellow jackets buzzed around us constantly. All three of us were thoroughly disappointed, disgusted, and we left there feeling unsatisfied and hungry. To give the restaurant the benefit of the doubt, I wonder if the owners might have been on vacation themselves, seeing as how it was the popular vacation month of August. In any case, we really did need to eat, so we found another restaurant – this one bustling with cheerful customers and we managed to squeeze ourselves in at the end of the lunch hour. We ordered a simple rustic chicken dish with tomatoes and olives, which was completely delicious. Lesson learned!
After lunch, and of course some ice cream, we headed over to take a look at the chateau. The Château d’Aubenas was first a watch-tower as early as the 5th century, and was set in a dominant and strategic position: between the northern and western slopes of the granitic Cévennes, the chestnut country; and to the south and east, the limestone plateau of the Mediterranean. It had a privileged location, as the city was a crossroads between the different types of agriculture, economy and ways of life. The construction of the chateau began in the 12th century, and its inhabitants enjoyed the rapid prosperity of its situation. This strategic position was the subject of a tenacious struggle between the bishops of Viviers and those of Puy-en-Velay.
The building was then passed on to the Baron of Montlaur (Pons I st Montlaur) in 1084, originally from the Ardèche mountains, on the western edge of the current department of Ardeche. The Montlaur family reigned there until 1441 and built the donjon, the surrounding wall and the two large round towers of the castle which was then surrounded by ditches. This is why Aubenas is called “The City of Montlaur”, lords who were at the origin not only of the economic development of the city, but also of the social and material development of its inhabitants. Throughout the centuries, the castle passed through various families: Maubec, Ornano, and Vogüé, and they all constructed their own additions, such as a tower, a dungeon, a loggia, etc. In summary, the castle wasn’t built in a day and it changed through the centuries. After the French Revolution, Aubenas Castle was declared a national property and looted on 13 October 1792. The town of Aubenas succeeded in protecting it and installed the town hall there in 1810. What we have today is a structure with some very intriguing architecture, and we weren’t about to miss it.
A château with towers is such a quintessential castle. We bought our tickets and headed inside. We were greeted by this fancy guy with quite the goatee, draped in a cloak! It was Olivier de Serres, who was born 1539 in Villeneuve-de-Berg, and lived until 1619. Known as the “father of agriculture”, he was a French author and soil scientist who wrote a book called, “Théâtre d’Agriculture” which turned out to be the textbook of French agriculture in the 17th century.
When it was published in 1600, it was sent to all the parishes of France. He was the first to practice crop rotation, and a chapter of his book is devoted to “the gathering of silk and the food of the worms that make it”. This was very big at the time, as it would help to grow the silk industry and the economy of the entire region. In fact, the weighing of the cocoons used to be held in the old guard room.
Onward and upward. I love the narrow exposed beams of this ceiling!
This is the view of Aubenas from the château – built strategically at the highest point, of course.
And so, we leave the town of Aubenas. I hope you enjoyed this little journey today! Do you have a favorite place that you have visited in France?