This was always going to be our longest journey of the trip. We travelled from Limeray on the Loire to Tournon sur Rhône on, er, the Rhône river to the south of Lyon. We set off after breakfast, stopped briefly at the Leclerc in Amboise to pick up fuel and a picnic and set off along a series of motorways (A85, A88, A71), heading down a bit, right, then turning right again to head downwards (I am not a geographer), stopping at about 12.30 for our picnic in the promisingly-named “Aire le Grand Meaulnes”. Sadly, the Aire did not live up to its name (Le Grand Meaulnes is one of my favourite novels), producing only a few picnic tables, a stone plaque mentioning that Alain Fournier, the author of Le Grand Meaulnes, and other authors, had found inspiration in this landscape, and a “stand and bend your legs” loo (other females will understand what I mean…).
At Saint Etienne, having seen on the internet that there were traffic jams around Lyon, Tim directed us off the motorway and we cut through the mountains, up to the snow then down again to the Rhône valley, and we eventually arrived in our next destination, Tournon-sur-Rhône, and our hotel the Hotel Azalées, which is very near the railway station.
Tournon, it turns out, is a town spread out along the western bank of the Rhône opposite Tain l’Hermitage, and it has the feel of a place that has seen better days. There are signs of many closed businesses, including closed hotels, and most of the restaurants and bars seemed to be closed – perhaps Wednesday is a day when things close locally, but the whole place had a slightly sad, uncared-for air about it. We wondered if the arrival of the motorway, cutting around the town as it does, had also cut off its supply of visitors.
We walked around, crossing the footbridge to Tain but discovering that cafés there too were either closed or closing by 6.30pm. There were two huge Viking cruise barges moored there, and on the Tournon side there was a large funfair set up on the square by the river. The hills above each side of the river were covered in vines and producers’ names, but the towns themselves seemed to be struggling to survive.
We returned to our hotel, having done research around town to see if there was anywhere else we wanted to dine and decided that the Azalées would have our business, and ate in a dining room where single male diners ranging in age from about 25 to about 60 were the majority (we counted 15 of them, with only 3 tables of more than one person). We tried to guess why they were there – Tim decided they were stationery salesmen, but I was doubtful that a town the size of Tournon could support 15 stationery salesmen.
The meal was fine, but nothing special and we suspected that some of it may have come from the freezer. Except possibly for the avocado crème brulée which both Julia and I chose as a starter, on the grounds that we had never had it before. Bizarrely, when Tim asked if we liked it, neither of us could answer! It was odd, very odd – not exactly unpleasant, but not exactly pleasant either.
None of us really understood how the hotel could have gained a third casserole (the Logis system is based on chimneys for room comfort, and casseroles for food quality – we normally go for two chimneys with three casseroles where possible), but it was not over-priced and it was almost certainly the best meal in town!
I have discovered that this town is …… GASP …… where VALRHONA chocolate is made!!!! OMG, I am so excited. It is not proving difficult to enthuse Tim and Julia on this matter, so if it is possible to visit the premises tomorrow morning before we head on down to Le Lavandou and the Mediterranean we will do so. Watch this space.