We get inspiration for our vacations from a variety of sources. Our train map of Europe that highlights the scenic routes is our number one choice. TV programs such as “100 Places You Must See”, “Beautiful Escapes” and “Invitation to Travel” give us plenty of ideas, sometimes in other countries, but right now we’re staying closer to home right here in France. In the US we were frequent watchers of house hunting shows and that habit hasn’t changed but here each episode begins with a quick overview of the city being featured where you get a bird’s eye view of the most picturesque parts. When we saw canals, fountains, Parisian-style architecture, cobbled streets, and open squares filled with sidewalk cafés we knew that we would have fun in Valence.
Starting our self-guided walking tour of Valence couldn’t have been easier. We walked straight out the front door of the train station and in 5 minutes we were admiring Le Kiosque Peynet. This bandstand, built in 1862, has become a symbol for the city based on a legend surrounding artist Raymond Peynet. He observed a lone violinist playing to his sole audience member and drew characters that have been depicted on porcelain, jewelry, postage stamps and champagne labels and made into dolls that sold in the millions.
The bandstand sits on the eastern edge of Parc Jouvet so we walked some of the pathways in this park that the tourist office calls, “the lungs of Valence.” The sculpted fountain at the bottom of the terraced gardens was especially impressive even without the water spraying while we were there.
The Valence Museum of Art and Archeology is housed in the former Bishop’s Palace, and as we often find, the building itself is as interesting as the museum’s collection. In this case there is a 12th century fortified tower, an egg-shaped vaulted (ogival) gallery and painted ceilings from the 15th and 17th centuries.
Next door is the Cathedral St. Apollinaire that was consecrated by the Pope in 1095. In 1799 Pope Pius VI died in Valence and while his body was taken to Rome for burial the story goes that his internal organs remained in the cathedral. We didn’t go looking for those but we certainly wanted to see a pastry that was created in the Pope’s, or rather his Swiss Guards’ honor that we found in many bakeries around town.
What I thought at first glance was an arc de triomphe turned out to be Le Pendentif (Pendant), a four-arched funeral chapel built in 1548. It was sold to a liquor merchant in 1796 who turned it into a bar with the basement serving initially as a wine cellar and later a cesspool. Today’s it’s a protected monument.
Three years ago while visiting Colmar (Germany in France) we saw the Maison des Têtes (House of Heads) which refers to the carvings that decorate the exterior of the building. The house with the same name in Valence was built in 1528 and features representations of Fortune, Time, and the Winds, including the well-known Mistral that writer Peter Mayle said in his autobiographical novel, A Year in Provence, “could blow the ears off a donkey.”
The map next directed us to les côtes (the coasts) which refers to the sides of the Rhône river that have been accessed from the upper town since medieval times via long stone staircases. These narrow passageways proved effective barriers to arriving sailors who might be carrying disease but also allowed the city to collect taxes from legitimate merchants wanting to sell their goods.
In 1860 industrialist Charles Ferlin had a house built that incorporated his own particular style or styles. On the facade of La Maison Mauresque he had workers apply a veneer in molded cement for a trompe l’oeil effect. At the time of construction, Asian culture was especially popular in France so he incorporated influences such as arcs and floral decorations in the design. In keeping with the city’s medieval history, gargoyles were installed on the corners of the roof.
Our perfectly timed final stop was in the St. Jean neighborhood with its church of the same name that was begun before the year 374 plus the outdoor marketplace and numerous restaurants. It was time for lunch!
Good to know: In French, the word “Valence” is used for both the city we just visited as well as Valentia, Spain so search engines can offer confusing results even when you add “France” to your search.