The Dentelles de Montmirail (from the Latin mons mirabilis, ‘extraordinary mountain’) is a small, jagged mountain chain that forms a natural amphitheatre around the sandstone village of Gigondas and its surrounding vineyards. Roman legionaries chose this beautiful, protected site to plant their grapevines, and later medieval nobles built a castle perched above it on a rocky outcrop. For today’s residents, a restored medieval hospice on the castle site welcomes artistic exhibitions.
With its spectacular backdrop of the rocky ridges of the Dentelles de Montmirail punctuated by lush terraced vineyards, the old castle site offers an exceptional view over the Rhône Valley and the Gigondas wine-growing area. The original castle and its ramparts were built in the 13th or 14th century. From the beginning it was dedicated to the poor and the sick, serving as a distribution centre for food and medical assistance for the needy. In 1678, Father Albert of the Order of Minims founded the Friary of Saint-Calvaire and Saint-Sépulcre on the ground floor of the castle. This became a pilgrimage site for people from all over the province.
Later, at the beginning of the 19th century, the hospice’s roof beams and tiles were sold to build the village wash house. The building was then neglected and fell into ruin. In 1984, the town hall took the initiative to restore the site and founded the non-profit organisation Gigondas d’Hier et d’Aujourd’hui (‘Gigondas of yesterday and today’), which became responsible for leading the restoration work carried out by local people. Over the years, the medieval upper village was renovated by these dedicated volunteers, and in 1994 it was revealed in its full glory to the public with the opening of a walking route that winds through sculptures and installations by French and international artists.
From 1997, in addition to organizing the annual ‘sculpture path’ event, the villagers expanded their cultural investment in Gigondas by involving young people in archaeological digs in ruins found in the upper part of the village. The first discoveries revealed the vestiges of a defensive system endowed with a circular tower. Was it perhaps the ruins of a previous castle or a small strategic fort? In recent years, three grain silos and a basin have been uncovered, followed by two lead seals belonging to Raymond IV and Bertrand IV of Baux, Princes of Orange. These discoveries allowed the original building to be dated to the 12th or 13th century.
In 2005, work began on the creation of a landscaped path to discover the history of the site and of winemaking in the village. It will be a walking trail lined with dry-stone terracing planted with wild grapevines, historic grape varieties and Mediterranean plants, and will allow visitors to easily access the top of the outcrop where they can imagine the size of the original tower and its walls. Today, an open-air theatre, Le Théâtre de Verdure, is built into the wall at the top of the restored hospice. It offers a singular view of the front of the church and the old fort. This unique and enchanting theatre welcomes a variety of concerts and wine-related events.
Although winemaking has been the heart and soul of Gigondas since the 20th century, fundamentally shaping its appearance, the captivating natural beauty of the site equally attracts visitors interested in other activities. The Dentelles de Montmirail are an ideal spot for mountaineering, and a number of sporting events have been organized here since the 1980s and 1990s, including the Traversée des Dentelles (‘Crossing of the Dentelles’) trail runs, launched in 1987. The mountains of Gigondas offer a myriad of paths for walking, hiking, mountain biking or rock climbing.