Many good stories end where they began. So it seems only right that our French vacation should “bookend” back to Provence.
It is a region we love, the place we chose to come for our five month sabbatical in 2007.
Then, we lived just outside the stylish and graceful city of Aix-en-Provence, a place of courtyards and outdoor cafes, language schools and universities, shoe stores and sprawling thrice-weekly markets.
To most, however, at least those who have read Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence,” this region defines itself not through its cities, but through the towns and villages of the Luberon Mountains and the proud, friendly and eccentric people who live in them.
In truth, in these mountains made famous by Mayle, there are two distinctly different Provences today, particularly during the height of the tourist season. Most Americans and Brits throng to the dramatic mountain towns of Gordes or Roussillon or the villages of Menerbes, where Mayle once lived, or Lourmarin, where he lives today. But as charming as these towns can be, they are chockoblock with gift shops and art galleries and over-run with tourists come summer.
Many French tourists head elsewhere, to the smaller, quieter villages of the eastern Luberon, places such as Viens or Saignon, which lack nothing of the natural beauty, drama or charm of the more popular western destinations, but have few of the other tourist trappings — the shops, three-star hotels or quiant (read expensive) cafes that have made the western Luberon villages a larger but less authentic draw.
We’ve been staying these last three days in a converted farmhouse, a “mas,” on the cusp of this Luberon divide, in a quiet village called St.-Saturnin-les-Apt, where all we hear from morning until night is the steady chirping of the “cigale,” the cicadas that, though an insect, come as close as one gets to Provence’s regional mascot. Mas Perreal sits in the midst of a vineyard. Its proprietors, he American, she French, serve enormous breakfasts and share rich knowledge of the region. And the people of nearby St. Sauternin is thoroughly French, patient with our wobbly language skills and as adept as anywhere else in serving reliably sumptuous meals (on Friday we had a dish of diced lamb wrapped in a red pepper along with the ratatouille, which is a traditionally Provencal dish. Tonight we had an entire fish, head and all with a pate of the country, quail I believe, as an appetizer).
It is hot here. Slow. A little sleepy. But the heat excepted, that’s fine by us. And cool mornings and long, late, breezy evenings take the edge off the scorching mid-day sun.
Yesterday we sat by the pool, read and napped. A big day. Today we took in the lavender fields and small towns to the east. Tomorrow, perhaps, we’ll gird for the tourist masses to the west.
In Provence, there are three kinds of roads on the map. Red roads are the superhighways, two lanes wide, but with a white center line dividing drivers going in opposite directions. Yellow roads still are wide enough for two cars, but rarely demarcate where they should be on the road. (There are no lines.) As for the white, I call them white knuckle driving. And, as is Kathy’s penchant, that’s all we drove today. Make that, that’s all I drove today. She does the maps. I play chicken. Or rather, I freeze and stop every few miles when two cars meet on a road that really is built for only one. It’s all part of the joy of traveling with my wife.
Wealthy Americans name their sailboats and yachts. Wealthy French name their houses. We first realized this on sabbatical three years ago at Cap Ferrat on the Riviera, a place so affluent that when we visited in March only the workmen, chauffeurs and Rolls Royces inhabited the grounds of the estates there. The houses near St. Saturnin are far more modest, but we climbed the hill of Perreal overlooking the valley this morning and noticed that here, too, the larger, gated houses sport names. Some spoke of the produce of the region, such as Les Cerises, the cherries. Some tried a bit of poetry, such as one called, roughly, “in the high wind.” But the biggest left use curious. It was called L’Evidence, the evidence.
We wondered if it was owned by a lawyer or judge or someone merely proud that he was filthy rich.
No self-respecting tourist can leave France without touching on the topic of food. My prowess as a chef ranges from eggs (boiled or scrambled) to les viandes (meats) grilled outside. In other words, I’m no chef. But I do like to eat. So I can tell you with some authority that in France there are three kinds of food: Food that is OK, usually found at sidewalk bars that commandeer tourists with cheap and largely tasteless plats du jour (plates of the day); very good food, found with a little care in cities and larger towns and almost guaranteed in the country; and food that’s out of this world, that leaves you sighing, nose tiled slightly skyward to smell the aromatic fragrances wafting from the kitchen.
As we’ve moved from large towns to small, we’ve found more of the otherworldly, sometimes in small roadside cafes that have never found their way into anyone’s guidebook. I assure you that I don’t try this at mid-day, but in the evening, if we down a good bottle of wine with this exceptional food a small ritual takes place three hours later as we leave the restaurant. We find ourselves floating, a few feet off the ground, as we back out the door, telling madame or monsieur several times over that the dinner was superb, wishing them a good evening, assuring them we’ll return soon and, finally, saying au revoir.