Saturday, August 18, 2012

Exploring Provence

If Provence is my favorite of the French provinces, the Luberon is my favorite spot in Provence. It is comfortingly familiar, not just because I’d read Peter Mayle’s bestseller, A Year in Provence, but because the landscape and the architecture and the flora seem right. Even the first time we visited, it felt like we’d been there before.

It was difficult to get a last-minute reservation in the Luberon in July but after repeated attempts we finally secured a room at Le Roy Soleil in Ménerbes. The charming mas (a traditional Provençal farmhouse) turned hotel is nestled among the vineyards in the Luberon valley at the foot of the picturesque hill town. Our garret room looked over the vine-encircled, umbrella-covered terrace that serves as the dining room in the summer. The smell of strong coffee wafting up to our window and the tinkling of breakfast silverware woke us every morning and we fell asleep to the murmur of intimate, whispered dinner conversations below. One evening we joined the guests on the patio and had an evening meal of Provençal specialties that included healthy helpings of olives and fresh vegetables. Joe feasted on lamb with crispy rice and asparagus, I had langoustines with fava beans and we shared a bottle of the local rosé chilled in a stylish, pastel plastic ice bag (all the rage all over France).

As we consistently manage to eat too much fine food and drink too much good wine, in an attempt to still fit into our clothes we also persist in taking long walks, running when we can and seeking out interesting hikes. We stumbled on the latter when we decided to follow the intriguing signs that took us to LeColorado Provençal de Rustrel in the northeast corner of the Luberon. What a find! The beautiful, relatively undiscovered park is the site of an abandoned ochre quarry and the miles of trails took us past simply beautiful red, gold, tawny and pure white cliffs and wind-sculpted spire formations set against a deep blue sky. We hiked for about two hours, marveled at the colors, worked up an appetite and then found a little cafe in the village of Rustel to once again do what we do best: eat.

We ventured out on additional exploratory jaunts and came back at the height of the fiercest heat of the late afternoon to lounge by the pool, lay in the sun and brown like roasts on the recliners. The sun was so unrelenting and the air so dry that five minutes after taking a dip in the water, our bathing suits had dried and it was as if we’d never gotten wet. So back into the water we went. At one point Joe observed, “Look at the size of that dragonfly!” “That’s no insect, my dear, that’s a hummingbird,” I marveled. We were fascinated by the colibri darting in and out of the poolside lavender and it was impossible to snap an unblurred picture because the little guy was moving so fast.  

We did our best to visit all the top sights in the valley, -- the hilltop towns of Gordes and Lacoste (where the Marquis de Sade once lived in its chateau), Bonnieux and Ménerbes, Lourmarin and Roussillon (an incredibly beautiful ochre village, definitely one of our favorites)-- as well as those further afield:

·      I’d always wanted to ride in a canoe under the Pont du Gard and so we paddled our way south on the Gardon River for two hours until we passed beneath the beautifully balanced and perfectly preserved three-level Roman aqueduct bridge. Combining exercise and the outdoors, history and architecture, made for a perfect afternoon.

·      Dinner was a family affair under the sheltering plane trees of the main square in the medieval town of Uzès. All throughout our meal, we enjoyed watching the local children run around and around the cooling central fountain (an ever-present anchor of Provençal towns, this one adorned with tiny white tiles) as kids around the world will do.

·      Mont Ventoux (related to the French word for wind -- venteux), by far the highest mountain south of the Alps and made famous as one of the most difficult climbs of the Tour de France, can be seen for miles across the landscape of northern Provence. We decided to tackle the massive bald mountain in our car rather than on foot and it was probably a wise decision. The ascent and descent would have taken a full day and the inches-deep scree that covered the final mile to the summit was easy to observe on a windshield tour but would have wreaked havoc on our feet.

·      We had lunch at the Café de Nuit on the Place du Forum in Arles, the subject of Van Gogh's painting, Café Terrace at Night. It's always been one of my favorites, in fact I carried a notebook with this image on its cover all through college, and now I feel so much closer to the artist and this particular work. There is nothing like being there for a lasting emotional bond.

·      Nîmes and her Roman theater were on our list as was lunch in St. Remy (birthplace of Nostradamus and where Van Gogh spent a year in the Saint-Paul asylum).

·      We paid a call on Avignon whose internationally recognized summer theater festival was in full swing. Every surface imaginable (city walls, street lamps, bus stops and church doorways) was turned into a patchwork quilt of posters announcing the dramatic offerings on stages all over town.

·      About 15 years ago, I’d read an article about a young Belgian couple that bravely opened a fine restaurant in the sleepy little town of Eygalières, in the heart of Provence. I saved the article for all these years and on this trip, dining there was one of our “musts.” And so, we had a lovely dinner on the outdoor terrace at Maison Bru, and in addition to the poached egg with truffle butter appetizer, what I’ll always remember is seeing the sous-chef slip out of a side door into the garden, clip some fresh herbs and head back to the kitchen to continue cooking. Talk about fresh...

·      There is a most unusual gallery in Les Baux de Provence. Under the bauxite hilltop town are what are called LesCarrièrres de Lumières – the Quarries of Light. The walls of the cavernous, 45-foot high, interior spaces are filled with huge projections of the paintings of Van Gogh and Gauguin, accompanied by fitting inspirational music. It sounds rather strange but while unusual, it really works; the oversized reproductions make you feel like you're inside the paintings themselves. As an added bonus, the cool interior of the quarries was a welcome relief from the blazing sun outside.

I thought we knew Provence fairly well when we arrived, but we quickly discovered that previous visits had barely scratched the surface. There was just so much more to see. The two weeks of discovery we had before settling into Aix, while so very satisfying, were still not enough to fully explore this remarkable region. Every place we visited stirred up new questions about art, architecture, history and language. We did our best to thoroughly read our guidebooks and do Internet searches for the pieces that were missing but there was just never enough time to learn all we wanted to know. About Van Gogh. About Provence. About France, Europe and all the places we visited. Even with a full year to ourselves, dedicated to nothing but seeing, experiencing and learning, there is just never, ever enough time to complete our education.

Pictures of our adventures:

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