Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sensing Provence

Having downed a huge glass of self-compassion to soften the departure from the Alps, it took me very little time to shift my thoughts from the chilly mountain air to the sunshine of Provence. By the time our train reached St. Gervais, the rain had stopped and once we boarded the TGV in Bellegarde bound for Avignon, the skies had fully cleared and the bright Provençal sun had taken over. We picked up our rental car at the train station, removed and then dumped all our warm layers of clothing into the back seat and our spirits fully revived, headed deep into the south of France.

We had two weeks in front of us to wander around the sun-blessed countryside before settling down and moving into an apartment in Aix-en-Provence for a month while I took a French conversation course. We had a list that filled a loose-leaf page of all the things we hoped to do and see in this lovely region of the world. The only question was, where to start? The specifics of our itinerary had hit the brick wall of planning for the TMB and we had few specifics in place for the upcoming chunk of time. We could make it up as we went along but there were too many must-dos on our list to leave enjoying Provence to whim. The area is rich in potential for outdoor activities and we wanted to make sure we took advantage of what was available – en profiter bien, as the French like to say.

Over the course of two brief visits in years gone by, the south of France had gotten under my skin. Paris aside, Provence is by far my favorite corner of the hexagon. It is a veritable feast for the senses – each and every one of them -- starting with sound. We treated ourselves for the first couple of days to a rural chateau hotel northwest of Avignon in which to relax, do our planning and finalize our route. I sat and did my Internet searches in the shade of a plane tree with the buzzing chorus of les cigales (cicadas) in the background. In addition to the chirping song of summer tree frogs and ocean waves breaking on the beach, it’s definitely my favorite sound in nature. The cicada’s whirr is said to drive some to earplugs and others to madness but it helped me sit back, enjoy the sounds of summer and map out our stay in Provence.

The most pleasantly fragrant place we've visited by far is Provence, without a doubt. Lavender, always one of my favorite flowers with its intoxicating yet soothing fragrance and healing essential oil, has become a familiar symbol of Provence. Its teeny tiny clustered blossoms so popular with butterflies and bees can be found dotting the gardens surrounding farmhouses, adding its gentle purple color to municipal flower displays in every town large and small and spread across acres of straight-lined rows of redolent blooms in lavender farms. The cafe culture is alive and well in Provence, so in addition to the ever-present aromatic lavender is the coffee scented air in the cool shade under green awnings, another defining feature of Provence. Afternoon shade is a necessity as the suns blazes fervently and it can easily be found thanks to the proliferation of awning-sheltered cafes, all of them patronized by locals sipping demitasse cups of strong, pungent coffee.

The tastes of Provence were so different from those we’d sampled in the mountains. The hard, nutty cow cheeses were now of the soft, herbal goat variety and preserved hams and beef morphed into fresh vegetables and seafood. Butter disappeared thereby making way for everything to be cooked and dressed in olive oil. Oversized capers and soft, ripe olives were omnipresent delivery vehicles for the salty, vinegary mouthfuls they released. I would almost always prefer a bowl brimming with such briny tidbits to one filled with ice cream, so Provence and my palate were fast friends. We quickly learned that 80% of the wine produced in the region is rosé and so our usual order of a pichet of local white turned into a carafe of fruity rosé.

Although we had yet to feel it, the fierce touch of le mistral always threatened. The locals continually refer to the almighty cold wind that whips south down the valleys of the Rhone and Durance Rivers for days at a time even in summer, battering everything in its wake. Since this visit to Provence would be extended, we were sure to experience it in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we basked in the sun, feeling its warmth and then escaping to the coolness of the shade once we were cooked.

Provence is also a feast for the eyes. I took a break from my trip organizing and walked for hours through the countryside surrounding the chateau. It was hot but dry, like Arizona, and the rocky hills in the distance reminded me of squatter versions of the mountains of Tucson. I first passed through lush orchards of fig, pear, plum and peach trees, their branches heavy with not-yet-ripened fruit. I next crossed miles of vineyards with tiny, hard green grapes tucked beneath wide, flat leaves. In two more months they would be fat, juicy and ready for harvest. Alongside the vineyards, endless fields of sunflowers, or tournesols (literally, turn with the sun), extended to the horizon. The bright yellow flowers were fully developed and appeared to be bashful in the afternoon light, turning their faces from the blinding light down towards the shadowed earth. When still in their growth phase, the flowers’ faces follow the sun, turning towards it as it moves across the sky. But once mature, the burning orb is too hot even for them and they shy away.

I looked up at the sky, the deepest azure blue imaginable and completely free of clouds, closed my eyes, felt the sun on my face and savored the sensations of Provence.

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