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Stories from our Travelers

Celebrating "L'amitié" in the South of France

A quiet lane in Rousillon

At the Villeron farmers' market

Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque
by Carolyn Clark Beedle

[From Summer 2009] Bonne chance. Bryant, a dear and generous friend celebrating his 50th birthday rented a 6-bedroom house in the small Provençal village of Pernes les Fontaines, an ancient walled town with origins back to the Roman Empire and named for the 37 freestanding and architectural fountains in town. The cleverly renovated home (former stone barn) welcomes visitors through a small blue door to a swimming pool, pergola and terraces hidden behind the entry wall from the street. Three interior floors of clean white stone and contemporary furnishings offer a lovely tonic for busy lives.

Revolving guests came and went for three weeks; I and six others from Atlanta, London and Santa Fe made it for the last. This proved to be lucky in that all the best nearby activities had already been identified and prioritized. Each day began with the early risers filling the breakfast table with presents from the local patisserie…almond and raisin sweets, chocolat du pain, croissants, and a couple of baguettes for dinner. Coffee was French pressed of course, and yogurts and fresh fruits were always available.

Pernes’ fountains and undeniable charm were immediately eclipsed: by “our” patisserie and charcuterie down the tiny Rue Emile Zola, by the village market just a few blocks away along the river/moat, and by the most astounding farmers’ market 4 km away in Villeron every evening from 5:30-7:30. Gorgeous vegetables, delectable cheeses, saucissons, mustards, olives of every type, olive oils, tapenades, (access to “olive-land” was fraught with all sorts of new uses, recipes, and one particular black olive tapenade with cardamom and sugar which gave us great joy…) beautiful flowers and fragrant handmade soaps. The combination was over the top. And then one had to stop for a drink at the "bar" (plastic tables and chairs in the parking lot) after shopping, to review the local attire, listen to the player piano man or just relish the market experience.

We progressed leisurely on daily road trips to see or do something amazing in the area. Provence covers a large geography with countless offerings in scenic, historic, wine-filled, art-laden, antiques and shopping, food and sporting adventures. A morning in Orange revealed the best-preserved Roman Theatre ("The finest wall in my kingdom” were the words used by King Louis XIV about the monumental exterior wall) and a delightful café lunch including some indescribable vegetable soufflé items. The afternoon led to Chateauneuf du Pape, Côtes du Rhone, Gigondas…you can only imagine: vineyards large and small and tastings that resulted in fairly substantial sales. The tasting room manager at Château Mont Redon plied us with Côtes du Rhone, Lirac and Chateauneuf du Pape and was very well rewarded. The actual Chateauneuf du Pape (new home of the pope) is a real “fixer upper” built in 1317, and destroyed in the 16th century religious wars. Its remaining stone shell fragment perches on a hill above the small town.

Driving through Vaucluse, the Luberon and Vallee du Rhone, we crossed gorges, rambled through orchards swollen with ripe red cherries and visited the hill towns of Venasque (a single lane zig-zag climb to Saracen towers and the 9th century Baptistery in one of the oldest churches in France), Gordes (the pristinely renovated village has become a 5-star vacation spot for the wealthiest - witness in person to best appreciate, or rent the Russell Crowe movie A Good Year, filmed here), and Rousillon (trés petite, rustic and renowned for ochre-colored buildings of stone carved from a nearby ochre quarry functioning up through WWII.)

Signature historical sites make history live again. The Villages des Bories of stone constructions in pure and simple shapes is an architectural masterpiece. Without use of mortar, stones are skillfully stacked into huts with corbelled vault ceilings and to lengthy wandering walls, reflecting the harmony of natural materials and emanating a gentle austerity. The Moulin des Bouillons is an animal powered olive oil mill listed as a historic monument; it is the oldest preserved mill intact with all functional elements. Since the 1st century BC the presses have been in use, along with vats hollowed out of the rock and Roman pipe work making olive oil, a fascinating working museum.

If the fields full of red poppies waving in the warm fragrant breezes didn’t lower the blood pressure, the Cistercian Abbaye de Sénanque amidst orchards and lavender fields definitely did the trick. Built in the 10th century, it is still filled with monks, prayers and chanting and surrounded by truly breathtaking natural beauty. But then being chauffeured about sun-filled Provence sharing entertainment and good food with friends is not hard on the psyche.

A day trip to Avignon combined walking, architecture, street theatre, retail therapy, exotic dining and more history…all inescapable in Provence. The Palais des Papes (home of the popes in exile from Rome for 200 years) and Place de l'Horloge centered the day. Choices included lunch at a North African bistro, shopping extremes from the covered market of Les Halles and specialty bookstores to haute couture ateliers, many churches, hidden parks, street music and varied languages echoing off the high stone buildings, and fashionable French women in skin tight attire and stiletto heels strolling over cobblestone streets. Someone was always singing that Pont d’Avignon song…and so you know, that bridge goes nowhere these days, it ends three quarters across the river!

The drive to Cassis for a day at the old fishing port on the Mediterranean offered something for everyone, and I do mean everyone since it was a fete (holiday) and way too many French people joined us. Sunning and swimming at the sea, walking the astounding Calanques (limestone coastal fjords,) shopping the French Riviera, sipping cool beer or pastis at a café on the harbor, watching yachts and fishing boats pull in and out, and making fun of all the “tourists!” The 5pm rendezvous time arrived too early, but what followed quickly lessened the pain. We headed home via Le Routes des Crete, a winding road leading east of Cassis over Cap Canaille (the highest seacoast cliff in Europe), toward the town of Le Ciotat. Rappelling climbers, tourist caravans and bike and motor cyclists presented perceived and actual challenges.

Friday is Market Day in Carpentras, and by seven o'clock in the morning the center of this old town, once surrounded by ramparts and today a complex of twisting alleyways and pretty little squares, is already buzzing with life as some 350 itinerant traders set up their stalls and local trades people lay out their wares on the pavement in front of their shops. Motor traffic is forbidden and a throng of pedestrians is soon pushing its way between the stalls. We arrived by 10 and throng doesn’t quite describe the scene. While searching for items on multiple shopping lists, we ran into someone we knew, always the mark of a good holiday.

After a lunch of perfect steak frites avec moutard, we agreed to brave Mont Ventoux in our car (those Tour de France people are crazy). Nicknamed the Giant of Provence, this last highest mountain of the Alps before they fall into the Mediterranean offers a 21 km ride from sea level to 1912 meters at an average grade of 7.4%…and it is a frequent leg on the Tour de France (when it isn’t closed due to fierce winds.) Literally hundreds of cyclists were struggling up the road between car and motorcycle rallies in the hot afternoon sun. The top of the Mont had vistas to Italy, Switzerland and across southern France, as well as some crazy French mountain bikers dressed as mutant ninja turtles. I might mention the bike rental shop at the top of the lane from our house in Pernes was open daily for the cyclists in our group. It didn’t see much action.

Every evening we cooked or grilled scrumptious dinners all together, made with daily market purchases, and sat around the pool terrace listening to music, eating, drinking loads of wine and talking for hours (occasionally playing silly dice games.) I can only say the pace and the scenery and the charming folks in and out of our house were the perfect tonic for a type-a, obsessive compulsive like me. Pete, the owner of “our house”, is a jazz trombonist from London, and a darling chap who laughed uproariously with us over dinner and wine one evening. Monsieur Lamy, the widower next door with a charming black cat, had no idea we were plotting a marriage, as I am available. We’d then have a permanent house in Provence...of course, I might have to fight off his two adult children, but feel quite up to the task.

Catching the early morning TGV from Avignon back to Paris at the week’s end entirely relaxed, along with my friend Jess, a suntan, bags full of olive products and fragrant soaps for friends back home; I sure wished I could figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

For information on renting La Saga, the house in Pernes les Fontaines, see La Saga.
Some useful resources on places we visited in Provence:
Chateau Mont Redon -- Pernes les Fontaines -- Cassis
Avignon -- Mont Ventoux -- Village des Bories -- Moulin des Bouillons

Photographs of Venasque (on home page), Rousillon and Abbaye de Sénanque (above) by Jess Ivey.

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