If you take your Swiss mini-Nespresso machine to France, make sure you have the right adapter. (South Fremantle proverb)
Mid-afternoon in late May. I am sitting at a white metallic table on the wide terrace of our house in Ménerbes. Somewhere down below ducks – or perhaps geese – are engaged in a raucous symphony. The air hangs heavy, an evening thunderstorm on the cards. For now, the clouds are high, setting off the dark shapes of swallows that soar and swoop at great speed, like mini-avatars from Star Wars.
Directly in my line of vision the smoky slopes of the Petit Luberon are at rest. My eyes are drawn to the steep hillside, slashes of dark vegetation streaked with exposed limestone – a fierce contrast to the softer tones of the oak and pine forests that lie below. The thick walls and supporting beams of the terrace frame my view as if in a large painting. If I rise from my chair I can look down to the lavender fields and vineyards that are synonymous with this part of Provence.
We have been here for two weeks. Have we morphed from tourists to travellers? I doubt it. Yet there is a kind of settled feeling – a growing familiarity with the surrounds and a soporific peace that heralds the onset of summer. I’m glad we took the plunge and booked six weeks in one place. Not always do online investigations of towns and regions yield optimum results. Too often you can get blurry from the blurb and make hasty choices. We knew that as we explored website after website looking for the perfect spot. At least we did not have to agonise about where to focus. We wanted walk trails and natural beauty. In the south of France, the Luberon Parc Regional met these criteria. Our friend, Kim, has been an appreciative visitor over many years. He inundated us with suggestions. But the village itself and the house are all our own doing.
Our landlords are Eva and Niels. We thought she was Danish and he was Swedish but having met them we are convinced it is the other way around. We drove in on a Saturday, six hours after leaving Lausanne. In the mishmash of texts and emails, we missed the edict that check-in was not before 4.00pm. We arrived at three, winding our way up the access road to the front door of number 30 Rue Marcellin Poncet nosing our bright blue faux-Renault into a restricted zone adjacent to the house. Nobody answered when we knocked but a few moments later a woman and child showed up. The cleaner, her daughter in tow. When Danièle produced her paperwork, we were let in. This did not impress the anxious Eva who presented an hour later.
Despite our best efforts to be solicitous, we felt we had got off on the wrong foot. Eva departed, stating she would be sending the cleaner every couple of weeks as she liked to ‘keep control’. Danièle and I looked at one another. A good price had been negotiated on the basis we did our own cleaning – and thus could be left to ourselves.
Over the next few days we absorbed the idiosyncrasies of our new lodgings. We are used to an induction stove but this one seemed to have a mind of its own. And the oven, though it turned itself on with the flick of a knob, proved nigh on impossible to switch off. Moreover, the downstairs shower receptacle seemed to have a drainage problem and the wash basin leaked into the cabinet below. Niels was quick to respond, replacing a seal under the basin and prising open the shower’s drainage outlet with a screwdriver and clearing out the gunk. ‘I need to silicone around the edge of the shower’, he told us, ‘but that might need to wait until you leave as it takes time to dry’. We were not worried. Having temporarily flooded a friend’s home in times past, we were happy to see the water go down the drain.
Other than those couple of hiccups (and a front door key that required the digital dexterity of a concert pianist to turn the lock), the house suited us just fine. Normally we seek to bed down in quiet places but this time I stipulated a preference for the beating heart of a village. And central we are (although the beat is elusive). On one side of the house we have a cave-épicerie-traiteur, displaying fruit and vegetables, fine wines and a blackboard sign for ‘poulet roti - €18’. On the other, a slightly smaller épicerie which is more of a general store with an assortment of tourist-oriented items. The larger place doubles as a restaurant although we are yet to see many patrons. Closer at hand, the smaller establishment is hard to avoid. Its proprietor – let’s call him Monsieur Auguste – spends his day on a folding chair only a metre or so from our doorstep. He reads, toys with his phone or simply sits. We greet him with a friendly ‘bonjour’ and are acknowledged with a slight lip movement and a bland expression that I have yet to see change. Danièle’s theory is that he figured out very early on that we would not be giving him much business. My guess is he is merely marking time or avoiding a wife – perhaps both. An alternative explanation might be that he has worked his pants off over the years and basks in quasi-retirement, unconcerned by the lack of customers.
Now I must be careful, writing about Ménerbes and its inhabitants. This is the village where the recently-departed Peter Mayle renovated a house and accumulated material from which emerged A Year in Provence. The book – and various sequels – made Mayle millions. The locals, fodder for the author’s wit, are unimpressed. Like most folk, they resent being caricatured, both in appearance and in lifestyle. By the time Mayle moved to an ostentatious villa in another part of the region, he had not made any obvious contribution to an improvement in Anglo–Gallic relations. Ménerbes is now on the map as a prime tourist destination in Provence. Whether residents are thankful for the infusion of economic activity (along with escalating real estate prices) or merely unhappy their serenity has been disturbed is moot. Either way, Mayle does not seem to be celebrated. We have yet to see any evidence he was actually here, and we have not had the temerity to enquire the whereabouts of his former abode.
I must be one of the few people who have not picked up A Year in Provence. Friends report it is light reading and unlikely to go down in the annals of great literature. But the fact the book touched a few raw nerves does make me smile. Others see us and our cultures through their own lenses. We may not agree with what they say or write. But often there is more than a germ of truth in what might otherwise be perceived as negative observations. Good travel writers usually find a balance. I am thinking now of one of my favourites – Paul Theroux – whose acerbic comments often lacerate his subject matter. Foibles are exposed but not mocked. Differences are highlighted but never denigrated. The reader is drawn into a world with which he or she may not be familiar. Good travel writers are like ice cream parlours that offer a full range of flavours, enticing customers to look, salivate, and ultimately choose.
Provence – its people, places, and landscapes – if these two weeks are anything to go by – has many flavours and it is entirely understandable that foreign folk and visitors from within France itself are enticed and gratefully seduced.
But I digress. Travel writers, good and indifferent, must always say a few words about weather. ‘Another grey London afternoon of unending mizzle.’ …….’Melbourne, as it often does, revealed four seasons in a single day.’ ….. ‘When in Bergen, expect rain – you will not be disappointed.’ …..‘In the lead-up to the monsoon, Kolkata’s unyielding heat stifled even the ants.’ And so on.
Provence, in popular estimation, carries its own clichés. ‘Hot sun beating down on red tile roofs.’ ……. ‘Lavender fields basking under blue skies.’ Well, not always. Since our arrival the grey has outshone the blue. ‘Unseasonal,’ say local business people with grave faces, as they peer out from under shop awnings. Stray tourists pick their way down slippery cobbled streets. Claps of thunder reverberate. Lightning forks across leaden skies. We venture out for a pre-lunch stroll – a forty-minute loop east of the village. The wind picks up and down comes the rain. I hanker for a more substantial umbrella and a longer raincoat. But it is a great little walk and our spirits, unlike our legs, are undampened. We wind our way along the narrow road, flanked on one side by ivy-coated dry-stone walls. In an open area, as we pass an immaculate vineyard, our umbrellas are threatened. Then the wind eases. Danièle pauses to admire an orchid. Water drips from overhanging oaks. We pass a row of aging cherry trees, dismembered at the top and seemingly earmarked for retirement. As we round the bend at the halfway mark, a lone cuckoo applauds our progress. Mist has settled over the valley below and the varying hues of distant hills and mountains stand out like a French version of a Namatjira painting. Back home, as we hoe into sausage and cheese, rye bread and fresh salad, the sun breaks through. Despite the online forecasts – which (like one or two I know) always seem to radiate positivity– we settle in for an afternoon of reading, writing and snoozing. On the building site beneath our terrace the machines are silent. We cross our fingers that work has been abandoned for the day.
Unless you have the legs of Cadel Evans or the endurance of Haile Gebrselassie you will need a car to explore the Luberon. The valley towns – Cavaillon in the west and Apt in the east – are linked by the D 900, where you flash pass olive groves, vineyards, neat rows of lavender and cherry orchards. But the real action begins when you veer off onto a side road and head up to the high country. Actually, ‘high’ is something of a misnomer. Most places are no more than 600 metres above sea level but as you wind your way up the slopes and through the narrow passes between massive limestone outcrops, there is an impression of height – accentuated by panoramic vistas across the valleys below. As you approach a village the pulse quickens. Suddenly you are greeted by vertical walls of beige and terracotta, which on closer inspection turn out to be a series of buildings layered almost on top of each other and connected by tiny lanes. Your first thought is ‘where to park?’ This is a major temperamental test for both driver and passenger. If you pull over too soon, there may be a long uphill walk to your destination. But leave it too late and you can find yourself squeezed into a tight thoroughfare, with the threat of oncoming vehicles – of which caravans, tourist coaches, and meandering trucks are your worst nightmare. In these moments, you may need to unearth a soothing mantra. ‘Relaaaax’, does not always do the trick.
Thus far, we have avoided catastrophes, major and minor. That is not to say there have not been words exchanged. There have. I am thinking of one excursion. We set off early and enjoyed a breezy run to Gordes before wending our way through gut-busting gorges to the high plateau. Then down and up again until we enter Venasque via a miniscule square with five parking spots – all occupied. I propose we pull over and take stock. My driver, as can be her way, insists on pressing on. While I close my eyes and muttered unhelpful incantations, she negotiates the funnelling streets and emerges through the arched gateway at the other end of the village into daylight. With less trepidation than was warranted, we park in a disabled bay and begin to breathe again.
These perched villages, it must be said, are stupendous. Take Venasque. From our scanty research we had no idea of its physical charm and historical significance. The gateway I have just mentioned is a curved tunnel ten or twelve metres in length and a third as wide. We re-enter the village on foot, passing underneath. As a defensive structure, the walls above look more than capable of handling the odd slingshot or cannonball. Whether we stayed on the ‘Grand Rue’ or branched out to explore side alleys, houses and mercantile establishments dating back to the 12th century line our way. Wherever you go in the Luberon - or indeed, I presume, the whole of Provence - there is no shortage of limestone. Not the reputedly softer stuff we are accustomed to in Australia – but a harder variety that has been used for eons in bridge and building construction and for dry-stone walls. This stone heritage, both in its natural form and in the ingenious ways it has been shaped by human hand, predominates. Some might find it heavy and oppressive. But I venture they would be few. The gift of stone has been long-honoured on Planet Earth, and when I take in how it has been fashioned in this region, there is a sense of awe and humility.
Speaking of stone, churches are hard to avoid. Either you see them from the road as you come into a town or village or you wander around a corner and there one stands – solid, imposing, perhaps threatening to believers and disbelievers alike. On the spur of the moment I often enter, checking out the architecture, the stained glass, the paintings, statues and engravings but more often to experience the silence and the sense of the sacred, no matter how convoluted and corrupted the Christian legacy may have become. In L’Isle sur La Sorgue, a larger town through which the Sorgue River splits in two, Collegiale Notre Dame des Anges dominates a square. The clean lines of the cream- coloured stone work please the eye. I don’t know much about church architecture but find an affinity with simple structures. This Notre Dame, I read, dates back to 1222 but was rebuilt in Baroque style in the 17th century. When I step inside, the interior is much more flashy and colourful than the exterior of the building foreshadows. Perhaps this is what baroque is all about. A Sunday service is in full swing. The black priest who delivers the sermon takes my mind back to the recent royal wedding. But I can detect nothing of a flamboyant American preacher in the man who stands at this altar.
We are also there on market day. Stalls and tents surround the church. The Café de France is already full. Shoppers and traders throng the square, shouting, laughing, gossiping. Suddenly, I am reminded of the biblical story about Jesus turfing the moneychangers out of the temple. An odd kind of association, I know – but that’s the mind for you.
Back in Venasque there is neither trader nor shopper in sight. We inspect the ancient walls, sections of which date back to a couple of centuries BC. The village is afforded natural protection on three steeply sloped sides and the walls curl around the exposed remainder. Over the centuries they have been built and rebuilt. Considering their height, it’s amazing so much remains intact. As I crane my neck upwards, a ubiquitous pigeon emerges from a crevice and struts along a ledge. I wonder whether pigeons were in vogue two centuries BC?
Adjacent to the church Danièle wanders onto a kind of terrace where a young man with black stubble is selling organic cherries and various derivatives. They engage in conversation and she exits with a jar of cherry compote and another containing thick cherry jam made with only a smidgen of sugar. Healthy spending, one might say.
In a nearby restaurant we sit on a balcony overlooking a giant fig tree. Across the valley in the distance we can make out Carpentras – a major town. Another nice young man serves us café créme and three slices of cake – thin slices, I should add. On the opposite side of the room, a solidly-built Australian senior citizen holds forth about iron ore deposits and the mining tax. I tried to tune him out and instead converse with a German couple from Freiburg. Dressed in bright Lycra, they are all smiles and enthusiasm. Later, when we leave the village, we pass them and exchange waves, admiring their fortitude as they peddle up the twisting mountain road. They are not alone. In these parts, bicycle riders outnumber motorists. Some are young and fit and ride sleek machines than cost as much as a studio in Paris. But most are middle aged and beyond. I shake my head in astonishment and disbelief. We are talking here about those who brave skinny, snaking carriageways where bikes compete for space with cars and vans and trucks. To say the risk factor for cyclists seems high is something of a gross understatement. Not to mention potential cardiac arrest. I make a mental note to stay with our gentle rides around the Swan River. Life expectancy might be longer.
We are about to enter Murs, a dozen kilometres from Venasque. After parking under a humungous oak, we walk the village. There is no boulangerie, we are told, but we might find an épicerie if we keep walking. We do for a while and then decide the search for a sandwich may be better deferred. Instead, Danièle finds a pottery. There is a welcome sign in French, German and English. Customers are invited to ring the bell, call out or sing a song. But that will be unnecessary today. The lady potter is tending her kiln. We purchase two small items from the sweetly-named, Souriante Sturbelle. There do not appear to be any other tourists in town.
Back in our Ménerbes house, we take lunch on the terrace. Sunshine. Another dud forecast. But happily so. For now, it’s just two of us. Two sets of friends have come and gone. Do I talk about them and give them fake names? Or use their real ones? I elect for the former and trust that whatever comes out of my mouth and finds its way onto the page shows a sensitivity for which I may not be renowned. With this caveat in mind, let it be said that sharing our Luberon experience has been both rewarding and enjoyable. The way the house is set up, with our bedroom and bathroom two levels down from the guest quarters, enables privacy for everybody. The spacious living area and terrace on the middle level gave us all room to move, even if the kitchen at times felt a tad crowded. Luxuriating in a brief break from earning their crust, Al and Kat were determined to milk the moment. Accustomed to a more sedate pace, we tried to lift our momentum to keep up with our (younger) guests. The main challenges, though, came from figuring out what everyone wanted to do on any given day and putting those snowballing plans into practice., With Jules and Jan, the reverse. Of Buddhist inclination and fresh from a Spanish city-intensive, they hankered for a more meditative aroma, appearing content to go along with whatever we suggested and to adjust to circumstances – the most pressing being sudden thunderstorms and getting lost.
‘Getting lost’ carries two dimensions. Despite the so-called virtues of a GPS, we still manage to take wrong turns and find ourselves on roads of uncertain direction and status. Our GPS floozy – who we have christened Audrey – is quite apt to lose her bearings. With our friends in the back seat, whoever is driving at the time also contends with three human navigators, each with different ideas about where to head. And assuming we then reach our destination and park, there is no guarantee our geographic troubles are over. French walking maps and guides, we have decided, are as deficient as a restaurant amenity without loo paper. In both cases you need your wits about you.
On one of our walks with Jules and Jan we followed a pebbled track that yo-yo-ed up hill and down dale. From a scenic aspect it was magnificent but after we had been going for 2 ½ hours upon what had was displayed as a three-hour walk – and a signpost revealed we had done less than 3 km and had 5 more to go, we elected (by a 3 to 1 majority) to cut our losses. Many grumbles erupted as we slithered down a shortcut, navigated a precarious creek crossing, climbed another slope and re-converged at the old mill overlooking the village of Goult.
With Al and Kat we invariably walked further (and longer) than intended. Three hours would stretch into four; four into six - as we repeatedly stopped to consult, map-read, and continue into the unknown. One such outing saw us finish up in Gordes for lunch. With minimum fuss Kat and I surrendered to Al and Danièle’s choice of restaurant. After ample replenishment we set off on what should have been an easy downhill stroll to the car. Alas, we took a wrong turn heading out of the townsite and wound up staggering a couple of sweaty kilometres along a busy roadway. With gritted teeth and much internal chatter, we eventually located our vehicle.
Before the relief could settle, I pulled out of the carpark to the wrong side of the road, causing an oncoming van driver to say his Hail Marys. With great evasive skills I veered even further left before setting us on a correct course. I have to say my passengers were exceedingly good about their near-death experience.