Thursday morning. Here comes the rain again. Oh dear. The sandwiches are freshly made, the thermos filled, backpacks, umbrellas and raincoats ready. We are about drive a short distance from Ménerbes to Oppède-le-Vieux, where we hope to walk and check out churches and castles. Rain is one thing; thunder and lightning another. We recalibrate our plans decide to wait it out for an hour or two.
Crazy weather is getting to everyone. It’s market day in Ménerbes. Fewer stalls than usual. We spoke with the lady selling vegetables. She has plots in three different places outside the village. With the lack of sun and warmth, her broad beans have not matured and she has 600 tomato seedlings waiting to be planted. The wet Spring has caused much distress among the farming community. We buy white asparagus, lettuce and strawberries. At the honey stall a buxom madam offers us samples. We try lavender and then chestnut honey. I pump for the latter. Danièle cannot resist purée de châtaignes – a delicious chestnut spread.
The weather has improved by the time we make the trip to Oppède. Parking is easy – we are down on the flat and the old town is somewhere up the hill. A young fellow speaks to us in English while we are examining the noticeboard. He’s Andrew – an Australian pastor from Geelong. Pushing four-year-old Jessie in a pram while his other son, Elijah, walks alongside, Andrew is also heading for the old town and makes it well before we do. As often happens, this village contains its share of surprises. The highlight is the partially-renovated church which exudes simplicity and a certain beauty, both inside and out. The village itself, hugging slopes of the Petit Luberon, gives the impression of a secluded getaway. Yet it is not dead by any stretch. Just off the neat town square two café-restaurants offer sustenance to walkers after they have made the obligatory trek up to the church and castle ruins.
Andrew tells us he has five children. His wife and three of them are in Paris, taking advantage of cheap rail fares. They were all staying in a country-style house outside of Bonnieux when the rains came and a ceiling collapsed. The apologetic owners put them up in a hotel while repairs were effected. I make friends with young Jessie who trusts me enough to jump from a rock on the basis that I catch him. He would continue the game for ever but I plead old age.
You cannot spend time in the Luberon without visiting the ochre hills of Roussillon and Rustrel. Until the commercial production of synthetic dyes, the region around these two towns was the largest source of ochre in the world. Today, the former mines are a tourist attraction. With Jules and Jan in tow we pull up in the Roussillon car park. From a nearby viewpoint we can see the town perched on the cliff. To our right, the exposed hill-face glistens like an over-ripe papaya. We take off in this direction, entering the carefully preserved site set aside for visitors. The trail takes us through forested areas but great triangular chunks of ochre and the excavated slopes dominate the landscape. Bared hillsides reveal hues of red, orange, and vermillion. We proceed leisurely, keeping an eye on the weather.
After congratulating ourselves we’ve avoided gabbling tour groups, we gravitate towards the town. Suddenly the skies open. Within minutes the sloping, cobblestoned streets are running rivers. We huddle in doorways until the rain abates. At the ice-cream kiosk a forlorn couple in shorts and sandals peers anxiously at the heavens.
The experience at Rustrel is altogether different. You pay five euros to enter a large car park situated a short distance from the village. The walk is longer as it takes you through an extensive area that has been mined. From vantage points along the way you can take in the vivid range of colours and form an impression of the scale of the past enterprise. Now the scarred landscape has been allowed to revegetate. You pass through shaded areas of pine and oak. The path bisects the ochre deposits which arise like stalagmites from the floor in a kind of lunar landscape or, better still, the glowing reddish surface of Mars.
I go through swings and roundabouts when writing about experiences of day-to-day travelling. Moments of inspiration followed by periods of flatness where I indulge in a bit of self-flagellation for playing the dilettante wanderer. Today I was sitting in one of the local markets waiting for Danièle to complete negotiations for various items at various stalls and watching the passing parade of shoppers and gawkers, and marvelling what a strange species we are. The world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket and here we are shopping and enjoying ourselves. Well able to afford food and wine for the next meal – and well able to indulge in food for thought.
It's now evening in Ménerbes. I’ve cooked Chicken Dijonnaise from our recipe book (complemented by green beans and roast potato). The three of us – Danièle 's friend, Michèle, arrived this afternoon – sat on the terrace under a darkened sky, quaffing a local rosé, while the light faded over the hills. They are now watching the news (in French - no English channels on our TV) and I have retreated downstairs to something of a sanctuary. I'm in the mood to slow down and the urge to explore new villages and new trails has somewhat abated.
Danièle says I perk up when there are people about. In this French village, with my limited language skills, it is hard to strike up a conversation. Without fluency, small talk is about as far as I can go and that places a great limitation from the start. In an English-speaking climate I can communicate as I please but here I do a lot of smiling and nodding and coming out with a few stock phrases. The conversational ease that we take for granted when meeting up with a friend is conspicuously absent and this would be a great deterrent to living here – or anywhere where one is deficient in language – for any length of time.
Monday afternoon. Guess what – I am staring at cloudy skies. The new norm for Provence, it appears. To provide a writing space, we have rescued a small table from the cave downstairs and positioned it outside the glass doors that lead to the terrace. Until a few moments ago one of these doors was wide open allowing the cool air to flow in. But the road workers have started up after lunch. A front-end loader churns up and down the road, moving material to and from a trench. Some kind of pipework is happening – a perpetual challenge I would reckon around here – or for that matter in any of these hilltop villages. Sewerage, drainage and water supply. Old pipes are being replaced with new ones. We go by in the car every day. On the edge of the road are mobile stop lights that count down the seconds until you are given an amber signal to proceed. It’s a two-way street up and down the hill on our side of the village. With the work going on, it’s single-lane only on this already precarious approach - and hence the lights. As it is, we have a tight squeeze. The machines don’t always cease operation as you pull over to pass but the operators and road crew are not phased, jibing and waving at hapless drivers. At lunchtime we listen to them bouncing off one another, shouting and laughing non-stop. The lilting accents that rise and fall remind me of the two blokes who appear on screen each French Film Festival to advertise the merits of Alliance Francais courses. The same intonation – a playful, musical rise and fall far removed from the guttural Dutch, the teeth-shattering Swiss-German or the over-amped and unceasing drawl of the Americans. (And we won’t even mention those nasal lawnmowers from Down-under.) Here, as we tune in to the workers below, it doesn’t come across as a philosophical discussion - probably more to do with women and football but they do strike you as a tad more animated than a bunch of their English equivalents, huddling in the mist somewhere outside Birmingham.
Thursday afternoon. The (female) chef is in the cuisine – which we now refer to as ‘our’ kitchen. Yesterday felt like something of a homecoming even though we’d only been away for a day and a half, after driving down to the Camargue and spending the night at Arles.
We entrusted the route to the GPS – our dear Audrey – and she took us along the D900 towards Avignon and through a complex series of roundabouts and underpasses which were meant to avoid the freeway – for which you have to pay a toll – and for that we were prematurely grateful. But when we approached the town of Chateaurenard we encountered a series of deviations for which Audrey was quite unprepared. After much gnashing of teeth, we eventually found ourselves on the D570 which took us south to the Musée de la Camargue where we hoped to stock up on maps and brochures and brief ourselves about the region.
First things first. Out came the thermos and cherry pie and we sat down on a wooden bench not far from what appeared to be composting toilets. (No running water inside – you had to hunt for a tap thirty metres away.) Refreshed, we entered the museum where a thickset and rather bombastic gentleman relieved us of a few euros and handed over a guide in English. We managed half an hour. The museum was underwhelming as was the short ‘historic’ walk afterwards.
But a real treat was in store. We continued south to the Parc Ornithologique - a vast bird observatory covering a sprawling area of marshy land just north of Saintes Maries-sur-la-Mer. The parking area was crammed but we found a space close to the entrance. Going through the usual mental and emotional gymnastics about value for money, we parted with €7.50 each. No worries – I would have paid double. An unforgettable experience for anyone who likes birdlife. Armed with the walking map we proceeded from station to station along a carefully laid-out trail, circling the shallow waters and a number of strategically-located islands. A movable and unforgettable feast. Flamingos in abundance, a family of storks nesting, numerous heron and egrets with young chicks – often well-grown chicks on the verge of flight, caterwauling away as their parents flew hither and further on a frenetic food run.
And not only birds were on show. At a fork in the path we chanced upon a large beaver-like animal. He looked up at us casually, ambled a few steps and scuttled into the water. A little further on we saw what appeared to be a scorpion but upon closer inspection it turned out to be a small crustacean – possibly an estuarine crayfish. Then, in a brown pond, appeared the nose and forehead of the same animal we’d spotted on the path. This time there was opportunity to photograph and film – and while doing so, a second animal swam alongside – either a female or a baby. When we got back to the information panels we identified our sighting as a coypu or ragondin – a humongous water rat that I later read was introduced from South America in the 19th century for its fur.
Two or three hours slipped by, including a coffee break at the Rottnest-esque cafeteria overlooking one of the ponds. We then drove on to the town of Saintes Maries-sur-la-Mer, instantly characterised as a seaside tourist refuge of dubious aesthetic appeal. Avoiding theme parks, gaudy bars and side streets full of souvenir shops, we stretched our legs on the waterfront, taking in the cluster of swimmers sampling the Med. This, like the rest of Saintes Maries-sur-la-Mer, did not tempt us. After a thirst-quenching citron pressé, we proceeded to Arles.
We’d booked a hotel on the right bank of the Rhône river for around €70 a night. A selling point was the free roadside parking compared with €15 per night had we booked accommodation on the other bank. When we walked across the bridge into the old town and saw the narrow streets and the lack of parking opportunities, it confirmed our choice was a good one. And the hotel itself – although rated two-star – was more than adequate. Initially, we could not find any street parking and positioned the car in front of a closed garage. The receptionist, a pleasant smiling woman, assured us there would be spaces available as soon as children were collected from a nearby school. Her faith was rewarded. Twenty minutes later we had a spot almost within touching distance of the hotel entrance.
That evening we wandered the old town, stopping in the Place du Forum for a meal at Café La Nuit – otherwise named Café Van Gogh – the very café painted by the great man in the late summer of 1888 during his creative burst in Arles that produced over 300 works of his stupendous art.
Danièle ordered a chicken dish with vegetables and I was entertained with casserole de taureau, alias bull stew. Washed down with a carafe of rosé, the meal rose to no great heights but, as I was gently reminded, we had plonked ourselves in tourist heartland – so haute cuisine was unlikely. Surrendering to the sweet tooth, I took a Café Gourmand – coffee accompanied by small portions of a variety of desserts. Nothing like the magnificent selection I consumed at Bistro Le 5 in Ménerbes but we paid significantly less and, after a long day driving and exploring, we were relieved to be off our feet.
Next morning, after a forgettable hotel breakfast, we headed back on foot across the bridge to the Arles amphitheatre. Bypassing hordes of school students, we purchased the €12 pass which entitled us to visit four monuments and two museums. Climbing the tower at the amphitheatre gives fine views across the river, nearby countryside and the rooftops of the city. Scaffolded seating (the amphitheatre is still used for bullfights) compromises the impression inside but you can stroll the circumference under an arched passage way and better appreciate the original structure. We then walked the short distance to the Roman Theatre Antique - in far greater ruin than the amphitheatre yet fascinating (and actually enhanced by running commentary offered on a standing screen near the entrance). After some searching we found the crypts, which turned out to be accessible from the passageway near the Hotel de Ville. These extensive tunnels and former storage areas are well worth a decko. Completing our Roman tour, we had a quick squizz inside the Baths of Constantine – whose remnants convey a tangible sense of Roman life over a century before Christ was born.
After browsing in a wonderful bookshop – where Danièle confessed she could have spent a lot of money – we returned to the Hotel Dieu, stumbled upon by accident earlier in the morning. This former hospital (which had Van Gogh as a patient) has a beautiful garden set under lindenbaum trees and surrounded by a quadrangle adorned with yellow and blue painted arches. We ate lunch at a creperie, while a posse of teachers tried to inhibit noisy school children from nicking postcards from the next-door gift shop. For a grand total of €10 each we dispatched a sour and then a sweet crêpe, washed down with traditional cider.
Heading home we ignored Audrey’s instructions and took the D99 the direction of Cavaillon. A much more pleasant drive, long stretches of the road lined by imposing platanes – the stately plane trees that form long avenues in the French countryside. After crossing the bridge over the River Durance and bypassing Cavaillon, we pulled up at the Bio-Co-op - our preferred organic store. Selling everything from fruit and vegetables to meat products, cosmetics, pharmaceutical items, an array of cheeses, yoghurts and other dairy produce as well as beer, bread and wine, this unprepossessing shop has been one of the finds of our travels. Unlike in Australia where organic and preservative-free wines are tucked away in a corner of the average liquor store, this Bio Co-op displayed the full face of two walls crammed with organic and biodynamic vintages. I found myself sneaking a different brand of rosé into our trolley each time we called by.
We close and lock the door to 30 Rue Marcellin Poncet. The street is silent. A giant forklift stands stationary in the parking space adjacent to the tourist bureau, its long arm bent in a V shape. Soon the workmen will arrive and resume re-tiling of the roof.
The door to Monsieur Auguste’s epicerie is open. Yesterday he appeared in loafers, stylish shorts and a pale-yellow shirt. Add a panama hat and we could imagine a quintessential dapper Frenchman, cruising the Aegean Sea. Yet it is not his holiday time. Save for Sunday, when the green doors are closed and the awning retracted, he is always open for business. Over the weeks, though our conversations have not gained traction, the impassive face that first greeted us has softened. Now and then we even get a smile.
It’s 8.30 in the morning, not a soul to be seen. We walk past the other epicerie and the corner restaurant before swivelling sharp right up the hill, past Maison Jane Eakin – former residence of an American painter who came here as a young woman and remained for forty years.
We are on our morning walk – a leisurely amble around the hillside at the eastern end of the village. A flagstone indicates we are on the Chemin Pieds des Moustiers. Flowering jasmine and wisteria clamber for sunlight. Wooden shutters and entry doors are painted a uniform lilac, softening the grey walls. The sun is up but for the most part we are shaded, first by the houses and terraces that hug the left-hand side of the path and then by dry-stone walls and clumps of foliage, as the path takes us out of the village.
Much of the greenery is chêne blanc – the stunted white oak prolific throughout Provence. Its sharply-pointed leaves and grey-brown bark reminds us of banksia. Often the oak, as with many of the larger trees, is strangled with ivy. Much of the foliage has that dark-green European look. My Swiss companion identifies houx (holly) and buis (boxwood). Occasionally she stops to pick clumps of rosemary and thyme. There are still coquelicots (red poppies) on the side of the road but the orchids appear to be finished. A few weeks ago they were everywhere – three or four species along this walk alone.
As we come over the rise and the bitumen surface gives way to white limestone, the road is blocked by a compact tractor with an extendable arm. We smile at the young man as we ease our way past. He is trimming the grass on the edges – and decapitating Danièle ’s stocks of herbs in the process.
Down in the valley all is still. Through the trees we can see farmhouses and vineyards. In the more spacious areas along the ridge there are olive groves. Most properties have impressive iron gates, strung between formidable stone pillars. Tucked out of sight are residential villas, some of which we speculate have absentee owners.
Trolling property websites I’d came across one such property for sale at 895,000 euros. Described as ‘very bright and pleasant to live in’, this extensive villa, with swimming pool, is set on five acres of land containing fig, olive and cypress trees. Probably owned by a Parisian, if Peter Mayle’s assessment still holds water.
Rounding the corner, we are afforded fine views of forest and farmland. Somewhere in that direction stood Mayle’s original house. Having finally succumbed to reading A Year in Provence, I now know he did not live in the village itself but somewhere between Ménerbes and Bonnieux. And I must confess to deriving a modicum of pleasure from the book, probably because much of what he describes rings bells for us.
We head down the slope through the heavily wooded section, mostly pine and beech amongst the ubiquitous oak trees. Here, on the darker side, it’s more humid and the trees are significantly larger. The old stone terraces are overgrown. Fungi the size of saucers burst through the moist earth. Each day I seem to encounter a bunch of imitation midges in the same spot. For a few metres they surround me, and then are gone. In the farm above, a dog barks once or twice and wags his tail. We wish the abandoned hound who inhabits an enclosed garden below our bedroom and persistently yaps in the dead of night would learn similar respect.
We re-enter the village above the car park. The German Volvo, British van and one or two French cars occupy their usual spots on the edge of the embankment. Grapevines twist vertically upwards alongside downpipes. Most houses have large flowerpots containing roses, bougainvillea, hydrangeas or various kinds of shrubs. Our walk lasts three quarters of an hour. Apart from the man on his tractor, we have seen neither person nor animal nor vehicle.
Sometimes in the evenings, after our meal, we wander up through the village. Ménerbes has its human roots in the Neolithic (late Stone) Age. Dolmen or stone shelters, capped with a large single stone, have been identified. A classified monument, the Dolmen de la Pitchoune, can be found nearby on the Chemin des Renards, just off the D3. As the Roman occupation spread west, the village became a stopover on the Via Domitia, linking Rome with Cadiz on the coast. As with other villages in the region, there is ample evidence of fortification. The grey tower of the former castle looks impregnable. We thought we would pop in for a visit but the chain across the small courtyard confirmed the building is in private hands.
Standing slightly to the west, the Church of St Luke was rebuilt in the 16th century. Its doors are also closed. From 1573 to 1578 the village was under siege. A small group of Protestant Huguenots rose up against papal rule. For five years they literally held the fort until overwhelming Catholic numbers forced them to come to an accommodation. We are not sure what that involved.
None of this is evident today. Yet walking the narrow streets, you cannot help but get a good sense of the historical past. Houses have been meticulously restored and maintained. (Apprenticeship as a mason would seem to be an enduring path to job security.) Villagers dwell behind closed doors and often the only sounds that we could hear those of a TV, albeit thankfully muted. Tiny courtyards are tucked away like treasures, adorned with flowers and herbs. Some houses have terraces facing into the valley. One or two even have swimming pools although this comes across as an aberration.
Action (for want of a better word) occurs in the Café de Progrès where locals gossip at the bar and tourists make for the outside terrace with the panoramic views. In our self-contained luxury we are not drawn either to the bar or to the view, preferring the morning conviviality of the Café de la Poste in Goult when we felt like a touch of vicarious socialising.
With long hours of daylight these evening strolls seem very European. Although it is mid-June the streets are not crowded. In fact, we find ourselves worrying about the cash flow of some of the small businesses. Perhaps we need not concern ourselves. Either the proprietors are adept at putting on a display of stoicism or they are quite relaxed in the expectation the tills will start ringing come July and August.
Like all French villages and towns, Ménerbes has its memorial to fallen soldiers. Early on, I also noticed a couple of streets bearing men’s names and dates of martyrdom. These turned out to be French resistance fighters who were either killed in action or executed by the Nazis. Our own street is named after a local Frenchman, Marcellin Poncet, who became a ‘victime de nazisme’ on 26 April 1944. While in Cèreste we walked past the birthplace of French poet, René Char – a respected Resistance leader, code-named Alexandre. These historical indicators are found across the region, especially as guerrilla fighters - the redoubtable Maquis - were extremely active in this part of France.
It’s an easy half-hour drive to Lioux. I am now navigating without Audrey. We – the humans in the car - find there is more value in arguing with one another than berating a GPS navigator who has a quaint idea of direction. Audrey, in our short experience with her, is inherently confused by the complex country road network, not to mention the plethora of obscure chemins and paths that twist and snake off in improbable directions. We can’t blame her. Barely a day goes by we don’t get lost. Often, we arrive at what appears on our map as a well- marked parking place only to find we are on the wrong road. We consult the map, turn around, retrace our route, scratch our heads, and bemoan the inevitable fact that whatever has been shown on the map has not been translated into a sign on the land itself. C’est la bloody vie. We repair to the nearest village, hoping there is a café open, and reconcile ourselves to our regular walk in Ménerbes, if a fallback position becomes necessary.
But on this morning we are in Lioux by 9.30. In a fit of optimism, we have eschewed the usual thermos and sandwich. In our collective heads we will walk for a couple of hours, drive on to Murs where madame has her eye on a piece of pottery, then head back home for a leisurely lunch……. Well, that was the plan.
As we approach the village via the D60, our goal looms high and undeniably handsome. The Falaises de la Madelaine, a sheer rock escarpment that rises sharply from the valley floor and spreads north-east for a kilometre or two, casting a long shadow over the fields and farmhouses below. It looks like a first-class base camp for trainee mountaineers.
Danièle noses the car cautiously through the village. Nothing to be seen until we turn a corner to find a workman in a fluorescent shirt blocking the road. We can’t go any further. Resurfacing is happening. Unfussed, we park in the shade, swap our sandals for walking shoes and head back on foot. I am already of the firm view there is no way you can get me to the top of this mini-mountain. Besides, there is a pressing need that calls me into the bushes, bypassing an elderly nun who is attempting to soothe her cat; neither human nor feline accustomed to the sight of a wandering Australian heading downhill with a certain urgency.
A little later we resume our perambulation which leads us past the cemetery and up to a bulky stone tower which had been signposted as a ‘moulin’. Expecting another ancient mill, we are surprised by the ‘private property’ sign and the chain barring the entrance. Clearly the mill had been rejuvenated into either a holiday cottage or the home of a local resident. At that point I am under the clear impression we would do the sensible thing and return to the vehicle. As luck (or ill-luck) has it, a robust bunch of senior citizens emerges from the bushes. They seem to be mostly American and assure us the walk along the ridge at the top of the escarpment is both enjoyable and easy. My dearest needs no further encouragement and strides off ahead. Grumbling about the lack of consultation, I lurch along in her wake. Already I regret we’d not brought the thermos as it was obvious there was not an open café within a 5 km radius.
We walk for the best part of an hour. I am obliged to admit the 360° views are stupendous. To the south, the blue contours of the Petit Luberon and to the north the more heavily forested slopes of the Vaucluse. In between, a series of hills interspersed with large swathes of vineyards, lavender fields and hedgerows. To the west, we make out Gordes – an overrated town, in the eyes of some. Happily, the rocky path is set well back from the precipitous edge. Most of my resistance stems from anticipatory vertigo, and as we proceed I began to relax. A perfect Provence day, with a gentle breeze and full sun.
Along the ridge the scrubby vegetation and pink pig-face gave way to larger trees. We keep lookout for a path down to the village. Nothing to be seen – just a sheer drop. We press on, sweating and keeping bad thoughts to ourselves. Finally, the track heads left and downwards. We emerge adjacent to a farm, encountering a handful of fellow-wanderers. Danièle checks up on our whereabouts while I hold a silent conversation with a couple of goats penned nearby.
‘You have a chauffeur’, calls out one of the ladies as I approach. It is true. We are driven back to Lioux by a French holidaymaker who makes light of the mammoth machines and freshly rolled bitumen. He and his family, he tells us, are renting a place with a swimming pool down in the valley. If we want somewhere to eat, the bistro in Joucas is just the ticker.
‘Our lucky day’, we chorus in unison. A cool breeze ruffles the broad leaves of the tree shading our lunch venue. Our view from the bistro’s terrace stretches across a sea of vines, flanked by deep green hedges. Yes, it is a lucky day. While I had gone back to move the car from sun to a shady spot, my adroit companion manages to snare a table just ahead of a group of wannabe diners seeking places at this popular eating outlet. She obviously charms the dapper wait-person, for a few minutes later he offers us a place with an improved vista. A couple have cancelled because it’s ‘too hot’. We accept with alacrity. Obviously, we missed the correct descent to Lioux and had it not been for our friendly chauffeur, we would have faced a long, hot walk back to the car. And his tip for lunch is spot on. When he shows up later with his wife and child and another couple, we give him the thumbs up.
Not all of our walking adventures have turned out as well as the one described above. I still cringe when I think of a warm afternoon at the cedar forest, on the summit of the Petit Luberon. Our friend Kim had suggested we park halfway up the road after turning off the main route to Lourmarin. That would leave us an ‘easy stroll’ to the top and from there through the forest to the lookout point. Accordingly, I parked the car and we set off on the hot tarmac. It turned out to be nearly 4 km uphill. At the peak, the good woman was in full throttle and wanted to press on but I had had enough. Leaving our bemused friends, I marched tersely back down the hill to fetch the car. On the drive home there was an irresistible urge to sulk.
Navigation, as I have alluded, has rarely been our strong suit. We make a habit of losing ourselves in the vicinity of Buoux. On one occasion we drove in circles looking for the start of what should have been a pleasant walk. Eventually we consulted a middle-aged woman leaving a driveway. She turned out to be a Jehovah’s Witness and my wife came away with scant information about the walk but a handful of religious tracts. She was more successful with two men who were walking a couple of kilometres into Bonnieux to buy bread. They directed us to the start of a little chemin where we left the car and headed off between stone walls and properties until the path narrowed and became a rocky track heading downhill. When Danièle stopped to take a photo, I continued ahead. Of course, I managed to get off course, while she spotted the yellow signs and followed the correct route. For about half an hour we lost one another and this did nothing for anxiety levels.
Yet there were other instances where all went well. I think of our trip to the Fontaine de la Vaucluse. With Michèle, we walked along the rushing Sorgue River to its source – a silent pool that emanates from far beneath the earth. The pool itself is nothing special and the walk from the village is short. But the towering cliff face and the power of the river are captivating. After a coffee-break we started our proper trek, a circuit that meandered through forest and rocky outcrops before winding its way back to the village. We hardly saw anyone – another couple and a lone cyclist, if my memory serves me.
At Vaugines, east of Lourmarin, we set off with great assurance and missed a left turn. Twenty minutes down the track we consulted with some bike riders who were also examining their map. When we did find the correct trail we enjoyed a flat cross-country amble to Cucuron, pausing briefly to converse with a bronzed paysan tending his vines. He confirmed it was a lousy Spring for farmers. With the unseasonable amount of rain, the cherries would burst and the grapes lacked sunshine. In a well-shaded central square, sitting by a walled pond or etang, we broke open the morning provisions before exploring the village. Like some others we’d visited, Cucuron - for whatever reason - was verging upon dormant.
Our two bread-seeking benefactors near Bonnieux had given us the tip: Your walking map is useless. Get one with a scale 1:25000 – which we duly did. It didn’t solve every problem but it sure helped. From Céreste we drove up the Grand Luberon and actually found the proper parking place at the start of a designated walk. We set off in good spirits but soon found the signage deficient. Relying on our new map we took an unmarked trail and eventually linked up with one that carried the normal markings. It had only taken us a month to get properly prepared.
Closer to Ménerbes, we explored Les Travasses, a labyrinth of ancient terraces and stone shelters near Goult. On an earlier walk with Jules and Jan we bypassed this short detour, thinking we had enough on our plate. But we were glad we went back. Private ownership has restored the terraces – replete with olive trees, wildflowers and other vegetation. Again, we were left marvelling at the ingenuity and perseverance of the folk who worked and lived on these slopes in centuries gone by. It may have helped that I was already fortified with coffee and croissants from the Café de la Poste.
We have two days left here. I still feel a stranger to the culture and the people but the physical impressions, after nearly six weeks, are much stronger and clearly formed. When you are in a place for a couple of days a few things may stick in your mind. But often the impressions fade quickly once you leave. That’s the nature of being a tourist. Here, having sat outside on our terrace each day and gazed down into the valley, having walked our regular circuit through the village and around the hillside, having driven each Sunday to the Coustellet market, having wound our way up to Goult and to Gordes, as well as negotiated the local roads and travelled down the D900 to or through Apt - there is much that I can see clearly in my mind’s eye. Many of these images are bound to fade; others may not.
Some of the memories are very specific. The Corsican who bowled up to us when we arrived at Viens. In mock formality he sought my permission before kissing Danièle and telling her what a fine specimen she was. Fifteen minutes later he was still spouting away. It took all of our strength – there were four of us at the time – to make our excuses and proceed with our expedition.
There is also the wizened old lady with short cropped hair who we met on our longer circuit from Ménerbes. Accompanied by a boisterous black dog on a leash and another more elderly canine who followed at a safe distance, she carried an overflowing basket of lucerne. ‘For my rabbits’, she told us. ‘I still follow the old ways.’
On the other side of the ledger, Michèle took us one evening to the fancy Bistro Le 5, overlooking the valley north of the village. With white tablecloths and smart wait-staff, this eating establishment provided a quality of food that even the French consider top shelf. We settled in for an extended stay, culminating (in my case) with coffee and a selection of delicate and exquisite desserts.
Michèle’s influence – or was it mutual? – took us to Domaine de la Citadelle, an organic winery on the doorstep of our village. We sampled with abandon and came away with half a dozen bottles and a pink apron.
I don’t think it had anything to do with my rosé intake but there have been occasional events in the kitchen that had my wife splitting her sides (or tearing her hair, depending on the circumstance). Unfortunately, the house sports an oversensitive smoke alarm that we have managed to set off on a regular basis. Doors are opened in a hurry, hands flap uselessly at the smoke, and we anticipate the imminent arrival of the Fire Brigade. Thankfully the noise disappears before the villagers descend upon us.
Pasta, you might think, is the simplest of meals. I agree. But, in poor light, one should wear one’s glasses when pouring tomato sauce into the pasta. Sans spectacles, I poured away merrily until I abruptly realised I’d emptied half a jar of honey – expensive chestnut honey at that. Though I served the results up without a word spoken, it took my beloved about three seconds to exclaim: ‘What the hell have you done to this meal?’ Needless to say, she is not an admirer of sweetened pasta.
Well, I’m happy to report we have since moved on from that minor domestic interlude – and soon we will move on from Ménerbes, the Luberon and the delights of Provence. Will we return? I can only respond with a Gallic shrug. Qui sait? Who knows?