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The villages of Provence

The villages of Provence

The view of Provence and the Luberon from Peter Mayle’s helicopter is all that you might expect it to be … amazing. In fact it is even more amazing than you expect it to be! If you don’t believe me you can see it for yourself … if you get hold of a copy of Peter’s book, Provence from the Air, a wonderful combination of text by Peter and aerial photographs by Jason Hawkes. This is our second extended visit to Provence, and after just a week or so in the Luberon we can quite understand why so many non-Provencales, so many artists and writers, so many Brits, want to come and live here. It is something about the warmth and the light and the slower pace of life.

From the air, our campsite is much larger than it appears when you first drive in. Originally the site itself consisted of three sites. There was a rather scruffy municipal campsite (plus a lot of ‘wild’ land). There was a municipal swimming pool (used by the general public) next door. And in between the two was a small hotel with a lovely terrace overlooking the municipal swimming pool. Before Campasun bought up the campsite, the swimming pool, and the hotel (two years ago) all three were ‘at odds’ with each other. Campers on the campsite had to pay to use the swimming pool, and people staying at the hotel were not allowed to use the swimming pool at all such was the degree of animosity that existed between the owners of the hotel and the people managing the swimming pool! All that has now changed, however, and ‘King Arthur’ and his team of willing workers are slowly but surely transforming the whole site. Even in the week of so we have been here we have seen significant changes. The security barrier has been repaired, a new covered area where people can sit in the shade has been created (complete with false palm leaves effect), and the swimming pool has had a number of new ‘palm leaf effect’ umbrellas erected to provide more shade. The most spectacular improvement, however, has been the addition of new ‘bug-eyed mini-monster’ free toilet paper dispensers in each of the toilet cubicles! Us ‘happy campers’ now visit the toilet block even more regularly than required not only to watch the revolving, self-cleaning toilet seats, but to also play with the ‘bug-eyed, mini-monster’ toilet paper dispensers! Even the kids visit the toilets regularly because they think that the ‘Minions’ have arrived here in our campsite?

The view from above reveals just how beautiful this whole area really is. Personally, we prefer the Sud-Luberon and we can well understand why Peter Mayle chose to move here after his sojourn in America rather than return to the other side of the hills. Julia’s itinerary for our stay in this ‘neck of the woods’, however, includes a trip through the Luberon hills to the villages nearer to where Peter Mayle used to live when he first came to Provence. These include Bonnieux (reputed to be the most beautiful of the villages in the area) and Ménerbes (the nearest village to where Peter Mayle’s original house was situated). We have both read, and loved, A Year in Provence several times and want to see the area for ourselves.

We have an interesting, if somewhat precarious drive, through the Luberon hills. There are impatient French drivers in their Renaults an inch from our rear bumper attempting to overtake on blind bends, and cyclists, who insist on riding in the middle of the narrow roads. Eventually we arrive at our first ‘port of call’ Bonnieux, one of the many historic ‘hill villages’ in the region. Dating back to Roman times, it rests on top of the Luberon hills casting a watchful gaze across the rest of the valley. Next to the village is a Cedar forest that began with trees imported from North Africa during the Napoleonic era. It sits opposite Mont Ventoux, other notable villages in the area include Ménerbes, Lacoste, Roussillon, and Gordes. It really is as beautiful as people say. Thanks to an early start we find a parking place up near the top of the village. Everywhere we look there are amazing picturesque views. We spend a long time simply wandering around this beautiful village.

Eventually we move on to our second destination on Julia’s itinerary for the day, Lacoste. The famous château belonging to the Marquis de Sade is situated at Lacoste. The village itself has charming narrow streets and beautiful old stone houses, some of which are in the process of being restored. At the top of the village is a huge 11th  century château, partly in ruins, belonged to a professor who has been restoring it for more than 30 years. It is famous for its connection with the infamous 18th century Marquis de Sade who in 1771 fled from Paris, to escape the scandals created by his erotic writing and outlandish behaviour and sought refuge in the château which belonged to his grandfather. Today the only scandalous behaviour associated with the Marquis are the prices charged by the café that bears his name at the bottom of the village. It is a very hot day and we stop for a couple of cold drinks … for which we are charged 7.50€. The village today is the home of a branch of an American Art College. The place is full of lively, young Americans and older French Art Professors. The prices in the local shop selling ‘arty stuff’ is all in US$. Julia wants to buy something for her younger sister’s birthday. There is a nice bracelet in the shop … although to me it looks like a plastic washing up scrunchy with a hole cut in the middle to put your hand through? There is no price on it so Julia enquires from the shop assistant as to the cost? $40 she is told? We love Livy … but not that much!

We decide to stop in Lacoste in order to eat our picnic lunch. We find a nice shady spot … and are joined by a couple of American tourists who are also having a picnic. We get into conversation and make the mistake of asking them who they think the next American President is going to be? We are treated to an homily of all that is wrong with America at this time and who is to blame … the Republicans, the Democrats … and even eventually the Southern Baptists? Julia confesses that we too are ‘Baptist Christians’ … although the American Southern Baptists would probably consider us as ‘heretics’. This falls on deaf ears, however, but at least it is a ‘conversation killer’ and we can now resume our journey!

Our final village, on Julia’s itinerary, to be visited today is Ménerbes. This pretty little hilltop village in the Luberon is considered one of the finest in France. Surrounded by magnificent countryside it has a rich historic past that has been well-preserved. Ménerbes has been inhabited since prehistoric times and archaeological excavations have uncovered the remains of villas and an ancient cemetery dating back to Roman times. At the time of the religious wars in the 16th century, Ménerbes was the capital of the Protestant movement. Our Guide Book tells us that at this time the Protestants managed to take over the town by use of a ‘cunning ruse’. We would like to know more? Nicolas de Staël and Picasso both owned houses at Ménerbes, and they have been joined by other famous artists, musicians, comedians and writers  – including Peter Mayle – all of whom at one time or other have owned one of the houses or  farmhouses scattered around the village. We resist the temptation to go looking for Peter Mayle’s old house (featured in his book A Year in Provence) and settle for a walk round the town and an ice cream … it is a really, really hot day!

We have to make just one more stop on the way home. Monuments dating from Roman times exist near the village including the Pont Julien built in 3 BC. It truly is remarkable. Julia insists that she take my photograph standing on the bridge. ‘One old relic on top of another old relic!’ she says!

We are finally back at our campsite and I am sitting outside our tent drinking a cold beer. The sun is still shining and it is still very hot. The sound of the cigales ‘singing’ in the trees is momentarily interrupted by a small helicopter flying overhead towards Peter Mayle’s house near Vaugines. These days Peter lives in a lovely secluded house set off the road between Lourmarin and Vaugines. I guess, if I were in his shoes, a helicopter would be the way to get around! When you are as well known in the area as he is … the problem of being a famous author with a string of books to your name … you are a magnet for people wanting to shake your hand, get your autograph, be photographed with you. Peter’s books, more often than not, about Provence and the Luberon, are written in an attractive and amusing way that have resulted in thousands of people wanting to come and visit the area but there is a downside to being ‘famous’.

Peter moved away from near Ménerbes because of being ‘pestered’ by tourists. Apparently coach loads of people used to be ‘dropped off’ at his door as part of the ‘tourist circuit’. Even today he obviously still feels ‘vulnerable’. We were at a concert together at the church in Vaugines last Sunday evening. The church was full, and the ‘congregation’ was made up of mostly ‘locals’. The event was a ‘money raiser’ for the local church and the concert consisted of a number of musical items by the ‘Polyphonies’ – a-cappella choir – who were really very good. There were only a few ‘tourists’ present but – although Peter obviously enjoyed the concert – he was very aware of the ‘non-locals’ present and was continuously, sub-consciously, looking around, ducking away from anyone taking photographs, and fearing being approached by ‘yet another tourist’. Peter Mayle will probably never read this ‘blog’ but if he does I would simply want to say: Us tourists are not all insensitive to your need for space and privacy. We don’t want to impose. We don’t want your autograph, or  to have a ‘selfie’ taken with you. We do, however, want to say a big ‘Thank you’ for all your wonderful books and the fun, laughter, and inspiration that they have bought to us!

As I sit drinking my cold beer … long after ‘Peter Mayle’s helicopter’ has passed over … an eagle soars across the sky overhead. It is huge, regal, magnificent! I watch it in awe! I think of that verse in the Bible that tells us: ‘But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint’ (Isaiah 40:31).

Jim Binney

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