As I reflect on our trip, I think ‘Should I classify it as a failure’? Well, the stated purpose of the trip was to see lavender fields in bloom, and unfortunately during our trip in the Luberon area, there are less lavenders blooming than in my neighbours garden…so in effect it WAS a failure. But we had such a fabulous time failing!!! But I am leaping on ahead, let me start at the beginning..
June 1st Week, 2007 : Planning
I am undecided…should we go? The idea has been in the back of my mind for a while. I know that the odds are against such early blooming (June 14-17, 2007). But I go off to Australia for nearly all of summer, and its either now or next year. ‘Now’ wins aided by an unhealthy dose of optimism. I collect information from Fodor’s forum (thank you Forum members) and other net resources, find a last-minute booking for a centrally located hotel, demand that my good man take a couple of days off (and to hell with management meetings I say!!!) and within a short while of the decision made, we pile into our car, and head about 450 kms or so towards warmer climes.
June 14, 2007 : LES BAUX
We head straight towards Les Baux, our first stop. The 450 kms take 5.5 hrs, with an uninspiring lunch stop en-route. The first sight of the village and the chateau perched on top of a rock, with surreal rock formations all around, leaves me wonder struck. We park outside the village and ignore the steep cobble-stoned streets, colourful shops and inviting restaurants to head up to the château. The entrance fee covers an audio guide. We wander around the ruins, listening to the commentary, and admiring the beautiful views of olive groves in the landscape far below. The sun shines down mercilessly on our naked heads. I am wilting within the first 10 mins. And then a wind starts up. Is this the Mistral? I totter along, the wind pulling me in one direction while I want to head in another. We climb the Saracen tower and the views are magnificent. There is a catapult demonstration, and my man volunteers to turn the wheel. It is interesting.
The other side of the chateau has views of the surreal rocky scenery, the very scenery which inspired Dante’s description of hell in the ‘Inferno’. I am quite taken by this.
I had thought that it would be an hour’s visit; we were there for 3 hrs. My plans to visit St Remy on the way to the hotel is dropped. Our check in has to be by 7 pm. We are caught in terrible traffic; commuters perhaps ? We do the 40 kms to our hotel in 1:30 mins. Our rooms are spotlessly clean. I am pleased with the place. We decide to eat in-house. The food is delicious. We sit eating and delving into the depths of the wine bottle for a long time, hearing the frogs croaking in the distance and the crickets answering back. Night falls slowly.
June 15, 2007 : THE PERCHED VILLAGES
Today is the day for seeing the perched villages. I have a long itinerary. But it is raining….no, its simply pouring down buckets. I watch dismally from the hotel room, looking for a glimpse of clear sky. By 10 am its abated somewhat, and we set off optimistically. I hastily revise the plan, seeing that we have lost a bit of time.
Our first destination is Gordes, 20 minutes away. We turn around a bend in the road, and there it is, perched beguilingly at the end of a hilltop, looking amazingly beautiful. We all pile off the car to take pictures. One observation: Pictures from outside the perched villages are far more interesting than the ones from within..it is worth searching out good vantage points. We reach the village and collect the ‘Plan de la ville’ from the tourist office. My usual practice. My cheery ‘Bonjour’ is ignored with a cold look. If you were an unsociable sort, why would you voluntarily take up a job at the tourist office? I wonder. The rain has stopped. My dampened mood lifts its head hopefully. We trudge around the empty streets (the other tourists haven’t braved the weather it seems). I have forgotten my walking shoes and its hard on my feet. But worth it. Gordes is simply beautiful.
Second stop, Abbaye de Sénanque, just 5 kms away. The road twists and turns and descends into a deep and protected valley. The scenery is stunning. There are lavender fields around the Abbaye, sadly not blooming. My dreams of gambolling like a lamb…well, not really….gambolling like an old arthritic sheep (do they?) seem destined to be broken. The Abbaye is beautiful, it’s setting even more so. It attracts me deeply and I wonder how it would be to retire into such a place, far from everything I know. It seems so peaceful. So inviting. I am so attracted to the idea that it scares me. I am sad to see that we have missed the last of the morning guided tours, the next one is 2 hrs away. I should have checked tour times before.
Third stop, Goult. Its a small village. Window boxes spill over with flowers. The streets are quiet but the restaurants are full. We wander up to the windmill and the views from there are wonderful. The sun has come out now, and the day has warmed a bit. We decide to eat in one of the restaurants here. The food is all right. The wine is better. I demand to know where I can see lavenders in bloom. The restaurateur assures me that I would see all colours in Sault. I decide to go there on the way back home.
Fourth stop, Roussillon. I have been waiting eagerly for this, ever since I saw pictures of the ochre buildings. I have a weakness for warm colours. Cadmium red and orange, vermilion and saffron, yellow ochre and raw sienna, crimson and raw umber….how they make my blood sing!! The colours of the earth, the colours of warmth, the colours of life. Roussillon doesn’t disappoint. All the colours are there and more besides.
We wander around with stunned pleasure. I take the ‘Plan de la ville’ but we aren’t interested in monuments or history, just the look and the feel of the place. The tourists are out in force. Every shop sells souvenirs…or it is a place to eat. Its colourful and interesting. I buy myself pigments mined locally. The range of colours is amazing. I shall paint myself a landscape with the very earth it is made of, I decide. What better homage to this place of artists? And I will treasure it for the memories. But its getting hotter and hotter. And I am wilting.
Fifth stop, Apt. Only a quick stop to see the Cathedral and the famous relics. Its a busy place, and the traffic makes the going slow. But I am glad to make it. The dictionary thinks that if I am not a Jew, Christian or Muslim, I am a heathen. And it implies being irreligious, uncultured and uncivilised besides!!! Ouch!!! Why then do I find myself so often seeking churches? How I miss my own places of worship! Instead I have adopted what I find here as my own. I murmur my sacred Sanskrit heathen prayers – can they be both sacred and heathen at the same time? – to old stone walls, to the angled light through rose windows, to candles burning silently in front of saints who watch me with…is it stunned surprise? Amusement? Indulgence…yes. The stones listen to me as kindly as stones always do…as they did to all those millions of worshippers before me. I sense their peace. And we leave.
Sixth stop, Bonnieux. I really want to see this place associated with the Templars about whom I have read so much. But the tourist office is already closed. We head to the old town where the church is closed and everything has an abandoned look about it. We wander around but unsure of what to look at. The views are fabulous though. We don’t stay long.
Seventh and last stop, Lacoste. We are all tired but just want to see the château of the infamous Sade family at least from a distance. The sun is setting as we reach and the light is beautiful. The town is quiet. We decide to eat dinner and then head for home. The little restaurant has a view over the whole valley. I chat with the chef. My French is not capable of dealing with the strong Provencal accent and I struggle with her description of her travels in India. The New Zealanders in the next table are easier to talk to. We have had a good day. The dusk light makes the landscape seem subtly different. And beautiful.
June 16, 2007 : AIX EN PROVENCE, ST REMY, FONTAINE DE VAUCLUSE
The walking tour in Aix-en-Provence starts at 10 am from the tourist office. We leave the hotel by 8:30 but we still barely make it in time. We cannot find the entrance to the underground parking but very fortunately on this market day, find a street side parking. The two hour long walking tour is very informative and I am glad we have made it on time. Aix is buzzing with tourists and locals, and the colours and sounds are wonderful this sunny morning. We pass by the flower market, the vegetable market and the flea market. After the tour, we have lunch at a street side cafe and then attempt the Cézanne walking trail. But its not that much fun on our own..we want somebody to tell us stories. We do only half the walk and decide to head towards St Remy which I have very much wanted to see.
St Remy is a disappointment to me. We get the map of the village and walk around this very small village centre to check out the most important sites. But what I wanted to see was some of sites that Van Gogh painted. My map doesn’t make this clear. Should I have asked for some other map? Its too hot to walk back and ask. There are many art galleries and I enjoy walking through a few. There seem to be plenty of restaurants and cafés and had it been dinner time we would have enjoyed the choice. But its too early and we decide to head out.
Next stop is Fontaine de Vaucluse, to see the source of the river Sorgue. This is a very inconsequential looking water hole about 10 mins easy walking distance from the town centre. Its interesting to read about the mysterious source, it’s depth and the attempts to explore it but it doesn’t look very impressive. The surrounding scenery is impressive though, with a ruined château perched on top of a rocky hill, the greenery, and the sounds of the emerald waters of the Sorgue rushing down the slope. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place. The younger ones enjoy exploring the river side. We walk down to the old church and settle down to dine at a river side restaurant. The food is good and the evening ends pleasantly.
We check out of the hotel and head straight to the Sunday market at L’Isle sur la Sorgue. It is obviously a very popular market. There are bus loads of tourists arriving. The market is very colourful and interesting. Lots of local produce, clothing, handicrafts, antiques, food. And the setting is beautiful too but we can’t see much of it in the crowd. We have fun peering into stalls and picking up small items to take back home. We spend a good hour and half there but we don’t like crowds much and it is very very crowded.
Our drive to Sault is quite long. The road winds through mountainous areas and in some bits, I am very glad that its not me who is doing the driving. But the scenery is beautiful and other-worldly. I really enjoy it. As we approach Sault, I eagerly look for signs of blooming lavender but I am disappointed. I want to go back to Goult and scold the restaurateur!! This Sunday morning Sault is quiet and there is activity only in the restaurants. It’s lunch time and we want to drown our disappointment but the best looking restaurant is full. We eat at the creperie instead but are not very satisfied.
Its time to head home, but I decide to route it through Forcalquier to check out the Citadel on the way out. We all enjoy the stop and the opportunity to stretch our legs. The view from the citadel is wonderful. We climb down and find ourselves a nice drink before heading home. The drive back is an experience in itself, with wonderful scenery, especially on N75.
I reflect on our holiday, thinking about lavender fields and gambolling sheep. Something is wrong with the picture….Are gambolling (or otherwise) sheep welcome in lavender fields? I wonder. I am not a country girl, it’s evident. But the idea is seductive. It seems to suit me…I am a lifelong vegetarian, a pacifist, quite cowardly, and given to gathering wool. I want to be a sheep, I announce to the car. ‘Sheep are really dumb’ objects my highly intelligent daughter. I ponder on that a bit. It seems to me that the dumbness is essential to the ‘gambolitiousness’ (if I may be permitted to make up a word) of sheep. If they knew they were headed for a dinner table as the main course, that would surely put an abrupt end to all gambolling and they would spend all their time reflecting on the meaning of life, don’t you think? What a waste of lavender fields it would be!! S0 sheep it must be…in the fields of an indulgent lavender farmer. A vegetarian one, just to be safe. Perhaps with a side job as a vet to take care of arthritic knees… .hmmm….know anyone like that?