… where purple is the reigning colour, kind soft, nice smelling lavender purple! Thus you can see it can never be Prrrôôôvince as the Capetonians would so love it to be.
Rather try the correct Pgôwaañs pronunciation with your lips truly spouted for that French flair effect. And then clutch your baguette under your arm, whether you’re wearing a shirt or not, and munch on your early morning croissant (apply same pronunciation rules as above) with a good, small, strong coffee and just look, smell, drive, walk, photograph and discover the real Provence.
It’s so clichéd to try and write something extraordinary on topics such as Provence and the joys of sniffing out those little-town gems and little mountain roads since even old Julius, Brutus and the other Roman emperors spent their weekends enjoying the Provencal cuisine, baths, gladiator blood-sports, sights and sounds. Jip, this part of the world is truly part of old civilisation, which means there’s so much more to see than lavender. Don’t get me wrong on the lavender thing, though. If you plan to visit Provence, it will be worth your while to plan your visit for late in July, early August, as the spectacle of blooming lavender fields and the ripe wheat fields adjacent are right up there with the likes of Namaqualand, Cape fynbos and Overberg canola fields in springtime.
As with all quality tourist destinations, the big bugging factor is always the tourists! Here it’s obviously continuously present as well and it had me ponder the logic of a big bus tour-package rushing through rustic little roads with hordes of, …. well tourists being dropped off with a ‘be back here in 90 minutes cause there’s still plenty of places to see’ instruction from the guide with the little flag held up high. Provence is not a place for this kind of travel. Provence must be taken at leisure, with a glass of wine, something to chew on and with no fixed itinerary because you never know when you stumble onto that picnic spot that just needs to be tested with your baguette, Provencial sausages and cheeses, olives with herbs, salads and to be finished off with the local nougat for something sweet.
We were very fortunate to have the company of a sister and brother-in-law who accompanied us for a week of traveling Provence, likeminded travellers with very little emphasis on speed and plenty of focus on seeing, learning, tasting, and sipping the local stuff. This resulted in us very quickly becoming too slow and enthralled for our rough initial itinerary, so much so that I had to bully them out of a Paris and Aix-en-Provence stopover to ensure we see the rural area ‘must-sees’.
When I grew up in the 70’s and South Africa started our television broadcasting, one of the household favourites was a French translated series ‘Die meisie van Avignon’ (La demoiselle d’Avignon). South Africa was in love with the series, and probably the ‘mademoiselle’, thus I simply had to see if we could find her in Avignon, and planned our Provence trip to start there. We did not find her, but what I did find was the immaculate walled town, stunning half bridge over the Rhône River and the incredible square and Palais de Papes. This is the papal palace where the Pope Clement V and his court settled when they fled Rome due to political turmoil. From 1309 to 1377 seven French-born Popes lived in Avignon, and even after Pope Martin V returned and settled in Rome, Avignon remained to be an important cultural centre.
But way before the 1300’s this was the playground of the Romans. Though further north in Gaul some little village famously held out against the forces of the Roman Empire (with a little help and nutrition of wild boar and their druid’s magic potion), here in the south the Romans reigned supreme and build roads, aqua ducts, theatres and even an amphitheatre where they quenched their blood thirst on Saturday afternoons before going out on the town for an evening meal. Magnificent remnants of those days are still widely visible with extraordinary views from the top of the amphitheatre over the rooftops of Arles, and a beautiful roman gate at the quaint town of Saint Remy de Provence.
Many years later, here, at Saint Remy de Provence, just over the main street from the roman gate is where Vincent van Gogh voluntarily booked himself into an asylum in May 1889, just after he cut off part of his left ear in some bout of ‘eccentricity’.
Though he was obviously in despair, he continued to be extremely productive, producing more than 200 paintings in a year while living in Arles.
I get itchy for the rural areas and small roads very quickly and thus misused my position as driver cunningly by turning north-east and heading for the quieter Vaucluse area where the lavender fields were in full bloom, in abundance and surrounding age old towns of Gordes, Venasque and the amazing Abbey de Senanque. We pitched base camp in the gorgeous Malemort du Comtat. Malemort is slightly of the beaten track which means you can enjoy time away from the tour-bus tourists jumping into the frame of each and every photo opportunity, fiddling there hair into place, making themselves big into some Alexander the Great type pose just to run off to the next photo shoot, not even taking a look at what exactly was their background in the photo just snapped of them. Here we could spent two long evenings at two different venues amongst locals coming back from a hard days work and sitting down for a semi communal beer drinking evening, observing and interacting with them while enjoying the local herbs and flavours on olives, pizzas and hams (somehow I prefer the term jambon over ham for these local delicacies).
Before heading back north after a hugely enjoyable week in Provence, we had to stop in Carpentras for the weekly market day. Maybe here a tourbus dropping you off and picking you up would not have been such a bad idea due to the parking problem; such is the popularity of the market. From clothes, fish, fresh produce, meats, nougat (extremely expensive if you don’t bargain properly to the amusement of Heleen) to antique tools, baskets and even bunches of lavender are on display in huge quantities.
It was a great week, though a tiring week of traveling roughly 3000km, listening to 355 songs (trust me, I set-up the iPod playlist, it was 355 songs), having a beer or two, scratching many mosquito megabytes, blowing up matrasses, chatting in cafés, awing the lavender, following the Romans, celebrating van Gogh, dipping our toes in the Mediterranean, enjoying pizza and Provencial tastes over a glass of wine or two or six. It was a successful trip.
It was only the western part of Provence and a week was not enough.
We’ll be back.