If you’ve ever read a book involving Provence you will have a fair idea of what the villages are like here. You know the type of book I’m talking about (if not, spoiler alert) – woman discovers husband shagging his secretary, decides on a whim to pack it in and move to Provence having never been there before (her friends think she’s crazy), she invests her life savings in a dive of a house and spend her first few weeks lonely and wondering what the hell she’s done, she gets her mojo back, learns French, becomes an integral part of the village, employs a hunky builder (Stefan) to renovate the house, falls in love with him and learns to make an epic tarte tatin. The same story can also occur in Italy – simply swap Provence for Tuscany, Stefan for Stefano and the tart for a tiramisu. Et voila!
Those books are obviously the work of romantic fiction, but the picture they paint of Provence is not. The towns and villages here are just as charming as those books suggest. Our wee village of St Remy de Provence (pop 10,000) is so lovely – it’s got beautiful cobbled streets, loads of cafes and restaurants, tons of bakeries and boutique stores and a lovely public plaza just across the road from our house. I knew it was going to be a good stay when, on our first day, I opened the front door and found myself in the middle of a flea market with people selling gorgeous French linen, crockery, original Tin Tin comics and some fairly hard-core vintage pornographic photos. Our house is also right across the street from the town church, which has the advantage of meaning we are up bright and early every day – those bells get a work out in the morning!
Randomly, it seems that there could be something of a Kiwi contingent in our village. I say that even though we are yet to meet another Kiwi, but we did stumble across this -not exactly the place we expected to find a whole store devoted to All Blacks merchandise.
We decided to immerse ourselves in village life on our first full day, so trotted along to the pub to watch France play Ireland in the first knockout round of the Euro Football World Cup. We ended up at an absolute rip-off of a bar for the first half, so we nursed our 10 Euro beers until half time and then went in search of something more to our liking. We finally stumbled across a nice, dingy sports bar. The bartender sorted us out with two glasses/vases of beer (1 litre per glass) and we found ourselves a spot amongst the crowd to watch the second half.
It was a hilarious afternoon, due in part to the fact that there was a delay between the two big screens in the bar so that our side of the pub knew what had happened a good 5 seconds or so before the other side. It would be an understatement to say that the French are passionate sport spectators. The whole pub sang and yelled their way through the game, with cheers of “viva la France” whenever France scored, or looked close. Turns out language is no barrier when you’re watching sport – you just cheer and yell and scream when everybody else does. Thankfully for everyone, France won and there were no sobbing Frenchies to contend with.
We’ve had wheels during our stay in Provence – a brand new VW Golf turbo diesel. Campbell is particularly impressed with how gutsy it is, and has been driving it like a boy racer doing laps round the Basin Reserve. We’ve been out almost every day exploring the neighbouring villages and taking in the countryside. It really is beautiful here, and it’s hard not to be swept up in it all. There are far too many villages to get around, but we have ticked off a whole bunch. Particular highlights include Vaison La Romain (thanks Dave for the recommendation), Gordes (a stunning hillside village), Roussillon (hands down the prettiest village we saw) and Aix-en-Provence.
After visiting Aix on Tuesday, we decided to keep driving and try to see some of the coast. We had a few false starts, but after some robust strategising over lunch we finally settled on a visit to Camargue, a national park between the Med and the two arms of the Rhone. We were travelling along nicely, but couldn’t figure out why Google kept telling us it was going to take 2 hours to travel 30 km. Turns out that we’d both failed to spot that we’d need to catch a ferry to get to Camargue, and that would account for a good 1.5 hours of the trip. Once that wee gem popped up on Google, we pulled a u-turn and headed for home. All we really saw on that excursion was a good chunk of the A7 (which cost a shit load in tolls), so the coast will have to wait until our next stop in Nice.
Wednesday in St Remy is market day, and the market is regarded as one of the best in Provence. I was awake at 4am with the street cleaners and got to watch the entire village transform over the next few hours as the market set up. Vendors come from all over Provence to sell fruit and veges, meat, fish, bread, cheese, pickles and condiments, nougat and nuts, antiques and collectibles, clothes, linen and homewards, soap and lavender (lots and lots of lavender). Hundreds of stalls set up in the town square, outside the front of the church and down all of the alleys. Local musicians play in the streets and people pile in from the surrounding villages to do their shopping. Wandering around the stalls was an incredibly nice way to spend the morning, and we picked up heaps of bits and pieces for nibbles at home (feeling oh so local while we were at it – “baguette”!).
Today was our last full day, so we hit the road on a mission to see some of the Provence Lavender Trail. Provence is known for its lavender, and the region has created a staggering number of products that taste, smell, include or are inspired by lavender. First stop was the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, a 12th century monastery known for its beautiful lavender fields. Photos of the Abbey and its lavender in full bloom are on every postcard, calendar and tea towel on sale around here.
We thought the lavender fields at the Abbey were just ok. We wanted to see something bigger, better and really spectacular. We’d read about lavender fields so beautiful that they caused summer time traffic jams, but the Abbey didn’t exactly make us want to rip on the handbrake. We decided to carry on along the trail and see what else we could find. Our perseverance paid off when we arrived at the town of Valeson and saw fields and fields of lavender, like these. It really was pretty (even Campbell said it was “cool”) and the fields of purple spread as far as you could see.
Our time in St Remy has now come to an end. We are both sad to be leaving tomorrow, having well and truly settled into a routine (of sorts) in our little village. I, for one, would love to come back (hopefully for reasons not related to either of us having a mid-life crisis). Tomorrow we make our way to Nice, where we will have a couple of days to soak up the sun before moving onwards to Italy.