It started with a lucky break in the weather. My wife, Jennie, and I had escaped the rigors of the English summer to spend two idyllic weeks on the Côte d’Azur, which according to popular rumor enjoys three hundred days of sunshine a year. But not that year. It rained, hard and often. The beach umbrellas hung in sodden clumps. The plagistes, those bronzed young men who patrol the beaches, were huddled in their huts, their shorts soaked. Cafés along the Promenade des Anglais were filled with forlorn parents and fractious children who had been promised a day splashing about in the sea. In the International Herald Tribune, there was news of a heat wave in England. As we prepared to leave Nice, we hoped the heat would last until we got home.
A situation like this requires some kind of consolation. We considered going across the border to Italy, hopping on the ferry to Corsica, or making the long drive down to Barcelona in time for dinner. But in the end, we decided on exploring France. Instead of taking the autoroutes, we would stay on the smaller secondary roads. Even in the rain, we thought, they would be prettier and more interesting than joining the procession of trucks and caravans on the main highway to the north. And besides, our experience of France had been confined to Paris and the coast. This would be virgin territory.
In those days, long before GPS, we used maps. And one of the few familiar names we found was Aix-en-Provence. There would be restaurants in Aix. There might even be sunshine. Off we went.
The Route Nationale 7, I think, is the French equivalent of Route 66, which the old song taught us was where to go to get our kicks. The kicks on the RN 7 used to be at their height each year in July and August, when most of Paris took what was then the main road down to the south. It, too, had its famous song, performed by Charles Trenet, the lyrics dripping with le soleil, le ciel bleu, les vacances, and the promise of wonderful times.
The reality didn’t quite live up to the song. The RN 7 is a perpetually busy road, and was filled on that particular day with many of the thousands of trucks that crisscross France, often driven by very large men who look down on passing cars with a faintly menacing air. Overtake me at your peril, they seemed to be thinking. And if you value your life, don’t change lanes too suddenly.
Gradually, the rain was beginning to thin out, and by the time we reached Aix, the gray sky was showing hopeful fragments of blue; to celebrate, we decided to go to the oldest brasserie in town, Les Deux Garçons. Founded in 1792, this is more of a historic monument than a mere bar. Past customers include Cézanne and Zola, Picasso and Pagnol, Piaf and Camus. The terrace overlooks the Cours Mirabeau, the most handsome street in Aix, lined with plane trees and dotted with fountains, the perfect spot to watch the passing crowd. There was a moment when the normal air of conviviality had been disturbed by a shooting in one of the toilets. A vile rumor that the culprit was a waiter who had been deprived of his tip was found to be untrue, and life returned to normal.
Enjoying a glass of rosé, we took another look at the map, where we found a scattering of villages on the northern side of the Luberon mountains. This looked promising, and it was more or less on our way back to England. After a proper Provençal lunch of rabbit in mustard sauce and an ultra-fine apple tart, served by a waiter who could have come out of central casting—white apron, generous belly, and memorably luxuriant moustache—we felt ready for any mountain we might come across.
The further we drove from Aix, the more blue sky we saw pushing away the clouds. There was no sun yet, but it was turning into a pleasant afternoon, made even more pleasant by the change in the countryside once we were well away from Aix. It was beautiful, spacious, often quite deserted. Fields of vines and fields of sunflowers easily outnumbered buildings, and what buildings we saw were charming—weather-beaten stone, faded roof tiles, usually shaded by a couple of venerable plane trees or an alley of cypresses. This, as we later discovered, was typical Provençal countryside. We loved it then, and we love it now.
Every so often, the empty fields gave way to a village, with its church tower presiding over a jumble of stone houses. Several of these had the day’s washing hanging out of upstairs windows to dry, which we took as a sign that the locals, who are invariably expert weather forecasters, were anticipating the sun. And sure enough, as we were entering what was described on the map as the Natural Regional Park of the Luberon, out it came, bright and optimistic, making everything look sharp and clean, as though the landscape had been etched against the sky. Those gray, rainy days in Nice might have happened on a different planet.
By now, we were getting distant glimpses of the Luberon. It was long and low and its mountains did not seem all that craggy or threatening. They were comfortable mountains. The Luberon even had a road that seemed to go all the way through from the south side, where we were, to the north. We picked up this road outside the village of Lourmarin, and headed north, on what turned out to be the only straight piece of tarmac for several miles. Then came the bends. It was the first time I have ever felt seasick in a car. To make matters worse, the road was narrow, often with a steep wall of rock on one side and a sharp drop on the other. And there was oncoming traffic. Motorcycles were easy enough to dodge, even though they were using the road like a racetrack. Cars could just about pass if we squeezed up against the rock wall. Trailers and motor homes were the challenge, particularly on those bends. We squeezed until we were almost scraping the rock. We sucked in our stomachs and held our breath. Jennie very wisely shut her eyes.
Relief finally came with a flattening and widening of the road, and a sign pointing to an outpost of civilization, the village of Bonnieux. This turned out to be a postcard village, perched on a hill, with ten-mile views across the valley. Using the map, we looked for our next stop, and our eye was caught by something marked in bold type: the Village des Bories. What, we wondered, were Bories? Members of a small but privileged tribe, permitted to have their own village? Or perhaps it was a refuge for rare mountain animals? Or even, in these liberated days, a nudist colony? We decided to take a look.
Not a nudist to be seen when we finally reached the village, but an extraordinary collection of small buildings made, without the benefit of concrete, from six-inch-thick slabs of local limestone. These were bories, twenty-eight of them, looking a little like giant beehives, built during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There were sheep shelters, oven houses, a silkworm-breeding facility, barns, and granaries—all the modern conveniences of that era, and all very well cared for.
As one often does after a plunge into history, we emerged in need of refreshment. And luckily, it was available just up the road in the village of Gordes. Today, it is a model of rural sophistication, with good hotels and restaurants, boutiques, and, during the summer, a steady flow of tourists. Back then, it was sleepy, almost empty, and astonishingly beautiful, like a film set made from stone.
Gordes dates from 1031, and as we walked across the main square it was easy to imagine that not much had changed since then. Centuries of sunshine had left their mark on the complexion of the buildings, leaving them the color of light honey. Centuries of the mistral, the wind that, from time to time, sweeps across Provence, had smoothed the stone surfaces. And, to add to the pleasures of the late afternoon, there was a café on the edge of the square.
We sat on the terrace, with its long-distance views of the surrounding countryside, and I think this was perhaps the moment that the stirrings of change came to us both. It would, we agreed, be a wonderful place to live. We had both done our terms of office duty, working in London and New York for many long years, and we were ready for a simpler, sunnier life.
The sun had begun to drop, and we had to start thinking about where to spend the night. The café waiter sucked his teeth and shook his head. There was nothing he cared to recommend in Gordes, but if we wanted to go to Cavaillon, the nearest large town, we would undoubtedly find a range of suitable amenities.
Cavaillon is the melon capital of France; indeed, the melon capital of the world, if you believe the local melon enthusiasts. It’s not a strikingly pretty town, more workmanlike than picturesque, but after Gordes it seemed big and bustling. Here, certainly, we would find a decent meal and a bed for the night.
The hotel was easy. We found it as soon as we came into town: well placed on a main street, slightly shabby, but not without a certain faded charm. The woman at the front desk, herself with a certain faded charm, gave us a smiling welcome.
“We’d like a room for the night, please.”
The woman’s eyebrows went up. “For the night?”
She showed us to a small room in the hotel’s main corridor, asked us to pay in advance, and recommended a restaurant two minutes away.
Chez Georges was our kind of restaurant—short menu, paper tablecloths, already busy, with an appetizing whiff of cooking each time the kitchen door swung open. We had, of course, Cavaillon melon to start. It was everything a melon should be, fragrant and juicy. The wine we had ordered was served in an earthenware jug by an elderly gentleman who might have been Georges himself. He suggested that we follow the melon with the specialty of the house, steak frites. The steak was excellent, and the French fries were enough to make a gourmet weep with pleasure. They were perfectly crisp, free of any trace of oil or grease, light and satisfyingly crunchy. If this was Provençal cooking, we could hardly wait for the next meal.
But it had been a long day, and bed beckoned. Back at the hotel, we passed a couple of rather furtive-looking men making their way down the corridor before we reached our room, and we had barely closed our door before there was the sound of more activity—a girlish giggle, a burst of masculine laughter, a door being closed very firmly. It sounded as though the other residents, clearly a lively bunch, were having a party.
This went on for most of the night. Doors were banging, footsteps thundered up and down the corridor, and sleep was hard to find. It was some time later that we were told we had spent the night in the local brothel.
Home Sweet Home
It is one thing to think about changing countries when you’re sitting on a sunny café terrace, and quite another when you return to the real world. Every day after our return to England, Provence seemed more distant; every day, more desirable. At this stage, we didn’t even know whereabouts in Provence we wanted to live. If you include the Côte d’Azur (which we don’t; it’s nothing like the true Provence), the region covers more than thirty thousand square kilometers, from the mountains in the north to the beaches of Cassis and Marseille in the south. So, knowing precious little about our future home, we were at first reduced to daydreaming and reading travel books, which just added to our impatience.
Jennie, at least, did something constructive by enrolling herself in a French class, where she was surrounded by teenage students. I was already an enthusiastic exponent of schoolboy French, with an accent that had inspired a woman in Gordes to say, “Mais monsieur, vous parlez français comme une vache espagnole!” At first, I took this as a colloquial compliment, but she had actually been comparing my accent to that of a Spanish cow.
As winter began its muddy march across the damp English countryside, we consoled ourselves with maps, the Guide Michelin, and plans to return to Provence in the early summer. This time, we would be more thorough and altogether more businesslike. How much would it cost to live there? Were English refugees made welcome? Did we need official residence permits? Would our two dogs need passports? What about the dreaded French taxes? There were hours of discussion, much of it based on optimism and ignorance. It seemed like the longest winter in living memory, but at last it was over, and we could, mentally at least, put on our shorts and sunglasses. We were ready to go.
We had often noticed that when the English take their cars abroad, they fill them with as much of England as possible: plenty of tea, a favorite teapot, chocolate biscuits, winter sweaters no matter the time of year just in case, a couple of small deck chairs, umbrellas, and always remedies for an upset stomach, it being well known that foreigners put funny things in their food.
We tried to keep our car empty, leaving plenty of space for the olive oil and wine that we planned to bring back. One of the delightful distractions when driving through Provence is the number of wine-growing properties that invite the thirsty passerby to drop in for a glass or two. This, inevitably, leads to the purchase of a bottle or two. It is a marvelously pleasant and civilized way to go wine shopping. Whether you stop at an old farmhouse or a miniature Versailles at the end of a two-hundred-yard-long, tree-lined drive, the welcome is warm, helpful, and often delicious.
But first, we had to get there, taking the ferry to Calais and heading south through the vast French countryside. France has more or less the same number of people as Britain, but nearly three times as much land. This is evident when you’re driving down from one end of the country to the other; the wide open spaces last for mile after mile, looking as though an army of landscape gardeners has been at work: fields and hedges are neat, fences are well kept, tractor furrows are scrupulously straight. And, more often than not, the landscape is empty: no buildings, no people.
Copyright © 2018 by Peter Mayle. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.