Flying from Stansted was hardly fun as it is a bit of a disorganised bun-fight it seems in general. However, at 4 pounds each to fly to Nimes, one could hardly complain. Departure was delayed an hour, thus arrival at Nimes was around 11pm in a howling Mistral. Grit and dust in the eyes and some trepidation - resolved by a timely taxi passing, who delivered us to our hotel. (L'Orangerie - Best Western)
The next day began our French experience proper. The train ride to Nice was a great introduction and how smooth the French railways are. Glimpses of picturesque headlands, the glassy Mediterranean sliding away into the hazy distance, silhouettes of pines and palms amid elegant villas, while inland the mountains towered, dotted with houses which seem to enhance rather than argue with the landscape. The country oozes this special character - the essence which draws so many here to absorb the atmosphere.
Collecting the car and heading onto the A8 is a whole chapter in itself, but suffice to say, that possibly an initiation on a motorway is perhaps easier than on smaller roads, as at least one only has to concentrate on traffic going one way, albeit rapidly. We arrived safely at Draguignan, in our pretty hotel high on the hill, and spent the next two cool, damp days exploring the town (not really a tourist town, but nevertheless interesting) and nearby Lorgues. Ahead lay our long anticipated destination.....we were headed for Peter Mayle country (I recommend you read "A Year in Provence" and sequels) - the Golden Triangle of the perched villages of the Luberon. This valley lies between the high Plateau of the Vaucluse to the north and the Mountains of the Luberon to the south. Major towns nearby are Avignon and Aix-en-Provence to the west, with smaller Cavaillon closer on the western end, Apt to the east, Carpentras over mountains to the north west and Cadenet to the south east. The famed perched villages include of Gordes, Roussillon, Bonnieux, Lacoste, Menerbe, Oppede and other smaller ones.
Our itinerary, all bed and breakfast accommodation booked via the internet, began with 2 nights at Maison Côté Sud Roussillon, firstname.lastname@example.org a private home B&B, two nights at La Guillone at Murs in a restored Mas (farm house) email@example.com, two at La Clos du Buis Lefirstname.lastname@example.org a small hotel at Bonnieux, and two at Labouquiere, email@example.com a private home B&B on a wooded hillside 2 km from Bonnieux.
This allowed us plenty of time to thoroughly explore the lovely villages, feast our eyes on the wonderful views from the tops of these towns and see places like the Fountain de Vaucluse, where the water that filters through the limestone mountains gathers in a deep aquifer, from whence it boils up after heavy rains, to form the River Sorgue.
[ The River Sorgue, a few hundred metres from its source in the Fountain of the Vaucluse ]
Our various hosts provided, in our opinion, first class accommodation and do the French know all about comfortable mattresses and pillows?? You can bet on it! Most bathrooms were new or recently refurbished, décor was largely comprised of beautiful antique furniture, the unique Provençal printed and woven fabrics, often including images of the region's emblem - the Cigale (cicada), and in every case, lovely original artworks and sculptures or wrought iron pieces. It was all very special and not at all contrived - I guess I mean authentic. Here, good taste involves the cherishing of old and lovely things - which are not hard to find. Brocante (antique) shops appear in every little town and begged deeper exploration, but our time, budget and luggage restrictions did not permit - maybe next time.
The four places we stayed in the Luberon varied quite widely, depending on the situation and the hosts. In Roussillon we stayed with Gerard and Annette de Pauw at Maison Côté Sud - a short walk from the village. They previously ran a hotel in Belgium where Gerard was also master chef. Holidays in Provence eventually convinced them this was the place to be and three years ago they bought this house and added on a small wing of B&B suites overlooking a lovely pool and beyond, the unique red cliffs of Roussillon, where the Romans mined for ochre. Their style is definitely one of making guests feel at home and by the end of two days, we really felt we had made new friends. We were invited to share dinner on our first night with the family and their group of friends staying from Belgium. There was charge, of course, but very reasonable and the spread was magnificent, and all prepared by Gerard. This was certainly good value as the breakfasts were also the best we had anywhere, with a wide array of cheeses, cold meats, fruits, yoghurts, breads and pastries.
Roussillon is possibly the most tourist-oriented village, possibly because of its colour, taken from the hill on which it stands. Most houses are rendered in various shades of russet, rose and gold, the pigments of the earth. The towns in this region are kept immaculately tidy and reflect a population who are truly proud of their homes and their villages as a whole. Litter is not seen, and the lands, mapped out in cherry orchards, vineyards, lavender field and olive groves, reflect the same respect for the environment.
Strawberries and caramel - Roussillon
Roussillon sports a variety of fascinating shops selling local herbs, essential oils of lavender and others, in soaps and toiletries, or dried in bags. The Provençal fabrics are sold by the metre, or as printed table-clothes and accessories in a tempting array of vivid yellows, blue, red and green. Delicious glace (icecream) (sorry to say, better than Italian gelati), is always to be found in large tubs, served in waffle cones or little bowls, and the town café or two begin to collect their local patrons very soon after opening time. We would LOVE to have photographed or videod these regular characters, but that would have been bad manners now ne cest pas?
The other unique thing about Roussillon, is it is the only one of these towns to have an ATM, so necessitating return trips at intervals to stock up on the Euros!! We made a point of avoiding the larger towns, as we wanted to spend all our time in the villages, soaking up the historical atmosphere and timeless ambience of our surroundings.
From Roussillon, we did the drive up a winding pass to Sault, in the north and the centre of a lavender growing region. Lavender and other flowers are distilled at Sault and highlights were a visit to the local Lavender shop, a quiet quarter hour watching the local game of boules and admiring the breathtaking view from the main terrace. Here, we saw our first pizza van with a WOOD-FIRED oven, presided over by a young man expertly rolling balls of dough.
We also visited Goult, a couple of kilometres south of Roussillon, a much smaller, less touristy village, with neat, attractive houses decked with flowering pots and some of the buildings rising straight up from the outcroppings of limestone hundreds of years ago. This is where we bought our Saturday night supper of pizza, from another pizza van parked in the square, freshly made as we watched!
Our two days at Murs revealed a different environment. Murs is north of Gordes and lays in the higher hills below Mount Ventoux, which at 1910 metres, is the highest point in the region and it's bald head is visible from most of the towns around. The surrounding hillsides are covered in herbal scrub (garrigue) and with a Mistral blowing coldly around the corners of the exposed building, it was a far more bracing environment. Murs is where we had the BEST restaurant meal of our whole trip. La Crillon named after the town's famous son, a notable military man of Napoleonic times, provided an excellent gourmet 3-course meal for a very reasonable $16 each including a delicate local rosé wine.
Poppies at Murs
Our B&B at Murs is the realisation of the dream of Robert and Christine Guillen at La Guillone. Robert is an accomplished landscape gardener, evident in the charming garden below the house. They opened their restored historical farmhouse in 2001, having built a new home a little way up the track from the road between Gordes and Murs. From our suite, views stretched across a poppy-strewn valley to Murs, a small village with one hotel/restaurant and a post office. This B&B was unique in that it provided a small kitchenette adjacent to a comfortable living room with TV. Our bedroom with adjacent sparkling ensuite ablutions had uninterrupted views across to Murs and up to Mont Ventoux. Christine delivered a fresh, varied breakfast each morning at 8.30 and was a delightful hostess! This was the only place I got the traditional 3 kisses on the cheeks on departure - possibly because between us, we managed to have a good chat about our families and lives in broken English/French!
Gorde, 6km south of Murs, is one of the highlights of a visit to this area. It is crowned with an impressive castle and is arranged very steeply around a hill with a very high narrow crown, so exploring it requires some energy! It is a popular tourist spot and shops reflect this. Sitting on a wall at the very edge of town, looking south to Bonnieux, we marvelled at the height of the retaining walls, topped with houses, every little terrace full of roses and flowers.
What a view! Gordes
From Murs we also visited the Cistercian Abbey of Senanque - magnificently austere, it lays in a deep valley over the hill to the west of Murs, with large lavender fields stretching before it. The lavender was only just starting to open at this stage of our visit, as the weather had been cool until now. To our delight, the cloister garden was under reconstruction and a neat new parterre garden of lavender, rosemary and herbs was laid out between beautifully laid cobblestone pathways - a new fountain being built in one corner. This calls for a visit in a few years to see how it has progressed!! Senanque
We also visited the Fontaine de Vaucluse from here, a very worthwhile day's outing as this is the source of the River Sorgue, fresh out of the mountain and clear as crystal, and the energy source for the watermills which drove the machinery in the many papermaking factories for which the town was famous from 1522 right up until 1968. Paper is still made here, in a living museum, to demonstrate the tradition. The town has historical significance through the 14th century Italian poet, Francesco Petrarch, who came to the town at the age of nine and loved it, crediting it with much of his inspiration.
Our four nights in the Bonnieux area were spent at La Clos du Buis a small hotel on the eastern edge of town, and two nights at La Bouquiere a private home in the hills east of the town.
La Clos du Buis was delightful - recently restored, the room was lovely, looking down on the main street running eastwards out of the town. This meant traffic noise, but as everyone was abed by 11pm, it hardly mattered. The view up to the top of the village was wonderful, especially in the late evening light and it meant we could walk out around the town easily, leaving our car safely parked in the hotel yard. Bonnieux was one of my favourite towns as it is not too touristy, is large enough to provide several fascinating exploratory walks over a number of days, through the steep streets and alleys and has two lovely churches. The oldest, the 12th century church crowning the village, is surrounded by ancient cedars, which must surely have been planted when the church was built, they are so huge and so much a part of its surroundings. These trees can be seen from miles around as they literally create a dark knob atop the village. You cannot mistake Bonnieux for any other village because of them.
[ Bonnieux - View from the hotel window ]
During our time at Bonnieux, the weather settled and suddenly we were HOT. The lavender began to open and the scent of this and the prolific yellow broom on the hills, filled the air with a heady perfume.
From Bonnieux, you look west to Lacoste. This is a fascinating village too - about half the size of Bonnieux, its crowning glory is the ruined chateau of the wicked Marquis de Sade the 18th century Alphonse Francois, playwright and novelist, famous mostly for his perverted activities. Rumour has it that Pierre Cardin now owns the chateau and has plans to restore it. There is no doubt Mr Cardin supports the arts in the area, as posters on the local café windows advertise concerts and festivals funded by him, with the Avignon orchestra and chorale and various local opera stars taking part. One may also study arts in the town.
Walking around Lacoste, my other most favourite town, the streets are beautifully laid and kept and the Many doors had signs stating the study of painting and sculpture takes place within. Hard to believe when each neighbour's door is only metres away. A "Tardis"-like potential seems to exist behind these doorways, with obviously great available spaces beyond each ancient and crumbling entrance. There is no doubt at all, for the most part, the original doors still hang in place, only propped up here and there when strictly necessary and amazingly, the wood has lasted well.
[ Mont Ventoux from Lacoste ]
Lacoste has also some lovely local canine and feline residents. My favourite was Leo - an angular, soft black dachsund who sleeps right in the middle of the steep stone street outside his pretty home, bedecked with flowers. He is very friendly and has his name woven into a custom-made collar.
In Bonnieux we managed to relax a bit - enjoying dinner on the terrace above our hotel, shaded with chestnuts while the sun was high, and ideal for observing the sun setting behind Lacoste. The Plat du jour is always three courses, starting with a salad or crudite platter, then a delicious main course, usually a choice of lamb, duck or pork, sometimes fish, then a choice of 3rd course being cheeses, or dessert which has 4 choices, usually chocolate mousse, citrus tart, crème caramel and always of course, glace! The local wine, usually rosé, comes in a pitcher to suite, of 2, 4, or 6 glasses volume. It is always delicate and delicious.
From Bonnieux we also visited Oppede de Vieux, a very lovely old village under an overhanging crag of the Luberon mountains. Our approach from the public parking on the edge of town was via a very beautiful winding garden path, leading up through beds of lavender and flowers, dotted with pencil pines and with lovely views northwards. I spent a lovely half hour sketching while Rod tackled the steep climb to the top of the village where the ancient church stands. We had coffee in a shady café, while the local poodles sported at our feet. Across the little square, a young man, covered in pale dust, chipped and tapped away laying new flagstones in the traditional way.
[ Oppede de Vieux ]
We visited Menerbe on the way back to our hotel, vowing to come back and dine at the beautiful restaurant on the terrace, but the opportunity did not arise - maybe next time.
Moving on to our last stop at La Bouquiere, we found a haven of peace bordering forests of oak, pine and cedar. The blackbirds and jays ruled the roost here and bees were in heaven among the many flowering shrubs and plants in the borders. We enjoyed supper al fresco by the pool, overlooking cherry orchards and could hear the gypsies in the valley, playing some wild woodwind and drums late into the night (they arrive at cherry picking time).
From here, we drove through a small narrow wooded pass to Lourmarin on the Friday, so visit the market. This was certainly colourful and the food stalls most fascinating with ancient dried (and pungent) sausages, cheeses, an array of hot roast fowl fresh off the rotisserie (anything from quail to heaven knows what), an amazing fishmongers stall sporting the head of a marlin with a lemon in its mouth!! Stalls of spices, pottery, linens, clothing, biscuits and spiced breads (pain d' epice), Cashmere shawls (Kashmiri proprietors), kitchenware made of olive wood, soaps and lavender products, and a jazz band playing. All very colourful, as was the main street winding up from the market, edged with very smart cafes, largely patronised by American tourists it seemed. Lourmarin is really just outside the triangle of the perched villages, laying just south of the Luberon mountains, but nevertheless a very pretty town.
We departed for Grasse on Saturday 15th June
Our route was to take us via the Verdon River and the impressive Canyon du Verdon. It proved to be a long day, as the driving was demanding - the roads as always narrow and for the most part precipitous and dangerous. The scenery however, was breathtaking, with firstly the Lac St. Croix a man-made lake of the most dazzling turquoise blue. The Verdon River emerges from the western end of the canyon into the lake, which is a playground for water lovers. Paddle boats, canoes, sail boats and ski-ers dot the surface with the more adventurous venturing into the mouth of the gorge, from our high vantage-point, looking for all the world like some intrepid explorers!
[ View from western end of the Gorge ]
Opportunities to view the Gorge were frequent and many pictures were taken (as were deep breaths). Time did not allow us to stop and explore Moustiers, a town dwarfed by strangely shaped overhanging crags and associated with the Crusades, nor Castellane, where a tiny chapel sits atop the most improbably vertical pinnacle of rock shadowing the town, below which a Roman bridge, still in use, spans the eastern end of the Verdon river, prior to its plunging into the Canyons.
Driving on down to Grasse was a series of wide twisting turns over 63 kilometres. Arriving finally at La Rivolte, firstname.lastname@example.org our belle epoch B&B was a relief and our arrival, most pleasant, in the midst of our hosts' party to celebrate the England/Denmark World Cup Soccer game. People in sarongs and swimwear, red, white and blue balloons, and flowers to match on the long colourful table on the terrace overlooking Grasse and the Mediterannean! Not to mention the friendly hello in impeccable English tones from our lovely hostess Cathy King.
La Rivolte was a very special experience. Built at the height of the Belle Epoch of the perfume industry in Grasse, the house, with an edge of crumbling grandeur, was purchased by a British publisher about 6 years ago. The previous owners were perfumiers and had lived there for 46 years. The house occupies 2 acres of terraced gardens and can be explored on the web at www.larivolte.com
Jon and Cathy King have run La Rivolte for the past 3 years, having spent some years in Paris. Cathy runs the B&B and Jon has a successful marketing business, providing web design and promotional services to various clients including luxury yacht charterers on the Cote d Azur. They are a young couple, who proved to be delightful hosts.
Our room, at the top, [ see photo, window top left ] with lovely views down to the Med, peeped through old cedars and palms, to the sea ahead, the pool below, and the old town of Grasse to the right. Red squirrels live on the hillside and blackbirds herald the dawn and the dusk. We had 4 lovely days relaxing around the pool, enjoying the library and the other lounge where we could choose from a variety of videos, or watch satellite. We walked into the Vielle Ville often, of course, finding it quite different from the Luberon, as here there is a strong influence from France's legacy in Algeria. The passers by were a fascinating bunch - all very bohemian. We dined in local cafes very cheaply, only preparing our dinner once in the lovely new kitchen at La Rivolte. We visited Fragonard, one of the 3 original perfumeries still operating in Grasse. Each have their own range of lovely perfumes, but of course do much of the development work for today's famous designer perfumes, marketed under the names of the designers or fashion houses.
Nice and Italy. On 19th June, we headed back to Nice to deposit our hire car and take the train to Liguria in Italy.
Our base for 3 nights was Villa Gnocchi at Santa Margherita Ligure. This is the main town to access Portofino, that famous retreat of old for the jaded British gentry of the 18th century. email@example.com
Roberto and Simona Gnocchi restored the house and old buildings on his grandfather's property about 4 km out of Sta Margherita some years ago and are raising their young children in a hospitality environment.
The property overlooks a steep valley, with the town at its base, on the Mediterranean, at the south eastern corner of the Portofino Promontory. This region is a national park and deserves more than a couple of days exploration. However, we took the ferry to Portofino and Santa Fruttuosa Monastery on the one day, which was glorious.
Despite the Mediterranean being almost hidden in a heavy, humid haze (from Grasse to the day we left for Zurich), the water was lanquid and glassy and dreamy to travel over, as our vessel carried us beneath the high wooded cliffs of the promontory. Nearing Portofino, a 15 minute ride from Sta. Margherita, we saw picturesque and splendid villas dotting the clifftops. Portofino itself is, as expected, as colourful as the pictures promise. The cafes are full of well-heeled tourists and entry often requires a cover charge and a service charge on top of the cost of the meal. We bought an icecream which we enjoyed on a bench overlooking the harbour, a kaleidoscope of coloured boats and reflections. Portofino
In Sta.Margherita and Portofino, and I guess an Italian tradition generally, the houses are built very square and have the appearance of grand affluence from the wonderfully painted exteriors. Mouldings of urns and scrollwork are all done skillfuly with the brush and we were lucky to observe one of the local craftsmen at work in St. Margherita, painting panels on a wall so skillfully, from only a short distance away, it is difficult to tell which buildings have real plasterwork and which are painted. Careful observation is made of the prevailing light source.
Santa Fruttuosa monastery is amazing. Dating back to the 8th century it is a small Benedictine monastery nestling at the base of steep cliffs. The only way there is by paths over difficult terrain, or by sea. Apart from the monastery, there are a few houses and of course, several little cafes positioned on the rocky cliff base, and on the beach. The water is clean and clear and the pebble beach very popular with day trippers.
You can take the boat, once the season starts (July onwards) down the Cinque Terre to the other towns in this cluster of ancient, traditional fishing villages, or you can take the train which cuts through tunnels, but we did not have the time. We preferred to walk down the never ending staircase to Santa Margherita, from our B&B, explore the town and sit on the promenade. We did go by train to Rapallo to find a sports store where we could buy our sons the latest Soccer shirts from their favourite Italian clubs and a replica World Cup ball. We also went to Camogli that day - another colourful town, less touristy and obviously a busy traditional fishing town at the western end of the Portofino promontory.
Villa Gnocchi was quite delightful. It really was beautifully furnished and our room was in the guests' house, formerly the original house on the property. It had an elegant living room, beautifully decorated, overlooking a narrow terrace garden, brilliant with bougainvillea and hydrangea, and heady with the scent of jasmine. At night, fireflies flitted in the olive groves beneath the terrace and between the shrubs of the garden. It was really quite magical.
[ Breakfast at Villa Gnocchi ]
Roberto prepared a delicious dinner each night, served on the terrace of the main house. This is something he does when he has a full complement of guests. The meal began with a pasta dish, usually noodles tossed in a light sauce, either of creamy basil or tomato, then a main dish of chicken or fish, always delicious, and desert of crème caramel or fruit salad, with bread, wine or coffee. At 16 euro a head, with around $3 extra for a 750ml bottle of wine, the great view from the terrace, and all at the usual unhurried pace of life around the Mediterranean, it was a blissful end to our time in this part of Europe.
On our walks down to town, we had passed 2 or 3 crumbling villas, vacant we guessed due to the fact they had no street access. The only way in and out was via this steep path - the Via Romana.
Roberto told us he had bought the first of these grand old houses, next door, and with quite a large wide terrace of land laying between his property and the crumbling building. He had already begun repair work on the old villa and planned a lovely garden, which he hoped would all be open for guests within the next 12 to 18 months. Another reason to visit again in a few years to see what has developed !!
We left the Mediterranean on Saturday 22 June on a three day journey that was to take us back through 4 countries enroute home to Perth, Australia.
Bus at 6.44am from San Lorenzo, just above the villa, to Rapallo. Train from Rapallo to Milan, a wait there sufficient to take in the magnificence of the station building, then the Cisalpino first class to Zurich, with all the dazzling panaorama of the Alpine mountains and lakes between.
The afternoon and evening in Zurich, wondering at the neatness and huge expense of everything, then the overnight by train to Paris - in a rather stifling, but clean and adequate couchette. The morning in Paris, where we walked from the Garde du Nord where we had lockered our luggage, up to Montmartre, which we had missed on our last visit in 1973 !!
Place du Tertre and of course Moulin Rouge !
The Sacre Couer was magnificent as expected, the streets and the Place du Tertre and its artists very colourful and entertaining, as was the walk down to the Moulin Rouge, salivating at the cake shops, charcuteries and fruit stalls. Disappointed at how much trash and litter was strewn everywhere, but it WAS Sunday, so we hoped the street cleaners would be out in force on Monday.
[ Unbelievably creative shop front - Montmartre ]
Our flight back to London left Charles de Gaulle at 4pm and went well. We checked into the Shakespeare Hotel in Norfolk Square near Paddington and were well pleased at its location in a lovely leafy green square, with such a good choice of eateries around. It is always good to be back in England after struggling with foreign languages, no matter how beautiful and exotic the locations visited.
We flew out of Heathrow at noon on Monday 24th June, arriving in Perth the following day at 3.00pm.
Our visit to Provence and Liguria had been such a fun adventure, with so many colourful and special memories, captured on film of course, so that we can look back and recall yet another rich experience in our lives.
- Bonnieux - 84480
- La Bouquiere
- Fran ç oise & Angel Escobar
- Tel: (33) 0490 758 717; Fax: (33) 0490 758 356
- Fran ç oise & Angel Escobar
- Bonnieux - 84480
- Le Clos du Buis
- Mr et Mme Maurin
- Rue Victor Hugo
- Tel: (33) 0490 758 848; Fax: (33) 0490 758 857
- Email: Lefirstname.lastname@example.org
- Mr et Mme Maurin
- Draguignan - 83300
- Les Etoiles de l'Ange
- Tel: (33) 0494 682 301; Fax: (33) 0494 681 330
- Grasse - 06130
- La Rivolte
- Cathy & Jon King - proprietors
- GrasseChemin des Lierres
- Tel: (33) 0493 368158; Fax: (33) 0493 368 729
- Email: email@example.com
- Cathy & Jon King - proprietors
- Murs - 84220
- La Guillone
- Christine et Robert Guillen
- Tel: (33) 0490 720 643; Fax: (33) 0490 720 643
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Christine et Robert Guillen
- Nimes - 30000
- L' Orangerie
- 755 rue Tour de l'Evèque
- Tel: (33) 0466 845 057; Fax: (33) 0466 294 455
- Email: email@example.com
- 755 rue Tour de l'Evèque
- Roussillon - 84220
- Maison Cote Sud
- Chemin de la Mutte
- Tel: (33) 0490 057 298
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Chemin de la Mutte
- Villa Gnocchi
- Santa Margherita (GE) 16038, Italy
- Via Romana 53
- Tel: (39) 0185 283431; Fax: (39) 0185 283431
- Email: email@example.com
- Simona & Roberto Gnocchi
- Santa Margherita (GE) 16038, Italy