Our first time in Provence we had dutifully “done" Arles and Avignon and hurried on to Aix. In the hasty calculation of the traveler moving pell-mell from Paris to the Riviera, these three towns are Provence. Lovely towns they are, too, each in its special way — except in the flood season of tourism when they are all but blotted out by the furious coursing of vehicles down the wicked way known as N. 7. Yet, looked at in another light, N. 7 is a blessing; channeled in its deep rut, the flood of tourists has missed almost everything else in Provence, leaving it the least molested of Europe’s prime travel grounds.
Provence did not really begin for us until, under the influence of wine, we were lured away from the main roads to an otherworldly scene of flowers and shepherds, olives and vines, herbs and garlic, hills of lavender, and orange-roofed villages where men play boules in leafy squares as if that were all they ever did. It was, pure and simple, the country of the Good Life, earthbound and amiable, strong in its traditions and appetites, remote from our world of mass life and standardization. A Roman of the fourth century wrote: “Everything of the Orient, of Araby with its pungent perfumes, of luxurious Asia, Africa with its rich soil, everything which lovely Spain and fertile Gaul can produce, all these are in as great abundance [here] as in the countries of origin.”So it was; so it is today.
It (the Good Life) all began for us at a cafe table in Aix on the wide shady sidewalk of the Cours Mirabeau, a short promenade of cafes, fountains, plane trees, and Renaissance mansions that is often called the most beautiful street in France. It began, naturally enough, with the region’s pre-eminent wine, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, served as it should be served in especially big glasses, only half full, so that its subtle bouquet could be revealed. You dip your nose into the glass of aromas and then sip. And it is just as a local pamphlet says it is: “The wine gives off a thousand odors, violent at first, of truffles and moorland herbs, and then finer ones, the evocation of sunkissed fruits, peaches, apricots and raspberries, an assortment of floral scents by the tubful.” Pure essence of Provence, in fact; and with it came the sharp realization that we had had enough of towns and tourisme for a while, that somewhere else, among those moorland herbs and truffles, lay the “real” Provence. (Were we thinking then of Cezanne’s rocks and hills, of van Gogh’s blue and yellow boats on green canals?) Discussing these wishful thoughts with the patron of the café — a true Provencal in his voluble enthusiasm — we heard him tell of back roads romantic and innumerable, of unspoiled country where no heavy traffic ever ran, of Roman ruins few travelers had seen, of slapstick country bullfights held in a circle of farm wagons, not for blood but for the fun of it. Encouraged by the light in our eyes, he went on in his Midi drawl to speak of melons so fragrant they can perfume a whole house; of grapes and almonds, eggplant and snails, bouillabaisse and brandade so bountiful as to seem the embodiment of one of Brueghel’s earthly paradises. In its own venerable tongue, he said, Provence is sometimes called lou paradou — the paradise.
Finally he spoke — by now our fervent mentor — of his heart’s own subject, le vin: of small chateaux strewn all through this rich landscape whose wines, unknown only because their production is too limited for export, were often as good as the esteemed cru we were now so happily imbibing.
The upshot of this talk was our excited pursuit of those small chateaux and their robust little wines through the immensely varied miniature worlds of Provence. To taste was our object, and taste we did — from the luminous plains of the Rhone delta spreading south from Avignon to the sea, through the hills of pine and cypress around Aix, and on to the mountain country of the north and west. The wines were memorable, as full-bodied and ardent as le patron said they would be. Better still, tasting led to talk (tell a Provençal you like his wine and you have made a friend), talk led to cooking and cooks, and these in turn led to other revelations, of country inns and village hotels, for example, where the spiced and herbaceous cuisine of the region is as untamed as the decor and ambience are authentic.
Provence has more than its share of great restaurants, but too often, in their eagerness to please everyone, these shy away from the “too fragrant” regional specialties. What the Provençals themselves eat with such gusto is good country cooking, solidly based on an abundance of fresh local produce and a variety of interesting fish from the Mediterranean. The basil-flavored soup called pistou, brandade de morue, with its heady sauce of cream, olive oil, and the pervasive garlic; moussaka rich with onion and mushrooms; artichoke (a la barigoule) filled with ham and herbs — such are the truly characteristic pleasures of this table, along with the better-known bouillabaisse, tomates provenqales, rockfish (loup or rouget) grilled with fennel over a bed of vine cuttings, and the justly celebrated ground-garlic mayonnaise called aioli.
Only here and there at the “important” eating places does one find these aromatic dishes; it is in the small-town and back-country inns that they prevail. The fact is that one eats well almost anywhere in Provence; but a few such inns commendable for their setting as well as their food might be noted: Lou Miradou in Cavaillon, Le Provencal in Orange, Hotel Grand Paris in Digne, the Philip in Vaucluse, Le Beffroi in Vaison, Hotel du Ventoux in Malaucene, and two places — Mère Germaine and La Mule du Pape — at Chateauneufdu-Pape, where the excellent wineries are always open to visitors and tasters. Good examples of the unheralded local wines are usually served in these places en carafe. Ask the patron or the chef (often the same man) for the source: the avenues and gardens, statuary and architecture, and intimate work life of these small chateaux are as appealing as the wines themselves. (Other wines worth asking for by name are the Cassis and Bellet grown on the coast, and those of the Côtes-du-Rhône: Tavel, Rasteau, and Gigondas.)
A country within a country, Provence is not much larger than the state of Vermont, and altogether human in its scale and pace. Even the larger towns are small, coherent entities, full of character and zest, still rooted in the accessible countryside which is so perfectly suited to walking, cycling, picnicking. A dense network of secondary roads offers multiple possibilities for circular itineraries, and makes the rental of car, motor scooter, or bicycle a sound investment. At the heart of the region, in the rough quadrangle formed by Avignon, Arles, Aix, and Apt, distances are almost negligible. It is 18 miles from Nimes to Arles, 24 from Arles to Avignon, and 18 more from Avignon to Orange by way of Chateauneuf-du-Papc: from Roman arenas and a walled town to castles and chateau-vineyards all in a half day’s drive.
By extending this itinerary from Orange to Vaison, then following the unfrequented and highly scenic mountain roads (N. 538, D. 4, and N. 543) to Carpentras, Apt, and Aix, the back-road traveler will see the whole multiform array of Provencal landscape and townscape in a drive of about 150 miles — as rewarding a slice of Europe as there is. What is more, he will have it almost to himself.
In this country of high contrasts, a half-hour drive in any direction brings a complete change of world. For example, from the upthrust rock of the Alpilles country around the haunting medieval stronghold of Les Baux, across the ripe golden plain of Arles to the bulls, cowboys, dude ranches, and flamingos in the wide-open Camargue of the Rhone delta is less than 20 miles. Aix in its green valley is no more than an hour from the fishing villages and brilliant white fjords (Les Calanques, near charming Cassis) of the Mediterranean. And in a twohour drive in the other direction are the mountain villages and unpretentious ski resorts of the lower Alps. Here, based on the comforts and cooking of Digne, one can move in an easy day’s excursion through some of the least known of the little worlds of Provence: to mountainrimmed Castellane and the old craft center of Moustiers, then on to the awesome gorges of the Verdon.
Most surprising was the discovery of Peira-Cava in the Alpes Maritimes, ten miles above Nice and its palm trees, a walking, climbing, and skiing center encircled by pine forest and snowy peaks. In a typically modest Provence restaurant (and afterward at an inn-with-a-view outside the village) we came upon mountain cooking of very rare quality. One meal began with sumptuous hors d’oeuvres — tiny artichokes, fresh peppers, leeks, raw mushrooms — and went on to trout a l’Orange, steak, a marvelous spread of cheeses, and raspberries picked nearby that morning. The bill came to $2.50. The bread, nut-brown and full of flavor, was from the brick oven of a primitive village bakery.
Certainly the greatest pleasure in a region with so definite and distinctive a style of life is to penetrate, even if only a little way, into that life. Food and wine will provide one kind of entree; another is to discover the household interiors and the true domestic ambience of Provence. The delights of its sprawling country houses, with their terraces and dovecotes and pergolas full of flowers, their vaulted rooms, huge fireplaces, and massive armoires, are available in an impressive number of small hotels, most of them converted from the handsome stone houses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Enhanced by superb locations, with long views over vines and olives to sea and mountains, they are so wisely placed and well distributed that they provide the impulsive improviser a place to turn to wherever he may wander. Almost every town of any size has one or more of these characterful inns in or near it (Le Syndicat d’Initiative, omnipresent, will help to locate them), a crucial consideration for the May through September traveler who wants to see but not become entangled in the main tourist centers. Prices are half those of Paris and the Riviera.
In July, major festivals of music and drama are magnificently set among the Roman arenas of Nimes and Orange and the Renaissance palaces of Aix and Avignon. But autumn, as mild as the early-arriving spring, is the best time of year here, with wine festivals at Nimes and in many villages, and fairs at Aix, Avignon, and Tarascon. It is a time, too, when the highly civilized but tourist-pressed inhabitants of the larger towns come into their own again as cafe sitters, strollers, and talkers, ready to see their visitors again not as hordes but as individuals.
Two prime examples of the strategically located country inn at its best are La Petite Auberge at Noves (fifteen rooms, 6 miles from Avignon) and La Baumanière at Les Baux (ten rooms, 9 miles from Arles), both with food and finesse matched by marvelous settings; reservations are essential. In each case — true to the Provençal abundance — there is a worthy alternative: La Reine Jeanne at Les Baux, and Le Prieure at Villeneuve, across the Rhone from Avignon, converted from an old priory that stands serenely among ancient churches and strongholds, so near and yet so far from the summertime clatter of boisterous Avignon.
Ten miles from Aix, surrounded by its own park, is the Chateau de Meyrargues, an eleventh-century house on a hill, elegantly fitted up as a country hotel, with seven guest rooms and la grande cuisine. (Ask for the local wine from Chateau Simone.) At the end of a memorable back road from Nimes and its formidable Roman monuments looms one of the greatest of Rome’s engineering achievements, the Pont du Gard. And magnificently exposed to it in this quiet countryside along the river Gard are two cheerful inns, the Vieux Moulin and the Pont du Gard, further examples of the local talent for combining three of the Frenchman’s main travel goals: belles promenades, beaux sites, et bon repos.
Nowhere in Provence is such a combination more completely realized than it is among the roses, antiquities, and refinements of bed and board of Vaison-la-Romaine, a town of 3500 souls as remarkable as it is overlooked. Its foremost inn, a latesixteenth-century house of twenty rooms called Le Beffroi, looks out from its flowery terrace to a bowl of wooded hills and down across the river Ouveze (with its single-arched Roman bridge) to the richest archaeological find in Provence. After fifty years of careful digging, there stands revealed an important Roman town of the second century B.C., a kind of French Pompeii in the completeness of its human detail: houses of every class, including a patrician villa with its statues, mosaics, frescoes, marbles; and shops, a forum, gardens, and a hilltop theater, where classical plays are produced in the latter half of July.
On a rocky escarpment above the river is the upper town, its twisting passages full of beautifully restored medieval houses, its church dating back to the time of Charlemagne, its eminence crowned by the ruined twelfth-century Chateau of the Counts of Toulouse. Over all rises the snowcapped mass of Le Mont Ventoux (6273 feet) in an isolated, unspoiled countryside that is but thirty scenic miles from Avignon. The day-long eighty-five-mile circular drive from Vaison around the massif and up to its summit, with at least a dozen engaging villages along the way (see Malaucene, Crestet, Entrechaux, Mollans), is not to be missed. From the observatory or from the pleasant little hotel restaurant at the top, immense views extend, on a very clear day, across France from Mont Blanc to the Mediterranean. Vaison’s contemporary life centers itself on a lively, cafe-encircled Tuesday morning market; whence come the melons, strawberries, grapes, truffles, asparagus, fish, game, and so on for Le Beffroi’s very good kitchen.
A crack train goes to Avignon from Paris every day in just over six hours. The motorist has N. 7 and its string of renowned restaurants, to be attempted only in the off-season; or the slower but more appealing roads that run parallel to it through the upper Rhone valley — N. 86, for example. For the adventurous and unhurried there is the old-fashioned way. down the Rhone by the motor launch from Lyons to Avignon in twelve hours, that so well suits the mood of the south and the splendor of the castle-dotted valley. Crossing the Atlantic by air has now become a fairly simple matter, even in midsummer and even on the spur of the moment. Pan American, for instance, has about a hundred flights a day to Europe at the season’s height, including one to Provence’s major airport at Nice. The $504 round-trip ticket, New York and Nice, allows for stopovers at Lisbon and Barcelona, and at Paris, London, and Shannon on the return journey.