Troy Hightower

A Villa in Provence

Sunlight of Cezanne and Van Gogh, perfume of lavender and herbs, the silvery gray-green of olive orchards everywhere, bright red of poppy fields, and intense yellow of sunflowers. The soft feel of the Provencal air, the fuzzed look of perched mediaeval villages of golden stone, silhouetted against the purple mountains behind. Provence touches and entices all the senses.

Extending roughly from Montelimar in the north to the Mediterranean in the south, and from Nimes in the west virtually to the Italian border in the east, this magical part of France offers the right combination of things to do and see, and sheer leisure and indulgence, to insure a really relaxing vacation. The “heart” of Provence is that area encompassing the Luberon Valley, the shoulders of Mount Ventoux, and the Vaucluse plain. Away to the west from the hectic tourism of the French Riviera, this heart offers a sojourn oriented to resting, recharging batteries, and eating well, as well as investigation of wonderful natural and man created sights. Of course, Provence has its share of cities — Avignon, Chateauneuf du pape, Orange, and Nice, with exciting antiquities, Roman ruins, old quarters, shopping and dining. But to us, the best of Provence is in the countryside.

We have found that exploring areas like Provence from a private rental — a villa, a ‘mas’ (renovated farmhouse), or bastide (country house) is a most enjoyable holiday method. With a villa as our base, we have the advantage of much more comfortable and spacious living quarters than a hotel affords. And we have the relaxing and informal convenience of leisurely breakfasts and picnic lunches on our own private deck or terrace, overlooking our private swimming pool, all without the hovering attendance of waiters, servers or staff. Yet with a rental car, we give up none of the flexibility to dine out at sensational local restaurants when and where we choose, and do just as much exploring and sightseeing as we desire.

In and around many of the hill towns of the Luberon valley — Bonnieux, Menerbes, Lacoste, Gordes — there are villas and accommodations which fit this bill . This is the pays written of so humorously and evocatively by Peter Mayle in his twin tomes “A Year In Provence” and “Toujours Provence”. Unabashed Mayle fans, we feel that at least the first of these should be required reading for the Provence-bound traveler. Recently, a hilltop villa outside an ancient historic village was ideal as a base for a heart of Provence exploration.

A day in the life:
Being on vacation means no alarm clocks. Some wake earlier, some later, but wake when you will, not by bell. Clad in bathrobe or shorts, unfold with juice and strong French coffee on the terrace, in the soft, 70 degree air. Watch lazily as the new Provencal day catches its rhythm. Slake your hunger with tiny, ripe salmon-fleshed Cavaillon melons, and croissants or fresh, warm bread and apricot preserves. Oxygenate your brain with some brisk laps in the pool, or a run or a walk over a farm road, bordered by cherry orchards and vineyards.

Mid-morning, a visit to the nearest open-air farmers market, or marché is in order. The markets set up in different local villages each day. Today, it is in the center of Gordes, next to, and around that village’s Renaissance Chateau. The market is a jubilant, tumultuous display of fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, charcuterie, herbs, honey, wines and local liqueurs, fabrics and clothes, pottery, handicrafts and brocante, or bric-a-brac. There are just-picked lettuces, ripe red tomatoes, mounds of crimson peppers, dusky purple eggplant, and courgettes (zucchini) those basic, staple vegetables of Provence. There are dried and cured sausages, country hams, and local cheeses of goat and sheep milk. The olive vendors are a visual marvel. Dozens of types and cures and marinades of green and black olives line up in wooden tubs next to olive paste, tapenade and marinated peppers. Mixed herbs for salads, for pizza, for stews, for fish, and for grilling lie next to fragrant cloth bags of herbs de Provence and sachets of lavender. At the miel vendor, honey of lavender, thyme, heather, chestnut, oak and more stand waiting to have their flavors tasted and differentiated. Local and Rhone valley wines are on sale at reasonable prices, as well as several varieties of the ever-present Provencal pastis, an aperitif liqueur pungent with anise.

The importance of local markets to us as vacationers basing ourselves in a villa rather than a hotel is obvious. We acquire local, farm made products and produce for breakfast, terrace lunches, and those dinners which we choose to have at home, “chez nous”. In fact, marketing at the outdoor marchés is one of the pleasurable portions of the day. Today we purchase dead ripe tomatoes, just-baked crusty country bread, and Cabecou and Banon, Provencal goat and sheep milk cheeses, and dry cured country ham, (similar to Italian proscuitto) for lunch tomorrow. Dinner tonight is planned for an outdoor restaurant in a nearby village, so we need not purchase for that, but apricot-almond preserves and honey from heather will brighten tomorrow’s breakfast table.

Marketing done, some sightseeing is in order. Today we visit the Abbaye de Senanque, a medieval monastery dating to the twelfth century, several kilometers outside of the village of Gordes. This imposing and spartan Romanesque stone complex is tucked into a small folded valley, and exudes the grace and calm that characterize the Cistercian monk’s lifestyle. The self-guided tour gives an interesting glimpse into the mediaeval monk’s daily life. Long rows of indigo lavender, tended by the remaining monks of the Abbey, lead up to the stone entrance. A water cistern, just outside the main entrance once served to wash the callused hands of many more monks than reside here today, as their ranks have dwindled over the years.

Ecclesiastical sightseeing always gives us a good appetite, so leaving the abbey, we motor back through the chaparral-like surrounding terrain, through Gordes, arriving shortly in Goult, where we lunch simply and well at Le Tonneau on rabbit paté, warm, stuffed artichokes, and a perfect mesclun salad, along with a cool bottle of Bandol Rosé. Marketing, sightseeing, and lunch over, it is time for a return to our pleasant villa for a leisurely afternoon. A nap followed by several laps in the pool lead to desultory journal-keeping and postcard writing. As the sun drops toward the horizon, the shadows lengthen and the purple dusk begins to gather. Cocktails on the terrace - kir royale, a touch of pastis, or perhaps a glass of cool, local rosé, and then shortly it is time to be off to dinner.

A brief drive, winding at the end through the eerie granite formations of the gorge of a small river descending from the Luberon mountains leads us to the small village of Buoux (pronounced Byoocks). Here, the Auberge de la Loube - the Inn of the Wolf - will see that we dine well this evening . A melange of accents can be heard—locals, talking animatedly in the twangy Provencal dialect, Parisians, English, and Italians all contribute to the polyglot. The meal at this simple but excellent country inn is “semi-fixed”. The hors - d'oeuvre, first course, cheese and dessert are set, with a choice of several delectable sounding entrées. The quite theatrical waiter, clad in white blouson, jodhpurs, and tennis shoes, brings our starter - a wooden tray set with over a dozen tiny palette teasers - marinated peppers, tiny whole artichokes, olives, salt cod spread, tapenade, anchoiade, and ratatoullie, all served with good, honest country bread. The following main course offers a choice of local chicken wrapped around herbs and sauteed, poeleé of salmon in a red wine sauce, and lamb, roast with garlic and rosemary. A Chateuaneuf du Pape, Clos de la Bernardine 1989 proves an admirable accompaniment.

The cheese course is a delightful surprise. After a few days, one becomes somewhat inured to the amazing selection of delicious cheeses available everywhere here. Still, the “Banon, affiné maison” is quite something — a goat cheese, wrapped in chestnut leaves, and aged in the Auberge’s own cellar, until the cheese is runny/creamy — delectable with the last of the Chateauneuf du Pape. Dessert? Impossible. Coffee and liqueurs leave us satiated, mellow, and prepared for the short trip back to our villa, and restful sleep.

Another wonderful day in the paradise that is Provence.