I sat in a poolside chair on terracotta tiles, the silver handles of the pool’s steps glinting into the pale blue water. Beyond the roof of the house, the tops of cedar trees were sparsely spread between thick flowering bushes, abuzz with stripy bumble bees. I heard only the noise of the cigalles in the garden, the strange chirping creatures that resemble a small piece of bark, and chirp strictly when the temperature reaches 25°C. I felt relaxed and content, inspired by my surroundings. The simplicity of the comfortable life I languished in for a week made me long for a piece of it myself. Although my desire to continue moving was still present, after the flurry of Paris, I felt incredibly relieved to be able to exhale.
We had arrived in Cabrieres d’Avignon the evening before and were kindly being put up for the week by friends of Iain’s mother, Rosie and Carlo. Rosie, who has lived mostly in London, between various travel adventures (such as an overland trip through Africa), relocated to France three years ago with Carlo, who considers himself South African despite Belgian origins. They have since become the ever-welcoming hosts, often offering the tranquillity of their home to their friends. A friend of Rosie’s, Mel, was staying there for the same week as us. Their house, named Voix des Cedres (Voice of the Cedars), was a sanctuary in which we could relax. Weary from having moved around every few days since the trip began, we now had no agenda, no expectations, and no obligations. It was bliss.
It took until the afternoon of our second day for me to drag myself from the poolside down to the village, at the bottom of the hill. I found a twist of ribbon-like streets, lined by rows of closed doors during the hottest hours of the day, when the villagers bury themselves inside under the pretext of a long lunch. The boulangerie, the charcuterie and the local corner shop owners had also retreated, and nothing remained of the morning’s flurry for fresh bread. A stillness hung in the air.
Braving the lingering heat, Iain and I then decided to walk to Gorde, a nearby medieval hilltop village. We crossed stony red paths, olives groves in the plots beside. At four in the afternoon the temperature hung at 35°C, heavy and humid. The crest of the hill appeared within sight, and we climbed toward the muted browns of the medieval settlement, weather-beaten dwellings carved into the craggy curves ahead.
A constant exposure to new stimuli is part and parcel of a relatively fast paced trip like ours, but I have quickly realised how easily one can become blasé towards beauty and significance that would normally astound. Having recently visited several antique towns, Gorde was sadly nothing but a typically attractive town to me, its narrow streets dotted with the usual postcard stands, restaurants and cafés. We wandered through the centre with an ice cream, then started the hot hour’s walk back to where we called “home” that week. The town’s jagged outline glowed, the sun showing no inclination to descend and grant us the cool cloak of night.
Our stay in Cabrieres coincided with the annual Festival d’Avignon, a hugely popular arts festival that makes organising a last minute stay in the city impossible. Instead, we took a train in and spent the second half of the day marvelling at the buzz that emanated from every corner. The city was steeped in France’s creative juices, devoured by throngs of people with zest.
The menu board at an outdoor restaurant elicited our interest by advertising cheap rib eye steaks with roquefort sauce. Their tables were well placed alongside the pedestrianised street where most of the activity was centred, so we thought it a lucky find. Agreeing to a large draught beer, accustomed to “large” being pint sized, the waiter produced an enormous thick set glass containing no less than a litre of Leffe Blonde, a 6.3% ABV beer, almost always sold in half pint measures in the UK, at the landlord’s discretion.
During the process of eating our rather overcooked steaks, minus any trace of anything but tasteless cheddar, we were approached by several of the actors in the various fringe productions. They eagerly handed out flyers, those who spoke English describing the production briefly, and sauntered off to solicit as many people as physically possible. Most were in character, their costumes ranging from old fashioned ballgowns to a giant see-through dome, its two metre diameter inhabited by an astronaut, theme music announcing his arrival. Their commitment to pursue the increasingly competitive art of acting, and the seemingly doomed medium of theatre awoke my compassion, while in truth, I yearned for the adrenalin of my amateur stage days.
Avignon’s Rocher des Doms park offers views onto Pont d’Avignon, and here, looking down onto the Rhone, we watched the sun disappear into the faint horizon. We made our way to a central square where twelve or so young performers went through the motions of an obscure avant-garde piece, dressed in their theatre blacks and heels, umbrellas above their heads. Although difficult to decipher, especially in French, the piece was captivating, owing to the raw enthusiasm painted on the young women’s faces. The Palais des Papes formed the performance’s backdrop, towering high above the square, raising the audience’s gaze.
Later that week, Iain and I joined Rosie, Carlo and Mel at one of the local wine farms, Domaine Faverot, which was holding a summer dinner on their grounds. The evening began with a brief tour of the cellars and the vineyards, delivered in both French and English. After this brief introduction to the making of the wines, we were ushered into a courtyard to begin the all important tasting process. Bright floral cloths were draped over four rectangular tables that stood under a large oak tree, laden with bottles of wine. Three courses appeared amidst a steady flow of wine, as each half empty bottle was swiftly replaced with a full.
A fairly even mix of French and British made up the bulk of the dinner’s guests. We got chatting to Francois, who bought the farm with his wife Sally a few years ago. Escaping the cold of Britain to relocate in Provence seems a common fantasy. Many a Brit might imagines a life of contentment and ease, but the reality is often harsh, Francois began to explain.
As romantic a notion as running a wine farm may appear, he was plain in admitting that a five o’clock start each morning to begin the rounds through his thousands of vines isn’t always appealing. The much desired heat of Provence becomes close to unbearable when the days are spent working outdoors, instead of lazing by the pool, and hired labour is simply not a profitable option.
He detailed the amount of red tape surrounding details such as the naming of the wine, according to region specific regulations. A Shiraz cannot simply be called a Shiraz when produced in France, it must instead highlight the region of production, thus Domaine Faverot’s wines, red and white, are all labelled according to the Cotes du Luberon appellation. Lenience seems to be on the horizon because many wine makers, knowing their market, realise that a trendy Chardonnay is often as far as the expertise of the average consumer goes.
Provence is the land of lavender, and happily, some of the fields within the vicinity of Cabrieres had not yet been harvested that summer. Rosie had a day off work and, keen to unveil this local treasure, had offered to take us to see it in all its glory. We set off in her car in the general direction of some of the better known fields, taking the scenic route. Quiet roads wound loosely alongside the Luberon mountain range, a steely sparkle in the distance. The expanse of vineyards beside the road spread out around us, and Rosie recognised a small turning into one of the farms. We drove in to buy a few bottles, briefly tasting a couple beforehand, and promptly got back on the road.
One of the many medieval towns in the area, Lacoste, was vaguely en route to the lavender fields, so we parked the car and climbed the steep hill into the town to have a little wander. Its architecture is reminiscent of Gorde, the streets appealingly twist into quaint corners and curve round endlessly, begging to be explored. Winding our way toward the top, we reached a plateau, the view swooping down below. The Luberon formed a backdrop to a patchwork of rich red earth, the green thread of vineyards etched into the colour, like the paint on so many Provence inspired canvasses.
Our last night was spent being initiated into the wonders of French cuisine, at a restaurant that Rosie and Carlo know well. It was mine and Iain’s first encounter with cloth napkins since arriving on French soil. The restaurant offered a wide selection of starters, mains and desserts, available as part of a good value set menu, which we all opted for. Goat’s cheese, beef carpaccio and cured ham made up the delicate first courses, followed by rare ribeye steaks, cooked to perfection with a red wine and mushroom jus and delicate dauphinoise potatoes.
The next morning, we took a train to Barcelona, reachable in just a few hours. Italy’s borders, we were told, are also only three or so hours away by car. I walked through the kitchen on our way out, and noticed rows of homemade jams from the region’s abundance of apricots and cherries lining the shelves. The scent of lavender floated through the air, from handfuls scattered through the house. I had never visited a place so pleasingly quaint, yet so close to Europe’s cosmopolitan capitals. Within hours, I was in another country, another world, but the little world I’d left behind was still within reach.
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