It’s nearly 2 weeks since we left Provence to come back to be close to the boys at this difficult time and life has settled into a gentle pattern that sees us making the most of our daily dog walk, replacing our cafe-stops with coffee and homemade teacakes or biscuits in the garden and shopping for the food we need at the small shops locally or via Etsy and other small business portals for gifts and cheer-me-up bits.
We have a list of French films and programmes to watch, having just finished the gripping ‘Le Bureau’ and a pile of jobs to do in and around the house too. It also means we have plenty of time to read and inevitably I went to my old favourite ‘A Year in Provence’ by Peter Mayle, which I know so well now that it feels as if I am wrapped in a big, virtual hug from the place that we love.
I never cease to be amazed that the book was first published over 30 years ago, the year that we got married and when we had our first experience of The Luberon. We started dreaming then, but never really imagined for one minute that it would become such a big part of our lives and that 30 years on we would own our own little part of it and be following (in a much smaller way) Peter Mayle’s path.
What is interesting is how the area has changed over the years and actually how some things have remained pretty much the same. When we first visited it wasn’t unusual to see farmers returning from the field driving their rotavators with small trailers filled with the day’s harvest, whereas now the produce is carried in the back of pick-ups or piled into modern trailers.
The villages though were just as beautiful as they are now, but perhaps best described as a little less finished and a little less polished.
So much is still the same. Winter still has a ‘curiously unreal atmosphere’, so different to the busy-ness and noise of the summer months, where an absolute peace settles across the valley and the blanket of cold air stops the smoke from chimneys rising above a certain height….
There is still the shock that comes when there is snow-fall. Yes it is to be expected on the heights at Lagarde and across towards Sault, but on the few occasions it has covered the roads and tracks around us, it always brings with it a child-like delight and wonder from the locals (and Golden Retrievers called Millie)…
Our experience of the long hours put in by the builders, plumbers and electricians who have worked on our house is the same as he describes when work starts on their house ‘We had never seen builders work like this. Everything was done on the double’….’Pandemonium resumed after lunch, and continued until nearly seven o’clock without any break’ – whenever we have had work done, we have had to be up early to make sure we are ready for their arrival, ready to hand them a coffee when they walk in and they are always there until late, leaving the space tidy for the next day.
The summer too hasn’t changed much either, although probably the sheer number of visitors has grown even more over the passing years filling campsites and holiday homes, bringing much needed money to the region, but also further ‘changing the character of markets and villages’ for a short time each year.
So over the last couple of days as I read the book again I thought I would just look at some of the places Peter Mayle talks about and see what still exists and what has changed with the passage of time.
The first restaurant he talks about, Le Simiane in Lacoste, where they had a delightful New Year’s Day lunch that started their first year in Provence, has since closed and in fact has been shut for over 20 years now. However that is not the case for many of the other places that he writes about, which may have changed but are still there and still going strong.
In March he talks about having a superb truffle omelette in Chez Michel in the pretty village of Cabrieres D’Avignon. Although it has since changed hands and has become Le Vieux Bistrot, the restaurant is still there and although we haven’t eaten there, it always looks to have a lovely menu and a pretty little garden at the rear too and continues to thrive. Cabrieres is a beautiful village with a fascinating, but violent history and is where we always park to start our walk around the Mur de la Peste.
He goes on to talk about the wonderful Sunday market in Coustellet, which we first visited around the same time. He visits it in April and it is very much as I remember it too, with the eclectic mix of little stalls in the rough parking area behind the old station, made up of local farmers and smallholders coming to sell the produce they had available. Domi, who owned the camp site in Lagnes that we were staying on at the time had a stall there and suggested we go. It has been a favourite of ours since, filled with fantastic produce ‘taken from the earth or the greenhouse a few hours earlier’
It is now a much bigger, more polished market than it was then and you can buy just about anything you need there now from fabric and clothes to olive-wood bowls and pottery, but still at its core are the small traders, the local producers just selling what they have harvested that week. You know if your potatoes are from Menerbes or Goult, your shallots from Lagnes or Maubec or your melons from Cavaillon or Gordes. It is still a great place to visit and Domi still has his stall there, so we get to see him whenever we visit.
From what we can gather Peter Mayle’s old house was on the back road between Menerbes and Bonnieux, one that we cycle along regularly, trying to guess which one it may have been. He cycled too, although I think from his description he found the cycling rather less enjoyable than we do. His ride to Bonnieux talks about him and his wife arriving at the Cafe Clerici as ‘two red-faced, gasping figures bent over their handlebars’ – the nice thing is that this cafe is still there and I don’t think it has changed that much since he stopped off for a drink on his way to Lacoste. Whilst we tend to stop at the boulangerie at the other end of the road for coffee and a croissant, we have stopped there a few times and didn’t realise until now that it was the place he had spoken about.
On the same ride he cycles round into Lacoste and from the description stops again at the Cafe De France, with its open terrace having stunning views across the village back towards Bonnieux and the set too for the bus-stop in our favourite film ‘A Good Year’ (something else that we’ll be watching regularly over the coming weeks for its stunning views of the area).
Living close to Menerbes, he describes the village and life there in great detail and it is a place we visit regularly, stopping on our ride to sit on the front wall overlooking the incredible view towards Mont Ventoux ….
Or in the winter stopping on the square in front of the church, where the sun warms the benches and there are beautiful views of the folded flanks of The Luberon and round towards Les Alpilles. In fact as Peter Mayle overheard a visitor say one evening in relation to the view of the sunset, it is ‘Most impressive for such a small village’
It is a very pretty village and like so many in the area has a dramatic history, but is now a peaceful place to visit with cafes, restaurants and boutique shops . The local village bar is the ‘Cafe du Progres’ , tucked away on the little street that runs along the front edge of the village round to where we like to sit. It has a small terrace that shares the spectacular view that we love to sit and watch from our wall, but until very recently has fitted the description given in the book perfectly as having made ‘a consistent and successful effort to avoid being picturesque’
That has changed though this winter and the cafe has been the scene of frenzied building work that has seen it opened up, redecorated and generally refurbished. It has been taken over by a friendly young couple and still has the bar and small tobacconists at the front, but now has a good menu of local home-cooked food and I hope that it is a great success for them.
One place though that has altered dramatically since the book was written is the restaurant at the Gare De Bonnieux. From the description in the book this was evidently a cosy, rather unique and wonderful place to eat, packed with locals at lunchtime where ‘Madame cooked five meals a week, lunch from Monday to Friday, and customers ate what she decided they would eat’ , there are still places like that, but they are few and far between now and it is hard to believe that the restaurant as it is now, was ever like that.
A Restaurant is still there, but is now an open and stylish place, a far cry from the traditional bistrot style of 30 years ago. Bizarrely it only seems to open for a few weeks in the height of summer and tends to be somewhere we stop for a cool drink during a long ride, rather than somewhere we would head off to for a meal, although the views from the large picture windows at the rear, across the valley towards the Luberon are stunning.
For us though there is one comment in the book that really rings true, which is ‘Living in France had turned us into bakery addicts, and the business of choosing and buying our daily bread was a recurring pleasure’.
I’m sure it is the same for many people, but for us our daily stop at a boulangerie for breakfast is perhaps one of our favourite things about France. There are so many in the area to choose from and deciding which way we will cycle is always informed by which boulangeries will be open on a given day. Our favourite is always the one at Simiane-La-Rotonde with its wonderful wood-fired oven, incredible range of breads and viennoiserie that is worth the 20km cycle up hill to get there….
But of course there are many other options that satisfy our apparent bread and croissant habit too…
I think if I were to write a book it would start ‘The year started with breakfast’ and just go from there….
Its been so nice looking back at A Year in Provence and comparing it with our own experiences of the area. Yes a lot has changed in the past 30 years, but in the same breath so much remains the same. Some of the restaurants he talks about have disappeared and here may no longer be Goat Racing in Menerbes (not that we have noticed anyway), but his vivid descriptions of the area are as good today as they were then. He writes about the area with a tenderness that I totally understand and it’s always nice to open the pages and read the tales of his life there, all that time ago.
Like him, we don’t go far, we potter around the valley just enjoying the busy-ness of daily life there. I’m sure we will explore further afield one day, but perhaps not just yet…..