Ever since I was a child I have found the concept of borders, a little bit odd. More often than not, we have lived very close to a county boundary in the UK, whether it was Wiltshire and Gloucester, or Devon and Cornwall, where a wavy line, drawn on a map, marks huge changes in the way an area looks and often traditions and customs too …. The argument over whether to put cream or jam first on scones, as part of a traditional cream tea, has been raging between Devon and Cornwall for many years, simply because of this line on a map.
So I suppose it is no surprise that we live very close to the border between the Vaucluse and the Alpes de Haute Provence, finding ourselves hopping between departments on an almost daily basis, sometimes several times in one journey, as the boundary crosses and re-crosses roads that we cycle along.
We didn’t really know the area at all until we bought the house here, whilst we knew the Vaucluse, almost like the back of our hand. We now realise what we had been missing, although we have only scratched the surface and know that we have a lot more to explore yet.
As the name suggests this is where Provence starts to get higher and the minute we leave our house, we start heading up and don’t often stop until we turn round to come home again.
The countryside is so different to the Luberon valley, but is just as beautiful and there are some stunning towns and villages to explore too, which are generally quieter than some of the more well-known places a short distance down the road
The hilltop village of Simiane La Rotonde is an absolute gem, built on a promontory overlooking a high plain, filled with lavender fields. It always stops me in my tracks whenever I catch sight of it, looking as if it has been inspired by childhood fairytales, with its open terrace and tumble of houses sitting below the beautiful, round castle keep.
And just a short distance up the road from Simiane is the small town of Banon, another classic Provencal village, with narrow streets that climb up through pretty houses to the old church at the top, which is often used as a venue for art installations.
The views from the old village are beautiful, and in summer the streets are lined with Hollyhocks and Bigognes, adding a splash of colour to the golden stone of the houses.
It also has a superb little market on a Tuesday morning, where the squares and streets are filled with stalls, which is a great time to explore, perhaps taking the time to visit the incredible ‘Le Bleuet’ bookshop, which is just wonderful, and a paradise for anyone who loves books.
Then there are the gardens at Valsaintes Abbey, an incredible, tranquil rose garden that thrives despite its position on a rocky promontory, above Simiane. This really is one of our favourite places, just to sit under one of the pergolas and enjoy the serenity.
From Valsaintes, it’s only a short hop to the Canyon D’Oppedette and the village of the same name, that is built high above the entrance to the dramatic, rocky gorge, that stretches behind it and on towards Viens. A peaceful and pretty village with some incredible walks around it too.
A little further on, beyond Cereste, after driving through an elegant avenue of Plane trees, you will see the small town of Reillanne, set up on a hill above the valley. This is a lovely little town, which has a thriving and busy Sunday market during the summer months, and a gentle atmosphere, with lots of small, local producers there too.
One of these stalls is run by La Serpentine, a small artisan brewery, based in the small village of Montjustin, just across the valley from Reillanne. A superb social enterprise, rather than a private business, this little brewery is based in the vaults below the old village chateau.
We had a chance to visit the brewery for a guided tour, as part of a french comprehension lesson with our friend and teacher Marina, and it is a fascinating process, with an emphasis on using locally produced ingredients wherever possible. I am happy to be able to add that the beer they produce is very lovely too, and it is nice to know that it is supporting other local enterprises, and creating jobs for local people in the process.
What is so nice, is that all this is within a cycle ride from where we are, and we really enjoy cycling out into the Alpes de Haute Provence, even though it tends to involve going up a lot of hills. In the summer it is so much more peaceful than the valley, and usually a couple of degrees cooler too, and of course, the ride home tends to be pretty much downhill all the way back, which in my mind is a huge positive!
To be honest, we really haven’t scratched the surface of the Alpes de Haute Provence yet, but we really can’t believe that it has taken so long for us to really start exploring it. It is beautiful, has a wonderful peace, and I’m looking forward to getting to know it, just as well as we know the Vaucluse….
…although I have yet to discover if there is a local custom that is as bitterly fought over as the jam and cream scones!