Naturally we started our trip off with a glass of wine at lunch - after all, it was too late for breakfast… “Deux verres de vin rouge – um, uh -- pas sec. Un peu…” Finally I just threw my hands in the air and laughed. I meant well but it seemed unfair to make our poor waiter suffer for my lack of fluency with the language. Our waiter obliged with two glasses of wine and a hearty, “Welcome to Provence!"
Our first morning, COVID-19 vaccination card in hand, we left to explore "our" small town in the département of Vaucluse, Pernes-les-Fontaines (pop. around 10,000), a ten-minute walk from the cozy, CDC-treated, 100-year-old, two-story farmhouse we had come to call home for two weeks. We had to move to the curb much more often to accommodate bicyclists than cars.
How different our Provence adventure was from the usual prescribed schedule offered by most tour companies. Such is the beauty of Untours, a 47-year-old tour operator based in the suburbs of Philadelphia which puts you up in unusual accommodations in multiple cities, towns, and villages in so far one dozen European countries – perhaps a castle, a vineyard, or a delightful old house like ours – to live like a local. The company also provides a rental car; inundates you with information; connects you with a local contact to answer questions; and sets you off to see what you want to see when you want to see it. Unencumbered by anyone else’s set schedule or preferences, it’s a much more at-your-own-ace (and of course socially distanced) option than a tour bus.
Yes, there is a supermarket near Pernes - known for it 41 fontaines (fountains, though none are operational because water is a precious commodity), but it’s so much more French to stop at the individual butcher, baker, cheese shop, produce store to buy provisions – and so we very smugly did.
Expect to get lost everywhere – and savor the adventure and srendipity of doing so. And in any case, no one has ever been inextricably lost, though the temptation to be so is great as you traverse narrow, often winding streets and lanes spanning multiple centuries in an afternoon’s outing.
One day after building up a great thirst we stopped for lunch and ordered a beer. When I balked at the choice of either Heineken or Corona (or perhaps une bière française?), I received a stern rebuke: “We are French; we drink wine.” Lesson learned.
Then a second wake-up call: how few people actually spoke any English, though they were very eager to help nonetheless. And in Covid September, when we were there, that was true for the tourists as well.
Our first hill town - of which there are more than a dozen within an hour’s drive of Pernes - was Gordes (above), with a population of less than 1,700 and a member of an association called The Most Beautiful Villages of France (now numbering more than 164). As it first came into view, perched high upon a hill (go figure!) – enveloped by stone walls overlooking stone buildings overlooking vast vineyards – we certainly could not questions that designation.
As much as I imagined anything called a hill town to be quaint and picturesque, I was not prepared for the exhilaration I felt upon entering. The awe at the walled surroundings; the sense of being transported back to the 11th century; views that demand head-shaking wonderment; precarious walkways and narrow side streets whose walls you can touch with outstretched arms – all of which made it easy to tune out the many cafés, shops, and tourists which also abound. Take time to visit the 11th century abbey. Its most recent renovation? The 18th century.
From Gordes it’s an easy drive to Roussillion (above), a village swathed in varying shades of ochre - sort of a combination of red, maroon, orange, terra cotta and yellow (who knew there were so many shades of a color I heretofore couldn’t have given a name to?). In addition, dramatic views of ochre cliffs give the town its unique coloration. And oh yes, it also has stone buildings.
The next town was more a nostalgic stop than anything else – that and the dozens of vineyards we passed enroute. Menerbes (pop. 1,000), the home town of Peter Mayle, the late author of the renowned A Year in Provence - which admittedly I wish I had read before the trip rather than after so that I could have related even more to his many Provencal adventures. This is of course another of the Most Beautiful Villages of France and naturally sports the de rigueur enthralling views.
Menerbes is quieter and more subdued than Gordes with wider streets and a less immediate sense of medieval influence (though the town dates back to the 14th century). All of which contributed to its own personality and livable charm – and the fact that this is where Mr. Mayle did his shopping. A small garden for sitting and reflecting beckoned. This being our third hill town – "hill" being the operative word – we welcomed it! Just when we thought we had seen the most charming village, we came by another. Best to withhold judgment on charm quotients!
When visiting said charming small towns – which is mostly what you want to do – be sure to park in the lots outside of town. Don’t even think about driving in the towns themselves unless you’re on a bike. We did – not by choice – and not until we finally found a way out of the one way, very narrow miasma of traffic did our stomachs return to their designated place in our bodies.
Back in Pernes, a trip to the Saturday-morning market is – well, a trip itself. Unending supplies of flowers, fruit, furniture, food; also clothes, shoes, crafts, purses, jewelry, household items. And especially wine, cheeses, and olives – plus more varieties of ham than all the deli meats combined in a typical supermarket back home. And the people are as varied as are the perishables.
Sunday brought us back into town – this time to a ghost village. Everything closes on Sundays. Hard to believe the two days co-exist within the same town. So much for our plan for afternoon wine at a café. But as we had learned, whatever the village, it’s always a good idea to walk off the main square to see where the people really live. And so we found ourselves in a residential area, perusing 13th-century corridors with the sounds of everyday life emanating from apartment windows. A welcome sense of becoming acquainted with our hometown outside its more touristy main square (and a reminder that there was more life to the "ghost town" than we initially thought). Some time later, when visiting a favorite restaurant (above), our waiter smilingly led us to “your usual table.” Voilà, we belonged - thank you, Untours!
For a major change of pace, we also visited the capital of Vaucluse département, a city of nearly 94,000 on the Rhône River whose walled, UNESCO World Heritage old quarter dates mostly from the 14th century. Medieval Avignon's massive Gothic monuments include churches, palaces, municipal buildings, and amphitheaters, with pride of place going to the Palais des Papes, seat of seven legitimate Roman Catholic popes.between 1309 and 1377. All this, plus the city walls - built three centuries before the first settlement in the Americas - makes the past somehow feel both overwhelming and imminently present.
As my husband Victor’s eyes were beginning to glaze over at the thought of another hill town, we mixed up our days with a local hike, a day of errands and laundry, a visit to a Cézanne and Kandinsky exhibit at a museum in Les Baux (can you handle yet another Most Beautiful Village?), and a festival in St.-Rémy-de-Provence (there is probably a festival every day somewhere n Provence…), a week-long homage to bulls in several iterations. At the bull ring, more than a dozen men were chasing after the bull – or maybe it was the other way around (abve). It was a bizarre sport and I didn’t know whom I was supposed to root for -- but it definitely made me better appreciate U.S. football. Fortunately there was also a bonus stop to view extensive Roman ruins dating back to the third century and a street adorned with reproductions of Van Gogh’s letters and paintings from when he was a patient at St. Rémy's mental hospital – there is always a bonus in Provence.
Then it was time for lunch, in the tiny nearby village of Sivergues, at an imposing hilltop chateau, Domaine du Castellas. We started out at a outdoor table for two, ordered a steak to share, then had to be moved to a larger table. Porquoi? It was needed to accommodate the size of the steak - because Provence is also full of surprises. To add further atmosphere, we were surrounded by chickens and goats – some of whom at other times might actually show up on the menu themselves. Another memorable meal? Of course, but on the other hand so were they all.All of this sensory imput did come with at a slight price: Victor was a novice gear-shift driver, and navigating sometimes harrowing roads could distract from the breathtaking scenery, if you dared take your eyes off the road long enough to take it in. Moments of terror might occasionally overwhelm the appreciation of your lovely surroundings, but but these very surroundings and the narrow, winding hill towns among them are the very reason you come to Provence. In any case, we fortunately never came upon a car going the other way (or we might still be up there trying to figure out who could pass where)
All the more reason to appreciate picking up a fresh baguette and local cheeses from the market; waving to shopkeepers we had befirended; sipping yet another glass of wine and dining al fresco at our arbor-covered, garden-enclosed picnic table; and peaceable contemplating tomorrow's adventures. A perfect way to end the say - and such is the beauty of Untours!