Provence is a land of contrast where people and landscape are intimately related. A wonderful travel destination and a generous land that was born dry and rocky.
Sitting on the main plaza of a village and sipping a legendary pastis on the terrace of the local café, you face an arch celebrating an obscure Roman victory, admire a simple and rustic medieval church and look down a narrow street framed by historic houses painted in warn tones of ochre. The shade of a centennial tree gives you a welcoming protection. Too much to see to notice the carefully chosen potted flowers decorating the houses and the lilac trees and vines bent around entranceways.
As you sit quietly, let me share my thoughts with you. Whenever I think of Provence my memory loads a patchwork of images and impressions. Even though my home, my life, my family are in Quebec, part of my heart is in Provence where I spent a few years during my early childhood and my early teens. My years spent in Provence are just enough for me to understand it better than most foreigners but not enough to turn me into fully-fledged local. However, whenever I visit, it gives me the advantage of being able to be both a foreigner and an insider.
My parents are true locals. My brother lived and died in Provence. My partner Elsa and I own my family’s house between Carpentras and Mazan. Our home is in the countryside, at the foothills of Mont Ventoux. Mature oak and pine trees protect the house from the Mistral. The property is quite large by French standards. It has a pool and is surrounded by vineyards. Open space all around and no immediate neighbor.
This traditional countryside house is quite different from what is experienced in our café du village. Within the boundary of the ancient fortified walls, the village is compact and the houses tall and narrow; protected by a gently slopped tiled roofed in the rich red and rusty tones of fired clay. Some of the tiles date back to the Middle Ages. When a house is demolished (which is almost unheard of) its roof tiles are reused.
Still sipping a pastis, next to us, the petanque players argue about how the last move should have been played. They will not discuss the next move – one can be wrong about the next move – but one is never wrong about the last move. Locals have learned that the past teaches lessons and that tomorrow is just a guess.
In the middle of the plaza a stone fountain still provides its share of fresh water. The polished stone around the fountain tells its age. The polish comes from use, not by design. It used to be the most important gathering place in the village. A reminder that not so long ago, houses did not have running water. Fountains in villages are not meant for beauty but to provide water to drink and wash. Water was carried from the fountain to one’s home. Some villages have kept the antique ‘lavoir’, a community shelter with water basins in the middle and stone tables slopping down to the basins. The shelters were used to wash cloths. Shirts were washed and news was spread. Water was and is still rare. People save it. Villages were built where water could be found. Farms where built where water could flow to irrigate the fields.
I remember my mother watering plants with the bucket she used to clean the vegetables. Very little water went down the drain. Water is also expensive. Locals do not waste anything, money above all.
Two years ago we renovated our house in Provence. Workers kept pieces of pipes and old taps in the hope they could someday be reused. Water is so rare and so needed to keep the farms going that a canal bringing water from the Alps was dug during the time of Napoleon to irrigate Provence. In Roman times and during the time the Popes resided in Provence, aqueducts were built, bridging wide valleys and rivers. The Pont du Gard is one of the best examples of Roman engineering and a popular attraction less than one hour away from Avignon. The village we are in is sitting on a hill and is protected by fortified walls that could not have resisted the efforts of a serious attacker. Carefully groomed vineyards, lavender fields and cherry trees cover the slope of the hill and surround the village. The small flat areas around the hill support wheat and sunflower fields.
Yet, in the distance, I can point to a range of hills harboring no village, no farm and no field. Just nature – part of its rocky flanks exposed. No one has clearly succeeded claiming the hill. Some have tried but left scattered ruins behind. A world of rocks, junipers, oak and pine trees filled with the musky scent of Provence. The jagged limestone crest is evidence of the erosion that has shaped the landscape into a piece of art. At sunset, the light turns the crest into a gold ribbon. A quiet and magic time to savor.
These hills are a shepherd’s kingdom. A few shelters along the trails providing access to the hills were built and used by generations of shepherds to protect them. They are now a great place to rest, drink and have lunch. Do not treat yourself into a long conversation about the easy life people had in the old days. Life was hard, shepherds were alone for the entire four summer months, busy keeping sheep alive, selling milk for cheese production and miles away from all basic needs.
I am old enough to have seen the last shepherds of Provence. All of them were old; no one wanting to carry a trade of the past. They all looked alike with their long gray wool cape, large black felt hat, long beard, a sturdy walking stick and their faithful dog. walking slowly, sheep well controlled. I always wondered what tragedy turned a man into a lone shepherd.
These hills are a clear reminder that nature has not been completely tamed and that a good part of Provence is still untouched. A road and a few trails are the only concession to civilization. Patience, erosion or a forest fire will change its face.
This village is in the Provence I best know. In the heart of Provence – also called the Comtat Venaissin – presently the Vaucluse and Var administrative areas – east of the Rhone valley – surrounding Mont Ventoux.
People have settled in this part of Provence since the early times of humanity with the evidence of formal organization dating as far back as 3,000 BC. Generations after generations, people have carved it. They have left us an incredibly rich heritage filled with art and history. Provence is a mirror of who they were. I have a tremendous respect for that.
Yet part of Provence remains untamed, somehow economically useless but stunningly beautiful. As if civilization was unable to conquer its wild sides and its dryness. Truth is that now these areas are protected.
Local people are very proud of their roots. Provence was one of the first and most Romanized Roman province. It was settled by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. Roman ruins and vestiges can be found everywhere in Provence: roads, arches, bridges, aqueducts, remains of an entire city in Vaison la Romaine and almost intact amphitheaters in Nimes and Orange.
The influence of Provence peaked between the 12th and 14th century when Popes resided in Avignon. My Provence (also called in France the Comtat Venaissin) joined France in 1791. Until then it was part of the Pontifical states, not really governed and ferociously independent. Locals like to be left alone and free to do as they like – they view the administration as an imposed evil.
Avignon was the center of Papacy. The Palais des Papes (Popes’ Palace) still presides over the center of the old part of the city. Perched on a hill overlooking the Rhone river, it looks more like a fortress than a palace – a witness of the fears of the Popes and the uncertainty of the times.
East of Avignon is Carpentras. The geographical center of Comtat Venaissin, Carpentras is host to the first synagogue built in France. A reminder that Jews were the bankers of the Popes. The synagogue still exists and can be visited.
Each Friday, Carpentras holds an open market. Street vendors literally cover with products every available space on the sidewalks. The weekly market is a tradition dating back to the 13th century. Since then each vendor claims very clearly and loudly he or she has the best salad or the tastiest cheese. Women are the most aggressive, often promising much more than they are willing to give. Every local male knows it but the words are pleasant and well chosen.
Carpentras’ market is well known but similar markets are held in the oldest towns and villages of Provence. They were and still are the best outlet for local goods and help ensure the quality of products eaten in the towns and villages. Markets are a social event; locals dress up for the market. News is spread – it is the best way to know if uncle François is still limping – reputations are made and destroyed and Mireille has a chance to disappear in the crowd to talk to Marcel and be kissed.
More on my Provence will follow soon.
I left Provence years ago. Settled in Quebec and forgot about Provence. Two years ago, I renovated our home in the heart of Provence and felt the area was reaching me deeply. Thus my need to share my experience and vision of Provence.