A House in Provence Chapter 16

Exploring Provence

Provence is known for its many villages, vineyards and lavander. We have been doing a lot of exploring here, never out of places to visit. In the winter I find the whole area to be a little depressing as most of the villages are shut up tight, streets bare, shutters closed and just a few hardy souls out and about. The mistral is really cold and miserable when it blows in the winter and when I looked out the window and see the trees bending and swaying in it, I would rather stay home and putter around than get out in the wind chill. I don’t necessarily like towns crowded with tourists but there is a lot to be said for cheery villages basking in the sun with the streets lively with people looking around and tables full in front of every cafe and restaurant.
The nearest village to us is called Grambois. It, along with the little school in our village, was used for a delightful French film done some years ago. It is really fun to watch and see the changes that have occurred since its making. Grambois is on top of a hill, as many are here, and at the top can be found a little square where the mairie, a little church and a tabac. That’s about it but it does offer more than our own little village which has exactly nothing unless you count the mayor’s mother who sometimes sells the bounty of her son’s crops such as white asparagus or cherries. There is an type of gite, dormitory style for all of the hikers and bikers who come up this way which is something, I guess. We stayed there once when our house was being built and it is on the rustic side.
And there is a wonderful building in fading periwinkle and pink which was once an Auberge as a sign barely discernible attests slowly fading away on the side of the building. I saw a photo of it when it was open with ladies in long dresses sitting in front. I would love to see inside sometime. I’ve been told that someone does live there.
The next closest town is la Tour d’Aigues (aigues being provencal for water). Tour is tower in French and there was one here centuries ago but it is long gone replaced by a chateau. It is a beautiful thing, though ruined, built of glowing golden stone by an Italian architect who put lovely features such as little stars pressed into parts of the walls, graceful towers and windows, just a delightful surprise as you turn the corner into town and it awaits you. It is a hollow shell now due to a fire set during the revolution which reached all corners of France, even quiet little towns such as this. Inside, in the office to buy tickets for a tour, there is a print of the chateau in the 17th century and it was incredible with a curved roof on the central tower looking rather oriental to me. It was much larger than in now appears. It is amazing to me that all of these little kingdoms existed at one time with chateaux and rulers running them like small countries. And then they sank into decline which saved many of the villages from being developed in the horrible ways in the following years leaving narrow roads and various buildings on top of a hill giving Provence that special look that it has. I see wonderful doorways around the narrow streets here using pieces from the chateau to make interesting and historic entries. Concerts are done in the interior of the chateau in the summers where a little stage and seating has been set up. It was just such an occasion when we attended a jazz concert at night. The music was great but sitting there in the dark with the chateau silhouetted against the sky and then great lighting being done, lighting up various parts of the wall in red, lavender or gold, made it truly memorable occasion.
Ansouis is not too far from la Tour d’Aigues although you must drive through la Motte d’Aigues and Pepin d’Aigues to get there. A regal castle is at the top of this village with a royal flag flying if the owners are at home. The owners are actual decendants of a long past royal family, many of whom I assume were beheaded, as this is one village in France which does not celebrate Bastille Day on July 14th. There is a rather splendid little chapel behind the church, small and ancient with a colorful statue of Joan of Arc inside. Once I entered to find a little old man banging on a drum, his version of a hymn to God, I thought.
Cucuron lies not much further up the road. Maurice says this is a very strange name for a village as it is a name similar to an American calling someone “Dummy” or the like. The reason for the naming is lost somewhere is the distant past as far as I have been able to discover. We hadn’t actually gone into this village at first as the road just circled the base but one day we parked the car and started walking around the narrow village streets for a Christmas brocante and found it to be a really charming town. A very unique rectangle shaped pond from the 17th century sits in the town surrounded by ancient plane trees a wonderful site for markets and such with the shade provided. We discovered a little restaurant called l’Arbor du Mai and found that on the 3rd Saturday of May, a little procession is done in town to celebrate the deliverance from a plague (this sure seemed to happen a lot of ancient times). A large tree is cut down, carried on the shoulders of 20 or so young men with a little boy riding on top. The tree is then secured against the side of the church and a smaller tree is also tied to the side of the little cafe. It is really great when old traditions and beliefs are still celebrated. There are so many here that still surprise me being an old Protestant. I knew there were a lot of Saint’s days in the States but they seem to have many more here that are actually celebrated.
Everyone seems to have heard about Gordes, once a center for olive oil the production of which was lost when a severe winter destroyed all the trees, now it has become an art colony. Every single building there is built of stones and the streets are all covered in them. They must be on top of a bumper crop of rocks. It is fun to roam up and down the streets and there is an interesting underground portion to the city as well. The Germans once bombed the place during WWII as it was used by the Resistance to watch the movement of German troops. You see why when you are high up on a vantage point and can see for miles.
Just a few miles away lies Roussillon where Ochre was once mined, the dirt and hills in the surrounding area running from golden, to ochre, to rust in color. You can buy bags of the various colors to mix with paint or a special substance to paint your walls in tints to bring Roussillon to mind whenever you catch a glimpse of your wall later. The town itself is very picturesque and interesting to explore, full of fun tourists shops such as a wine shop with a deep cool cellar downstairs, an artist selling her wonderful paintings in a shop located in the same building she lives in. I love her little pocket garden glimpsed in the back of her shop and saw a painting of that same garden on her wall.
To the north of us, in the area of France called Haute Provence, is where the high quality lavender is planted. There aren’t miles and miles of this fragrant herb growing as you see with wheat or the like, but unexpected plots springing up here and there and it is great when the fragrance of it all enters the car as you drive past. Some plots are well tended as the lavender grows in rows with no weeds seen and gravel lying between each row. Some have all run together and weeds are everywhere. When I stopped once to take a photo I saw that a couple of plants had been totally denuded of their flowers and there were several holes in the ground where someone had helped themselves to a few plants. Big fat furry bees abound, along with colorful butterflies, in the fields where this herb grows. About the middle of July the stems holding the flowers are cut, usually by machine, but some by hand for tourists to take photos of. A few festivals are held with many lavender products being sold-soap, lotion, oil, dried bouquets and even several types of foods. We have some lavender growing in our yard and I ventured out amongst the bees and butterflies to cut my own bouquets. It is such a clean smell, a delight to the senses when you pass a group of those lavender stalks in vase on a table.
Another village, once a powerful kingdom, and a great surprise when we first visited it, is Forcalquier. As you approach it you see an impressive building on top of the hill, once a fortress, now a chapel. On Mondays, not the usual day ever in France, is a fabulous huge market, the largest I have ever seen. Lots of food can be found but mostly clothing, table clothes with place mats and napkins, and lots of soaps and other types of Provencal items. One couple selling olive oil products had a soap shaped into squares from somewhere in the Middle East. When I heard her mention, as she told us about it, eczema, I bought some for my son seeing if it would help him. Up the hill from the market are some nice streets and places to eat. Just a really nice village to visit.