Provence, that glorious sunlit land of meadows, vineyards, goats, gorges, tumbling rivers, potager gardens, hilltop villages, abbeys, lavender fields, cypress trees and wooden-shuttered farmhouses.
Meeting up with my mum at Avignon, from her adventurous journey from London on the TGV, we spent a week crisscrossing the Vaucluse, Luberon and Camargue in the south, discovering villages, rivers and Roman remains.
Our base was Gordes, a stone village tumbling impossibly down a steep conical hillside, along the great rock of the Luberon, and topped with a theatrical church.
Narrow stone paved alleys curve up and around the town offering glimpse over the walls out across the Vale of the Calavon and into pretty courtyards festooned with bougainvillea. The town was a hotbed of resistance during the second world war and rediscovered in the 1950s by the poet painter, Marc Chagall.
Drawn to the light of the region, like so many artists before him, Chagall adopted the town as his home and other artists followed. Sympathetic and privately funded restoration of the houses is still ongoing and the golden stones of Gordes shone with care in the Provencal sunshine. We all fell in love with it.
Nearby Senanque Abbey squats serenely in lavender fields, as it has done since the 12th century as home to the Cistercian order in Provence. The history of the church is rife throughout Provence and mostly so at Avignon, when the papistry was moved from Italy to avoid anarchy and feuding in Rome in 1309.
The wine of the region is of course the deep rich and ruby red Chateauneuf-de-Pape, produced in the village vineyards with grapes warmed at night by large pebbles which soak up the sun’s heat during the day.
The village is named for the 14th century summer chateau of the Avignon popes. I preferred the rose!
Following in the footsteps of another painter drawn to the region, we explored Van Gogh’s Arles.
A smart provincial town in the south, Arles was established by the Romans and still boasts much of their heritage. The wholly intact Amphitheatre, Las Arenes, was a highlight and we tottered around its highest terraces on a hot spring morning.
We strolled along the banks of the Rhone where Van Gogh painted ‘bridge at Arles’ and peered up into the billowing clouds to imagine his Starry Night.
On the way to his famous yellow café in Place du Forum, we explored the site of the Roman’s original theatre, 2000 years old and romantically littered with fallen stone columns and marble statues resting where they fell.
The bodies of dead Romans are dust now of course, but their burial tombs, stone sarcophagi, line a single alley through cypress trees to a simple church on the outskirts of the town at Les Alyscamps.
The Romans are also evident at Vaison-la-Romaine where the original bridge spans the River Ouveze in a single arch.
The ancient stone town boasts the Vestiges de Puymin, and we wandered amid ruins of a theatre, mansions and houses and a stone colonnade known as the portique de Pompee.
Provence is known for the ethereal quality of its light and has drawn painters to its impressive landscape for centuries.
Rousillon, perched on soft rock cliffs, offers a different view, bathed in multiple shades of ochre tint. Ochre was quarried near the village and seventeen tints were distilled and sold. Now its home to potteries, restaurants, antique and art supplies shops.
We bought tiny jars of the precious ground pigments for my painter aunt, Jan.
The Petit Luberon is famed amongst second homeowning Brits as a chic rural retreat.
We motored between the bijou houses and manicured gardens in the villages of Menerbes, Bonnieux , Boux and Lacoste, where it was not hard to imagine the ringing hooves of the horse of the Marquis de Sade galloping up the steep cobbled streets, and farmers, shopkeepers and winemakers locking up their daughters in fear.
We visited the picturesque old mountain village at lunchtime and the cobbled streets were deserted save for a handful of American students who were taking a break from lessons, discussing the best way to deal with an avocado. It didn’t end well.
Of much greater interest (and possibly intelligence) was a rather lovely apricot and creamy cat on the wall of a prettily shuttered house, the holiday home of Johnny Depp.
Surprisingly untouched and romantically ruined Oppede-le-Vieux sits amongst vines on the steeper slopes of the Luberon.
We entered through the village’s Renaissance gateway and wound our way up past the few renovated lower houses decked with rose-covered trellises, up to the ruins of the medieval castle. Abandoned since a community of artists left it in 1944, the setting and views across the green Petit Luberon were magical.
Clearly the village’s fortunes were changing, and we wished it well, ruefully admiring an empty stone house with faded green shutters and ornate fountain and rose arch in its overgrown courtyard.
Venasque, perched on a rocky spur of the great Luberon is a perfectly contained walled village. At its highest end we meandered amongst three round towers along its curtain wall, and at its lowest we plunged underground into an early Christian baptistry, thought to be built on an earlier Roman temple to Venus.
The villagers were commemorating the French liberation with a procession and flea market and celebrating the bountiful cherry harvest. We picnicked amongst the fruiting trees on our way back to Gordes across the high plateau.
An earlier memory was to be savoured among the lavender fields of Ste Croix du Verdun. A charming woman, Marie France, welcomed us back to her farm shop of lavender products and olive tapenades, and surprised us by greeting Simon as ‘Monsieur Le Spanner’.
We reminisced of our visit two years previously when we had stayed in her orchard and needed her help and garage tools!
The Grand Canyon de Verdon is Europe’s widest and deepest gorge, cut through by the emerald green waters of the River Verdon before it enters the vast Lac de Ste-Croix.
In the national park at the highest point above the gorge we were amongst beekeepers, goatherds and eagles. It was dramatic and thrilling to be amongst a wilder, more savage side to Provence as the sun beat down mercilessly and the vast, open countryside hummed with summer life.