When Sacramento friend Dick Taylor was making plans to come visit us in Paris, he also hoped to include a side trip to Provence. Super idea! So we invited ourselves along, and - why not a foursome - our French friend Marie. We rented a farmhouse at a vineyard, Les Finets, just outside the hilltop town of Roussillon.
The caretakers of Les Finets, Natalie and Paul (first and fourth from the left), welcomed us with a glass of the owners' award-winning Cotes du Ventoux 2004. Dick, far left, is celebrating the miracle of being allowed on the train 30 seconds before departure and ticketless, back in Paris. ("That printout with all the ads, that I left back at the apartment, was my ticket?")
The ochre clays found in this region are Roussillion's claim to fame. The quarries are now closed, but at one time produced 17 shades of pigment, sold to artists worldwide.
Today it's the earthy terra cotta pastels of the hills and houses and the panoramic views that draw in the tourists and sell postcards by the bushel.
Having learned a bit about navigating the backroads and hiking trails of France during our trip to Brittany, I propose that we get close to nature and do some exploring on foot. With trail maps #3142 and #3242 in hand, Dick and I set off from Roussillon. The red and white trail markings are easy to spot.
Poppies are in bloom and the going is pleasant. Our goal is another hilltop village, Gordes, where we will meet Clair and Marie for lunch.
This is the time of year for pruning the vines.
We ask a woman at this house for directions, and oui, we are on the right track.
Almost there, and now our trail has become a paved lane, and looks like it might put us on the main, heavily traveled road up to the town.
With only a short ways to go, a marker points to a steep rocky path off to our right, which probably takes us on a handy shortcut. This is not the case. We end up in someone's backyard and thank goodness the elderly lady of the house is there to call off her German shepherd.
Clair and Marie are waiting for us and we have a fine lunch with big un-Frenchlike gooey desserts.
We stroll around a bit, then climb in the car, pausing for a few more shots of ultra-photogenic Gordes. Marie doesn't mind driving narrow, winding roads, and blind curves along sharp drop-offs, so we continue...
...on down to the Abbey of Senanque....
...up to the hillop village of Venasque and down to a convent,...
... across two valleys...
...and we sweep through the villages of Bonnieux, Lacoste and Menerbes. We didn't actually mean to sweep through, but we couldn't find a place to park and did I mention the narrow, winding roads and blind curves?
Sometimes it was nice just to hang out with our neighbors, the caretakes.
Natalie and Paul didn't feel that they had given us, on the day of our arrival, a sufficient overview of local agricultural issues, viticulture operations, or ag tourism trends. We spend a pleasant afternoon digesting these heady topics.
How kind they are to share their estate-cured pork jowls with us.
Clair had seen how much Dick and I enjoyed our hike to Gordes, so he decides to join us for our next hike, which I had downloaded from the Internet: "Kathy, Charley and Kelly's Best of Provence-Hiking in the Luberon" at www.slowtrav.com. We would now be able to return to two of the villages we had zipped through the other day, at a relaxed pace. The website describes this as a "beautiful walk between the neighboring perched villages of Bonnieux and Lacoste" and put the time as three hours round-trip. We figured 1.5 hrs there, an hour or so for lunch, and 1.5 hrs back. We park in Bonnieux and set out for Lacoste there in the distance.
We keep up a good clip for the first hour, and the countryside was lovely. The only problem is that we are not seeing anything described in the directions. "Eventually" it says, "you'll come to a road and a yellow signpost." It occurs to me that "eventually" is not an altogether helpful term.
We didn't ever find "a road near a house called 'La Beguine' " but we did find a road that was going our way and we took it.
Clair takes a snack break.
Lacoste, with a castle at the top that belonged to the Marquis de Sade.
When we arrive at Lacoste, it looks almost deserted. Where are the people? The cafes? We learn that the whole town is undergoing massive reconstruction and renovation, led by fabled designer Pierre Cardin, and in which the Savannah School of Art and Design is heavily involved. The centerpiece will be de Sade castle.
Just what we were looking for.
See that town on the far hillside to the far right? That's where our car is.
Where's a bus when we need one? We head down the hill back to Bonnieux.
The guidebooks say that the odd stone structures called "bories" provided the peasants with shelter from sudden storms.
They were also - think about it - a place to neatly stack stones that you didn't want in your field..
Beautiful day and beautiful scenery - nevertheless, we were glad that the return leg of our trip went more smoothly and quickly than the outbound leg. Next time I'll stick to real maps and trail markings.
Provencal cuisine was not to be missed, so we made reservations at Le Mas des Vertes Rives, a country inn near Chateauneuf de Gadagne.
These country inns and the farm that we were staying at are part of a regional ag tourism network, "Welcome to the Farm." www.bienvenue-a-la-ferme.com/paca
The owner is our hostess and server. She starts us off with a pumpkin pate and olive-fig tapinade appetizer. Everything on the menu comes from this farm.
Wine? Kir? Apple cider from the family orchards?
Zuccini-tomato- eggplant quiche
Lamb, vegetables and potatoes
Cheeses and fig jam for dessert.
Tout le monde est content.
After lunch, we were not far from Avignon, which Dick had never visited, so this seemed a good time. The Palace of the Popes is massive, impressive, and in every way looks like a palace ought to.
We wind up our last days with visits to Ile sur la Sorge; we take a long drive to Manosque and back through the valley of the Grand Luberon; we browse museums and art galleries; Clair and Dick get to the Luberon Jazz Festival in Apt and see Sara Lazarus.
Marie pointed out the home of one of her favorite authors in Manosque, where there is an entire museum dedicated to him.
The Museum of Wine and Truffles at Menerbes.
As our dear friend Dave Lust is fond of saying, life is good! We were tickled to find the equivalent French expression in big bold letters, as the name of an art gallery in Menerbes: La Vie est Belle! Amen!