It is October and Europe has moved fully into fall, so rather than tarry any longer in the north of France, our plan was to head south. From Paris we made it to Gare de Lyon and a TGV (high speed) train to Avignon. Trains here are such a comfortable and sane way to travel. Like so many others, I will now briefly lament the lack of quality (speed, comfort, reliability) train travel in the US, sigh…. OK done.
Met a very interesting couple from Johannesburg, South Africa traveling for two weeks in Europe with their two small children. Talked about searching for ancestral roots (she turned up on a German farmer’s doorstep who was likely a very distant cousin, but with very limited German they didn’t get much further than a few nods).
Our first stop in southern France was Provence. First in the Vaucluse region at a ‘splurge’ of a place, http://en.leclossaintsaourde.com. It’s a category of hotel known as “Maison d’Hôtes”, basically a B&B. This was recommended by a friend, especially given the super-knowledgeable owner who I had hoped could provide us lots of great tips for wineries, villages, restaurants, and any number of out-of-the-way places that in my imagination he shared with us as we all poured over our beautiful road map. Here is where doing more prior research would have been helpful. Apparently the owner now resides in Canada and hasn’t been there for three years. OK, so the best local guide angle didn’t work out exactly as planned, but the nice and knowledgeable manager was beyond kind and very helpful. We also had the place entirely to ourselves, it was absolutely beautiful, and the location was perfect to visit the region. Here’s a peak at our luxurious start in Provence:
Briefly, the other expectation that was never realized… finding great local face, hair and body products. Not saying this was a catastrophe by any means, more surprising. I looked all over at markets, stores, pharmacies (in France pharmacies carry lots of great body products, one of my guilty pleasures when visiting the country), and more. I asked everyone I could find. I found great soaps. There are some fantastic local soap makers, but almost no lotions and other such potions. If we were ever to move here and start up a business, I might go into making lotion, body oils, and hair conditioner.
Speaking of soaps, Savonnerie des Dentelles is a small company in the town where we stayed. Everyone we talked to in town had great things to say about them, and I got a chance to visit on our last day. The owners, husband and wife, left their first jobs to be in the country and to work with natural fragrances (he had been in the perfume business as I recall). She had worked as a sculptor, but since the recession, that became more difficult. For both, their company is a way to create a healthy product (all natural), and a healthy lifestyle for themselves and their family. I bought a couple of soaps, and have been using one made from donkey milk. It smells great (yarrow) and is definitely more hydrating than other soaps (though not as much as lotion, which they actually are bringing to marking in a couple of months). Their store is a beautiful jumble of colors. And I especially liked that they offer soaps at lower prices (and some for free even, “Servez Vous”) that are the ‘between runs’ in colors, fragrances, or both. This is done especially to provide something of value to the local market.
As opposed to my mostly futile search for body products, we found more than enough wonderful wine. Following an itinerary put together by Rick Steves and our hotel manager, we made it to the town of Gigondas. I’ve always loved that wine, partly because it has complexity and spice, partly because the word is fun to say, “Gigondas”. The town is beautiful:
From here we visited a biodynamic winery, Le Clos du Joncuas and bought more wine than expected. All of it so good, the rosé was outstanding. Light but structured. The winery is run by two sisters, continuing the company their grandfather started. Interestingly, the sister who poured our tastings (and by the way, tastings here in France are easily 2-3 times the size of US tastings and not one winery has charged a penny… When/why did US wineries start charging? Is there an essential etiquette of wine tasting the Americans didn’t get that the French public does?) pointed out that in her grandfather’s time, everyone was using “natural” techniques, there wasn’t any other option. What we consider to be “conventional” techniques with chemical fertilizer and pesticide have only been around since the late 1940s. So it was just their father’s choice to stay “natural”, just one generation, that has allowed them to be “organic” from inception.
Before Gigondas, we spent the morning in Vaison La Romaine at their weekly market (most towns in Provence have a market at least one day during the week with everything from produce to sweaters to fancy vegetable cutters like you see on TV). I had tried to stay in Vaison La Romaine my last time in this region, in 1992. Then it had suffered a devastating flood, just days before my arrival. I couldn’t stay the night, but did walk through the town (there’s history in my family with floods, something for another story). Sitting firmly in my mind’s eye is the image of a bathroom sink, about two feet of flooring around it, clinging to a wall of a house above the river Ouvèze. The rest of the room, and the building, had been swept away. A toothbrush and toothpaste were still on the sink. The town has solidly rebuilt, as has apparently the entire area (they took the flood seriously and invested in many improvements we were told). The first century Roman bridge survived that flood and this time we walked across it and up into the medieval city that sits above the ‘modern’ one (that would be the one sitting between two ancient Roman ruins).
Found some beautiful scarves in the market, from a very animated and enthusiastic man (beyond market days, he has scarves and more at a store in town, Maka, 4 Rue Raspail). Scarves around our neck, we could now feel more French, but had to resist buying just about everything else (especially this umbrella which called out to me for some reason).
Other highlight of Vaucluse? Nature. We got out one day and despite mistral winds up to 70 km/hour did an eight kilometer hike around the “Dentelles de Montmirail”. Way back in 1992, I climbed here, invited by a group of French climbers staying at the same place I found when Vaison was no longer an option. Can’t say I remember where exactly we had climbed, and this 2015 hike took us all around the range, rather than just up one face, but there was a strong sense of déjà vu, in an oddly welcoming way. It’s a striking natural chain of uplifted Jurassic limestone (thanks Wikipedia), surrounded by villages and vineyards.
The next day it was already time to pull up roots and head on to our next destination in Provence, the Luberon. In a decidedly less strenuous, but still beautiful experience, we drove over Mont Ventoux (meant more to Jeff as he follows the Tour de France, apparently an important climb, and one that attracts lots of bikers, even on days like this…). One cyclist, clearly eager to share his achievement, burst out to us that he improved his best time by four minutes, climbing in under two hours. Almost felt like we were back in Boulder… Down then through Sault, which would be spectacular before lavender harvest (instead the fields of lavender looked a bit like shorn sheep). But then a startlingly beautiful set of valleys into the Luberon. You could just sense prehistoric caves around every bend.