A week in Provence (2)
September 14, 2013 § Leave a comment
(Part 1 is here)
The day after we returned from Arles, we decided to stay a bit closer to home. Our first stop was the 12th-century Cistercian monastery of Senanque, tucked into a steep and otherwise fairly empty valley. The monks support themselves by growing lavender, but by August the lavender was long since harvested so I couldn’t replicate the shots of Senanque rising above rows of blooming lavender that seem to be splashed across every calender and about 50% of the postcards sold in Provence.
Not that I was too bothered about the lack of lavender. The monastery itself has the austere beauty typical of Cistercian architecture – just smooth walls of white stone baked by the sun and almost completely unadorned. Even the capitals of the columns surrounding the cloister offer the barest nod to ornamentation, just abstract, vaguely botanical motifs and a single roughly-hewn gargoyle. (The gargoyle is actually a tarasque, the mythical dragon that plagued the town of Tarascon for years before being subdued by St Martha.)
The next stop – just on the other side of the mountains – was Gordes. Gordes is perched atop a hill and is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful villages I’ve ever set eyes on. It has little in the way of sights – the chief pleasure of being there is exploring the steep, narrow streets and enjoying the view across the vineyards and olive groves below. (There is a castle but it just holds the local tourism office, so we skipped it in favour of a long and enjoyably convoluted shopping trip for wine, olive oil, honey and herbes de Provence.)
The last stop of the day, a few miles (sorry, kilometres… you can take the girl out of America, but…) down the road, was Roussillon. The name gives you a hint of its claim to fame – ochre quarries, lots of them. Almost every building in the village is painted in warm oranges, reds and browns, and the quarries themselves present a startling, almost alien landscape that you can hike through if you don’t mind coming out with orange shoes. (If you’re wondering what that ochre-less photo in the middle is of, look beyond the green crests of the mountains. That ghostly white ridge beyond is none other than Mont Ventoux.)
The next day – our last – we ventured back into the valley of the Luberon, this time to Oppède-le-vieux. It might best be described as a fortified ghost town. The town sprang up in the Middle Ages, when its virtually unassailable position atop a mountain made it an ideal fortress. By the 18th century, it was all but abandoned, its population having decamped to the much more accessible valley below. Oppède-le-vieux today consists of two cafés, a few chambres d’hôtes, a pottery and a couple of other shops… and that’s it. Once you’re inside the citadel proper, despite the presence of other tourists (surprisingly few the day we visited), it’s eerily empty and quiet.
Our second stop of the day was Ménerbes, of A Year in Provence fame… and I have to say, Peter Mayle has got a lot to answer for. Ménerbes is still extremely picturesque, but its streets are now dotted with eye-wateringly expensive boutiques selling the latest Parisian designs and the newspaper rack in the Café du Progrès seems to offer greater numbers of English and German papers than it does French. That said, Ménerbes is also the home of the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin, and although the truffles are as unaffordable there as they are everywhere, their selection of local wines was staggering and their tastings generous. I ended up taking home a bottle of dessert wine which I’m sure would have been impossible to find in the UK (or indeed, outside Provence).
On the way back to Lagnes, we stopped at a farmstand at the bottom of the village and bought a basket of figs, some plums, a punnet of cherry tomatoes and a couple of Noir de Crimée tomatoes, all of them perfectly ripe. That, with bread, herbed goat cheese and tapenade we bought in Ménerbes, was our Last Supper.
At least, of this holiday. I hope there will be more in years to come.