Scottish Daily Mail
MY PICK OF PERFECT PROVENCE
Prejudice defies logic. Lots of people loved Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence but it made me more determined than ever to spend summers in Britain. While some of us had to work for a living, off he went in the late eighties with money in the bank; bought a dilapidated house; charmed the locals and wrote whole chapters about eccentric French plumbers.
The cash rolled in, but Provence became a cliché. envious? Moi? Absolutely. That’s why for 25 years i gave the region a wide berth. But that’s nothing compared to Susan, my 80- something mother-in-law, who hadn’t been to France for half a century. Then, to my horror, as soon as the eurostar pulled out of St Pancras, Susan produced a crumpled copy of Mayle’s book and quickly became engrossed.
Getting there is a doddle. in high season the train goes all the way from London to Avignon.
We picked up a hire car at Avignon station and headed for our villa just outside pretty L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue, which straddles five tributaries of the river Sorgue and was once a centre of the cloth industry.
L’Hirondelle, as our villa is called, is owned by a Hungarian couple. They have done a fabulous job: traditional (terrace sheltered by vines, pool, hewn stone floors, lavender) but also big on technology (huge TV showing all the main UK channels and fridges galore).
i was just uncorking the first bottle of rose and about to toast
our good fortune when Susan noticed her suitcase was not the one that she’d left Norfolk with. It was my fault. I’d picked up an entirely different one on arrival in Avignon.
Now we all know France is in crisis. But, what I hadn’t quite appreciated, is how frustratingly inefficient it is. Lost and Found offices only operate Monday to Friday; there is no number you can call and the police look at you wearily when reporting something missing.
Luckily, it was market day on Sunday in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue (once described as the ‘Venice of Provence‘, which is a little overstating things) and so we bought several new frocks for Susan, before settling down to lunch by the river.
She was a little down about it all, but her spirits picked up no end that evening when we drove to the hill- top village of Menerbes (Gothic-style church, corkscrew museum, teenyweeny streets and, yes, the backdrop to Mayle’s literary money-spinner) and looked out over the Luberon National Park, with the Vaucluse mountains in the distance. Two kilometres away is the ravishing La Bastide de Marie, a 14-room hotel (including one gypsy caravan) set in acres of its own vineyards.
The restaurant (£50 a head, including wine) is open to nonresidents — and the food and service assuaged any lingering negativity about the indifference of the French to missing suitcases.
Aix en Provence is an hour south east. My wife was insistent that we should visit its f a mous market and so off we went, only to discover it closes at 1pm. How on earth will Monsieur Hollande ever get this country back to work? Then we had the car towed away.
Things could only get better but we’d not expected fullblown r apture when we stopped off f or dinner at Crillon le Brave, an exquisite collection of 16th and 17thcentury buildings which over the years has been turned into a hotel occupying a prime spot. with its creamy stone, bleached shutters and imposing church, it is everything you could want in Provence — and more. Frankly, dinner went straight into my top ten list.
we conquered Mont Ventoux. At 6,273 ft metres it’s the highest point in Provence, the arid summit way above the tree line. It wasn’t a difficult climb — by car, that i s. others were doing i t on f oot or on racing bikes, t he latter i nspired by the Tour de France, which passes this way most years. Just before you reach the summit, there’s a grave by the side of the road, a memorial to the great British cyclist Tommy Simpson, who died from heart failure in 1967 on one of the hottest days ever recorded in the race. His last words were: ‘Put me back on the bloody bike.’
Mont Ventoux is an essential outing. So, too, is Gordes, as long as you go there once the tourist coaches have l eft. The village is i rresistibly pretty, so much so my fatherin-law very nearly bought a set of those plastic place-mats with scenic photographs complete with a Greetings from Gordes inscription.
I told him that for the same price we could have a cocktail on the terrace of La Bastide de Gordes, the famous old hotel that tumbles down the rock face just off the main square. And that’s what we did.
we stayed on for a thrilling dinner, during which we l earned that the hotel is about to close for a €16 million refurb (reopening June 17).
A week in Provence might not have the same ring to it as the title of Mayle’s book, but a mere seven days here works wonders for the soul. Susan even forgave me for the suitcase debacle.