LA VIE EN FRANCE / LIFE IN FRANCE: LES VACANCES / HOLIDAY
(For ‘the story so far’, take a look at blogpostings 279, 280 and 283)
Le Vieux Cannet (vieux means ‘old’) is a small and very ancient village perched on a tiny clifftop at the end of a long promontory. This promontory juts out into a vast plain of low-lying land; it’s what used to be called a ‘heugh’ in north-east England.
Of necessity, the village is tiny; its clifftop plateau is very small. There’s a dusty village square with houses on two sides, the church on the third and, on the fourth side, a sheer drop to the valley way below. As I discovered on my post-breakfast wander the next morning, the view south from here is astounding. The vast verdant plain below the village is neatly laid out with vineyards and wine-making farms. It also acts as a conduit for those joint necessities of modern European life - the motorway and the high-speed train line.
The hills in the far distance are the hinterland of St Tropez and the Cote d’Azure; Nice, Cannes and Monaco aren’t too far distant - which partly explains why the motorway and railway are so busy.
Our journey, though, lay in entirely the opposite direction. It was time for us to venture north-west, into that famed part of Provence known as the Luberon. I’d read a lot about it - although not, at the time, the most famous book of all: A Year in Provence, written in the late 80s by Peter Mayle and hugely popular ever since (although the tv series adapted from it was, by all accounts, ‘weak’).
In a way, I’m glad I didn’t read it before I went there. It would perhaps have coloured my expectations too much. Reading it after I got back, on the other hand, served to confirm the opinions I’d formed of my own accord; clever me - and clever Peter Mayle for drawing such a funny and affectionate portrait of the Luberon.
But I’m ahead of myself…
It was sad to say Goodbye to Yvon and his splendid home. Blogsters will know that he has already been foolish enough to invite me back - he obviously doesn’t know me very well - and I hereby accept his invitation (with what may be regarded as unseemly haste) before he reconsiders and withdraws it.
We travelled west, back towards Aix-en-Provence (which, by the way, is pronounced Ex). Many guide-books sing its praises as one of France’s chic-est university cities, but we didn’t have time to confirm or refute those reports. The heart of our holiday lay to the north, and that’s where we wanted to be.
Le Tambour d’Arcole (The Drummer-Boy of Arcola'). Legend has it that this brave young fellow waded into the river at the Battle of Arcola in 1796, thus inspiring Napoleon to march onto the bridge and subsequently win the battle. A bit like the legend of our own Jack Crawford, whose memorial stands in Mowbray Park in Sunderland. Funnily enough, young Jack’s escapade also took place during the Napoleonic campaign, so it’s Cadenet 1, Sunderland 1.
I can’t quite figure out the French attitude to Napoleon and, to be brutally honest, I’m too intimidated to ask. I haven’t come across a Rue Bonaparte or an Avenue Napoleon yet, although I’m sure they must exist, given the French predilection for naming important streets after important people. Almost every village has a Rue Charles de Gaulle - including the village where Serge lives. Naturally, it’s the main road.
Napoleon, though, seems to have had several thick veils drawn over his memory. In wondering why this should be, I’ve decided to read up about him rather than pose what may be a double-edged question to the French people I know.
Just a couple of miles ahead of us lay our dramatic entry into the Luberon - the Combe de Lourmarin - a winding, narrow lane that leads deeper and deeper into an extraordinary gorge, with the cliffsides closing in as you drive higher - and motorcyclists risking their lives and yours by hurtling directly towards you and swerving away on a tight bend at the very last minute. It seems to be some kind of informal motorsport which, being English, I did not find remotely amusing.
At the top of the combe, you are on the southern hills of the Luberon. You are in what many people - especially thanks to Peter Mayle, English visitors and expats - consider to be the ‘real’ Provence.
We took a side road that should have pointed to Heaven.
It wound up through woods, olive groves and vineyards to the captivating - and very busy - twin villages of Bonnieux and Enclos-des-Bories ( - I found out what bories were a little later on). The view from the main street of Bonnieux was stunning; low hills - the ones we had just driven through - lay to our left, wildly wooded and be-vined. All else was hilltop villages, wide valleys, chateaux, fields and farms. We could see for miles as we wound down the streets of the villages and emerged on the valley floor.
We drove through Lacoste, famous to many, I suppose, as the (purely coincidental) name of designer clothing which people of a certain moribund stupidity would kill to get their hands on. Much more interestingly, though, Lacoste is also where the wonderfully pervy Marquis de Sade had his chateau.
I’m not sure how much time he was able to spend here, though. After all, he was in prison for 32 of his adult years - during which time he wrote most of the books which would ensure his immediate re-arrest on release. Nevertheless, and depending on your level of interest (or of your ‘sadism’), his Provencal hideaway is there to be visited.
The steep-sided hill of Petit Luberon - an enclave all of its own - was still hugging the road when we reached Menerbes. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is the village near which Peter Mayle and his wife settled in the 80s and where he wrote his famous book. If I’d known, I would have made a special pilgrimage to the house, the painstaking restoration of which is central to the book. (He would have been in no danger: he now lives in Lourmarin, and we’d passed through there already.)
We drove deeper into the valley and were astonished to see a village that looked as though it was built onto a ledge on the mountain-side. This was Oppede-le-Vieux ( - I hope you’ve remembered what vieux means - ) and our eyes had not deceived us. It really was built on that ledge. A lane ran tightly onto the smallest village square I’ve ever seen - and out again. There was no room to stop the car and get out - so I still haven’t seen one of Provence’s weirdest mysteries: The Magic Square of Oppede.
Here it is…
It’s called a Sator Square and - as a little close inspection will show you - it’s a perfect palindrome. It can be read backwards and forwards, downwards and upwards, from left to right or right to left. A possible translation is, apparently, ‘the sower Arepo holds the wheels at work’ but I suspect that what it means is very much secondary to why it exists at all.
I’m told that nine of these mysterious Sator Squares - which are thought to be linked with very early Christianity - have been unearthed from the ruins of ancient Europe. Even more mysterious: the one found in Manchester may be the earliest evidence of Christianity in England.
Our next destination was clearly visible from Oppede-le-Vieux; it lay just a few kilometres away on a hilltop across the valley: the truly astonishing village of Gordes.
Like Le Vieux Cannet, Gordes sits at the end of a long, high promontory. Because the hill is altogether bulkier, though, it can accommodate a much larger village, complete with a small chateau in the market square.
When you first see Gordes it is genuinely - and quite literally - unbelievable. It looks as though it was designed, as a piece, specially for that site and no other, by a group of the world’s foremost village-designing architects. Everything looks perfectly in place - and not just the buildings which drape themselves (a little self-consciously, it must be admitted) over the promontory’s top and sides. The lanes and steps, the gardens and trees and tiny squares, the chateau and the church - they all contribute to an overall picture that is extremely easy on the eye.
There’s a viewpoint from the road entering the village, with well-worn paths to scary cliff-edges where even better views are obtainable. I could easily imagine generations of French tourists encouraging each other to ‘go back a bit’ (en arriere un peu) and plunging helplessly into the valley below in the cause of photographic perfection. Gordes is the sort of place where you would seriously want to take your best shot ever.
I couldn’t help wondering, though, what the place must be like in the summer. In August, the entire population of Paris, and several other European cities besides, descends on the south of France. And a goodly number of them must end up here, pushing each other over the edge, literally and metaphorically, to get a better photo. Local doctors and gendarmerie have probably already identified a condition they call ‘rage du Gordes’.
(As if to prove the point, you can see more photos of Gordes on Serge’s blog: spepere.blogspot.com)
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