A Week in Provence

Simiane-la-Rotonde, a gorgeous hilltop village high in the remote Alpes-de-Haute-Provence
Dominique Valente

We didn’t know then, what we do now. When the baker in a small village decides to go on holiday, everyone pretty much follows suit.

The week did not begin with lunch. It began with a pilgrimage inspired by my much-thumbed A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, fuelling fantasies of a sunny, blue-shuttered Shangri-La since I was 15. Unlike other teens that dreamt of becoming lawyers, bakers, or candlestick makers, I dreamt of retirement, of stocking my cellar, goose liver pate, and finding that perfect hammock in the sun. And sticking it to ‘The Man’ (whoever that was).

Images of Provence.
Images of Provence.

We arrived in Provence to discover our Avis rental car was at the other TGV station. Advised to take a bus to the correct station to fetch our rental car, we got on, and the bus driver got off. She was a woman in her early 50s, nattily dressed (mais bien sûr) who suggested we follow suit. When we didn’t, she shrugged, and spoke rapid French into her cell phone for 45 minutes.

Had we taken the wrong bus? The passengers also began to speculate.

“Lovers tiff?” I wondered.

“Drugs?” asked an American man.

“Petrol shortage?” enquired a teen.

“Shift change,” supplied the lone British guy, who had been in France for three weeks.

After 45 minutes the driver got back on the bus and we set off.

Menerbes, Mayle’s stamping ground with its vineyards and picture postcard farmhouses.
Menerbes, Mayle’s stamping ground with its vineyards and picture postcard farmhouses.

After fetching our car, we drove along a black ribbon of a road to a converted farmhouse within a lavender field in Simiane-la-Rotonde, a gorgeous hilltop village high in the remote Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. I had considered Menerbes, Mayle’s stamping ground with its vineyards and picture postcard farmhouses and Gordes, the famous hilltop village of Provence, but succumbed to the lure of a “14th century converted barn set amidst the old lavender route.

A  bubbly French woman named Josiane showed us around our double-story farmhouse. It was enormous, tasteful, and tres chic.  As my husband and I beamed, she delivered her parting shot

“The baker is unfortunately, on holiday from tomorrow.”

We shrugged. So? We could survive without bread. We actually laughed. We didn’t know then, what we do now. When the baker in a small village decides to go on holiday, everyone pretty much follows suit.

Then the sulking lavender due to bloom the week of our arrival, displayed nary a purple blossom until the baker’s return from Corsica the following Saturday.

“Strange,” said the only Epicerie – grocer – as he hung up his “Ferme” sign outside his little shop,

“Tres étrange,” agreed the only restaurant owner in town, shutting the door. She claimed the restaurant was open, but just never when we happened by for something to  ­eat – and we tried several times between 8 am and 10 pm. Yet, sometimes at night from our bed, we could hear voices, the clink of glasses and laughter on the wind. Or we’d smell something delicious.

The hilltop village of Gordes.
The hilltop village of Gordes.

We’d rush by at all hours but we never did catch them out.  I’d peer through the windows on tip toe but there was never anybody there. It was all très mystérieuse.

We complained to Josiane who said some stuff that my rusty school French didn’t grasp, quelque chose about “Dans les yeux”. Right! “Something about the eyes … “ I explained to the hungry husband, who was not in the mood for platitudes. That’s what he said. “I am not in the mood for platitudes.”

We braved Banon, the closest town and sat down at a restaurant, only to be told that regretfully the kitchen was fermé. We flounced off to Banon’s own epicerie, mercifully open. He had mounds of cheese, ice-cream, Jaffa Cakes (seriously, the bliss), and an onion. We bought the lot.

It was only later in the week, after much hammock lounging, reading, Menerbes visiting and wine tasting that we stumbled across a second restaurant in Simiane called … “Dans Les Yeux”, not a platitude, a real place! Just as Josiane had said. C’est la vie!

  • Described by publishers HarperCollins as ‘the most spellbinding new children’s fantasy series of 2019’ the hardback edition of Dominique Valente’s book with beautiful illustrations by Sarah Warburton, will be out next month. (Click on the illustration to order)