Words by Steven Yates Photos by Steven & Laura Yates
its beautiful coastline cities The south of France is known for lesser known villages of the and sunny summers, but it was the(or just Provence) that attracted eastern Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur I joined my parents for a us to the beautiful area. Laura andnarrow winding roads and magical two weeks of exploring the ted coastal cities in our ‘oh-somedieval villages. Leaving the popula plotting our way through the French’ Citroen, we found ourselves de by the premise; the more farming towns which seemed to abi t tourists have discovered it. remote the village, the less likely tha
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k in P , s ld ie F r Lavende s e s r o H e it h W d Wine an
Our drive heralded our arrival at the village of Montclus, which would be our home for two weeks and the first of many marvels we were about to experience. The approach to the perfectly maintained medieval hamlet was a single lane winding up through a field of lavender, perfectly framed with a babbling river of clean, clear water and soft round pebbles. Our first experience of the fragrant lavender fields was enough to send Laura into heaven, while the cold crisp rosé at the only café in the village had a similar effect for my Dad. The picture in my mind drummed up by many hours of reading Peter Mayle’s books on living in Provence could not have been more accurate, from the sun-worn old men playing boules in the shade of the parking lot trees, to the narrow cobbled streets which no car could possibly fit though. From beautiful stony arches and colourful flower boxes framing the many windows, to the friendly banter of the musical French vocabulary sounding between the locals; Montclus was a place to hold in one’s heart.
Leaving our little village each day to explore the surrounding area could only be described as a colour explosion, as we were treated to fields of bright yellow sunflowers in full bloom, the gentle purple of the lavender bushels and the vibrant greens of vines bulging with young grapes. Our kaleidoscope experience did not end there, as meals were accompanied with chilled wine of every hue of pink, olive oils of nutty green and cheese from chalky white to creamy yellow (and sometimes a little blue). From Montclus we visited the traditional centres of Provence such as Orange, Aix and Avignon, all boasting French markets that bustled with local produce and flavoursome delights – the best of which was in the streets of Gordes where we bought (according to the extensive research of Peter Mayle) the best cork screw in the world – a Laguiole. In one of the villages named Cornillon, on a hillside overlooking lavender fields, we enjoyed an evening (as the only non-French speaking people) of local song by the villagers, who spontaneously decided to have a concert in the town centre.
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Too much touring can be exhausting so we decided to slow down and add some red into our mix of colours with a long, slow day in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Renowned to produce some of the best red wines in the world, the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is unlike the wine towns we are used to in South Africa. Unlike the South African wine estates, which make their wine on the farm, Châteauneuf-du-Pape has all of the surrounding wine farms’ cellars in the town, with only the actual vines streaming across the surrounding countryside. Each building in the town houses a cool subterranean cellar lined with many vintages of magnificent wine. Our wine tasting experience was second to none as we moved from cellar to cellar, sampling the best the region had to offer. The day was topped off with two hours in the most magnificent boutique wine cellar, Baronnie d’Estouard. This cellar only produces 2,000 bottles of red and 1,600 bottles of white per year, and they can only be purchased from the cellar in person. We were lucky enough to have the charming and quirky owner to ourselves, although at one stage he did chase a potential customer out of the cellar because 'he was rude and would not appreciate the wine'. We sampled red vintages from six different years and a couple of whites too; we discussed the approach of winemaking in the region vs. the traditional South African approach and finally splashed out on a case of liquid gold, to which the owner gifted us three free bottles of his older vintages to complete our collection. It might have all been a sales ploy, but the wine is, to this day, the best I have ever had and the experience of buying was even better. Refreshed from our day of wine tasting, our sightseeing resumed with a more historic approach. We visited some of the ancient Roman remains littering the surrounding countryside, the most impressive being the Pont du Gard, which rises 49 metres above the river and spans the 274 metres across it. Our tour wound its way down to the Camargue where we spent a night away from our beloved Montclus. Again, we were reminded that colour was the theme for the holiday, with the famous white horses and
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black bulls of the coastal delta providing stark contrast to the pink of the flamingos. The salt pans, brine lakes and sand dunes of the Camargue were beautifully wild, and Laura and I decided to explore it firstly by bicycle and then on horseback. Finally we enjoyed the explosion of flavour offered by the fresh seafood dishes served along the French coast, most notable was the Marseille’s famed bouillabaisse. Returning to Montclus we decided we had done enough sightseeing and traversing the countryside and that some rest and relaxation was in order for our remaining summer days. We lounged on the banks of the River Cèze, which ambled its way only metres from our casa. We drank chilled rosé and indulged in cured meats and fresh bread drizzled with the finest of olive oils and accompanied with paté of wild boar and foie gras. We hired canoes and let the easy pace of the Cèze float us down past riverside cafés and families enjoying the sun. We joined some locals for evening boule and took long afternoon naps.
To the colours and flavours of a most amazing region … raise a glass to Provence … what a wonderful world. Interesting facts: • The Pont du Gard was constructed in 1 AD. It is the highest and best preserved of all Roman aquaduct bridges. • The Pont du Gard was constructed largely without the use of mortar or clamps. It contains an estimated 50,400 tons of stone with a volume of some 21,000 m³; some of the individual blocks weigh up to 6 tons. • The Camargue is western Europe's largest river delta and home to more than 400 species of birds. • The Camargue has its own eponymous horse breed, the famous white Camarguais, ridden by the gardians (similar to traditional cowboys), who rear the region's black fighting bulls for export to Spain.
• The Camargue horse is one of the oldest breeds in the world, closely related to the prehistoric horses whose remains have been found elsewhere in southern France. • There are at least three kinds of fish in a traditional bouillabaisse, typically scorpionfish, sea robin and European conger. Vegetables such as leeks, onions, tomatoes, celery and potatoes are simmered together with the broth and served with the fish.
Best time to go:
• The most idyllic months for visiting the south of France are May and June. Though the sun is intense, it's not uncomfortable. Coastal waters have warmed up by then, so swimming is possible, and all the resorts have come alive after a winter slumber but aren't yet overrun. The flowers and herbs in the countryside are at their peak, and driving conditions are ideal. In June, it remains light until around 10:30pm. • Lavender blooms from late June to September and is harvested from mid July to late August, the exact time being dependent on the region, plants and seasonal weather. So if you want to be sure to catch the lavender in bloom you should plan your visit from mid June to mid July. • The most overcrowded times, also the hottest, in more ways than one, are July and August. • Aside from May and June, our favorite time is September and even early October, when the sun is still hot and the great hordes have headed back north. • Many of the smaller hotels and restaurants in the country areas close during the months of November to March. •
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