A Week in Provence

A Week in Provence

Dominique Valente’s fantasy for a Peter Mayle inspired edible Shangri-La turns into a comedy of errors that begins, rather ominously, without lunch.

A Week in Provence
Simiane La Rotonde – image via Panoramio

The week did not begin with lunch. In fact, the week began quite absent of lunch altogether. It began with a pilgrimage inspired by travel writer Peter Mayle, whose memoir A Year in Provence had been my much-thumbed fantasy for a sunny, blue-shuttered, edible Shangri-La since I was 15.

Unlike other teenagers who dreamt of becoming lawyers, or bakers, or candlestick makers. I dreamt of retirement. Of stocking up my cellar and finding that perfect hammock in the sun. And goose liver pate. And sticking it to ‘The Man’ … whoever that was.

This probably explains some things.

Like why, after my first full-time day’s work some nine years ago I came home shell-shocked and asked “What idiot signed us all up for this? And why did we all agree?” But I digress.

We arrived in Provence at the wrong train station, to discover that our rental car was some 15 minutes away at the other TGV station. The helpful staff at Avis were horrified, and couldn’t stop apologising.

This was surprising. Where was the famous French grouchiness we’d heard so much about? These people were downright delightful.

We’d spent the week before in Paris – as one does, when one escapes turning 30 by fleeing to another country, nothing stops the look of pity at your great new age when people hear you’re in Paris – (just FYI, use it, don’t use it) and hadn’t found the grouches there either.

No really. Paris had been pretty much a grouch-free-zone. We did, however, encounter our first grouch shortly after we arrived in Provence, when we were advised to take a quick bus ride to the correct station that housed our rental car.

We got on the bus. And the bus driver got off. She was a woman in her early 50s, nattily dressed mais bien sûr (but of course), who before her exit, suggested we follow suit. When we didn’t, she picked up her bag, shrugged at us, and left. Only to stand nearby and make a phone call on her cell phone and pace up and down speaking in rapid fire French for the next 45 minutes. We followed, puzzled – had we taken the wrong bus?

Nope it was the right one that the Avis lady had helpfully supplied, we’d written down the number. The other passengers were equally confused. In broken French and English we asked what was happening. We daren’t ask the driver, who anytime she was approached by one of the other passengers, dashed across the street and back again.

Much speculation ensued. “Lovers tiff?” said I.

“Drugs?” asked an American man at the back.

“Petrol shortage?” enquired a practical teen, removing one iPod cable from behind his ears.

“Shift change,” supplied the lone British guy, authoritatively, to our right. He’d been in France for three weeks he told us. Obviously now the expert. He alone didn’t raise an eyebrow when after 45 minutes the driver nonchalantly got back on the bus, opened its doors, and impatiently beckoned for us to get back on board.

The beautiful hilltop village of Gordes

I made the mistake of getting my bag caught on the door, and she rolled her eyes above her be-scarfed neck, gesturing with one hand to hurry while she tried to steer with the other. She had places to be…

After we fetched our car, and made our way (on the wrong side of the road) amidst my screaming (picture Chapman’s Peak, now narrow the road to the size of a black ribbon,  now imagine that it is, not in fact a one way), and my husband’s moaning that he was hungry (a lack of lunch is far more terrifying for him) to the converted barn/farmhouse set in the midst of a lavender field in Simiane-la-Rotonde, the gorgeous hilltop village high in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, a very remote part of the country.

We had weighed up going to Menerbes, which Mayle had called home with its beautiful vineyards and picture postcard farmhouses. Or Gordes, the really famous hilltop village of Provence. But the description of a 14th century converted barn called Les Granges de Saint-Pierre ‘set amidst the old lavender route’ had led me astray.

Our proprietor was a short, bubbly Frenchwoman named Josiane, who showed us around our double-story farmhouse that looked like something that belonged in House Beautiful magazine. It was enormous, and tasteful, and so very French. The husband and I looked at each other in unmasked delight, how had we gotten this right?

It was her casual comment as she made to leave that should have let us know that all was not well in Denmark. Or the village of Simiane either, for that matter. At least not for the week of our stay.

“The baker is unfortunately on holiday from tomorrow.” Josiane delivered these lines ominously, and departed. We shrugged, we were evolved, we were South African for goodness sake, that’s street cred in every language… we could survive without bread.

We laughed, we actually laughed. But see, we didn’t know then what we do now.

Such fools, such young fools.

The baker in a small village rules. And if she decides now is a good time to go on holiday, everyone pretty much decides to follow suit. Which is precisely what happened.

It began with the lavender itself.

Due to start blooming the week of our arrival, it promptly changed its mind, shrugged its not yet purple shoulders and hunkered down, not to be heard from again until the baker arrived back from holiday in Corsica the following Saturday.

“So strange,” said the epicerie – the grocer, the only grocer… as he hung up the sign outside his little shop, ‘Ferme’. Closed.

“Weird,” agreed the owner of the only restaurant in town, before she too shut the door.

“Will you be closing too?” we asked in dismay, fearful of ever getting something to eat. We were pretty far away from anything, and hadn’t stopped at the ginormous Walmart type effort we’d seen outside the train station in Avignon, well… because I’d wanted the authentic ‘Provencal’ experience, really. I’d assured the husband that we’d be lying on hammocks, eating till we popped, shopping at the local markets… it would be bliss.

“Non, non, non, certainly not,” she assured us waving her hands, as if to say perish the thought. We sighed in relief.

And she kept her word. They were open. Just not whenever we happened by for something to eat. Which was anytime that week from 8 in the morning to 10 at night. Yet they were open.

Sometimes at night, while we lay in bed, we could hear voices carrying through in the wind. We’d hear the clink of glasses and laughter. Or smell something delicious and tempting.

We’d rush by at all hours trying to catch them out. I even went so far as to stand on my tip toes and peer through the windows, but there was nobody there. It was all so very mysterious. Perhaps it was an enchanted restaurant, only opening at some magical hour, like when the clock chimed 13?

The husband was not convinced.

We complained to Josiane, who we telephoned for advice and I believe imparted wise words that my rusty high school French didn’t quite grasp, something along the lines of “… dans les yeux”. I’d nodded, and put the phone down. “Something about between the eyes …” I explained to the husband, who was in a perpetual state of hunger, and was not in the mood for platitudes.

I knew this because he said, “I am not in the mood for platitudes.”

Summer in Menerbes

We braved Banon, the closest town, all smiles as we sat down at a restaurant, only to be told by the waiter that regretfully the kitchen was fermé. On a cloud of my husband’s steam we flowed 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 it all.

It was only later in the week, after much hammock lounging, book reading, Menerbes visiting and wine tasting, when we’d come back home to explore Simiane’s hilltop village more thoroughly, that we stumbled across the second restaurant of Simiane … wouldn’t you know, it was called “Dans les yeux”, not a platitude after all, but a real place.

Quite apt, we thought now that we’d finally restored our sense of humour, helped along by an impressive amount of apricot tarte tatin, there it was, just as she’d said, right between our eyes.