Peter Mayle didn’t invent this place when he published A Year in Provence in 1989, but he did articulate, gently and charmingly, why southeastern France has been a destination recherché for 2,500 years. All it takes is one evening in these hills, as the sun sets, serenaded by cicadas, to understand. While our North American lives are oriented around speed, Provence seems designed to slow our heartbeats. You couldn’t hurry here if you tried.
In February of 2009, with our phones and BlackBerries and computers ringing and bleeping and blooping, with my long workdays at the Edmonton Journalblending into weekends packed with social and familial responsibilities, my wife and I decided to gather up our two little girls and take an unearned one-year sabbatical overseas.
Of the six départements that make up Provence, we chose the northern Vaucluse for the same reasons Julius Caesar made it a retirement destination for his overworked legionnaires two millennia ago: the land, the people, the light, the scents of lavender and strawberries, the intense flavours of olives and sharp cheese. It doesn’t have the celebrity buzz of the southern Vaucluse, along the Luberon mountains – Peter Mayle’s neighbourhood – but it’s quieter and cheaper, and the wine is just as good.
The Greeks were the first to plant grapevines in France. Then the Romans came through, planted more vines, made collaborators of the locals, and built a pleasant system of retirement communities east of the Rhône River. The empire collapsed, the barbarians arrived, the church became the church, the barbarians rolled through again and, finally, these wonderful people we now call the French materialized. While some will argue the Nazis were the last barbarians to take temporary ownership of Provence, others will point to the latest occupation by rich northerners from Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and, of course, North America.
Who can blame us? In a world flattened by busy, multinational sameness, the Vaucluse continues to deliver on all its unique and powerful promises. It is rich with some of the best food and wine in the world, Roman and medieval ruins, reliably sunny weather, triple-kisses-on-the-cheek hospitality from its proud inhabitants, a funky local accent, art and literature and, most important, some of France’s most enchanting scenery.
There isn’t anything new to discover in these green hills that wasn’t already well known during the reign of Julius Caesar, and still the place hasn’t lost its authenticity. Of course, there are SUVs here now, and cellphones (it’s still Earth), but small, family-owned cafés and restaurants, vineyards, shops, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts have thrived in the Vaucluse while the rest of the world has succumbed to McDonald’s, Starbucks and new-world wine plastered with cute logos.
Few inhabitants embody this spirit of Provence like Pierre Paumel, one of only 300 peer-chosen French master chefs. Born in the region and committed to its meat, produce and wine, he is a fusion of intellectual, artist, stand-up comic and farmer. He and his gregarious wife Annie run La Bastide des Princes, a luxurious yet economical bed-and-breakfast, restaurant and cooking school a few kilometres from the Gallo-Roman city of Orange.
The Paumels owned the famous restaurant and hotel La Sommellerie in the nearby village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape until their “retirement.” Now at La Bastide des Princes, a 17th-century manor that has quickly become a favourite of the tastemaking Michelin Guide, they welcome guests in five large rooms with exposed beams and rustic furnishings. Pierre offers morning instruction in Provençal cuisine and wine that result in a sumptuous lunch. They serve dinner by the fire in the winter and on the patio in the summer. Upstairs, they operate a spa. Oh, and if you fancy a party beside the swimming pool in the property’s beautiful garden (designed like a village square), they’ll host it for you.
“We decided to slow down,” said Annie, when I stayed at the Bastide. “It feels wonderful.” Nevertheless, she made this observation while running from the kitchen to receive a fax in her office. That’s the illusive quality of the slow life in Provence. For those who have made a career out of perfecting languor for visitors, life here moves quickly – but not so fast that Pierre and Annie don’t sit down to eat lunch with their guests.
For our lunch, Pierre taught me how to make black-olive fougasse (a kind of focaccia bread), along with roast leg of lamb, and a dream dish of baked mullet splashed with local olive oil and arranged on a thin slice of pastry with ratatouille. On the fish: fresh tapenade. On the plate: fresh pesto.
One of the finest things about staying in a chambre d’hôte, a rural bed-and-breakfast-and-sometimes-dinner, with a couple like Pierre and Annie is that they seem to know everyone worth knowing in a 30-kilometre radius. Since Pierre is a pal of every vigneron in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, he gave me a shortlist of vineyards to visit in one of the world’s most famous wine villages.
Thanks to Pierre, and my interest in organic wine, I landed without a reservation at Château La Nerthe. My guide, the domaine’s well-spoken director Christian Voeux, grew up down the road in Séguret. At 92 hectares, Chatêau La Nerthe is the second-largest wine estate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Historically, it may be the most important. The Romans planted here. The domaine shows up in the literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. By 1750, its wine was already being exported to America. And after a catastrophic invasion of a nasty leaf-eating bug called phylloxera at the end of the 19th century, it was army commander Joseph Ducos, the then-owner of Château La Nerthe, who bravely rebuilt the wine industry in the region.
“It’s the soil, these little rocks, that have made this place different,” said Voeux, as he took me on a tour of the vines. He explained that a vast sea once covered this land, leaving behind minerals as it slowly drained into the Mediterranean.
New-world wine marketing has taught us to look for single-grape wines, such as a cabernet or a merlot. Here however, centuries of expertise in blending varieties is the preferred strategy, even if it means North American wine drinkers are often confused by French wine. Why do they use the names of villages and regions instead of grapes? The strict rules in the appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for example, allow 13 grapes but few of them are used. Red wines of the southern Rhône Valley are generally composed of a mixture of three grapes or cépages: Grenache, Syrah (Shiraz) and Mourvèdre.
For a more thorough education in the genius of Rhône Valley wines and in embracing the slow life, I drove southeast to the commune of Mazan. The Auberge du Vin is a chambre d’hôte between Mazan and Carpentras, surrounded by vines, with a clear view of Mont Ventoux. Here Linda Field, an investment banker who gave up a mad career in London to open the Auberge du Vin, a bed-and-breakfast and wine education centre in Provence, gave me a two-hour course in Côtes du Rhône wine. We concluded the five tastings with a tender and tasty coq au vin for dinner.
The Auberge du Vin is a beautifully renovated stone farmhouse, a perfect blend of the historic and the modern. Linda’s husband, Christopher, a former engineer, did the renovations himself. He also baked the bread we had with dinner. Though they’ll tell you they were once stressed out by long workdays and moving others’ millions, it doesn’t show.
“What wine should we start with?” asked Christopher, as our meal began. “The rosé, Christophe,” replied Linda, using the French pronunciation of her husband’s name. “We should save the Châteauneuf for the lamb.”
“Do we have to?”
If there’s one person who epitomizes the slow-life ethos, it’s Patricia Wells. One of the finest cookbook authors in the world, she runs her celebrated Provençal cooking courses a stone’s throw from the most extensive archaeological dig in France: the 2,000-year-old Roman ruins in downtown Vaison-la-Romaine. The hill overlooking them is an authentic medieval haute-ville, stuffed with art galleries, cafés and lavender shops. But the bustle of Vaison, population 6,000, is not evident from Chanteduc, the villa, garden and small wine domain Patricia shares with her husband, Walter Wells, author and former editor of the International Herald Tribune.
Her life-changing, five-day courses in Provençal cuisine are centred on the products she buys at the Tuesday morning market in Vaison-la-Romaine. She teaches students how to sweat a vegetable and then, at the market, introduces them to everything the world loves about Provence: fresh fruit and vegetables, locally grown meat, lavender, truffles, cheese, bread, fish and pottery.
Walter and Patricia Wells arrived in Paris from New York in the early 1980s for a two-year assignment. They never left. They still have an apartment and a cooking school in Paris, but they adore relaxing into their Provençal life. (In fact, when my family first arrived in France, we read their joint autobiography, We’ve Always Had Paris… And Provence: A Scrapbook of Our Life in France, and they quickly became our heroes.) The Wellses love for the region’s food, its people and its culture is infectious. On their terrace, overlooking a lush garden and the sleepy valley, they tell hilarious and moving stories about buying Chanteduc, learning the language and travelling the country a hundred times over in a little Volkswagen convertible.
The Wellses would be the first to agree that the pace of life in rural France can be slow. We livened it up by visiting the prefecture and urban capital of the Vaucluse, Avignon, with its famous bridge and walled medieval city. Every summer, Avignon holds one of the best theatre festivals on earth. Take Stratford, mix it with the Edmonton Fringe, slap a fashion show on it, translate the whole thing into French, and give it a backdrop of 14th-century architecture, and you get the Avignon Festival.
If you don’t happen to visit Avignon during its famous festival, there are still plenty of attractions worth visiting. Hôtel La Mirande, across the street from the Palace of the Popes, which took the place of the Vatican from 1309 to 1378, is in one of the most beautiful mansions in the south of France. The Stein family, who acquired the grand house in 1987, renovated it to exacting 17th-century standards. Every room is a work of art. The restaurant, devoted to Rhône Valley food and wine, is among the best in the region. Downstairs, in the atmospheric basement atelier of La Mirande, table d’hôte chef Jean-Claude Altmayer cooks over a giant, wood-fired 120-year-old oven.
It was here that I shared a bottle of Côtes du Rhône from the village of Visan with three other guests at a large table adjacent to Altmayer’s atelier. The chef didn’t rush for one instant and seemed to smile for two hours straight. Between courses he told tales of cooking for five French presidents, designer Jean Paul Gaultier, German musical group Boney M. and actor Jack Nicholson. When he learned I was Canadian, he pulled out some smoked salmon to celebrate.
The next day I tasted more local wine in the basement of the Palace, then purchased a bottle and carried it up to the Parc des Rochers des Doms overlooking the city. From that vantage point, it wasn’t difficult to imagine what brought the popes to the Vaucluse: everything that drew us here, I imagine. Rome was a little too busy, too fast, too competitive, too international. Contemplating God and ensuring his dominion required calm and stillness, the sound of cicadas at night, powerful red wine, garlicky tapenade and the sweet perfume of lavender in the morning.
In 1378, when the papacy returned to Rome, the Western Schism occurred. For those who had become accustomed to life in the Rhône Valley, it was painful to imagine a return to big-city life. In fact, Clement VII briefly tore the Catholic Church in half to set up an alternate papacy here in Provenc