Thanks to Mary Jean’s career as a professor of French and leader on many Dartmouth foreign study programs, we’ve lived over the years almost everywhere in France: Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Brittany, and the Loire Valley region. But we never lived in Provence, so following our alumni cruise to the French and Italian rivieras last October (https://ronaldmgreen.com/2016/10/17/mediterranean-cruise-and-provence-september-28-to-october-10-2016/), we briefly visited this region to find a house we could occupy for several weeks this summer. Our plan: to rent a house large enough to permit our two children to visit with their children.
We quickly settled on a modest villa near the center of the town of Lourmarin, a village we selected for its beauty and its ties to Albert Camus. Camus spent the last few years of his life here, writing his final, and never entirely finished novel, The First Man (Le Premier Homme). Since Mary Jean and I once taught a course together on “Existentialist Ethics” with a focus on Camus, this was a chance to know the town he loved. We subsequently learned that Lourmarin is recognized as one of “les plus beaux villages de France,” an honor it shares with about one hundred and fifty other designated “beautiful towns” in France.
Arriving in Lourmarin from Marseilles airport, we rounded a bend on the D943 and there was the village, shimmering in the early summer heat. During our stay temperatures often rose to the nineties, but the low humidity, just 30-40%, made it bearable. Camus suffered from TB throughout his life. Raised in Algiers, he treasured the Mediterranean sunlight, but his illness made him vulnerable to seaside humidity, so sunny, dry Lourmarin was an understandable choice.
In this photo, the house with the single window and arbored terrace just below and to the right of the left-most tower belonged to Camus. It is a repurposed old silk factory, and is still occupied by his daughter. In the distance you can see the lavender-tinged mountains that run east to west and divide our level southern portion of the Luberon region of Provence from the north. This central range of mountains on whose southern plain Lourmarin sits defines the Luberon
We arrived at the moment of the equinox celebration. A local band entertains diners at cafes in Lourmarin’s central Place de Fontaine.
Just to the left off the Place de la Fontaine, behind the band, is the Rue du Grand Pré. About halfway up, and off to the left is the Cantonade du Grand Pré, a little cul de sac on which our villa is located.
Below, our Cantonade. The left hand grey-blue door opens to our garage. This is an incredibly tiny space in which to maneuver and back a car, even our tiny rented VW Polo. Nor was our getting in and out aided by the many locals who felt they could just pull into the Cantonade to run an errand!
The villa itself is an odd assembly of different rooms (some gathered from adjacent houses) around a central courtyard. Despite the heat, the arbored terrace was a pleasant place to gather. The many serviceable bedrooms and baths were able to accommodate both of our kids and their families. We delighted in the quiet of our garden retreat just 50 meters from the center of town. Our courtyard:
Here’s our terrace table spread for a luncheon of bread and cheese:
We spent the days before the arrival of our son Matthew and his family getting to know the town. The following is a walking tour that makes a complete circuit of the town. I hope it reveals Lourmarin’s character,
La Place de La Fontaine on a quiet evening and the fountain itself:
Across from the fountain, an employee of our favorite café (spécialité: jambon de Corse) grandstands:
Turning left and further down the street, we see more café culture
A menu features hanger steak in pepper sauce and Dauphinoise potatoes.
Our excellent boulangerie, and the charming boulangère with whom I chatted during my daily visits:
Galleries line the streets:
And shopping is a Lourmarin given:
Just behind the shopping streets, we find a quiet impasse:
Back to the main street and aways on, we come across another fountain:
A cat quenches her thirst at the fountain’s other side:
Just above this corner, we turn onto the Rue Albert Camus:
We struggled to identify the entry to Camus’ house on this street. The townspeople go out of their way to protect Camus’ daughter from tourists, so no one could tell us which house was his, though the web helped. In that spirit, I have effaced the address:
Not far up this street there is a charming plaza with a small gothic church. I couldn’t find anything on the web about the church, but here are several images, including a painting above the altar depicting the visit of the Magi.
Beginning to circle back to the center, we enter La Rue Juiverie. We’re left to our imaginations. No placards or history on the web informs us about the Jews who may once have lived here:
But there is ample information about another persecuted minority: the French Protestants (Huguenots). At the far edge of town stands a “temple” that is a vestige of a thriving Protestant community that once constituted the great majority of the residents of Lourmarin (eleven hundred out of thirteen hundred residents). Protestants lived here peacefully before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. Most of the Huguenots then fled, while others returned following the French revolution to reestablish their community and build this temple. A placard near the entrance traces the difficult history of Protestants in the Luberon:
Just beyond the temple on a low hill is the Chateau of Lourmarin, a part-medieval, part-renaissance structure that now houses art exhibitions and other cultural events.
And here, in picture taken later on, are both it and the temple at dusk:
Almost completing the circuit we had begun, we come across the town’s verdant soccer field:
Running along its side is one of the more gracious streets in town, the site, too, of parts of the weekly Friday market.
Behind us in the picture above, and just above the street leading back down to the Place de la Fontaine is a large modern square lined with cafes and often filled with small stalls of vendors selling clothing or jewelry.
Finally we circle back to the Place de la Fontaine. Looking back, the shoppers and tourists reveal that Lourmarin is a favorite tourist destination.
Up early with music and noise from the center of town. As part of the equinox festival, a procession of medieval and renaissance actors from the chateau fills Lourmarin’s streets.
Lourmarin is regionally famous for its Friday market that fills several streets near the edge of town. Stands featuring handcrafted products alternate with those offering foodstuffs:
At the other end of town, just off the D943 from which we entered, is the cemetery where Camus is buried. This an old and venerated burial place, cherished by the townspeople and generally off-limits for burials of newcomers. We understand that an exception was made in Camus’ case, not only because he was a world-famous writer, but because he had so integrated himself in Lourmarin’s daily life, relaxing and chatting with locals at the cafes and, as an avid soccer fan, cheering on the teams. Camus once wrote, “Everything I ever knew about ethics, I learned from soccer.” The Lourmainois must have found him a kindred spirit.
Beside his grave is that of his wife, Francine.
By the weekend, our son, Matthew and his wife Melissa, had arrived, driving in with their two children from Paris, the Loire, and Lyon (the last two being places where Matt had lived with us and attended school as a child, so this was a rediscovery voyage for him).
We are staunch believers in the Guide Michelin: above all in the quality of its recommendations and evaluations. To anyone traveling by car in France, I urge crafting one’s itinerary with an eye to the one- and two-star restaurants (there’s also a lesser category of “Bib Gourmand,” indicated in the guide by the icon of the Michelin man, which identifies restaurants of good quality and value). For the more pricey starred restaurants, prix fix luncheon menus are your best bet. On the second evening of Matthew’s visit, we went to the one-starred La Fenière, specializing in gluten-free preparations. Here’s its beautiful garden:
And here’s the whole family (except for me, the photographer):
JUNE 26-JULY 3
Our daughter Julie’s flight from Boston was delayed, so the overlap we had planned with both families didn’t work out. Matt’s family was off on the TGV from Marseilles to Paris before Julie’s family arrived.
Our first full day together with Julie, Jarek, Julian and Agniezka included a visit to Aix-en-Provence, the lovely Provençal city we had seen on our autumnal rivieras cruise. I won’t repeat pictures here other than one of Nicolas Froment’s magnificent triptych of Mary in the Burning Bush in Aix’s Saint Sauveur cathedral. Here is Mary, holding baby Jesus, atop the “buissson ardent” revealed to Moses, who looks on, below right.
One website describes the many symbolic motifs in this painting (http://www.theartofpainting.be/AOT-Moses_Bush.htm). Another description sees the thorny bush as a symbol of Mary’s unassailable virginity. I love this painting, but in viewing it, I’m reminded of a remark by my Dartmouth Judaica colleague Susannah Heschel who observed that the Christian church “colonized” the culture of the Jewish people, appropriating the Jews’ symbols and reducing the Jews themselves to the status of serfs in their own cultural “land.” How else can we explain a painting that celebrates the Marianizing of one of the key narratives of the Hebrew Bible?
My surgeon son-in-law Jarek, is also an avid hiker and bicyclist, so the following day was devoted to nature, a hike—a very long 10-kilometer hike—through the hills above the nearby town of Puget. Here is some of the rugged countryside we traversed, with narrow limestone graveled paths to the summits.
A cluster of early grapes at the lovely Château La Verrerie vineyard, whose terrains we transited.
Fortunately, our walk ended back at La Verrerie, and a very welcome tasting of several of their chilled wines. The domaine is owned by the Descours family, which also owns Piper Heidsieck Champagne.
The following day we journeyed westward in two cars about 50 kilometers to the village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. It sits at the source of La Sorgue river, which arises mysteriously and in a great flood from a grotto at the foot of nearby mountains. Numerous small businesses offer the opportunity to canoe and kayak in the river, and the town’s parkings were filled to the bursting point. The river’s flow was used for centuries to power local paper mills. All of these have been rendered obsolescent by modern technologies (like so much French industry), but Fontaine, with an eye to tourism, has converted an old mill into a fascinating paper museum.
Here is La Sorgue, just above the museum-mill. Its source lies in a grotto at the front of the mountain. In 1985, a robot submarine found the bottom of the grotto at a depth of more than 1000 feet.
A wheel powers the old mill:
Here are the large hammers that beat rags to make paper. A camshaft visible just above the hammerheads and powered by the water wheel raises and lowers each hammer for hours on end until the rags turn into a creamy pulp. This is poured on wire frames, pressed and dried to make paper. We learned that in the middle ages, old clothing—collected by rag pickers—was of high value for papermaking.
On the way back from Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, I stopped to take this picture of a beautiful field of lavender (actually, probably a cheaper, machine-cultivable variant, known as lanvendin, as we learned a few days later):
While Julie and family spent the next few days exploring Provence on their own, Mary Jean and I visited some of our adjacent villages. Here’s a view of the “étang” (pond) that occupies the center of nearby Cucuron. Following that is a photo of a magnificent large home on the edge of that village. All of this attests to the special beauty of Provence.
With Julie’s family’s trip drawing to a close, we decided to spend the afternoon on a visit in the mountains to the Les Agnels lavender distillery. Lavender is a major source of economic activity in Provence, witness the industrial-sized fields shown above. But historically the plant grew on sunny remote hillsides and was harvested by scythe in backbreaking labor by residents of the mountains. Today, the Agnels Distillerie serves as a cooperative. It grows no lavender of its own but processes for a fee all sorts of aromatic plants brought to it by local growers. Batches of plants can run from a few pounds to tons.
Here’s the side of the distillery’s building. Trucks carrying harvested plants arrive above and to the right on the higher side:
Those plants are placed in giant steel casks through which steam passes to extract the aromatic oils (lesser batches are handled by smaller machinery on the ground floor). Each cask can handle up to 6,000 liters (around 1500 gallons) of material:
A dried out batch of lavender awaits processing. Our guide explained that the plant comes in three forms: lavender (a smaller plant that thrives above 800 meters altitude), spiked lavender (with a longer stalk and that does well in lower fields), and lavandin (a hybrid of the first two). Lavender is the rarer variety, yielding more subtly scented aromatic oil, but lavandin, as in the cultivated field above, is easier to grow, is used in industrial applications like detergents, and has become a more prevalent crop. It takes approximately 130 kilograms of lavender flowers to distill 1 liter of essential oil.
Inside the distillery stands a working model of the distillation process. In this photo, you can see on the right a glass chamber filled with lavender plants. Beneath it, water boils and steam rises through the plants. The resulting vapor then passes through the condenser coil on the left (surrounded by chilled circulating water), and the condensate containing floral water (bottom) and aromatic oils (top) collects in the beaker at the bottom far left. These oils are the base for perfumes, soaps and other lavender products. The same process we see in this model is what occurs in the 6,000-liter casks above.
In the old days, when there were no trucks to carry the harvested plants to a distillery, distillation was often done fieldside, with a portable cooper still. Here is one in the distillery’s small museum:
Here, its coil:
A scythe used in the old days for harvesting:
And here, the insect-like snout of a modern tractor harvester:
As we emerged from the tour carrying small packages of oil and soap (don’t ask me why), we passed a lavender plant being visited by a butterfly. Lavender (as opposed to lavandin) is grown from seed, so by pollinating the hillside fields, these little insects help keep the industry alive.
With the children gone, we had a last few days to ourselves. Our first foray was five kilometers from Lourmarin to the small town of Ansouis, the second of “le plus beaux villages de France” in our region. Our destination was the restaurant La Closerie. The pictures below evidence the charm of such one-star Michelin restaurants and the quality of their dejeuner (luncheon) offerings.
Their outdoor dining terrace:
And here a photogenic starter of cold tomato bisque:
During our meal, an English couple arrived with a graceful whippet dog, which spent the meal on cushion brought by his owners. I was reminded of the wonderful wall sign we saw years ago in a restaurant near Lyon. “S’il vouz plaît. Ne permetez les animaux de manger sur la matériels de la maison.” Not a prohibition on a pet in the restaurant. Just a request to not let Babette eat off the house china. An expression of French humanism.
Our next adventure was a long (210 kilometer each way) trip to Vence to see Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire. Earlier this summer, we visited the Matisse exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which included several objets from the chapel project, so we were interested in seeing the real thing.
Before getting to the chapel, we had lunch in old Vence, and on the way out stopped in the Vence cathedral to see Marc Chagall’s mosaic of Moses being drawn from the water. This Jewish artist, whose Christian (Crucifixion) work is striking, finds no place here for Mary.
The Chapelle du Rosaire is perched on a hillside above Vence. Matisse did its every design detail, from its blue and while tiled roof to the priests’ vestments. Built from 1949-1951, the chapel was meant to serve the students and nuns of the adjacent convent and Catholic school. Matisse undertook the project at the urging of Sister Jacques-Marie, who years before as a nurse had aided the artist during his recovery from an illness and who subsequently became a nun. Here’s a photo in the chapel’s museum of Matisse and Sister Jacques-Marie:
The chapel’s tiled roof and wrought iron crucifix, both designed by Matisse:
A view out to Vence below:
Here are two beautiful examples of chasubles designed by Matisse and displayed in the chapel’s museum:
Although permitted in the museum, photographs are forbidden in the chapel itself. I include here two views of the interior downloaded from the web:
The altar (in the soft brown tones of the Eucharistic host), behind which is a stained glass window and a tiled representation of Saint Dominic, the patron saint of Sister Jacques-Marie’s Dominican order:
Here, with Matisse at its center, is the seating area with its stained glass windows. Half-shown to the rear is a tiled depiction of the ten stations of the cross.
These stained-glass images representing the “tree of life” are in the Mediterranean colors that Matisse loved: blue for the sea and sky, green for vegetation, and yellow for the ever-present Provençal sun. Matisse considered the chapel his supreme life’s work, and he said of it, “Je n’ai pas cherché la beauté, j’ai cherché la vérité,” “I didn’t search for beauty; I searched for truth.” Certainly the chapel’s colors reveal the truth of the light of Provence.
With just a few days remaining to us, with the days growing very warm (mid-nineties), and Michelin stars still twinkling in our eyes, we decided to undertake a “break the bank” luncheon meal at the only two-star Michelin restaurant in our region, Edouard Loubet’s La Bastide de la Compagne. Restaurateur and hotelier Loubet has considerable local notoriety. We learned from a waiter at another of his properties that after a wild boar (sanglier) had ravaged one of Loubet’s vineyards, against the urgings of his family and staff he camped out for five days in the field until the boar reappeared. Shooting it dead, Loubet then made a meal of the unwise and unlucky beast.
La Bastide’s restaurant and guest rooms stand on a hill above the town of Bonnieux, about 10 kilometers up into the mountains from Lourmarin. Here’s the entry:
Here the garden, replete with lavender:
The dining terrace:
And here, one of the signature dishes, a preparation of rouget (red mullet) with a crisp of beet:
Here a morsel of guinea foul (pintade). Surrounding it are tiny balloons made of fried potato flour:
As you can see the portions are small. Rather than quantity, the best French cooking relies on several small courses of outstanding flavor and appearance. Is that why the French remain so (relatively) thin?
Finally, there’s the cheese cart. I hope this photo suggests the abundance of La Bastide’s offerings.
What’s the old joke? “England’s a country with one cheese and five hundred religions, while France is a country with one religion and five hundred cheeses.” I’ll take the French option any day, especially since France’s one religion today is hardly too annoying.
Summing up. Our-three week stay in Provence didn’t permit us the degree of insight into the region—or humor about it—that one finds in writings like Peter Mayle’s wonderful A Year in Provence. But it did persuade us that this is one of the very most beautiful regions of the country: the perfect blend of French landscape and Mediterranean light and culture. We’re grateful that we could round out our geographic knowledge of France with this visit. And at a good moment, too, as the country celebrates the victory of its democratic spirit in the recent elections. In all respects right now, this nation shows itself to be “la belle France.”
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