Our week’s stay in Lourmarin began and ended with a market day, so we lingered longer than we’d intended to, making one last pass through the extravagant bazaar: bakers of amazing breads; creators of sausages from every form of beast; sellers of scarves in every hue imaginable; offerers of cheese samples; hawkers of kitchen gadgets; etc, etc, and etc.
From Lourmarin we were to drive west and north, to spend two nights with friends just south of Orleans, before concluding the trip in Paris. For our night en route, J had booked us into a gîte in Pradelles, a town we’d selected mainly because it was on the GR70, allowing us to briefly commune again with our blog’s namesake, Robert Louis Stevenson, and to recall our time, not all that long ago, when we were walking on the chemin Stevenson with F and J2.
Pradelles is another of those 156 Most Beautiful Villages in France, with a wonderfully preserved town center: fortress-like buildings built from blocks of stone, lining steep and narrow streets. We arrived in the late afternoon, with the sun low in the west, bathing everything in a gorgeous, buttery light.
Pradelles is north of the section of the GR70 that we’d walked with F and J2, and Stevenson had only lunched here, before continuing downhill towards Langogne, hoping to camp beside the nearby lake. Here is RLS’s description of Pradelles, from Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes:
“Pradelles stands on a hillside, high above the Allier, surrounded by rich meadows. They were cutting aftermath on all sides, which gave the neighbourhood, this gusty autumn morning, an untimely smell of hay. On the opposite bank of the Allier the land kept mounting for miles to the horizon: a tanned and sallow autumn landscape, with black blots of fir-wood and white roads wandering through the hills. Over all this the clouds shed a uniform and purplish shadow, sad and somewhat menacing, exaggerating height and distance, and throwing into still higher relief the twisted ribbons of the highway. It was a cheerless prospect, but one stimulating to a traveller. For I was now upon the limit of Velay, and all that I beheld lay in another county—wild Gévaudan, mountainous, uncultivated, and but recently disforested from terror of the wolves.”
Stevenson goes on to talk about the legendary “beast of Gévaudan,” who is still celebrated today.
J indicating our GR70 start and end points
And on the GR70 route itself
While exploring Pradelles we found a table d’orientation (above) on the edge of the village, from which we could survey the “wild Gévaudan,” not so wild now, of course, and likely entirely free of wolves. On the table d’orientation we located our own GR70 starting point, La Bastide, and our end point, Florac, and were somewhat surprised to discover just how far apart they actually were.
One of the places I’d wanted to revisit while we were in the south of France was Digne-les-Bains, in the Alpes-de-Haut-Provence. I’d stayed a night in Digne in 2004, when I cycled from Briançon to Santiago de Compostela, and J&I had been back once since, in 2007. Digne has a beautiful location, on the Durance, which then flows generally south and west, through the Luberon, to merge with the Rhone near Avignon.
The whole Alpes-de-Haut-Provence region is quite dramatic, with high mountains on either side of rugged, rocky valleys, and in fact Digne is where the Musée de la réserve géologique de Haute-Provence is located. That museum, and the Musée Gassendi, also in Digne, have jointly developed a close working relationship with the Scottish landscape artist Andy Goldsworthy, who has worked extensively in the region.
I’m a big fan of Goldsworthy’s work, and if you’re not familiar with it yet, I urge you to track down the 2001 documentary film Rivers and Tides; it’s an excellent introduction.
Among the site-specific pieces that Goldsworthy has done in the area around Digne are three Sentinals, one in each of the valleys that lead into the Geological Reserve [images]. I happened to encounter one of the three Sentinals entirely by chance in 2004, when I was cycling down the narrow D900A towards Digne, and J&I had tracked down another in 2007.
Goldsworthy has also created a number of other site-specific pieces in the hills around Digne, and there’s a 10-day hiking circuit (and an IGN map) which connects them all.
We wouldn’t have enough time on this day trip to visit any of these sites, but I did want to visit the Musée Gassendi, which has a number of pieces by Goldsworthy in their collection, including one huge piece, “River of Earth,” that fills an entire wall. I’d seen pictures, but never seen it “in the flesh.”
The Musée Gassendi also has some wonderfully Victorian-gothic items in its collection: examples of awkward taxidermy; mummified frogs and other specimens; bits of bone etc. There’s even a reproduction of a perpetual motion machine invented in 1605 (I watched it closely, and would describe it as more of a perpetual stillness machine).
Desiccated frog and friends
Perpetual motion machine
More desiccated specimens
Digne is about 115 km from Lourmarin, so we decided to break the journey by stopping for coffee in Manosque on our way to Digne. Manosque is where the Provençal writer Jean Giono was born, and where he lived his entire life.
Giono is one of my favourite French writers, another who is able to perfectly express in his writing the spirit of, and his love for, the Provençal landscape. Giono is not well known in North America nowadays, but Henry Miller was a big fan (don’t let that put you off though: Giono’s work is nothing at all like Henry Miller’s). As with Pagnol’s work, you’ll see Jean Giono’s books in virtually every bookstore in Provence.
There’s a Centre Jean Giono in Manosque, which hosts cultural events, and Giono’s home and studio can be visited by appointment on Fridays (by luck, my 2004 visit to Manosque happened to be on a Friday, so I was able to visit then). If you want to try one of Giono’s novels, I’d suggest Jean le bleu (English title Blue Boy), which tells the story of his boyhood in Manosque (Giono’s boyhood home, where his father had his cobbler’s shop, is marked with a plaque).
The day following our expedition to Digne we would be leaving the Luberon and heading northwest, so as a final literary pilgrimage before departure, we stopped in to pay our respects at Albert Camus’s grave, in the small cemetery in Lourmarin.
When you’re an itinerant such as I have been these past few weeks, you sometimes feel yourself to be little more than a mobile eye, harvesting images.
You’re away from your usual comforts and resources: reference books, a desk, a proper library, a comfortable chair. Internet access is either non-existent (as is the case in our current Airbnb) or unreliable (as at the Café Gaby), so you jot down notes about the random things that catch your eye, or topics that keep cropping up in conversation, with the intention of looking into them or expanding upon them later (or at the very least: so as not to forget). This post will be one of those (illustrated with photographs, of course).
Town square in Gordes
One of the things that I’ve been brooding about as we’ve been exploring this beautiful part of the world, is the extent to which Provence has been changed by global tourism, which is to say: how thoroughly the “local” has been replaced by the “other.”
You see it most obviously in the selection of shops on the central streets of the villages: instead of an épicerie, a boulangerie, a tabac, a café, you now see mostly shops selling linen clothing and cotton torchons, or tacky souvenirs, and the usual assortment of clichéd regional products that we tourists have been trained to bring back home as proof (to ourselves and others) that we’ve actually been where our Instagram feeds say that we’ve been. In Lourmarin, for example, there is a small shop selling nothing but calissons d’Aix, those delicious almond candies that Aix-de-Provence is famous for. And in every village hereabouts you’ll have yet another opportunity to buy the traditional savons de Marseille, in the event that you forgot to do so while you were actually in Marseille.
The other proof that something profound has happened here, is that in virtually every village in the Luberon, you will find at least one immobilier, or real estate agent’s office, usually situated very close to the centre of town.
Listings at the immoblier in Lourmarin
More Lourmarin listings
There’s one on the small main street of Lourmarin, for example, and in Gordes, which is probably the most picture-postcard-perfect of the Luberon hill towns, there is an office for the real estate wing of Sotheby’s, the London-based auction house, and another for its rival, Christie’s. The immoblier in Bonnieux has installed a box on the sidewalk just outside its door, where you can pick up a thick, glossy brochure showing the luxe properties for sale in the region, at prices in the many millions of euros, each listing illustrated with drone shots featuring turquoise swimming pools, and extensive grounds dotted with cypresses.
The Great Wall of Meringues in Mènerbes
Peter “A Year in Provence” Mayle cannot be held solely responsible for this slow-motion sack of the south of France, but he did play a significant role in the popularization—which is to say the marketing—of this region, so that it is now seen by many of us, in every corner of the globe, as a kind of paradise.
This dream of the Mediterranean is centuries old, of course (I always think of the Water Rat’s eloquent yearning for “the South” in The Wind in the Willows); but the pace of the dreaming has accelerated, and will undoubtedly continue to do so, until “we” have completed our conquest, and are the only ones in residence. Provence will have been replaced by a replica of itself.
To be discussed at greater length over coffee, later, with one of you.
As promised, there’s not much text in this posting, but there are many pictures: of the biggest weekly market in Provence, at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. It’s the place to be on a sunny Sunday morning in the south of France.
The Sunday market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue draws people from all parts of Provence, so make sure to get an early start from your 4-star hotel, or rustic mas. Once parked, the first order of the day should be coffee; might I suggest the Café de L’Industrie? It has a nicely shaded terrace which overlooks the Sorgue, and you’ll be just on the edge of all the market action, ready to spring once your coffee’s done.
The market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is a good mix of foodstuffs and tourist items, with linen clothing featuring prominently among the latter. The edibles, though, are much more photogenic.
You should start by crossing the passerelle over the Sorgue, then slowly work your way along the river bank, browsing, before eventually turning away from the water, inland, to head towards the centre of town. The narrow streets of the inner town will be quite crowded, with everyone jostling quite amicably for position.
All the while, you’ll be scouting out a good place to have your lunch (and I have it on good authority that the late Peter “A Year in Provence” Mayle could occasionally be spotted lunching with friends on market day at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue).
Chances are that you’ll find most of the cafés and restaurants packed throughout the morning, but there’s a steady turnover, and if you time it just right, you’ll find a table coming free at the Café de France, in the shade of a huge plane tree, and a view towards the hotel de ville. And from there, as you eat your omelette aux fines herbes, you can watch the Sunday market begin to wind down.
The market wraps up around 1:30 or so, and it’s impressive to see just how well-organized it all is: the umbrellas come down first, the unsold merchandise is packed away, and finally, the display tables are folded and/or rolled up to be stowed into the van. By about 2:00 the sweepers are humming along the now almost empty streets, as life in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue begins to get back to normal for another week.
I’m not quite sure how it all began, but it seems that word about the WithStevenson blog is spreading like Le Wildfire among the European supermodel crowd. We’ve had a surge in new followers, one after the other, who immediately “like” every posting! And all of them have perfect hair, a certain je ne sais quoi, and cheekbones to die for.
If I had to guess, I’d say that Barbara (at top) was the one who started the trend. I’m pretty sure that she and I had a brief “thing” a while back; at Monaco I think it was, or maybe it was Antibes, or perhaps that disco in Minorca? I confess: when you lead a jetset life, it all begins to blur. Anyway, my guess is that Barbara decided to see how I’d been doing, found the blog, and then enthused about it with her supermodel friends during one of those catwalk shows they’re always doing: Milan; Paris; London; Prague.
Word spread rapidly; WithStevenson has become almost viral! So, a shoutout here to Barbara, Raina, Nadia, Alice, Krystal, Salma, and Nichole, and to all their other supermodel friends! And as a gesture of thanks: please check out their blogs too!
One day, as we were exploring the villages near Lourmarin, we came upon yet another example of just how thoroughly the spirit of Marcel Pagnol permeates Provence.
We’d decided to visit Bonnieux, a drive of about 13 km from Lourmarin, along the tortuous D943. Just as you crest the ridge and prepare to enter the heart of Bonnieux, you’ll hit a traffic light, there to ensure an alternating flow of traffic though the village’s narrowest street.
Bonnieux seen from below
Beside the town’s upper church
Approaching the upper church
Approaching the upper church
Picnicking at the top of Bonnieux
There happened to be an open parking spot just there, from which, once parked, we set out to explore Bonnieux on foot. And the first shop we encountered was a tiny hole-in-the-wall, specializing in BDs (graphic novels etc) and film memorabilia, run by a friendly bohemian type who greeted us from his post just inside the door. Inside his shop was an Aladdin’s den for film buffs, with a trove of scarce items of all kinds, scattered in apparent disarray: posters, handbills, lobby cards, photographs etc (there’s also a website for the shop, from which the proprietor sells to collectors all around the world).
The first thing that caught my eye was an original poster for Fanny, framed, priced at € 559. Worth it, no doubt, but well beyond my range. Not far away: an original poster for Tati’s Jour de fête, in excellent condition, the colours bright.
On learning of our interest in Pagnol, the proprietor brought out some extremely scarce Pagnol items; original LPs of a number of Pagnol’s film scripts, performed by the original cast.
But photographs were all we came away with, plus a single hand-made business card, signed by the shop’s proprietor, which I might just frame.
I’m not quite sure how the French determine these things, but apparently there is an official list of The Most Beautiful Villages in France. At last count 156 villages had made the grade, with Lourmarin (number 156 and trying hard?) somewhere among them.
We arrived in Lourmarin from Marseille with the weekly Friday market in full swing. The population of the village probably quintuples during the market, with cars parked everywhere around the perimeter, and the narrow streets clogged with sightseers.
Lourmarin is noticeably more touristy since my last visit, twenty-some-odd years ago. There are many more shops that cater exclusively to tourists: vendors of expensive linen clothing; pottery; art galleries; several high-end restaurants; and chambres d’hôte that I don’t recall from before.
We’re based here for a week, in an AirBNB listing we found: a three-story home at the heart of the village. And after our shoebox hotel room in Marseille, we’re almost drunk with space: J&I have the entire top floor of the house, with a view towards the Luberon hills; R controls the entire floor below: three large rooms plus bathroom.
Access to the upper floors is via a tight spiral staircase; this would not be a home for one’s final years (unless one intended to expire suddenly, in a bloody, crumpled heap, at the bottom of a tight spiral staircase).
Spiral staircase take 2
Looking out towards the main street
The main floor has a full kitchen, a living room, and a small outdoor terrace. And ALL of this can be YOURS for a paltry € 450,000! Yes, this “jolie maison tres lumineuse avec belles pieces de vie donnant sur un terrasse et avec un garage,” 120 square meters of habitable space, is currently for sale, from Agence-Sud-Luberon.com
Access to chez nous is just off the main, semi-pedestrian street of Lourmarin; through a rounded arch that leads into a small inner courtyard. Parking is somewhat of an issue here: there are a limited number of in-town spaces, which are highly coveted. This has, however, given me an opportunity to practice parking “comme les Français“: which is to say: helter skelter, ignoring the somewhat arbitrary distinction between pavement and sidewalk.
Chez nous is just steps away from what has become “our” café, the Café Gaby (a brief review: great location; decent coffee; lousy wifi), a great base from which to watch the passing parade. Two glimpses:
One morning at the Café Gaby, an American couple sits down next to us, and places a paper bag of vienoisseries on their table without apology. This action—the conspicuous consumption of off-premises pastries by tourists—is closely observed (and silently condemned) by a solitary French woman with sorrowful eyes, whose leashed spaniel dozes beneath the table.
The two Americans are of a certain age; he: a good foot taller; she: smaller and harder looking, her hair permed and immovable, even by a full-strength mistral. It is quickly clear that she is the force which propels them through their Provençal itinerary (and she, I suspect, the one who determined that this is where they should be in September: to ensure that they could hold their own in the social circles in which they travel, back in Dallas, or Fort Worth, or Duluth). At one point her husband’s face displays a flicker of uncertainty; “We’ll make it work babe,” she says firmly. He brightens, smiles amiably, and looks on as she dumps a handful of coins, precisely calculated, onto the waitress’s tray.
Another morning, as we’re about to buy our daily pastries, a small car roars down Lourmarin’s semi-pedestrian, one-lane street, to stop abruptly in front of Lourmarin’s only bakery. The driver, unfazed at having completely blocked the street, hops out, surges past us to the cashier, and is back behind the wheel with a bag of fresh croissants before we can count ten.
On our second evening in Lourmarin we walk to the Château de Lourmarin for an evening of classical music: a Russian-trained pianist who plays selections from Bach, Schubert, Schumann and Prokofiev. Afterwards, we walk back home though the lanes and back streets of Lourmarin, to try and cobble together some sort of late dinner chez nous.
When you explore Marseille you will be in the good company of Marcel Pagnol, who wrote so lovingly about the city that he might legitimately be called its patron saint. The heart of Marseille is le vieux port, where Pagnol set his Marseille trilogy: Marius, Fanny and César. The centre of the action is the Bar de la Marine, which still exists, exactly where Pagnol said it would be: port side, with a perfect view of the hustle and bustle. The vieux port of Marseille could be compared to the centre of an amphitheater, with the city itself wrapped around it and rising on three sides, the seats from which the action is observed. And the backdrop of the city are les collines, the hills of south Provence, which were so beloved by the young Pagnol, a love expressed through the voice of the narrator in La gloire de mon père and Le château de ma mère.
Our hotel in Marseille, the Ibis Budget Vieux Port, is a (relatively) inexpensive shoebox on the Rue Sante, about 2 streets back from the waterfront. On our first morning in Marseille we decide to visit the Bar de la Marine for our morning coffee.
Not surprisingly, the bar is a kind of shrine, to Pagnol and to the films, with period photographs and other memorabilia displayed on the walls. As we enter, a group of 20 or so French tourists descend slowly and reverently from the bar’s upper level, wielding cameras and pointing. Our waiter, Stef, jokingly confirms our suspicion that staff had to have watched Pagnol’s trilogy in order to work there.
Photo of Fèlix Mayol
J and R with Stef, our waiter
The bar’s battered zinc counter
Still life at bar
Still from Marius: Marius and Fanny
After our coffees, we leave the Bar de la Marine and hop on the small ferry that shuttles across the harbour every 10 minutes, a contemporary version of the ferry operated by Captain Félix Escartefigue in the films. The earliest version of the trilogy, filmed on location in the vieux port in the 1930s, captured a unique feature of Marseille’s harbour as it was at that time: the transbordeur, an immense Jules Vernian construction that straddled the mouth of the harbour, and which was used to transport heavy goods from one side of the port to the other. The transbordeur was destroyed by German forces during WWII; you can get a pretty good look at it in this fascinating piece of documentary footage, filmed in 1929 by Lázló Moholy-Nagy.
After crossing the harbour, we begin to explore the Panier district, on the north side of the vieux port, and stumble on La Maison de Pagnol, a shop devoted to the works of Marcel Pagnol (route instructions for those who prefer not to stumble: head away from le vieux port, up some stone steps, past the plaza with the potted olive trees, and the bronze sculpture of a bull on stilts; under a stone arch, then left: the Pagnol shop is just past the Vanille Noir ice cream shop).
Outside the shop: a rack of Pagnol-themed T-shirts (my particular favourite: the child-sized blue T-shirt with “La gloire de mon père” on it: “My father’s glory”; imagine the ego of the father who dresses his son in such a thing!). Inside the shop: a treasure trove of Pagnoliana.
The Marcel Pagnol shop is operated by an enthusiastic young Marseillaise, who (as we later find to be typical of the city’s residents) is devotedly pro-Marseille. She becomes quite animated when talking about her city, her eyes brightening, and her accent becoming more pronounced (one distinctive trait, a “tch” sound for some of the “t”s: “autchentique“, rather than “authentique“). She tells us how mad it makes her, the stereotypically negative image that Marseille has been saddled with—Marseille as crime-ridden, corrupt, dirty—and which is always used as a kind of lazy shorthand whenever the city is referenced.
“Yes,” she admits, “there are gangsters in Marseille, and a drug trade; and yes: people are killed occasionally. But it is almost always gangsters killing each other; regular people are almost never effected. And if the gangsters want to kill each other”—and here she makes a gesture with her hand: a dismissive backwards flick—”what does it matter? Let them!” She hadn’t watched the recent TV miniseries with Gerard Depardieu, and wouldn’t, because she knew that it would simply reinforce and perpetuate the tired stereotypes.
We browse the merchandise: posters from the Pagnol films, a mix of reproductions (affordable) and original posters (quite expensive); DVD box sets of all the films (in Region 2 format, alas); postcards; copies of Pagnol’s books (mostly paperbacks, but also a limited edition hardcover reproduction of one of Pagnol’s manuscripts: The Baker’s Wife, I think it was (“You see: his actual handwriting! And almost no mistakes!”); some original handbills from César, priced at 25 € each (“These are the last. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”) She shows us a Gaumont film canister, one reel from Marius, carefully opening it to reveal the nitrate film stock coiled inside. When I say that she seems the perfect person to operate the shop, that she really seems to love her work, she says “Oui; c’est un travail d’or“: a golden job.
R buys 6 copies of Cigalon for her French book club back home; J, 2 additional copies, one for a friend; and M, a reproduction of the poster for Fanny, which seems to capture the vitality in the films and of the port itself.
Several days later, as we leave Marseille to begin the next stage of our adventures in France, we program the rental car’s navigation system for “Le cimetière de La Treille,” the cemetery where Pagnol is buried, not far from where he was born, in Aubagne, in what is now essentially a suburb of Marseille. Eventually the car manages to escape the craziness of Marseille’s crowded streets, and we’re finally on smaller roads, heading toward les collines. The cemetery in La Treille is quite small, and Pagnol’s grave, immediately inside the cemetery entrance, is modest. We find a woman taking a photograph of his gravestone, while her toy dog tugs impatiently on its leash.
After they’ve gone, I take a few photographs of my own, and pick several leaves from the olive tree next to Pagnol’s grave. Soon afterwards we’re back in the car, with the air conditioning engaged, and the navigation system set for Lourmarin, in the Luberon: our base for the next week.
It is not as straightforward as you might think to get from a small town in the Tarn valley to Marseille (or, in the case of F and J2, to Lyon). In our case the transition involved: a school bus from Le Rozier to Millau, a commercial long-distance bus from there to Montpellier’s main train station, a taxi to Montpellier’s other train station, and an Intercité train from there to Marseille (this complicated but optimal route courtesy of the very useful website Rome2Rio).
The school bus leaves Le Rozier at 7:05, a time of day when the entire town seems to be sleeping—except for the high school students who bus each day to Millau. The fare: 3 € for “mature” students such as us; free for the so-called “young” students, who seem to use their time on the bus to chatter; to play games on their phones; or to sit quietly looking out the window into darkness, no doubt daydreaming about: homework; dating woes; diminishing career options; eventual marriage; insolent children; eventual divorce; inevitable insolvency; threats to social security; war; illness; death.
We were like ghosts to them: not even a quizzical glance as they rushed past us, down the aisle towards the rear seats.
The school bus stops a half dozen times or so in villages en route to Millau; at one such stop a solitary boy boarded, his mother watching as he made his way down the aisle; he never glanced back: such is a mother’s lot in life.
In Millau we four were like peasants on their annual outing to the big city; the bakeries bright enough to make your eyes water, with an assortment of breads and pastries never seen before: fleurine; fouace; pain aux figues et aux amandes; pain aux fruits; picolos; sable buerre; biscuit cuillére.
We take our trove (and a final wild fig) to a nearby café, and graze until plump and sated, then make our way back to the station so that J&I can catch our bus to Montpellier (9€70 each).
It is finally time to part company with our boon companions of these past 11 days, F & J2, who are off to Lyon for adventures of their own (NB: F now has an Instagram account, so you can follow their adventures in Lyon at Instagram.com/fredmichael47). The four of us have shared some wonderful times together in Paris, walking in the Cevennes and through the Tarn valley; we’ll miss them!
Transit connections are poor between the old train station in the centre of Montpellier and the new (France Sud) station, a bright, sterile building, isolated from the town, which squats over the main train line that runs up the Rhone valley. To get there we take a taxi, driven by a Moroccan with family in Montreal, firm tastes in music, emphatic opinions on politics and philosophy, and vivid memories of a concert he saw as a younger man in London: Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, and The Band. I make note of a few of his recommendations, which I pass on to our readers: a 1973 French film, L’emmerdeur, with Jacques Brel and Lino Venturi; and a Gerry Rafferty song, “Baker Street”
Neither J nor I have visited Marseille before, and our first impressions are very positive: a sense of faded glamour, and layers of history on all sides (starting with the weather-worn statues either side of the stairs that lead down from Gare St. Charles to the Boulevard d’Athenes); it’s gritty (graffiti everywhere), and lively (people of every hue, and every age); a bit beaten up around the edges; but still magnificent (breathtaking to emerge from the crowded streets as you make your way from the station, and get that first glimpse of the le vieux port, and the Mediterranean). You sense that it is a city which would reward any effort you spend to get to know it better.
It reminds me immediately of Lisbon, which we both loved when we explored it last spring, before starting our walk along the Portuguese Camino. And I can see why MFK Fisher kept returning to Marseille. Three nights is not enough, but we’re looking at this visit as a reconnoitering expedition, so that we can at least get the flavour of Marseille, anticipating another, longer visit later.
Part II of our adventures begin here, in Marseille, where we’ve arranged to meet up with J’s sister R, whom we’ve travelled with several times before. The three of us will spend a few days together in Marseille, and then a longer period in Lourmarin. Periodic (though probably not daily) updates will follow.
We’re getting close to the finish line here at WithStevenson: Day 7 is the final day of walking for Les Fous de la Marche, and I’m running out of synonyms for vertiginous, which is surely a sign that it’s time to scale back operations.
The day’s starting selfie happens outside our hotel in Les Vignes: Le Parisien (a strange name for a hotel in such a tiny village so far from Paris). One of the pleasures of walking through this region, in fact, has been that it is so thoroughly not Paris. The people are friendly, unpretentious, open, particularly now, I think, with the season nearly over.
The café where we’d chosen to have our morning coffee is empty, and the patronne sitting near the doorway, looking bored. I remain behind and order an espresso while F, J2 and J head off to forage for breakfast makings: fruit, yoghurt, pastries. By the time they return, I’ve learned most of the patronne‘s life story: she’d worked at the hotel next door for 22 years, until it closed permanently four years ago (it’s been for sale ever since without a bite; so if anyone is looking for a change of life: you might consider becoming a hotelier in Les Vignes). Before that, she’d lived in Millau (about 35 km away). And before: she’d been born in Rodez (~70 km away), a town which she described as “a rich town” (her fingers and thumb rubbing together) and the people “orgueilleuse” (haughty/proud). Because of all that, she’d moved (though not far) to the Tarn valley, so if I’d got it right, she’d lived her entire life within a radius of 70 km.
She had an unusual way of visualizing time. As she’d gone through each stage of her life, going back in time, it was “Apres ça” for earlier events, rather than “Avant ça”; perhaps this concept of the passage of time is something for social anthropologists to explore.
In turn, she was curious about us: where we were from; what had brought us here. I love talking with people like our patronne, seeing their eyes lose that glaze of indifference that comes from spending your days doing repetitive things, serving others, watching people like us breeze through, leading lives of apparent leisure. It is also the best way to improve one’s French (I find myself using “orgueilleuse” quite often now!) and it’s really the only way to get the true flavour of la vie en France, which is so much more than what you find in Paris and the larger towns.
We eat our elevenses/lunch while sitting on a mossy wall beside the chemin, perched about 300 m above the river. There’s a small, abandoned stone house 50 m further down the trail which I investigate, finding a young hiker, framed in the doorway, eating lunch. Damien is his name, and he’d been wandering for ten months, including an extended period in Australia; has been sleeping rough most nights, using a hammock (“All I need is two trees”); swimming in the Tarn; was reading Walden in translation, with a forward by Jim Harrison. Of course M cannot help but see a younger version of himself in this wanderer.
Long stretches of the Chemin des Gorges du Tarn has ancient stacked-stone retaining walls on the uphill side of the trail, and you wonder about the effort involved in building them: was it paid labour? And if so: who paid? Village council; regional council? Or was it strictly volunteer: the villagers themselves, because of a particular need?
Le Rozier is located at the junction of the Tarn with the Jonte, another pretty valley (though the river is a strangely bright lime colour).
Later, when we four have checked into our hotel, Damien passes the café table we’re sitting at. We offer him coffee, and over a long conversation we learn much about his life: that he’s from Paris, left “Uni” before graduating to try other things; has been shooting videos on his digital camera, “Something like Vlogging; maybe, maybe not”; is exploring the idea of “errance” (F comments on the related English term “knight errant”, which Damien was unfamiliar with). From “errance” to “ronin” (Japanese samurai with no master), and then, eventually: farewell; Damien to sling a hammock somewhere in the hills; us to a lovely dinner on the hotel’s terrace overlooking the Jonte.