Stevenson redux: Pradelles

 

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Pradelles, early evening

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.

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J near the table d’orientation

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.

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.

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Sign above the Pradelles cemetery, conveniently located just steps away from the maison de retrait
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A day trip to Dignes-les-Bains & Manosque

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The rocks near Les Mées, coming back from Digne-les-Bains

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.

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View from the Musée Gassendi

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.

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One of Goldsworthy’s Sentinals, 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.

img_5771We 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.”

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River of Earth

 

 

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).

 

 

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.

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A set of Giono’s books
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The Centre Jean Giono in Manosque

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).

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Giono’s boyhood home in Manosque

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.

 

Selling the South

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R looking across at Gordes

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).

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Approaching 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.

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The Abbaye de Senanque, near Gordes

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.

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.

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The view from Mènerbes, the village made famous by Peter Mayle

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.

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The central street in Apt

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.

Market day at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

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The Sorgue, which runs through the town, turning it into “the Venice of Provence”

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.

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Followed by supermodels

img_5741I’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!

 

A Pagnol postscript

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The view from Bonnieux

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.

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.

Chez nous in Lourmarin

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Lourmarin at dusk, seen from the château

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.

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Lourmarin, morning

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).

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

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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.

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Parking comme les Français

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:

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A view of Lourmarin’s central square from Café Gaby

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.

IMG_5564Another 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.

IMG_5529On 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.