A May 2004 trip
to L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue by wanderluster
Quote: You've seen the ads, now come behind the scenes to read about one participant's experiences: dining, biking, hiking, village-hopping, touring, wine-tasting, and, oh yes, attending travel writing classes in the charming village of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
Not that I was complaining, mind you. I love a busy schedule and can't pass up an opportunity to explore. So on free afternoons when I could've been writing, I was easily persuaded to visit nearby villages (Les Baux, Fontaine, St. Remy) and the region's most famous winery (Chateauneuf de Pape) with a couple of girls, Carolanne and Renate. After all, I was on holiday!
Our workshop was based in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a small picturesque village originally built on marshy plains in the 12th century. Located at the parting waters of the Sorgue, not far from its source in Fontaine, the village has numerous canals where dozens of water wheels once powered the forceful energy to operate textile mills, silk, paper, gypsum and heavy machinery.
Today only nine water wheels remain in the flower-lined canals drifting through this Venice of Comtat. Couples strolling hand-in-hand past antique stores can be spied kissing near mossy water wheels, sipping cappuccinos at riverfront cafes, or admiring the Baroque architecture of medieval churches and private mansions tucked into the labyrinth of narrow-winding streets.
Although none of us were here with our significant others, (excuse me, except Igo's very own Tony and his fiancé) we certainly sensed the romance of the place as we roamed cobblestone streets, shaded canals, and secluded pathways that led to award-winning restaurants where attentive chefs impressed us with their versions of fabulous French dining.
If visiting Provence in early August, attend L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue's Floating Market held the first Sunday. Buy luscious fruit and colorful flowers from costumed villagers poling traditional Nego-Chin flat-bottomed boats down the river.
In July, watch men catch trout with tridents and nets from those same flat-bottomed boats during the Fishermen's Festival, celebrating their longstanding association as a fishermen's village. You can try your hand at fishing any time but will need a license (daily permits available). And, no, the Nego-Chin boats aren't for rent. But canoes are. Check the www.ot-islesurlasorgue.fr Tourist Office for details about the two hour excursion from Fontaine to L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
Once here, there's little need for transport since you can walk everywhere - unless you're booked, as we were, in a rural hotel. We had no trouble walking into town (20 minutes) but needed taxis after dinners lasting well past midnight or jaunts interrupted by downpours. Don't expect to see taxis waiting on the corners. They're at home waiting for your call. So carry around a driver's business card or pre-arrange pick-ups.
For day trips, you can hire taxis at comparable rates to renting a vehicle. Our group of three paid 150 Euros for a 6-hour trip – approximately per person. We enjoyed good-natured Martin, a 44-year-old taxi driver who, in fluent English, freely shared his insights, opinions and, recommendations. And patiently tolerated us halting the taxi to take yet another picture of poppies, castles, grapevines... To reach him, call 0608667347.
Over the next seven days, individual differences in subject matter, angles, and writing styles became more apparent in class, as we read our descriptions aloud. Assignments were voluntary, but encouraged since we learn best from doing.
I spotted the subject for my first assignment (a 50- to 100-word description of an animated object) while waiting for my dinner companions outside the hotel entrance. A rumpled, wilted daisy laid near the edge of a clay pot, noticeably withdrawn from the others. It looked sad. Visions of a lonely Van Gogh and his yellow sunflowers immediately sprang to mind - maybe because, just yesterday, I'd visited the monastery in St. Remy where Van Gogh spent his final year. I jotted a few notes about the flower and tried to shape it into something the next morning before class.
Thankfully, I wasn't selected to read first, which allowed me time to benefit from James' feedback, publicly given to others.
He cautioned someone to avoid personification. And then another. I glanced at my piece and discreetly scratched out "sad" and the allusion to Van Gogh "yearning for the touch of sun's warm embrace." He approved of adjectives. I kept the simile "like the mustard yellow of Van Gogh's sunflower" and the description of its fragrance "long forgotten, like a lost love." Adverbs, my weakness, were heavily frowned upon. I nonchalantly scribbled out all words ending in -ly (like nonchalantly, ahem), when he advised to cut adverbs, or at least use them sparingly.
It was my turn to read. I rushed through the description of my flower, my throat tightening, and voice quavering. Silence. He dipped his head to the side. "It's short," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "But succinct. I like it."
Whew. If he only knew...
James provided packets of handouts (a semester's worth) to supplement his lectures about prose, types of travel writing, the markets, and query process, but the most beneficial part of the class, for me at least, was his verbal feedback to our writing assignments. He was honest, tactful, and never brutal, but he quickly nailed problem words or ideas. Yes, it was nerve-wracking reading them aloud, and waiting for his response, but we learned from listening what he had to say about each piece–good, bad, or indifferent–then practiced again, improving our skills, the next time around.
Our major assignment, due the final day, was a 150-200 word news story or "front-of-the-book" piece. We were instructed to go out and find something newsworthy in the community. At first many balked. There was the language barrier, as few of us spoke French, and there was the dilemma of knowing how to go about finding magazine-worthy news.
I have to say, it was easier than I had imagined. In a single day, I came across several possible news stories. By accident? Or by being made more aware? One night eating dinner at a highly recommended restaurant, we learned that the young outgoing chef, once the private chef for the Peruvian president, was starting a French cooking school in September. I interviewed him and wrote about that. But could've written about another chef who proudly showed us five B&B rooms he was adding to his top-notch restaurant due to open next weekend. Or the century celebration of poet Petrarch in nearby Fontaine scheduled for July 2004. Or the spontaneous interview with scuba divers prior to their annual pilgrimage into Fontaine's bottomless spring. Stories were (suddenly) everywhere!
My classmates equally discovered this. I think we were all astounded at the variety and creativity of news articles that we generated. Even James. And our writing, collectively, had improved, thanks to his expert instruction. And our efforts, of course – despite attempts at wee hours after exhaustive days and delicious French wine...
Our walk from the hotel to the village was a pleasant 20 minute stroll along one of the shaded canals. Ducks swam in the cool green waters that bordered a row of expensive-looking homes decorated with pastel purple or green shutters. "Bonjour," we echoed, as scarfed women greeted us on the back road. We admired the tranquil view and nodded at fishermen casting from shore, fishing for trout.
Arriving into town, we came to a bridge overlooking small rapids. Beyond, the canal was bordered on both sides by a continuous line of two and three-story beige homes and shops. Old-fashioned lampposts hung at regular intervals along the wrought-iron fence and walkways stretching across the canal allowed easy access to the other side.
At 7:30am, the town was still sleepy. Vendors were just beginning to unload their trucks and set up their stalls. The air felt "fresh," as they say in France. Needing coffee or something hot, we walked along the canal searching for a warm sunny spot at an outdoor café. Most were in the shade–tucked under canopies. But we found a table in a sun-filled space, sipped espresso-like cafe from tiny cups and munched ginger biscuits while we watched the market's morning action.
Loud honking, French cursing, and arms waving caught our attention. A truck was stuck in the narrow street, unable to careen past a parked car, to get to his stall. Men dressed in button-down shirts and berets gathered around to take in the situation. Few offered help, other than voicing their visual assessment and shaking their heads. "Happens all the time," one of them said. It seemed logical to us that they could've simply lifted the small car out of the way. After 10 to 15 minutes, the entertainment subsided as the truck, and the pile of cars behind it, were forced to back up.
We wandered through the open stalls, watching vendors arrange French bread, ripe Provencal melon,s and wheels of cheese on tables draped in blue-yellow Provencal fabrics. One particular vendor setting up sausages at his stall posed for us numerous times, grinning widely as he held blotchy sausages next to his ruddy complexion. When we passed his way a second time, he playfully grabbed Renata, hugged her, and posed yet again. That sausage guy, what a ham!
Smells of sweet strawberries and freshly baked breads, from herbed cheese to olive loaves, wafted through the air. White stalks of asparagus and basins and basins of olives in varieties I'd never seen looked tempting. Steam rose from a black pot as a young girl lifted the lid to stir thickening boubillaise. We leaned closer to inhale and sneak a peek. Only 8am, but the delectable smells were making us hungry. The vendors would later offer samples, but, at present, were busy setting up.
Beautiful bottles of herb-infused olive oils, and cicada shaped soaps in shades of purple, emerald, rose, yellow, violet, orange, and lime drew us away. Fragrant scents of jasmine, vanilla, olive-oil, and mimosa mingled with unfamiliar scents of soaps labeled muguet, verveine, chevrefeuille, and au mile. Nearby, cashmere shawls, silky bras, and racy French lingerie were strewn on tables near potted daisies, colorful woven baskets, and unusual wrap-around dresses crafted of tie-dyed Indian cloth.
Continuing past stalls of ribboned Provencal herbs and pastries, I was delighted to find racks of reasonably priced clothing. A victim of lost luggage – and tired of wearing the same two shirts since my arrival five days ago – I was ecstatic to find a flirty black crocheted sweater with bell sleeves for 10 euro. Excellent prices on everything, so much affordable than Arles market.
But the real find was a pendant–a thick chunky trapezoid of Baltic amber on a silver choke collar. Very chic. The world's best amber, according to the jewelry designer. Hmmm. I couldn't look away. The translucent russet-flecked stone would look smashing with my new sweater. It was Mother's Day, after all. And days away from my birthday. Why not?
By the time I finished purchasing the amber pendant, earrings, and a black star pendant (okay, so I went a little crazy), my friends were nowhere to be found. When I sauntered over to the jewelry stand near the largest waterwheel, they had stopped at another stall.
At first glance, the market appears to be fairly straightforward -stalls simply lined one side of the main canal. How could anyone get lost? But soon after the largest water wheel, the route subtly turns down a street where you're suddenly faced with stalls branching out in all directions, filling a confusing labyrinth of narrow winding streets. We never saw each other at the market again.
And I barely found my way out. In time anyway. We had agreed to depart our hotel for a jaunt into St. Baux and St. Remy–and our taxi left in half an hour! I had no idea where I was, even looking at a map, and still had a 20 minute walk back. I panicked and began to run.
Lesson: never run when you don't know where you're going. I ended up in the same place I started, just took a different route to get there. I headed for the river, instead of a short cut through the city, and used the water wheels and outdoor café landmarks to find my way.
Thankfully, I didn't have cumbersome packages to haul so I could run most of the way. Fishermen gave me a puzzled look as I rushed past them on the shaded lane. I guess my sandals gave me away. Who jogs like that? I stuck out from the women and children in the quiet residential area who were leisurely walking toward the market while I was running away. In sandals no less, grasping small packages. Hey, I only look suspicious.
I ran into Renate and Carolanne at the bridge near our hotel. We hurried toward our waiting taxi and asked if we could freshen up a bit. He told us not to hurry; he was ours for the rest of the day. Once assembled and driving south, we compared purchases and impressions of the market. Outstanding, but where were the antiques?
Ironically, all of us had missed the star attraction of Provence's famous Antique Market -the antiques. And I thought I'd covered every square inch of the back streets.
Our driver wanted to know how we missed them. "They're organized into seven groups, mostly along the outer areas of the village," he said. "That's what people come here to see."
We giggled. Oh, next time then.
We caught a ride into town (thanks Tony!) and walked around looking for the restaurant "across the large mossy waterwheel." After a futile ten minutes, we discovered the gated entrance a half a block down from the orange building on the corner. We passed through a rather forlorn garden where wild roses grew out of tall grasses and wrought iron tables sat empty.
Inside, we were seated at a corner table in an intimate space. White walls dimly lit by contemporary sconces were minimally decorated with mirrors and oil paintings of landscapes or flowers. The rather simple decor and unfinished woodwork in the 100-year-old building was a telling sign that the restaurant was brand spanking new.
Our waiter welcomed us and filled our crystal goblets with a recommended Chardonnay. Sipping an extraordinarily smooth Clos St. Michel, we perused the set carte, written on a chalkboard. But where was the lamb? "Ah, yes," said the waiter. "He's making that special for you."
Listening to our chatter, the only other diners, a group of three women, asked where we were from. They were Americans, a mother and her two daughters, celebrating Mother's Day with another special dinner during a week-long bonding trip. At 8:30pm, they hadn't yet adjusted to the French way of eating – beginning at 9:30pm or so – and were almost finished with their dessert.
We broke bread with the first course, tuna panini on arubala rocket salad, a delicious mix of tomatoes, olive oil, mozzarella and sweet corn. The next course, artichoke soup, thick green from whipped cream, was heavily seasoned with Fluer de sal. The salty taste increasingly dominated each subsequent bite. Surprise! My spoon struck something. A poached egg, stained green, had sunk to the bottom. Carolanne and I looked at each other, put down our spoons and subtly shook our heads. For her it was the egg, but for me, it was the saltiness that became off-putting. Our waiter whisked our bowls away.
Another waiter, tall and attractive, approached our table. "What?! You don't like my soup?" he asked in a mock shocked voice. We sheepishly shook our heads. "No?" His dark eyes widened as he frowned comically.
"I'll bring you something you'll like," he said, disappearing before we could argue.
In minutes, our waiter advanced toward our table carrying four new entrees. Smiling and shaking his head, he placed calamari in front of us. Inside the bowl, tentacles from two tiny octopuses draped over French fries and minced olives. I stabbed the little guy but couldn't eat him. Neither could Carolanne. Meanwhile Renate and Denise, who'd eaten their soup, devoured the octopus with glee. Hey, switch bowls! But there wasn't time. Here came our waiter.
His raised eyebrows asked if we liked it. Amused, he chuckled when he noticed we'd only eaten the French fries and olives. He chided Carolanne and me that we were insulting the cook. "Who's on his way over," he added.
We glanced up to see the attractive waiter approaching. "That's the chef?" we asked, wanting to slide under the white linen tablecloth.
Chef Daniel stood over us, his hands on his hips, his boyish face puckered into a pout. "What! You don't like that either?" Feeling like schoolgirls, our only response was embarrassed laughter. (Assuring him that the fries were good seemed awfully lame.)
But the main course was divine. Swirls of red pepper puree decorated the plate holding tender roasted lamb alongside deep-fried basil leaves, strips of red peppers, and zucchini. A full-bodied red wine again from Chateaneuf du Pape was the perfect complement. Conversation halted as talkative chatter melted into ahhs and umms.
More curious than hungry, we eyed the cheeses that our waiter offered on a marble tray. What choices! Fennel goat cheese, walnut-studded brie, cambert with herbs of Provence, raisons, or shaved chocolate – ten wheels in all. Four sets of fingers kept pointing as he sliced.
By the time dessert arrived, around 10:30pm, the restaurant was packed. Around us, large groups of socializing locals were just beginning their first course. (The American trio was long gone.)
"You'd better like this," our waiter joked. "One of his specialties. Daniel was voted France's best pastry chef in 1999," he said, placing desserts before us. And this was his first restaurant, opened just two weeks ago. Our ears perked at the potential story. We drilled him with questions while sampling apples and strawberries infused with wild rose petals and lemon zest. The poached fruit and pistachios were swimming in a syrup with edible red petals–which Daniel plucked from his garden. But it was the lingering sweetness of his hazelnut ice cream that provided the perfect finish.
The waiter, eager to elevate his chef and strengthen our stories, brought us copies of published reviews. Renate read aloud a recent interview, "I like to create foods that are rustic, but refined." Seemed fitting. In 1996, Bon Appetite highlighted his crowning achievement as France's best pastry chef. When news traveled to Peru that then 26-year-old Daniel Hebet was awarded this honor, the Peruvian President, who had a weakness for dessert, visited his restaurant and hired him for a two-year stint.
A celebrity! (Which I had insulted not once, but twice.) Daniel came out to bask in our glory, yet answered our questions almost nonchalantly, downplaying his achievements. Quite charismatic, he seemed more interested in becoming friends than wallowing in self-importance. He casually invited us back to his simple kitchen when Renate asked to see it and willingly posed for pictures, grabbing a bouquet of Provencal herbs in his ebullient way.
But the night was not over. He led us to the bar and broke open a bottle of champagne. Hearing how much we enjoyed his wine selections, he told us about his friend's topnotch winery at Chateauneuf du Pape, and arranged a visit for us the next day. Our waiter kept us company while Daniel made his rounds, talking and joking with everybody. We learned that our waiter is actually Daniel's assistant chef, who's been apprenticing under him for several years, formerly at a restaurant in Avignon. Beaming with pride when he speaks of Daniel, he clearly enjoys working here. And his serious, but smiling countenance, serves a good balance to Daniel's gregarious, fun-loving personality.
The chef drifted back, refilling our glasses. He spoke of his restaurant, his plans to add a cooking school in September, and his method of randomly selecting menu items for that evening. He begins at the crack of dawn, perusing fresh items at open markets (area villages stagger their markets on different days). The daily menu is decided there on the spot. Could be fish, lamb, chicken, asparagus, or squash, depending on the season. He only uses freshest ingredients, and enjoys mixing foods up a bit. Like the octopus served over olives and homemade French fries.
Diners have two choices for each course, decided that morning on a whim. No one ever knows what will appear on his menu. And he seems to take particular pleasure in surprising people.
"Go, take them home," Daniel instructed our waiter, when we mentioned our need to call a cab. He insisted that his assistant, chauffeur us home that night. Later that week, Renate and I had an appointment at 11:00pm to interview him for articles about his new restaurant/cooking school. Carolanne came along. Again he opened another bottle of champagne on the house, but this time he threw in dessert–a pastry dessert he'd served that night on his set menu. The flaky crust pastry layered with pistachio and hazelnut fillings melted in our mouths and went perfectly with the bubbly.
Many questions and answers later, it was to go. Minutes had trickled into wee hours. "This is your last time?" Chef Daniel asked as we stood up from the leather stools. He turned and said, "So you want me to give you a French kissing?" He cocked an eyebrow, shrugged his shoulder and said, "Well. You are in France!"
And, being the gregarious type that he was, leaned forward to give us hugs and French kisses - that is, ahem, cheek to cheek times three.
Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Reservations (04909201498) are a must, as the 15 tables are reserved not by the hour, but by the night. Eating in France is a leisurely process, to be savored, not rushed.
As we drove closer on D27, the outline of Les Baux's former chateau gradually became visible. The arched fortified walls, gray and rough as its base, seemed to erupt from the limestone crag. Its presence felt intimidating even on this sunny day.
Small wonder that people panicked at its sight in the 15th century, knowing ruler Baron Raymond de Turenne threw prisoners over those cliff-side edges. One of the last rulers before Les Baux became a Protestant stronghold, this notorious Scourge of Provence sent his army throughout the region to kidnap people who were forced to walk the gangplank if their families could not cough up the ransom.
Wickedness still lurks nearby. Drive a few minutes past the village car park and turn west after Cathedral D'Images to witness sinister evil in Val D'Enfer. Get out if you dare. Giant beings loom oppressively, towering over cedar trees, crushing thickets, brambles, and thorns as they sneer from dark rigid faces.
Hiking the narrow dirt path between them, I knew they were just rock formations, but geez were they eerie. Apparently Dante thought so too. This Valley of Hell inspired parts of his Inferno! The entire gorge is riddled with horrific creatures. And caves, where, according to local legend, witches brewed pungent concoctions and struck spells on innocents.
We backtracked and parked at the lower car park, ascending steps to the lone entrance of the walled car-less village. Inviting shops with bright yellow signs, blue doors and entryways decorated with orange striped fabrics stood out from the village of otherwise unified gray–shops, homes, cobblestone streets and tall fortified walls blended into the limestone foundation. Two streets in a loose parallel line, filled with souvenir shops and outdoor cafes, lead through this tiny village, home to 400 residents.
Maps are not necessary, but we grabbed one anyway at the Tourism Office near the entrance. We veered right when the road forked and passed shops filled with fragrant soaps, nougats and assorted candies, Provencal fabrics, artwork, and santons that beckoned stylish tourists. French women draped on arms of their lovers breezed over chunky cobblestones in their high heels. An art no doubt perfected by routine exposure to such pavements, we decided, as we sauntered along in bulky walking sandals. Mouth-watering aromas wafted from gourmet outdoor cafes where couples lingered on sunny terraces overlooking spectacular vistas, their wine glasses poised in mid-conversation.
We stepped inside a small building where santons are displayed, in all shapes and sizes. The Santon Musee highlights figurines dressed in traditional Provencal attire–peasants, farmers, bakers, and candlestick makers–and arranges them into groupings and detailed settings similar to snow villages created at Christmas time by many back home. The nativity sets are housed in glass cabinets in the one room space, and worth a brief look. A few yards past the museum, is the original entrance to the village, Eyguieres Gate, an ornate medieval stone arch. At the end of the Rue de la Calade is a museum devoted to Yves Brayer, an artist from the 20th century (open 10am to 5:30pm, except from 12:30 to 2). We didn't take time to visit, but did peek inside the Chapelle des Penitents Blancs, a chapel across the street. Inside, walls are covered with murals, religious figures, and nativity scenes that Brayer painted.
Following the connecting street, Rue del L'Englise, we soon reached the entrance to the former chateau (open 9-6:30pm daily). We paid the 7-euro admission and punched in the English translation on our audio phones. Listening to information about the chateau's history, we wandered around miniature models portraying where five generations of the Baux family lived beginning in the 10th century. Villagers numbered 6,000 until the Baux dynasty died out in the 14th century. Then, in 1632, when Richelieu tired of the villagers fierce Protestant resistance against Louis XIII, he razed the chateau and demanded money from the remaining residents. And the village emptied entirely.
Hard to believe now, walking through a popular village that caters to 1.5 million tourists annually, that the exclusive residents for 300 years were bats.
The grounds of the former chateau are vast, and the entire tour (via headphones) requires an hour and a half. Views of the surrounding valleys are outstanding from the tip of the spur, where feudal lords once fought, catapulting stones at their attackers below. We passed the leftover structure, an odd-looking combination of oxen harness and wooden cart. Massive limestone rocks begged exploring, so we wandered among the nooks and crannies fascinated with the strange indentations and formations. Built into the rock, the ruins contain small chapels housing artifacts, war tools, and strangely, a film highlighting artists Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin. But our timing was wrong as all were closed for lunch.
We wound our way back down the hill and through the elongated village passing small hotels and B&B's sandwiched among exclusive shops. Trailing my fingers on the thick stone walls as we walked down narrow cobblestone streets, my imagination soared to medieval times of long skirts, feudal wars, and elaborate feasts where troubadours wooed beautiful women with musical poetry and free flowing wine. Although our visit was short, I was happy I hadn't listened to advice from a regional guide who'd recommended bypassing touristy Les Baux completely.
To reach Les Baux:
Local buses leave two to four times daily from Arles, taking 25 minutes for the 12-mile trip northeast. There's no public transport from St. Remy, but taxis aren't expensive for the 8-mile distance. We visited from L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, approximately an hour and a half north. We combined a visit to St. Remy (see van Gogh journal) with Les Baux and paid 150 euro for a 6-hour trip (roughly $60 each for three).
When Popes tired of the ritz and glitz they escaped to the country, just a short jaunt north, to stay in a castle commissioned in 1317 by Pope John XXII, known as Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Here they spent summers, roaming vineyards, olive groves, and fruit trees on the 10-hectare property and perfected the art of wine making.
Today, 264 wineries exist on the expanded 3,000-hectare property where red is king, and Le Grenache grapes rule.
Renate, Carolanne and I hired a taxi to explore what has become an internationally famous wine region. We passed mile after mile of patterned vineyards and came to what is left of the castle ruins – one fragmented wall, a dungeon, and several cellars tucked into a descending stone walkway where tourists and locals frequent for wine-tasting.
We stepped inside the dark, cool musty cellar of Cave du Verger des Papes and were greeted by a dashing young man, Guy Bremond. He told us the cave was discovered only ten years ago–and then, full of rocks. When the debris was cleared away, a third-B.C. Roman quarry emerged. Once our eyes adjusted to the dimness, he led us through the dankness to a sunken 10 by 10 foot space containing two vats used for wine production 2,200 years ago. He pointed out the rectangular vats where men once crushed grapes with their bare feet and the semi-circular basins which caught the liquid. Lavender, honey, water, and Provencal herbs were added before the concoction was thrown back into the vats to ferment.
Wine making continued through the ages, and flourished during medieval times until the War of Religion. Popes grew the vines and produced the wine which supplied the Vatican up until last century. I peered closer to read the 1940 labels on dusty bottles and the wooden crates stamped Vatican. I noticed that my fingertips felt rough after touching the gritty, porous sand-colored Safre walls.
As Guy led us to the wine tasting area, he informed us of the strict rules that regulate the wine-making. Grapevines must grow on the ground. Small stones surround the vines to provide warmth and protection – the reason why Chateauneuf's red wines are so powerful and robust. No chemicals are allowed. Watering vines are forbidden. And grapes are picked by hand, ensuring that pickers bypass the 2 to 3 grape grapillion clusters that are too acidic. Harvesting is limited to only 35 liters per hectare, compared to quadrupled amounts elsewhere, such as the Bordeaux. Vines are destroyed after 120 years, as they no longer produce enough grapes.
"Are you ready to taste some wine?" Guy asked, setting goblets in front of us. We nodded. "Although wine making is heavily regulated, there are no rules for the white," he said, pouring 2002 Clos St. Henri into our glasses. We were familiar with this wine from dinner at Le Jardin, a citrusy white blended with jasmine and honey. Smooth and delicious, but, unfortunately, not for sale.
Next was 1999 Chateau de la Gardine, a white wine made with 100% Roussane grapes from an 80 year old vine. Aged in oak barrels, it tasted of smoke, wood and honey and was more concentrated and would be good with goat cheese.
And then it was time for the red. He poured a 2001 Clos St. Henri (16 Euro) that followed the strict a formula of all reds: 70% Le Grenache grapes, 20% Le Mourverde and 10% Syrah. We wrinkled our noses at the bitter taste of tannin, hardly noticing the fruit and oak. "It still needs to age, and will be better in four years," Guy said.
We went on to taste three additional red wines blended with blackberry, black currant, licorice, black cherry and even banana. The finale was a test.
He poured a 2001 L'Incompris, 100% Muscat grape (19 Euro) dessert wine. "Exhale, then take a small sniff to find the first fruit," he said. Sniff. None of us guessed correctly. Mango. "Now," he said, "Swirl it around and take a longer sniff to find the 2nd fruit." Peach! We were getting good at this. But the next sniff left us clueless. Pineapple? No, that was the 4th fruit. The third was lychee, which none of us were familiar with, a white fruit inside a nut. "Now tell me the flower." That was easy for all of us–rose.
"You passed," he said, his eyes twinkling. "You may taste now." And so we did. Sweet and fruity. A perfect complement to a flaky pastry filled with cherries, apples, raspberries, or Daniel's hazelnut cream...
Renate swirled her glass, closed her eyes and sniffed. "Ooh, do I detect mango? Peach? The slightest twinge of pineapple?" She got serious for a moment. "You know, I'd like to try this experiment on my husband. Can I buy a bottle?"
But of course. And so the purchases began. And although tempting, we kept our bottles wrapped for the remainder of the week, eager to share a bit of Provence with our friends and family.
And of these, we would visit three: Menerbes, Roussillon, and Gordes. We drove past cherry groves and vineyards spreading for miles to the base of the shadowy mountain range. Staring at the stubby plants perfectly planted in parallel rows made me dizzy as we whizzed by. Red poppies, yellow daisies, purple irises, and white shrubs dotted the fields vacant of farm animals. Although animals such as deer, fox, mink, beaver, boars, otters, and snakes do exist. We spotted occasional homes in the vineyards, although they seemed deserted - shutters closed and no laundry, toys, or cars lying about.
Our all-day tour was limited to visiting five medieval villages in the Petite Luberon: Oppede, Menerbes, Roussillon, Gordes, and Venasque, spending less than an hour in each - just enough to whet our appetites. Except in Venasque, where we enjoyed a lavish group dinner tasting traditional Provencal foods and lingering over courses until well past midnight.
Approaching the village of Oppede, our driver pulled over so we could pile out to take photos. Set into the hillside beyond groomed terraces, stood a striking assortment of white drystone homes amid thick greenery. At the very top was a tower, a fragment of Oppede's castle, destroyed by an earthquake in 1731. We wouldn't get to explore the ruins, as our stay was limited to 45 minutes. But when I returned the following week, two hours weren't enough to photograph this hidden highlight.
Our guide led us to the square, past the Petit Café (I believe the only operating business in the village), under the Renaissance Gateway, and up the cobblestone path leading to the Notre-Dame d'Alydon church. Along the way, the path wound past wildflowers and ivy-laden crevices where primitive furnishings inside belied the rumor that the village was completely vacant. In fact, these caves and a few houses near the square are home to a few residents.
At the top of our 10 minute walk, was the church, its unusual hextagonal tower exposed on a rocky spur overlooking forested Regalon Gorges. A few entered. It was the panoramic views of the surrounding fields, patterned in golds and greens, forested mountains, and gorge that commanded our attention. I wandered over to a rocky wall near the church, and clambered behind. All I found was a thicket of shrubs. I had no idea, then, that the wall was the lower fortification for the castle hidden from view. Had I walked to the other end of the wall and simply stepped behind, I would've seen the entrance for the fiefdom where blood-thirsty Baron d'Maynier ruled.
We descended the rocky path back to the village square, where medieval two-story homes merged into a single beige blur. Only their rustic wooden doors and iron-hinged shutters identified them as separate entities. I would've loved to wander longer and photograph the vacant stone streets and unusual homes like the one built over a tunneled walkway, but it was time to get on the bus.
If you've read books about Provence, you've no doubt run into Peter Mayle's book, A Year in Provence. If you're not familiar with him, you should know the name of another former resident. Picasso. He lived with his mistress, Dora Maar, in the 1930s in a tall beige home with green shutters and a cliffside view.
We parked in a wide lot below the village and walked the short distance up an asphalt road lined with plane trees. Napoleon planted them to provide shade for his troupes, but in mid-May their knobby bald branches had been groomed with crew cuts.
From a distance, the village of Menerbes wasn't as striking as the others we visited. It sits on the top of a wooded hill with nothing but sky beyond a singular long row of grayish beige houses. A popular, expensive place to live, thanks to Mayle's book, yet the lack of shops was surprising. Plenty of real estate businesses hang out their shingles, but where were the restaurants, grocery shops, or boulangeries?
We began our ascent to the top of the hill to see the two castles on either end. Starting from the centre, we passed a cramped postcard-sized souvenir shop, an outdoor café (selling snacks) and a pharmacy en route to the castles. One is a private residence, formerly that of a 12th century Russian painter. Neither really resembles a castle, and neither is open for curiosity seekers. All I remember (I didn't take a single photo, unheard of, if you know me!) is a large stone wall, adjacent to a cemetery. We peered inside the iron gate to read the dates on tombstones – too far away – and then returned to the centre square.
Traffic jam! Ten were cars backed up, waiting for a tourist to maneuver his small car through the narrow single lane unsuccessfully. He was stuck. Several honks and up-thrust hand gestures later, the other drivers impatiently began to retreat so the embarrassed tourist could escape down the entrance road to park beside our bus.
The star of the Luberon is a sight to behold from afar. Pastel-shuttered homes in this "most beautiful village" cascade down the rock face, like a tiered wedding cake. Populated by millionaires, musicians, accomplished painters and film directors, the million dollar mortgages attached to these simple, rustic homes ensure that those who can't pay, can't stay.
Considered the most colorful village in Provence, the seventeen shades of ocher turn blood-red at sunset. In the daytime, brilliant oranges of the village homes and surrounding canyons pop against vivid greens of evergreen trees. Cliffs, spires and canyons beginning here spread for miles eastward, to Colorado Provencal, a prime spot for hiking and rock climbing.
Each home in Roussillon is drenched in orange-red-russet shades, colored from ocher quartz in the surrounding sandstone. For years this quartz was mined to create sun-resistant dyes to color paint, fabrics, makeup, clothing and pottery. Now, the former quarry, near the centre of the village, offers hiking trails. Limited to an hour in Roussillon, a Canadian gal and I were the only ones in the group who decided to spend our time hiking. We rushed through the trails as fast as we could, our sandals covered in orange silky sand as we clamored over rocks and descended long wooden staircases past bizarre formations with artistic swirls of vivid yellows, oranges and reds.
The red-rock landscapes are clearly the focus of this village, although it's had some colorful inhabitants. Samuel Beckett hid out here during WWII. And blamed the hostile and oppressive village for his nervous breakdown. He claimed he was bored. (Did he try hiking?) At least the scenery impressed him, evidenced by his mention of it in his play, Waiting for Godot. And who wouldn't be?
Heavily veined sandstone formations in the Giant's Causeway, yards away from the village center, change from buttery yellow to burnt sienna or russet brown to crimson red in the ever-changing light. Feathery green cedars outline the features in the canyons bursting with flamboyant color.
Our visit was far too short. Although I saw little of the village, the quarry hike itself makes this a must see. I'd allow a couple hours, preferably in late afternoon when colors explode.
Our last stop took place at the first capital of the former Pope's territory, a dot-sized village perched high above wooded ravines. Over the years, after Bishop headquarters moved to Carpentras in the 10th century, the population dwindled. Only 20 families remained by 1950.
Today that number has multiplied. At least in the summer months. Igo's genteel French resource, Noel, is one of Venasque's residents. He graciously invited us inside his home, and treated us to views from his lavishly landscaped back yard which ends abruptly with a drop off. Most of the inhabitants move away during winter months when fierce mistral winds threaten to blow residents over the cliff-side edge.
The sun was beginning to set. We didn't have time to visit the 11th century Romanesque church, it's early baptistery, unique crucifixion, or wander the narrow winding streets past ornate fountains. We had dinner reservations at La Fontaine restaurant, a few doors down from Noel's house. Thirty of us followed him up the curved stone stairway and assembled around two tables to enjoy a traditional Provencal meal–a highlight of the week.
We helped ourselves to baskets of french bread, tapinade and bottles of Luberon rose or red wine, chatting about our day. Our first course was an assortment of Provencal hors d'oeuvres: eggplant caviar, roasted red peppers, garlicky eggplant mousse, artichokes, a huge bowl of buttery parsley mussels, and peppery cod–all deliciously tasty. Vegetables in the next course of pasta and ratatouille blended together perfectly in the thick herbed tomato sauce. The main entree, served on white and blue plates, was chicken breasts swimming in a mushroom gravy alongside tender new potatoes and a combination of steamed zucchini, green beans and diced carrots. Thankfully, dinner spread out over several hours because we weren't close to being done.
The cheese course came next. We were each served a plate of goat cheese, three white wedges sitting in olive oil with thyme, along with another basket of bread. The mild, creamy, slightly tangy cheese melted on my tongue. This particular goat cheese came from Siverguet, a tiny hamlet of 6-7 homes at the "End of the Road" in the Grand Luberon, the chef told me. It was a hidden place, of troglodyte caves and rock hewn homes where a few families and approximately 40 goats lived in the shadow of Mt. Ventoux, I would find out the following week. Chef Christian Soehlke, a stocky, ebullient man, had come out to chat as we savored his finale, cream brulee. Not normally a fan, I changed my mind after tasting his version of the traditional French dessert, rich and butterscotchy with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. The chef, a Viking, told us that he grew up in Switzerland, and lived in many countries before settling in Provence, France. He takes pride in using the freshest ingredients and is a masterful chef. He flitted around the tables to converse with his guests. And we perused circulating magazine publications profiling his talents while we lingered over coffee.
Then, a little after midnight, dinner was officially over. Our pumpkin awaited. We descended the staircase and stumbled over cobblestones back to the bus, sleepy but talkative. If this was a traditional evening, how did French people get anything done? And stay so trim?
The food had been delightful, as had the company. But the best part of the day was simply getting a taste of the various villages scattered throughout the Petit Luberon. As all were unique.
Two young guides from nearby Carpentras met our group in the bus parking lot outside Roussillon, and fitted us with bikes and helmets. Fleece felt great while standing around, as there was a cool breeze on this sunny May day. But before we pushed off I removed extra layers, not wanting the hassle once we were underway. Plus, I could use the added incentive to bike faster and work off the week's gluttonous calories. Goodness knows I'd certainly broken my five month fast from sugar here...
Starting at the bus park, we headed away from Roussillon and biked a 25km loop on country roads following road signs marked with a bicycle. We coasted over gently sloping roads past vineyards, lavender fields, cherry groves, thyme, and clusters of bright red poppies. Distant shadows of Luberon mountains formed a backdrop to fields filled with stubby vines. Biking past row after endless row of perfectly spaced plants created a definite rhythm as we swooshed by.
Relatively flat, empty roads allowed us to ride side by side and mingle with each other without huffing and puffing up steep ascents. We could wheel up to James, our travel writing instructor, and ask whatever we wanted. He welcomed our conversation and gave us thoughtful answers to our writing questions based on vast experience. I also enjoyed riding beside Igo's own Tony, and getting to know the person behind the smile.
Hubert, our guide, pointed out surrounding flora and fauna at impromptu rest stops, while we waited for others to catch up at intersections. Otherwise, we kept riding until we stopped for lunch. We followed Hubert up a strenuous hill to a tiny village, and settled into a shady spot near a park where men played boucle ball. Empty at 1pm, the only noise around us was faint sounds emerging from an elementary playground as we tore into sack lunches of sandwiches, apples, yogurt, chocolate bars, juice, and cheese.
Back on our bikes, we continued through the countryside. Houses or buildings were rare in the fields, which explains why a strange-looking mound of stacked stone with a little doorway caught my eye. I wheeled up to Hubert to inquire before it faded from view. He explained that structures such as that were used by shepherd, which was a tad confusing, as I hadn't seen sheep, or, for that matter, anywhere in France. Then it dawned on me. It was a borie! An ancient, leftover borie from who knows when – shepherds had abandoned them completely by the 18th century.
As we rounded a rural homestead of a beige stone home with bright blue shutters, an elderly woman standing in tall grass was spotted by a fellow Igo biker. The woman, wearing an apron made from the traditional French Provencal print fabric of sunny yellow and cobalt blue, was loading her pockets with purple irises.
A few of us biked over to chat. The sweet natured lady, happy among the wild blossoms, appeared content and relaxed. I looked at her, thinking of her simple lifestyle. I imagined her buying goat cheese, ham and baguettes at the village market, spending the remainder of her day outdoors, perhaps on her terrace, sipping rose, or traipsing through tall grasses to collect flowers to beautify her home. What a contrast to my typical day, racing around to accomplish a myriad of tasks. How often did I pause to collect, well, anything? Type A to the nth degree - France was good for me to see.
Down the road we passed a fenced quarry where majestic red sandstone rock was used to colorwash every home in Roussillon. Guides led us to another quarry toward the end of our loop. At the base of the large hill winding up to Roussillon is a former roadside laundry. We went over to see the long low concrete basins tucked under an overhang. Behind it, a trail led to beautiful rock formations of red, veined with streaks of black and gold.
We left our bikes and wandered down the forested trail, the red rocks towering above the tree line. We approached the rocks and felt compelled to touch them. The surface felt gritty and left a deep colored imprint on whatever we touched next. Our guide sprouted prominent peach cheekbones, informing us that the rocks once mined were also used to create women's rouge. The trail leading onward through the gorge looked appealing, but our guides reminded us that it was time to go. We got on our bikes and rode the short distance to the road (yea, a few yards of single track!).
Rounding the last curve of our journey was the steepest ascent of our trip. The sharp incline necessitated some to walk, but they cheered the rest of us up as we downshifted, click...click...click. It was no Tour de France, but rewarding just the same.
In the village square, we left our bikes to get ice cream at the corner stand (in my opinion, the best in Provence). Hmmm. Lavender, honey, toffee, strawberry...A sweet finish to a perfect day.
We had reservations at another fine restaurant following the advice of Noel, Tony's friend who lives in L'Isle and generously acted as Igo's French liaison all week. Knowing our writing class ended at 9pm that night, Noel made dinner and taxi arrangements for us at 9:30pm. Almost late enough to pass for locals!
When we arrived, the elegant dining room was empty. Two young waiters emerged from the kitchen. Simultaneously grabbing menus, in hushed tones they engaged in a brief discussion before the more serious one approached, and identified himself as our waiter.
The three of us inconspicuously (or so we thought) whipped out our tiny notebooks and began jotting down details – decor, place settings, menu selections, wine… The waiter, formal, suspicious, and a keen observer, kept close tabs on us even though he didn't speak a lick of English. He watched us from the sidelines as we ogled over the shimmering silk tablecloths, running our hands over the fabric that cascaded to the floor like expensive draperies. He pretended not to notice when we got up from the table to take photos of the elaborate dining room and peer through the glass that housed the canal running through the middle of the establishment.
He found our behavior peculiar, if not amusing. He held his head high and curtly nodded when we made our selections, but slipped, for smirks and half-smiles occasionally cracked those rigid lips of his. The language barrier didn't prevent us from communicating with him, who, judging from his resigned behavior, rathered that we didn't.
Renate, the blond German girl who spoke the best French and was the most aggressive one among us, boldly asked him question after question about the wine, food, and chef. Each time, embarrassed at being in such an awkward position, he tilted his head ever so slightly, bowed curtly, and then disappeared, returning with answers from the chef. Or sometimes on the heel of the other waiter, who made rudimentary attempts to translate.
Renate whispered that someone had just peeked out the kitchen door at us.
Our stoic waiter placed soup crowned with a cherry tomato in front of us, but we hadn't ordered a first course. Actually, we were kind of in a hurry. We had an interview with another chef at 11:00pm (Daniel's request), and didn't have the luxury of a four-hour meal. So we each ordered a single entree. Surely we had time for that.
We tried to communicate this to our waiter – just the part about not ordering the soup – but he stood there blinking and then gestured for us to eat. We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and ate. It's not like the waiter messed up our order with someone else's. We were the only ones dining.
The cold tomato and basil soup was delicious. The small serving simply teased the palate and left us wanting more. And the bread! Triangular turnovers, for lack of a better description, warm and chock full of black olives, were so soft, plump and chewy. Delicious. We agreed that we should save room for our dinner, but finished off the bread.
Renate caught another sly peek from the kitchen. In a low voice she asked, "Do you think it's the cook?"
Every dish we ate was faaabulous. We could certainly understand why Noel and guidebooks rated this as one of L'Isle's finest. But where were the people? Prices were a bit higher here (42 euro prix fixe) compared to other restaurants, but the quality of the food was exquisite.
Renate ordered lamb and ratatouille, tender and much to her liking. Carolanne and I both ordered poisson au vin rouge, a divine fish dish. A meaty rolled fillet prepared just right complemented fresh steamed vegetables in a hearty red wine sauce.
After clearing our plates, the waiter brought out a cheese tray. Oh no, thank you. We shook our heads, cognizant of the time, and asked for the check. He seemed a bit perplexed, and insisted we select some cheese. In French, Renate explained we were in a bit of a hurry. He disappeared to figure our check.
Or so we thought. But dinner wasn't finished yet. The door swung open and revealed our waiter holding a silver tray with three tempting desserts. When he placed one in front of each of us, none of us balked. Instead we dove into the tall glass filled with a delightful nougat glace layered with toffee, the nougat thick and creamy. Oh, wonderful, wonderful.
Check, please? Our waiter emerged from the kitchen a final time, with another silver tray which he laid on our table - an assortment of petit fours. Giggles escaped our chocolate-ringed mouths as we plucked them from the plate. Would this never end? Maybe we were on to something. Feign indifference by ordering a single item and take out your pen. We had difficulty stifling our laughter. We weren't indifferent - anything but. We only ordered á la carte to save time. The irony of being served an entire menu was almost too much. If we hadn't been in such a hurry – it was now 11:30 and past our interview – we would've relished the attention. But how could we explain we were late for an interview? With another chef?
As if on cue, the chef emerged from his kitchen, a young man, maybe 30. He introduced himself as Chef Severine Alloin. Then wanted to know, who we were. And who we were writing for? We told him we were here for a travel writing workshop. Still convinced we were food critics, he recited background information regarding his training and experience - and shared his story of moving here from Paris.
A few years back when he first visited L'Isle with his wife, they fell in love with the place and the restaurant. He vowed that if this building ever came up for sale he would buy it - last year his dream came true.
His eyes lit up as he talked of operating the restaurant with his wife Jean-Marie. She's responsible for selecting the gorgeous crinkled taffeta silk on the tables and decorating the niches set into the rustic stone walls. And running their latest venture, a B&B scheduled to open next week. They were creating five bedrooms upstairs, each decorated in a different theme. Did we want to see? Our eyes darted to each other, as he advanced toward the stairway.
Well, now. We could hardly rain on his parade, could we? Especially after such a scrumptious dinner. So up we followed around the curved staircase, whispering apologies to Daniel under our breath. We stepped into each room, admiring the contemporary purple and chrome touches in the lavender room, and the sunny warmth of the yellow room, even at midnight. He pointed out the Jacuzzi and separate sitting area, and described the curtains that would be hung in the unfinished suite. Leaning out an open window, we saw tiled rooftops of surrounding homes in the quiet central district. The rooms were classy, refreshingly free of anything frilly. Anyone staying here would enjoy thoughtful furnishings, and, a spectacular breakfast.
We thanked him for a memorable dinner and wished him well in his B&B endeavor. He shook our hands proudly, and ushered us outside. We passed the canal and walked through the attached brick arched tunnel.
Back in our waiting taxi, we replayed the evening and our mistaken identities – and marveled at the power of a pen.