VILLAGES OF PROVENCE – PART 2
We took another day trip out and about in Provence today to see more of the lovely scenery and to explore another couple of the region’s Medieval villages. The scenery was lovely and w ecan now confidently say this is definitely one of our favourite parts of the world!
Provence was once a poor rural region, where farmers eked out a living from the land growing grapes, olives, fruit, and typically Mediterranean vegetables like tomatoes and zucchini. Agriculture is still an important part of the Provencal landscape; these days, however, the main industries in Provence are tourism and real estate.
The region has gained world-wide fame in recent years, thanks mainly to exposure through books such as Peter Mayle ‘s 1989 novel “A Year in Provence” (the semi-autobiographical chronicle of a British expatriate who settles in a small Provencal village); and films like “A Good Year” (directed by Ridley Scott this movie was filmed in Provence and stars Russell Crowe). As a consequence tourist numbers have sky-rocketed (especially during summer), and legions of wealthy Brits and Americans have bought holiday homes and/or retired in Provence. This new-found fame brought wealthy and prosperity to the region, with many farmers happily selling their old farm houses and lands for millions of Euros; it has also pushed many locals out of the real estate market and, according to Chris, our tour guide for the day, significantly changed parts of Provence. The double-edged sword of tourism and fame strike again it seems.
One of the consequences of this change is that many villages in Provence are virtually empty during the cooler months, as, come September/October, people leave their holiday homes and return home. As a consequence of this and due to the seasonality of tourism, much of the work in Provence is highly seasonal. Many people work 7 days/week from April to October, and then spend 5 months trying to recuperate before the next year’s high season comes around. It’s a lifestyle that might well suit some, but sounds like a nightmare to us! We’re here just outside of peak season, heading into the quiet time of year. It’s actually a great time to visit as the villages we saw were alive (i.e. cafés and shops were still open), but not congested.
Our driving tour through the Provencal countryside took us first to the ochre-red village of Roussillon. This is another of the “Plus Beaux Villages de France” (i.e. Mots Beautiful Villages of France), famous for the ochre mines that ran here for centuries and for the rich red colours of the buildings.
The ochre of Roussillon formed when calcium deposits formed millions of years ago, when the region was underwater, were transformed by prolonged periods of acidic rainfall. The resultant geothite lends the soil its various red colouration, and helped contribute to Roussillon’s prosperity over the ages. The ochre mine of Roussillon shut in the 1980s (when tourism replaced ochre as the village’s main “export”), but the colour of the houses remains as it has been for centuries.
The locals have a far gorier version of how the land around Roussilon became red: local legend has it that a young damsel named Sermonde was married to Raymond d’Avignon, who was the lord of Roussillon. Raymond spent most of his time at war, and during the long interludes he was away Sermonde fell in love with a local lad. When Raymond found out, he cut the man’s heart out and served it to Sermonde for dinner without telling her (yikes!). When he revealed the truth to her, Sermonde threw herself from the top of the cliffs of Roussillon, causing the earth to run red with her blood and despair.
The entire village is perched atop a hill, protected by steep red cliffs of ochre that fall away sharply into a deep green pine forest below. As we’ve come to expect from these hill-top villages, the views from Roussillon were quite spectacular.
As great as the views were, Roussillon was even more spectacular once we were inside the village. Its colourful old buildings and narrow Medieval streets made for a wonderful couple of hours’ entertainment. Without a doubt, Roussillon is a beautiful village, with its red rocks; red, yellow, and orange buildings; and its terracotta tiled roofs.
Leaving Roussillon we drove down into the valley, passing the village of Bonnieux along the way. Perched on a hill above a patchwork of orchards and vineyards, the village looks towards the equally picturesque villages of Lacoste and Lourmarin.
Not far out of Bonnieux we stopped for a quick look at Point Julien. This Roman stone arch bridge crosses the Calavon River, and dates back to the 3 BC (which makes it older than the Colosseum in Rome!). It was originally built as part of the Via Domitia, an important Roman road which connected Italy to the Roman territories in France. Incredibly the bridge was used for car traffic until 2005, when a modern replacement bridge was built. That amounts to more than 2,000 years of uninterrupted use, which is really rather impressive!
Continuing on we stopped in at Lourmarin, another of the region’s famed beaux villages. Nestled in the middle of vineyards, olive groves and almond trees, this village is not on a hilltop but still has the characteristic Medieval architecture and narrow, winding lanes we’d come to expect.
Wandering around the village we stopped to admire some of the small details that give Lourmarin so much character. It’s these small things that can make a place truly beautiful – things like signs above windows, vines growing along old buildings, and window shutters painted in characteristically Provencal colours.
There’s a château in Lourmarin too; a fortress built in the 16th century by the local lords. Left to go to ruin after the French Revolution it was bought by a Robert Laurent-Vibert, a rich industrialist, in the 1920s and restored. The same family still own the castle and don’t open it to the public, so we had to settle for admiring it from a distance.
After lunch and a stroll around Lourmarin we headed back to Aix for an afternoon nap (hey, hey… don’t judge us – touristing is hard work!). Later in the evening we headed out to join the legions of university students and well-dressed locals for dinner and a stroll. We determined that the Cours Mirabeau is just as pretty by night, and the fountains of Aix en Provence even better when illuminated.
And so ends our stay in Aix. Tomorrow we’re heading a little further up the road, to Avignon, to learn some more about French history, see a bit more wonderful scenery, and enjoy a little more of the good life in France.