The bell in the clock tower chimed twelve times. Noon.
"S'il vous plaît, nous allons observer une minute de silence, suivie par La Marseillaise." The crowd – office workers, grocery shoppers, high school students – with clasped hands and doffed hats, looked at the small framed photo of Jacques Chirac, set up on a makeshift stand in front of the Hotel de Ville in Aix-en-Provence.
After sixty seconds the French national anthem was played. Everyone (except us) knew the words; some placed their hand over their hearts. After the anthem, there were plenty of handshakes and bisous including a few to the young security guards with machine guns strapped to their sides.
We had just happened upon the ceremony to honour former the French President and former Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac. Although, as The Guardian wrote the same day, Chirac "delivered little and left office under a cloud", France still honours those who served the country. The small, local ceremony was staged in the Place de Hotel de Ville, the same spot where a plaque informed us the US 3rd Army had liberated Aix-en-Provence on August 21, 1944.
That morning, in our room at the sumptuous Villa Gallici, we had seen on television the live broadcast of Chirac's funeral at Saint-Sulpice in Paris. The church and its place were packed. The broadcast was lavish, and as well produced as any royal wedding. It was covered live by all the major French stations.
We were in Aix-en-Provence, a well-known city an hour or so south of our traditional stomping grounds of Vaison-la-Romaine. Historically, Aix has not benefited from an economic boost, such as the wine industry provided to Bordeaux over the centuries. But, the city is what we had envisioned: an historic core consisting of winding, cobblestone streets filled with shops and cafes. It's a university city, so there are lots of boulangeries and small food stores to service the students' daily needs.
The next day began with a sad goodbye to Villa Gallici. We feared our hotel standards had now been set impossibly high. Were we ever going to be able to lower our criteria? But, as soon as we headed out of the centre of Aix we were once again in the Provençal countryside we love so much, with hilltop villages in the distance, curving roads, patches of vineyards, leafy plane trees, pines and towering cypress.
Our first stop, about an hour later, was at Bonnieux, the heart of Peter Mayle country. A strikingly, beautiful village perched on a stoney cliff leading us to wonder why it was built here in the first place. Just outside Bonnieux, and a little higher in the hills, is La Ferme de Capelongue, a truly lovely Relais & Chateau resort that boasts a restaurant with two Michelin stars. It was the first of October, but the temperatures were sitting in the mid-twenties with blue skies and a gentle breeze; probably the best time of the year to be in Provence and in this region, the Luberon. The tourist crowds were nowhere to be seen, and the villages were nicely empty.
The estate of Capelongue looks like what all those Napa Valley wineries aspire to be, but set in the Provençal landscape. Here, everything was merely a suggestion: a stone path gave you a hint that the restaurant we were looking for might be that-a-way. Even so, we took the wrong path and entered the restaurant backwards. That is to say, we were walking forwards but entered via the terrasse.
This wasn't Capelongue's two-star restaurant, but Chef Édouard Loubet's more casual offshoot, La Bergerie, set in what was once a sheepfold, the shelter for an extensive flock. Vaulted ceilings and large arched windows afforded a grand view of the estate's grounds. Open kitchen, with the smell of burning olive branches in the open grill; friendly but professional staff, and a casual menu to reflect the space.
The lunch was superb – the best duck, the best grilled tuna, and the best warm, roasted figs with home-made vanilla ice cream we've ever eaten. (Although at the time we gushed over each plate, as is our wont, that's all we're writing about the food at this lunch. We promise.)
Two hours later, as we were heading to our next village and next accommodation, we pulled into the Luberon town of Goult, seeking supplies. Parking below the plane trees in the place next to the church we ambled along the main street. There was no car traffic at all due to a road closure partway through town, so we had the narrow streets to ourselves..
There was the usual cafe/bar, spilling out into the street, probably more so than usual, what with the road closure. A couple of doors on we found Epicerie Maurel, which would reopen at 3:30 PM after its daily three-hour lunch break. (Can you see why we love this shit?) With fifteen minutes to kill we explored the town.
We traced a street up a small hill and walked beneath the rough, medieval fortifications. When we visited another church farther up, at the top of it all, we were surprised to find a windmill. This was the site of the ancient flour mill, set at the highest point to catch the most wind. It had been in use from 1180 (around the time of our first visit to France) right up until 1919.
Opening hour had arrived and we retraced our steps to Epicerie Maurel.
The epicerie occupied facing buildings on the narrow main street. One side was a large produce room, where the entire space was cooled to walk-in cooler temperature. (A bonus for the shopper on hot Provençal days.) The other side was much larger, featuring a deli counter filled with aged and fresh chevre, olives, and meats. The rest of the space was filled with normal French grocery needs – rosé wines, lavender soaps, packaged foods, cleaning supplies, and an entire section dedicated to pet food. Shelves snaked their way deep into the building, filling up every wall and every corner. Though it sounds jumbled, it was a delight to the eye. A simple pleasure.
When we told the young grocer we liked his store he said, bursting with pride, that this was the oldest family-owned epicerie in France, opened in 1875, and operated by his family for seven generations.
Heading out from Goult, our destination was Le Prieuré, in Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, across the Rhone from the more-famous city of the popes. It started life in the 14th-century as a villa built by Cardinal Arnaud de Via, a nephew of Pope Jean XXII. Arnaud bequeathed the villa and expanded estate to monks who founded a priory. Another few centuries went by and, with then, the French Revolution and world wars. In 1943 a family named Mille family purchased Le Prieuré, transforming it into a hotel.
The buildings of Le Prieuré are grouped around a large courtyard, giving the effect of being in a small Provençal village. You can't build this sort of place in a single lifetime. It takes a time and patience for plane trees and gardens to mature. Le Prieuré may not be Villa Gallici, but we called it home. We're adaptable that way.
- Diane & Mark
...Wait! What About Restaurant Number Two?
We promised you two restaurants and a funeral. We almost forgot about the second restaurant!
That one was located near the village of Pujaut, just a few kilometres outside of Villeneuve. We settled into restaurant Entre Vigne et Garrigue for an everyday, Wednesday kind of lunch. Except, in this case, it was an every day, Michelin-starred kind of lunch.
Chef Serge Chenet has worked the restaurant for decades. In addition to his Michelin star he is also an MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France). His son Maxime carries on the cooking tradition, working side by side in the kitchen with père.
Lunch started off on a stellar note with the two most generous coupes de champagne we have been served in France. As promised, we won't gush about the gorgeous food, but we do have to mention the amazing salmon entrée that was the work of a true kitchen craftsman. There were at least seven distinct flavours on the plate, and the dish was a vrai triomphe !
That's not gushing, is it?
à la prochaine,
– Diane & Mark
photographs copyright Mark Craft