By Sunel Veldtman
Many years ago, I read the book ‘A Year in Provence’ by Peter Mayle. It kick-started my love affair with the ‘let’s go live somewhere else’ idea but it also watered a small seed within me. I guess that seed has been there all along: from my early childhood on a Karoo farm – the deep desire to live a simple life – rich in the abundance of community and all that the land offers.
I do not know when my love affair with lavender started though. I just know that I wanted to be a lavender farmer. I even did a course on lavender farming and investigated buying suitable land. It was at a point just before I turned 40 when I was rethinking my life (as one does!) and I was deeply dissatisfied with it. I now talk about lavender farming as my escape dream. Thankfully, for my financial wellbeing, I realised in time, that lavender farming was not the solution and that the kind of life I wanted could be attained right here in Johannesburg. I realised that it was a symbol for my desire to live more closely to what I value – connection, beauty and freedom.
However, the lavender dream lives on in a different format and so, for my 50th birthday, my husband and I went to see the Lavender in Provence – a kind of pilgrimage to the dream. Along the way, we stopped to stay with friends and just experience life in the French countryside. The way in which we travel has changed. We are less interested in seeing churches, museums, statues and historical points of interest and more and more interested in experiencing connection with the culture of the place. Our pace of travel has changed too – we give ourselves time to rest and reflect.
The hunt for lavender
From the outset, we planned our holiday this way. We skipped most of the cities and large towns, to spend time in the countryside away from the crowds. We skipped the famous markets and opted to cycle to the village market to buy bread. We (mostly) skipped fancy restaurants in favour of roadside picnics and we passed on the congested coast to head for the hills of the Vaucluse. And of course, we hunted for lavender.
Searching for lavender is somewhat like a safari experience – one needs to know where to look. If lavender is your aim, you need to do homework. Provence is vast, hilly and covered in indigenous forests, which in itself is something to behold. Traveling in the smallest rental car turned out to be a distinct advantage. The passes are magnificent and adrenalin inducing. Sheer cliffs of white rock plunge into ravines overgrown by mossy oaks. And then you turn a corner and in front of you are fields of purple.
There is something captivating about lavender. Perhaps it is the full sensory experience. Every sense is alerted. A lavender field is alive. The thin stems sway in the breeze. Bees buzz lost in the abundance and oblivious to human intruders. Large white butterflies gently rest on the purple sprigs and the summer heat releases the heavenly scent from the flowers. Perhaps the enchantment is in the orderly rows stretching, sometimes into the horizon. Perhaps it is the stark contrast between the stony soil and the delicate beauty it produces. Maybe it is the fleeting moment, a small window of weeks that this spectacle is available for those lucky enough to see. Or the vistas to white capped Mont Ventoux and distant dusty towns.
The fields are unfenced (mostly) and one is free to walk through the fields. So we did and almost embarrassingly, we just could not help ourselves. We wanted to keep enjoying the beauty and we tried but mostly failed to capture the moments and the loveliness. One afternoon, we found a spot under a tree next to a lavender field with a view to Mont Ventoux (my Tour de France following husband’s highlight) and just spend hours enjoying the produce bought at the local market with a nice chilled bottle of rosé.
Provence is the home of French rosé. This wine is perfect for hot summer afternoons. Everything about it is perfect, just light enough to lull you to sleep with a book beside the pool. The colour so translucent that you might mistake it for a white, reminiscent of the peaches of the season and perfectly right for goat’s cheese and a baguette.
The French way
The French have largely managed to keep their way of life because it is precisely what defines them. They have, unlike most other nations succeeded to guard their food production with a vigour that other nations guard their world dominance. Did they, unlike us, understand the importance of food or were they just fortunately too stubborn to change? In rural Provence, it is hard to find a supermarket and it is evident that most locals still buy their daily bread from the same boulangerie they have always bought it from, and perhaps their family has bought for generations.
Our friends buy their free-range eggs from their neighbours, their meat from the farmer up the road, their vegetables at the market in the nearest village. At these weekly markets, stall owners have long talks about exactly which melon will be right for lunch, they tempt you with tastings of sausages and cheese and are always keen to share a recipe with you.
As is probably evident by now, to Provence we went to see lavender and to eat. We ate well. At a guided market tour (our standard introduction to a region or city when we travel), we learned that the French eat seasonal, locally produced food. At the local market, you buy just enough to last until the next market. Strawberries and cherries are only enjoyed while they are in season, the appreciation enhanced by the wait. The beauty of these markets is breathtaking. You can stand and stare at the primary colour collections – yellow sunflowers next to purple lavender bunches and rich cherries, healthy herbs and deep aubergines.
We learned the art of eating Bouillabaisse in Marseilles, which we ventured to just for this one meal. We learned about aperitifs – raw fennel, olives or foie gras on fresh baguettes (Boulangeries bake bread at all hours of the day and you may nibble at the bread on the way home). We tried the creamy regional cheese as desert or before desert in the French way. And we tasted golden almond cakes dripping in orange blossom syrup and snowy puff pastries so feathery light they dissolve in your mouth leaving only the faintest sweet after taste.
Guidebooks warned about the unpleasantness of swarms of visitors to Provence in the high season. However, we found ourselves the only foreigners in a market or a lone car at the side of a spectacular lavender field. On our last morning, we strolled through a village so undisturbed that we could eavesdrop on women chattering while they were airing the house above the narrow alleyway.
The hilltop towns are at their best in the early morning in early market trading or at dusk when the magnificent sandstone lights to ochre and peach. At midday, everyone heads for lunch followed by a siesta, leaving these towns radiating heat and deserted. It forces the traveller to the same restful rhythm.
The French have a reputation for being rude and we were somewhat apprehensive especially since we do not speak the language. On the contrary, we found that, they are friendly and become very agreeable when you show an interest in their food or wine. In Lourmarin on market day, not only did we get to buy a cold bottle of wine, but the owner opened the bottle and found glasses under the counter so that we could enjoy our picnic under the chateau with wine. In the countryside, we found little haughtiness, fancy dressing or pretence. Perhaps our lenses were coloured by the glasses of holidaying or maybe there really is no need for all the baggage that we carry in the city.
I came back from Provence thinking that the French have nailed life. (Medical research underlines the wisdom of their way of life.) I am more convinced than ever, that for me, this kind of life beckons – the kind of life where it matters what you eat, that you share your table with friends and family and find your enjoyment in a simpler life.
I think that, with more effort, it is possible right here where we live. I am enthused to search for it and make it happen.