I can still remember coming in to Avignon during the final two days of the Festival d'Avignon, a month-long showcase of modern art, theatre and music. On paper a festival in an old Provençal city sounds intriguing. Yet when we drove into the city on Saturday night, we were underwhelmed by the generic festival glaze that coated the city. It was as though the cultural world had turned out its pockets of lint and change and bits of debris and with it all manner of musical and carnival fray clattered onto the cobblestone.
We checked into our Airbnb apartment and then hit the town. We'd arrived after the last theatre showings, so we opted for some music instead. This idea saw us safely into a cavernous stone building passed flashing colored lights, bodyguards and event promoters (who made good use of some 35 euros), and into a barely crowded room of 350 sweaty Europeans with the promise of something vague, like "Electro." While I believe that category includes actual danceable music, this particular DJ had not been well informed. It wasn't the music that was so odd (it was more intolerable than odd), but the people in the room. I haven't been clubbing in Europe in years, but I don't remember this particular sight: a group of 100 or so people, each one facing the DJ directly, jerking their necks and arms in a sort of zombie trance, like choreographed dance-party marionettes. (It so happens, this odd little scene is one of the few anecdotes we have as proof that the French do in fact do things at night other than eating and drinking and lounging by canals and rivers.) I'm not proud to admit we lasted about 20 minutes.
The following morning we woke early and went about the few days we had in Provence. Our first stop was the Sunday market at L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. We arrived as early as we dared (around 9:15am), just as each vendor was putting the final touches on their immaculate displays. We strolled through the expansive market, chatting with purveyors and the first wave of tourists in a smattering of French, English, Spanish and Mandarin. True to its reputation, we saw the most incredible displays of olives, fruit, cheese, herbs, and cured meats. By 11am, though, the place was so crowded I had to find little open spaces to take a few breaths before continuing our painfully slow pursuit of the parking lot.
Well-provisioned, we collected my brother and assembled a proper feast of olives, cheese, wine, roast chicken and a huge, fresh salad (it's hard to find green things in French restaurants!). We set our meal out on the terrace, enjoying the clear skies until our sun umbrella bobbed so threateningly in the mistral winds that we were forced to retreat inside; we took it as a sign that it was time to go exploring.
Provence begins at the Rhone River to the west, runs all the way east to the Alps (and on to its border with Italy) and continues south to the Mediterranean. The cold, mistral winds blow from the Bay of Biscay in the northwest and sweep over the land like a large duster, brushing away clouds and debris and distinguishing the region with characteristically clear, sunny skies. While the winds necessitate a certain tenacity on behalf of the Provençal people, they give relief from the dry, dusty air. This rugged climate also contributes greatly to the Provençal staples: wine, olives, and those hearty Mediterranean herbs. Whether it’s simply the passage of time that slowy scrubs you of all those layers of life's strain or something particular about the region, we all agreed our Provençal days were the best of days.
While we were initially drawn by cities like Arles and Avignon for their art, food and those bewildering old, Roman stones, it's the Luberon towns, nestled in a series of low-lying mountains to the north, that captivated us with their fleeting glimpses of Provençal life. We especially enjoyed Saignon's little gardens and old church and Rousillon's ruddy glow and central square. In the Luberon each town perches precipitously atop rocky outcroppings; from afar it resembles little more than a jumble of ochre-colored stones, the sun gesturing across their faces to illuminate a range of color from pale orange to ruddy brown. Up close you find small, cobblestone streets ambling up the rocky face, climbing directly out of the landscape. Every inch of space is considered — a fig tree here, a rosemary bush there, a chair painted a mossy green and reborn as a flowerpot. If you arrive around lunchtime you will invariably catch glimpses and smells of home cooked meals wafting out of open windows, their brightly colored shutters open to the streets like outstretched arms. It's hard to resist the urge to peek in as people lounge around in their living rooms afterward, taking respite from the sun's glare.
There are other towns, of course, that are inundated by tourism in the summer months. We found Baux de Provence and others more done up like decorative Jello molds studded with fruit and rolled out only for special occasions. Which in mid-July in the Luberon means all day every day. Hoofing it up each town's stone steps the streets are lined not with homes, but with candy shop after crepe shop after kitsch shop in a decorative pattern, climbing in a circular fashion up each layer of the hill. Enough sugar to go around, I suppose. The crowning cherry is usually an old stone church that towers over the town, giving purpose and order to the confusion of streets and shops below. It rises declaratively out of the craggy, limestone top, exclaiming "Yes! This is what we're all doing here." The next town down the road could be so quiet that all you hear is the retreating heels of the local store woman clacking down the cobblestone as she heads home for lunch. In another time and place this might be disconcerting. But in the Luberon, you feel fortunate that both worlds can exist a few kilometers apart.
On our second-to-last night we giddily made reservations at a restaurant outside of Gordes for our only meal in France adorned with a star. Around 7:30pm we settled ourselves on the patio. We took one glance at our waiter — with his smart, rectangular frames, silver hair, elegant movements, and an ever-present smirk playing in the corners of his mouth, not to mention his impeccable English — and he at us, and we both wordlessly agreed he would be in charge of our meal.
All over France we were impressed by our waiters. The French waiter may have a hard exterior, but they're really just old softies, funny and kind and remarkably discerning, both about the food and their clientele. So long as we were willing to play the fools if language became a challenge, we were treated kindly and respectfully, if occasionally begrudgingly. We did sometimes gaze longingly at other tables where the banter between waiter and customer came easily, and the waiter would make small fussing motions and nods of approval throughout the meal. At our table, the banter was reduced to the waiter's raised eyebrows at our ill-advised dinner selections, or was replaced altogether by a soft fretting over whether they'd properly communicated our choices — because, you know, Americans generally subsist on overcooked meat and potatoes.
On those rare occasions when we communicated in enough French and they reciprocated with just enough English, like on this night, we were thrilled to be part of the French meal, a theatrical event in its own right. Which is really the secret to this whole traveling business: if you're a humble, eager traveler, you'll always encounter a friendly face and some cultural guidance, and maybe learn something in return.