Hello dear readers from a very wet and rainy south of France. It’s been a stormy week and it looks as if those fall temperatures have finally kicked-in.
Well, that definitely gives us a nice excuse to start whipping up some hearty comfort food. I’ve been busy doing some easy fall dishes – like lentils & ham and split pea soup – and Nicolas is in line to cook us a Provençal daube (stew)- his “speciality”.
And today I’m very happy to feature another “My Provence” interview – this one comes straight to us from the good ‘ole US of A. Well, with actually more than just a passing stopover in the UK… but that’s just where the story gets interesting.
Caroline Longstaffe is a British expat living in California with a deep passion for France. In her own words, “England is my home, California is where our ‘home’ is and France is the place that reaches out to the depths of my soul!” – Gotta love that.
Caroline writes about her experiences in France, and also her expat journey in the US, on the Shutters and Sunflowers blog, and today she shares with us some of her favorite adventures around Provence and a few of her travel tips for the region.
Merci bien Caroline!
1. What is your connection to Provence, and how long have you been living in or traveling to the region?
I have been visiting Provence since I was a child of 7! Travelling by ferry and car from England, my earliest memoires were of the architecture, the cars, the shops (especially what they sold) the colors, the smells and of course the ambience, (although at 7 I don’t think that word was part of my repertoire!). I was incredulous that it was so very different from home, which was a mere, albeit watery, 30 miles away!
I had been to Avignon as a child but my first proper introduction to Provence was the glamour and sparkle of the Cote d’Azur, in the early 1980’s, we honeymooned in Monte Carlo! We later discovered Aix-en-Provence, Cassis and the Var region, distanced from much of the commercialism, we preferred its gentler subtlety. It was about then that we started to dream of finding a place to stay and return to each year, and in 2004 we stumbled upon the glorious bastide town of Uzès, with its ancient, streets, elegant squares, and gently worn, shuttered buildings, was this the place? Then in 2009 on a bright, crisp, April morning, we arrived in the tiny, picturesque, medieval town of Lourmarin, nestled under the hills on the south side of the Luberon Valley. It truly felt like coming home, the place we had been searching for……
In 2012, despite now being based just outside of San Francisco, with both children in college, we found a way of living in Provence for a few months and having failed to find a rental in Lourmarin we moved to Uzès. This enchanting town however, quickly seduced us; the magnificent Ducal Castle, Cathedral, Renaissance mansions and at its heart, Place-aux-Herbes. Fringed with splendid stone arches one could sit here and enjoy the gentle chuckle of the fountain and become immersed in the local bustle whilst sipping a café creme or glass of palest vin rosé !
We were frequently tempted by Place aux Herbes’ array of enticing restaurants and the many events it hosted, carnivals, the annual truffle fare, art fares, pottery exhibitions, brocants and its’ renowned twice-weekly regional market. ‘Marchés’, which became a huge part of our routine; smiling locals selling linens, ribbons, baskets, flowers, cheeses, olives and an abundance of fresh produce.
After 6 wonderful months, a summer back in California, in early October 2012 we returned and opened the door into a charming, shuttered house in the middle of Lourmarin, finally we had come ‘home’.
It is hard to define what makes a place feel truly special, what it is that evokes the senses to be so stirred. Lanes flanked with poppies, olives groves and sprawling vineyards, this “Belle Ville de France’, with its crumbling buildings, meandering cobbled streets, bustling cafes, and restaurants, its’ handful of chic boutiques and most importantly one fabulous boulangerie, became our home. Woken each morning to the gentle chiming of 2 church clocks, slightly out of sync with each other, to a view of ancient stone and clay tiles, Lourmarin, truly filled my soul. As much as I will always love Uzès, Lourmarin is my ‘special place’.
Although now based back in California, somewhere in that small corner of Provence a part of me remains and just like we did this summer, we will return there again and again.
2. Where is your favorite place to visit? (a tough one!)
Yes a tough one! Lourmarin, is my favorite place to live and to visit, but if I was based in Lourmarin I would always urge people to also explore Uzès, taking in on their journey the beauty of the Luberon Valley and its mystical perched villages; Bonnieux, Gordes, Menerbes and Rousillon (to name but a few) I love the Provencal markets, so integral to the region, there is one on somewhere, even in these tiny villages, nearly every day of the week, so I would recommend scheduling your sightseeing around them. My other favorite place, not in the Luberon although close by, (though it is really the answer to the next question), is the captivating perched village of Les Baux de Provence.
3. Do you have a “best travel memory” for the region?
So hard to choose the best memory, obviously finding Uzes and discovering Lourmarin, for me, were life changing memories! However there is one memory I would like to share. On a forlorn winter’s day, on route with family to the delightful town of St-Remy-de- Provence, I caught sight of a sign for ‘Les Baux de Provence’, the name resonated so I decided to explore. Anticipation mounted as we followed the twisty, tree lined road through the Alpilles. I will always remember the thrill of our first glimpse of the tumbled chateau ruins, high above the perched village of Les Baux, its grey walls almost disappearing into the bleak February sky. Despite the tearing mistral and icy chill we strolled Les Baux’s tiny streets and even though little was open and it was too late in the day to tour the chateau, it was magical.
I returned to Les Baux many times touring the fascinating chateau ruins where from its towering heights one can gaze down onto acres of the surrounding olive groves and vineyards, a view of Provence that dreams are made of. A ten minute amble away is the incredible ‘Carrières de Lumières,’ an extraordinary multimedia video show set to music within the heart of a gigantic series of bauxite caves, spell- binding!!
4. Can you think of one piece of advice or recommendation for travelers to Provence?
Don’t try to see it all, Provence is a big place! To capture its essence visit the Luberon, the vineyards and its entrancing, tiny, perched villages. You can become lost in their ambience for an entire day, or just in a momentary drive through by car! As previously mentioned, time your trips to be there on a market day which will give you a real feel for the region and the warmth of the local people, never mind the fact you’ll have fun shopping!
5. Finally, can you give us one sentence which you feel describes Provence?
An enchanting place of cobbled streets, worn limestone buildings, shutters, sunflowers, lavender, vineyards and olive groves, where time seems to have stood still, and where once you have visited will become part of your soul forever, this is Provence.
Also, I very much wanted to include a “sensation” that helps me describe Provence – the haunting music ‘Wisdom’ rings in my ears, in fact in my heart. It is the theme track to the Peter Mayle story, Ridley Scott film, “A Good Year” with Russell Crowe and Albert Finney. I know it wasn’t Oscar winning but the cinematography was stunning and beautifully captured the essence of the region. It is a simple, silly, romantic film yet to me has such a profound message (I actually wrote a blog post about it).
Chateau Canorgue, where it was filmed, was just a 15-minute drive from where we were in Lourmarin, just outside of Bonnieux!
Again, a very big “merci” to Caroline (I loved all the detail in her interview, so dreamy!) for sharing some of her favorite travel memories, and if you’d like to read more of her adventures, be sure to check out her blog – Shutters and Sunflowers.
Caroline also has a Shutters and Sunflowers Facebook page if you’d like to meet-up with her there.