We knew we were in France again as soon as we started seeing the electricity pylons that look like giant cats with whiskers. The second clue was the distinctive jingle that always plays (loudly) out of the French railway station speakers before every train announcement and which sounds just like the opening four notes of “Love and Marriage“; so setting this persistent little ditty off on perpetual loop in my head for the whole day of traveling, which is exactly what happened last time we traveled around France by train. I’ve come to love European travel by train with such a passion – the sheer involvement of it compared with the disengagement of flying – and so these two sensory cues that I’m on continental soil have become ‘happy-feeling’ triggers for me.
Of course, the rapidly changing scenery was another bit of a clue, taking us from the not so un-English patchwork rusticity of Normandy, opening out into verdant green rolling hills and wide open plains and then, increasingly, arriving into the less foliage-covered hills of the south skirted by vines, olive groves and the (remnants of) sunflower crops, some with their bedraggled heads hung a little sadly now in the late-summer sunshine but many still smiling sunward as we flew past.
We chose Lourmarin, virtually, by accident – the apartment we found and fell in love with leading us there – and so, reluctantly at first, dropped the idea of Gordes for this small village we had never even heard of. It turned out to be the making of our holiday; we did like Gordes when we visited for the afternoon but it was also a tourist destination in every way and lacked the far more subtle and hard-to-put-your-finger-on quality that Lourmarin seemed to pulse out to us in waves before it was even much more than a distant outline of buildings on the Provence horizon. Not being one of the sheer-sided hilltop-perching villages that get most of the tourist attention but, rather, a much softer undulation on the landscape capped by an old fortification and a muddle of tiled rooftops, we were off the country road and into Lourmarin’s back streets before we even knew it, negotiating our way down narrow cobbled streets and into a maze of a one-way system in search of a large wooden door between shops.
These almost sleepy late-Saturday-afternoon streets, as we first saw them, with their outward spilling shop displays (of, predominantly, coloured fabrics, rustic home-wares and art), with their pastel-coloured doorways and geranium-filled window boxes, felt homely and welcoming before we had even unloaded the suitcases from the hire car. What we weren’t quite prepared for was how we had struck gold with our apartment. More house than apartment due to rear access to its own garden and its huge ‘main’ bedroom with a view atop a spiral staircase, its various living spaces rolling off one off another and joined by a corridor hung with an eclectic collection of hats, and all settled around a big stone fireplace made cosy with sofas and rugs, plus a kitchen large enough to spend half of your time in (and we did). Above all, it felt like a house because of the absolute peace and quiet it afforded us. Even when the streets outside were overspilling with people – yes, even on the crowd-heaving occasion that is market day – the only sounds we could hear in that space were the gentle summer breeze in the leaves, the birdsong and the gentle tinkle of our water fountain playing constantly in the background.
We spent the most idyllic week there; I don’t know when I’ve ever felt more at home away from home, and the fact we could step out of the door to be greeted by an art gallery opposite and another half dozen of them dotted around the town, plenty of quirky shops, a bakers shop and a colourful array of fresh-grown produce plus pavement cafes and bars galore (one of which became our favourite hang-out for late afternoon-into-evening people watching as the sun set behind rooftops), we were spoiled enough to feel we had no need of venturing too far from our doorstep.
Yet we did those outings…you know, the ones you feel you have to do on holiday (though far less of them than we usually force upon ourselves) and, of all the options Provence offers for this, I seemed to loosely theme mine around artists and writers. So, we visited Cezanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence (which we really loved and were glad to have added to our list of artists’ homes), then Marcel Pagnol‘s birthplace Aubagne (which was fairly uninspiring as a town but I enjoyed seeing those distinctive hills that form the back-drop of his two autobiographical novels, the films of which I feasted on just before our holiday), and we drove through many of the film sets of one of my most favourite films, based on Peter Mayle‘s book, ‘A Good Year‘ (though we resisted the urge to knock on the château door, flimsily dressing up a film pilgrimage as a wine tasting, as so many people – even coach tours – apparently do). You can read more about all of these at the bottom of the page.
Amongst those ‘Good Year’ places were the hill-top villages of Bonnieux and Gordes, and they were very beautiful so we enjoyed them all…and yet we couldn’t fail to notice how we enjoyed, most of all, that most simple thing of arriving ‘home’ to our apartment in Lourmarin; to our kitchen with shutters flung open on a view of rolling hills framed by window boxes as we chopped shiny red peppers and plump red tomatoes or cut open juicy fresh figs and slithers of camembert from our morning sojourn to the village shops; and our little garden with its eating area under the foliage (with softly-playing music and candle light added for our evening meal); and the tiny fish-fountain at the end of the lawn that played its zen-garden sounds for us throughout the whole of that most idyllic of weeks.
When the time came to leave (actually, even before we did..and long after the event), two memories of that garden stood out as the absolute concentration of all that it – and our time in Provence – had come to mean to me. One was of the delicate white flowers in a pot on the wall bordering the terrace where we spent leisurely breakfasts and long evenings; these flowers would fill with sunlight and hold this light for at least a couple of hours each morning, making them so unfeasibly radiant and beguiling that I would find myself staring at them, in a space of complete absence of thought, for the longest stretches, when I was ‘meant’ to be reading my book. The other was of the area around the tiny water fountain, bordered by lavender and a big green urn; I came to love this little area but especially when the morning sun rose to where it would literally rain light down into this space, exactly like a heavenly being was holding a jug of radiance and pouring it into the tiny pool of water through the foliage, bathing the scene in amber mist and scattering mini rainbows held in golden light jets. This daily-repeated moment was the very last one that I enjoyed before saying “au revoir” (most definitely, “until next time” because we will be back) to the apartment, locking its doors and heading off for a day in Avignon and the train home.
That was three months ago already (what, really?) and those recollections of our garden in Provence are still holding very strong; in fact, what occurs to me is that my very strongest recollections of our time there are not of doing anything in particular or of visiting a particular place but, rather, of logging onto a series of experiences of what you could call timelessness and perfect stillness in the midst of it all, typified (if I was to look for a way of describing them) by the presence of great radiance – quite literally, these were the ‘highlights’ of the week.
For all these kinds of moments are almost impossible to define or to share (though they are often the very fuel of my creativity – inspiring many other paintings of such ‘time stood still’ moments such as ‘The Yellow Window‘), I knew the essence of these would be making their way onto canvas before very long, and they have – as ‘Provençal Garden I‘ & ‘Provençal Garden II‘, both newly dry. What these two paintings amount to are the visual representation of two moments of absolute radiance and yet they are, actually, far more than just a visual representation but, rather, a whole multi-layered experience, encapsulated; a feeling recalled as I painted and then anchored, or energetically stitched, onto canvas using paint, with the intention of conveying something of that multi-layered experience to others…because that’s what painting is all about, for me; its something energetic that occurs, a transference of information, way beyond the limitations of the eyes.
Both paintings are newly added to my website where they can be seen in far more detail and from a variety of angles to better capture their light; but, most of all, I hope you can feel them!
- Without making a meal of it, “A Good Year” is simply one of those “feel good” films that can sustain being watched many times over but one of the best things about it, and what makes it so outstanding visually, is the superb photography. If you want to enjoy a real sense of what is so special about Provence and its golden-amber light, you could do far worse than to lose yourself in this film. I hear that Peter Mayle, who wrote the book on which it is based (though I have read it – and there are significant differences; and, for once, I prefer the film), lives in Lourmarin.
- “My Father’s Glory” (“La Gloire de mon père“) and “My Mother’s Castle” (“Le Château de ma mère“) are a pair of films faithfully adapted from Marcel Pagnol‘s 1957 much-loved autobiographical novels (Pagnol is, perhaps, better known for “Manon des Sources” and “Jean de Florette” – also favourites of mine). Don’t be put off by the sub-titles, these films beautifully capture a way of life that was far more closely connected to those Provence hills, before the motorway (that we recently queued up on as the holiday crowds headed for the coast) sliced its way straight through them; an era when the modern world was catching up fast but when a summer trip to the family village would still mean travelling by cart and by foot, carrying all you needed – and that’s only a hundred years ago. A stunningly captured pair of films that have stayed with me long after the watching; highly recommended.
- Cezanne’s house is on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence and is well worth the up-hill walk from the town to see his unique, custom-built studio, left much “as was” and filled with many of the personal effects used for his familiar still life paintings (no photography allowed inside, unfortunately); also to see the sliding wall that enabled him to view the hills beyond without even stepping out of doors. His favourite, much-painted, Mont Sainte-Victoire can be seen just beyond Aix. We can now add this to our collection of art homes recently visited – including Charleston, Giverny and Kettles Yard (click to link to posts on these visits).
Click HERE to view all the rest of my colourful photos of Provence.