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Cycling Europe

A Week in Provence Part 1: Where Not to Take a Husband Homesick for California

I first read Peter Mayle’s rural idyll classic, A Year in Provence, in 1993. Last year, twenty years after it was first published, I read it again. The tales of languorous life in rural, sun dappled France had lost none of their appeal despite the fact that I now live in my very own rural idyll. This coupled with the fact that husband has put a two year deadline on moving back to California steeled my resolve to visit the region, and I’ve just returned from A Week in Provence.

The adventure did not start well. After landing in Nice we had a three hour wait for our train northwest into the Var. It was enough time for a seaside lunch in a posh restaurant had one been prepared and made such a reservation. One had not. We ate rubbery mozzarella panninis and nursed pastis in a smelly cafe with a view of an overpass while husband waxed lyrical about Los Angeles. It was the ocean front approach to Nice airport that did it. Even I saw the resemblance to flying into LAX.

Once in Les Arc the perpetually smiling Belgian, Ludmilla, met us at the station to drive us the remainder of the way to Le Thoronet, where our bicycles, dinner, and a night’s rest awaited us. All were in order but the steak — rare despite husband’s request for bien cuit — and the good night’s rest — blame smokey sheets and a barking dog. Buoyed by a triple carbo whammy breakfast of tartine, croissant, and pain au chocolat, we pedalled out of Le Thoronet and made it to our first winery, Domaine Sainte Croix La Manuelle, by 10:30AM the next day. The ride thus far had been indecipherable from say, Topanga Canyon, and now we were in a tasting room as modern and customer friendly as any in Napa. We were humored by a Frenchman with excellent English (if you clicked on the link, he’s the tall one in the back) who explained the difference between Crémant and their sparkling wine technique while upselling me on a jar of lavender honey.

We left our purchases for Ludmilla to collect — one of the perqs of being on a supported ride — and continued on the vineyard lined road to Carcès and on to Cotignac. Here amongst the plane trees on the main street we selected a table at the nicest looking of the plentiful cafés and restaurants, La Table de la Fontaine. I was worried for a moment we had chosen style over substance, hoodwinked by the wrought iron chairs, red patterned tablecloths and broad, cream coloured umbrellas, but the escargot Provencal put my mind to rest. Inside each of the eight miniature egg cups was a snail resting on a bed of tomato concasse surrounded by a moat of garlic butter and topped by a pillow of toasted crouton. Heaven. And they cooked husband’s filet de bouef bien cuit.

As we earned our lunch on the steep climb out of Cotignac, husband’s thoughts turned back to California. And it was more than a little like the Hollywood hills with all those Spanish tiled roof tops below us. As we rode on to Pontevès, the resemblance to southern California only grew. There were the same pink oleanders as those that line my grandmother’s driveway in San Bernardino, the scent of pine, the scrub clinging to rocky, terracotta-coloured soil. Even the houses behind our hotel looked like a miniature version of the terraced streets of Silverlake. In the center of town there was a departure with a medieval tangle of houses accessible only by pedestrian alleys, each with their door open and a beaded curtain for privacy. We wound our way to the ruins of the feudal château, backlit with rose gold light, and took in the 360 view of the mountains. Husband was back in California, granted a California of one hundred years ago. He sunk into a homesick slump eased not even by the evening’s daube Provencal.