My bike ride seeking the Provence of Peter Mayle. Thirty years on, it’s becoming difficult to find the charming Provence that beguiled the author Peter Mayle and made his book “A Year in Provence” a worldwide best-seller.
Coombe de Lourmarin
Coombe de Lourmarin
My bike ride seeking the Provence of Peter Mayle
Thirty years on, it’s becoming difficult to find the charming Provence that beguiled the author Peter Mayle and made his book “A Year in Provence” a worldwide best-seller. I first heard it as a “Book of the Week” on BBC Radio 4.
Gentrification has progressed up the valleys from the Rhône, boosted by the technical jobs in the civil nuclear site at Caderache and the commercial growth in Aix-en-Provence. And the demands of farming the tourists, ironically seeking the dream which Peter Mayle helped popularise, means the tourist villages are surrounded by coach parks just as toxic to the charm as the templated housing estates which surround the villages now home to thousands of commuters.
The sunshine, the mountain and the hundred-year-old plantane (plane) trees are still here. But even in a village on the margins of the Lubéron like Mirabeau - that almost resembles something like the area Peter Mayle described, with its castle, square and little market - the Poste building is now a residence, there is still a fading wooden seat outside the neighbour but that is again now a smart residence. The curtains twitched inside the house where I parked my bike but that was an grand old lady, she told me the house had been in her family since before the war. I took her to mean WW2.
On to Pertuis. A sporty road but with views of the perfect-looking Domaine Perpetus. Down some ziggy curves is the market town of Pertuis. I fill the tank at an old-style petrol station, the air reeking of the local scooterists’ two-stroke exhaust. Even that smell is now nostalgic. Nearby, the local Gilets Jaunes poster is appropriately in the Place des Droits d’Homme (Rights of Man). Possible it’s been renamed recently in solidarity: the sign looks very new.
All roads lead to Lourmarin, or so it seems round here, it’s a tourist honey-pot or hell-hole, depending on your point of view. Peter Mayle set up home in Lourmarin when he became too famous for Ménerbes but I ignore signs for Lourmarin for as long as possible, instead using mapping skills as in the eighties, ie map zipped in the front of my leathers for quick access.
At Ansouis, still in the valley of the Durance on the south side of the Lubéron mountain, I start to find the villages encircled by coach parking rather than commuter box houses; a pretty cemetery on top of a hill just outside the walls of Ansouis still looking very Roman with its pine trees and spring-fed washing facility.
Lourmarin becomes inevitable but I quickly find my way on to Bonnieux. The route has to be via the Coombe de Lourmarin, the only route from one side to the other of the Lubéron mountain; its blind curves and narrow road are perilous but temptingly sporty.
The famous view of the approach to Bonnieux is preserved but the hillside opposite - from which to appreciate the famous view - is becoming speckled with newly-built concrete boxes, terraces and pools.
Over the valley in Lacoste, twenty years on since I first rode a motorbike to here on the 1998 GLME Summercamp, the castle has been restored. No mention on site of its most infamous proprietor, the Marquis de Sade. Some sculptures attempt to add respectability, as does the theatre in the nearby quarry which hosts music and drama in the summer. Down in the village, the Café de Sade is closed today.
At last Ménerbes.
Ménerbes has been beautified also with coach parking plus useful free toilets, clean enough. Ménerbes was the location of Peter Mayles’ first book, he wasn’t always complimentary about the locals and even now the town is happy to ignore him. His house isn’t mentioned on the tourist map and there was no recollection even when I asked at the Maison de la Patrimonie facing the Mairie in the Place de l’Horloge (clock tower) which featured in several of Peter Mayle’s stories. In the absence of facts, one surmises: there’s a shaded corner facing the clock in the Place de l’Horloge; it has a couple of stone benches so there’s always one in sun and one in shade. There’s a fine view. I think it’s not unlikely that Peter Mayle sometimes wrote his notes here just as I am mine this afternoon, thirty years on...
Satisfied in my quest, I head for home after a Tarte aux Framboises (raspberries) at an artisan boulangerie at the side of the fast road out of the Lubéron to Cavaillon, then round the western edge of the Lubéron mountain to cross the Durance at Cadenet.