Midday pause travelling in the Alpes-de-Haut-Provence. This is St-Étienne-les-Orgues and maybe you wouldn’t make a journey specially to come here. The population only just exceeds the altitude, 703 m. Michelin’s green guide mentions the church and the town as a XVI and XVII century centre of production of herbal remedies grown on the slopes of the Signal de Lure. These days that means just lavender. There’s a jazz festival in the summer but otherwise it’s a quiet place.
The layout of the town is concentric: villages were groupings of houses for defence and trade. Place names of this area are colourful and redolent of history - Forcalquier, Ganagobie, Mallefougasse - and the roads across and around the limestone massif of the Signal de Lure offer an almost endless variety of riding challenges. This time of year the leafless trees don’t obstruct the views - if you have time to glance off the road. There are the gorges and valleys which the roads negotiate, the pastures and fields of lavender plants and the archetypical buildings that have come to signify the Provençal countryside in paintings and photographs. This isn’t the area of Provence which Marcel Pagnol depicted in his books like “Manon des Sources” (that was around Aubagne, very much closer to Marseille) but as the Marseille metropolis spreads its concrete embrace, something approaching Pagnol’s world can only be found out here in the deep and relatively empty countryside.
Travelling off-season means there isn’t a problem finding a table at a place to eat, although the opposite - everywhere shuttered up or finding oneself eating alone - can be a problem in those villages which are now mostly populated by second homers, those out from the big French cites within easy reach for a weekend out of the urban pressure.
Eating out in the sunshine under the currently leafless hundred year-old Plane trees, St-Étienne-les-Orgues offered the Bar “Le Ski-club”, the Crêperie “L’Entre-nous” and the Bar de la Place, which was offering a set menu. I went for “Le Ski-club” and enjoyed a lightweight conversation with a couple of locals discussing the opening of the trout fishing season and who have continuing issues with tenants who rent properties during the season: unpaid rent, damages etc. Not as dramatic as one of Pagnol’s plots or Peter Mayle’s journals of his years in Provence but in the same vein.
Refreshed with simple fare done well. Michelin are right, it’s a pleasant town, like many others in the 04 département but there isn’t much else here so riding onward to enjoy even more clear roads and then heading back to life with the colour turned up in crowded, busy Marseille: see Plus Belle la Vie »
The name “Orgues” comes from the château of the Seigneurs des Orgues, (the Knights called Orgues), their name is derived from Ausonica (Latin) and Onègues (Provençal). The old name persists in the name of the square in my photo, the Place des Ormeaux.