a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Sunday, September 8, 2019

A little of this and that...a day in the Luberon

Last Sunday, my friend Jim Elder, having recently moved home to Chapel Hill after a long career in D.C. and the persistent urging of his sweet nieces, suggested we drive out to brunch in Saxapahaw.  It's barely a town, but much visited by people who like food, music and being away from the loud noises of its neighbors to the east and west. We took the Greensboro Road, which pleased me since it is one of my favorite roads; unlike the interstate, the Greensboro Road is as calm, green, and airy as it has been for years, and generally avoids pile-ups and freight carriers,which makes it just as quick a trip.  Jim was a school-day friend of my husband Jake, and throughout college, graduate school and far into grownup life kept up their academic and libational connection.  I'm as glad as his nieces to have him a neighbor.

At the corner of Eli Whitney, we turned north onto 87, and in a small bit came to the place Jim had promised was a destination to remember.  Ahead of the stone parking lot was a large, colorful metal chicken, sign and cosign of the Reverence Farm Cafe, named for the virtue by which its young owner and her family run it and their farm of the same name.  Its beginnings were an interesting story that Jim told on our way in, one I could appreciate:  a sudden impulse...not a whim but a gut feeling that there is something more to life than the old rag one is holding onto...came over a young visitor one day.  After a lot of hard work by now three generations, she found herself eventually expanding from a few acres to hundreds.  On their website, I found out later, is their admirable mission:

 We want to show you that it’s possible to raise and prepare real food from a real farm — our own poultry, meat and eggs, and produce and dairy from our friends and neighbors. Come join us.

We were there not only to eat what were about the best eggs I have ever had (mine was an oyster mushroom, kale and goat cheese omelet...Jim's was a plateful of everything the NC country calls breakfast), but also to show Jim the fruits of his generous advice about traveling in the Provence and the coast. He'd  made our visit there days of discovery.

A few days before I left for France, Jim had sat me down with his well-traveled maps  (over 30 years traveling and hosting people there, he has detailed it village to village), and I made quick notes of his advice which I then transferred to my own map. In between grateful bites at the Reverence, we talked about that wonderful day and a half my sister and I spent following the routes he suggested, first in the Luberon and then in Cassis.  He had lit not a few bright spots we might have missed otherwise, even with a French guide driving us (more about the marvelous Janicke in a minute). As good a travel advisor as Jim is, he's also a great listener, genuinely interested in what we saw and did.  We traded notes for future trips.

As I mentioned, we had another good guide to the Luberon...Janicke Lemiere, who came highly recommended by an Aixoise.  When I first contacted Janicke, I laid out a pretty busy driving tour through Jim's maps, but she answered enthusiastically and gave me some ideas about what we could accomplish.  St. Remy, alas, was out, as it would send us in another direction.  Janicke didn't think we would want to rush around.  True.

Janicke, it turned out, was a treasure...a Norwegian by birth who has been happily married into the region for 30 years and who lives near Lourmarin, she knew the region personally, historically and socially, and was companionable as well as efficient.  Mary Ellen and I had remarked even early on in our trip that we missed having our two sisters with us, and by our second trip with her, a morning in Cassis, it felt as if Janicke were another sister along for the ride. (We still missed our own two, though...take note, E and A.)

On the first morning, we met her in front of the Hotel Roi Rene, a short walk past the Rotunde in Aix, she smiling and waving from her Renault window.  As we drove out of town, she chatted about our plans and kept us up on where we were.  Lourmarin was one of the villages I had marked to have lunch and walk in, so Janicke began our tour on the highway west, so that we could take smaller roads through the villages, giving us time to walk around and get a feel for each, until we reached Lourmarin in time for a reservation she had made there.  We began with Oppede le Vieux, cutting off the highway and up into the hills, the grasses and ground brown with the summer's heat.

 Almost to the town, I spotted an artist's sign on the left and had her stop.  It was yet another good omen for the rest of the day,,,Pierre Giroux opened his door to us and led us around his charming studio, a white-walled series of small cool rooms of the sort one dreams about in Provence (I wouldn't mind having it here, either).  His paintings covered the walls and stood against the baseboards, fascinating me with their textures, which looked as if sand had been added to the paint.  When I asked him about it, he pointed to the jars along the top of his workroom...he mixed earth from the ground outside with pigment to layer his board, and then put a sort of sheen over it (I wasn't sure what that material was, my French being only slightly better than my Spanish...).

It was exciting, too, when I discovered he also worked with rust and old wood on small art pieces hung on doors and in the yard.  I loved an ancient window, partly stained glass, which he had salvaged from somewhere and turned into something I would have loved to take home with me.  Alas, the painting I admired and could have fit into my suitcase was already sold...

Almost reluctantly, I followed Janicke and Mary Ellen to the car for the rest of the way into Oppede.  Each village presents its own problems for parking, for they were not settled with an eye to the far future when cars would trample their narrow stone embankments.


But we didn't mind the walk uphill to the small center, nor even farther uphill, round stone-and root-clogged paths to the church at the top, where, to our pleasure, a small group practiced vocals and accompaniments for an opera later that evening.  The voices were charming, the church quiet and dear.

We walked down back into our next stop, Gordes...only a stop as it is a crowded place to navigate, and quite touristy.  We did take in its best advantage, however, a curve above the town where below the towns in the valley lay before us, putting the Luberon into perspective.

As we drove, Janicke talked about village life in the Luberon, her family, her lavender and her trees, and before that life in Norway before settling in France as a student.  She speaks four languages fluently, belongs to a reading group of real readers, and knows she lives where she belongs.

We went on to Menerbe and Apt, both of which I would like to get back to one day.  When finally we arrived in Lourmarin, pretty hungry by then, we found ourselves winding around a narrow street of shops to an outdoor table at the busy Numero Neuf, a really good family-owned restaurant that could easily be a Michelin star, friendly and offering a small three-course menu of delectable choices.  Jim-in-the-know again.

We wandered in and out a few of the stores, and then headed up for another wonderful view, and on the way the most charming scenes among the houses.


I can't remember right now whether we also did Bonnieux (we must have, mustn't we?), because the day seemed so full of discoveries, including a winery, Val Joanis where we walked through not only vines hanging with fruit but also a garden of vegetables and flowers I could have stayed in all afternoon, writing, photographing and picking its abundance of produce. 

We found in one small corner of the Luberon a santonnier, a master of the art of the small painted clay figures of town (santon d'arguiles), admiring the intricacy of his art.

Our last stop was Cucuron.  At its tiny but perfectly adequate village center is a stone pool called a bassin, where on the corner hid the patio of a perfectly charming restaurant.  "I could live here, too," I told the others, who looked at me politely (J) and sceptically (M.E.).  "Look."  I told them.  "There is the restaurant and cafe, there is the bassin to center me, there is a post office and market and a mysterious large empty half-palace to explore and wonder about.  I'd be perfectly happy."

Suddenly, it seemed just my size.

Just so I don't leave you hanging, here are some photos of Cassis from our time there a few days later.  They hardly need introduction, except to say that Joseph, when asked what he wanted me to bring him from France, requested a wine from Cassis.  "I had it in New York once, but it's hard to get here.  It's a blend, with a grape called ugne in it."  It became a mission we accomplished at the end of our Cassis day.

First, here is Cassis, from land and water...the town, the cliffs called calanques, blue, blue Mediterranean...and, of course, our lunch there, thanks to Janicke, where we tasted the wine, approved it, and then knew where to find it to bring home, just a few miles outside town.

A votre sante'!

It was a tiring day, so once more in Aix, we unwound a while and then headed out into the night for our passeggiata, as the Italians call it.  It's a lovely custom.