Finding Nirvana in provence

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As most of us sometimes do, I pined the other day for Provence and I found that, even before I left home to write an essay about the place, my mind was full of Provençeness.

There in my subconscious, only waiting to be summoned, were the olive trees and the lizards and the long summer shadows, the rackety cicadas, the wine-smells, the sunflowers dipping in their ranks – the poet Mistral too, and Cézanne forever painting Mont Victoire, and Bardot at Saint-Tropez, and car rallies and pastis and garlic and gypsies – the whole bag of tricks subsumed in my mind, since I am of a certain age, by the legendary image of Le Train Bleu, which for a couple of generations between the wars sped its complement of statesmen, stars, aristocrats, thriller writers and ne’er-do-wells through the starlit night to Nice and Monte Carlo.

It often happens that fancies become realities and so it was when I took the train from Waterloo next morning. It was certainly no Blue Train but Eurostar whisked me directly under the Channel to Provence faster than Anthony Eden or Coco Chanel could ever have dreamed. In no time at all l found myself in a truly fig­urative Provençal town. What was it called? I forget now but it gave me all I wanted for a start.

My hotel was satisfyingly eccentric, replete with velveteen curtains, sacred images on landings and clockwork budgerigars in gilded cages. The shops appeared to specialise in boxes, dainty cardboard containers of every size and decorative function. Crystallised raspberries seemed a big thing too. Citizens with beards were playing extr­emely slow games of boules in the central square and, for dinner, I ate lambs’ trotters and tripe, flavoured strongly with thyme, or maybe it was red mullet on a bed of artichokes and pine seeds.

What more could I want? I sat over my coffee that first evening and thought for a time that my job was done already, between the fact and the fancy. I was wrong, though. Provençeness is an elusive abstraction, scorning fantasy and microcosm alike. As they say in the advertisements, conditions apply.

It is not an altogether easy part of the world, in my view. Perhaps it is a bit too emotional for comfort. Although they are almost always delightful in the particular, its people can be brusque in the general – or at the driving wheel. Its weather, which in tourist theory is celestially benign, can burst into blistering heat or tropic downpour, and I prefer to steer clear of the big Provençal cities, which are violently heroic and congested.

In that dear little introductory town I bought a white sun-hat embroidered with the letters OM because I fondly thought of it as representing the calm Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum – Hail, the Jewel in the Lotus: it really stands for something much more relevant – the football club Olympique de Marseilles.

Conditions apply and stress is endemic to Provence, even among its beauties. There is an organisation called Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, which offers the visitor an itinerary of matchlessly picturesque country locations. You can follow it if you like all across Provence but heaven help you if you do, for to qualify for membership a Plus Beau Village must evidently be totally forbidden to cars, accessible only by appallingly steep labyrinths of sun-baked medieval alleys and infested by thousands of people all too blatantly similar to yourself.

I have evolved my own disciplines for the enjoyment of Provence. I avoid, for instance, all multi-starred, multi-forked or rosetted gourmet establishments. I generally steer clear of the coast. I am never seduced by the theme-parkism that has lately invaded these parts. For me one delightful Provençal outdoor market can stand for all the others and, although it may be civilised to share the pleasures of those old gentlemen at their ballgame, I try not to get carried away – it can last almost as long as cricket . . . 

Beware of big festivals! They are ubiquitous in Provence and, although they seem to be riddled with obscure political squabbles, they are almost fatally exuberant. I have never quite got over the festival at Aix-en-Provence a year or two ago. This time I stumbled into the most high-spirited of them all, the Avignon Theatre Festival. Magicians, clowns, jugglers and living statues filled the streets, choirs sang, trumpeters trumpeted, buskers went from table to table of a thousand cafés and I found myself a momentary curiosity when footballing youths noticed the OM on my hat.

But above all I put out of my mind the social glamour that for so long gave an incomparable sheen to the fable of Provence. It has gone the way of the Blue Train! But still . . . if ever I feel like recapturing something of its lost magic, I try looking in the evening, when the lights are coming on, across the bay of Antibes to the waterfront of Cannes on the other side. How cool and elegant the distant town looks then, how remote seem its publicity feuds, traffic jams and tabloid absurdities! Coward and Colette might still be strolling over there, with the Astaires perhaps, and the Scott Fitzgeralds, and that very nice fellow the Duke of Angoulême.

For it is one of the fascinations of this place that Provence has such stunning histories of its own. It has had its kings and prince-bishops and even popes, ruling their own minute or magnificent fiefs. Ancient ranks and traditions have meant a lot around here. In the yard of a small rural hotel in Vaucluse I came across a plaque commemorating, as recently as 1988, a “historic” visit by two local royal highnesses, and there are places where one might still hear the Provençal tongue, a language far older than France itself.

It is the localness of things that gives Provence its marvellous variety, whether in dukes or cheeses. A night spent in almost any Provençal village is like a night spent in another country. One hill town might unexpectedly sprout bonzai trees, another apparently dedicates its entire existence to the memory of a particular medieval poet. Food is often specific to its neighbourhood and when an entire village turns out to play boules in the cool of the evening, it seems to me that local conditions most certainly apply.

Even the smell of the land is local, depending on its product. If it happens to be lavender-growing country, everything from the soap to the soup will emanate the scent of its harvest. Driving gently though the high lavender fields of the Plateau de Valensole is like drifting through a dream of deep purple.

They tell me that Provence is especially interesting to geologists – not least the innumerable gorges that form much the most depressing features of its landscapes. Geographically it certainly offers something of almost everything. Sometimes it suggests to me Oregon, sometimes the Australian outback, sometimes south American prairies. Those damned gorges are incessantly likened, of course, to Colorado, and some of the mountains tug at my always homesick heart with evocations of Wales.

It is France, though. It is always France. In the dark cathedral of Apt, in the very heart of Provence, not far from the venerated veil of St Anne the Virgin’s mother, a terrible death-list reminds us of all the young men who went from this paradise to die for France at Verdun or on the Somme. The French delights are here but the French tragedies linger too: good or bad, everything is heightened, extenuated or forgiven by the old caress of the south.

What then are the special consolations of Provence? For me they are the consolations of doing nothing in particular. I was doing just that the other evening after dinner when a small French boy emerged all alone from our nearby hotel and threw himself face down on a chaise-longue beside the swimming pool. After a moment there he turned over, lay upon his back, let his arms dangle and looked up as in a trance at the evening sky.

He was only seven or eight but I knew exactly what he was feeling. He was breathing the afternoon happiness of that chaise longue. He was bewitched by the rhythm of the cicadas all around. He was lulled by the ambient perfumes of thyme, rosemary and possibly banana ice cream. He had achieved the Provençal nirvana, and when I heard his mother calling from the hotel – “Pierre! Pierre!” – he sprang to his feet in perfect contentment and ran away to maman.

So did I, in a manner of speaking. Next day I took the Eurostar (née Le Train Bleu) home from Provence to Waterloo and with it came all manner of sweet aftertastes.

Jan Morris is the author of the novel “Hav” (Faber & Faber; £16.99). Her most recent non-fiction book is “The World

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