Ah, southern France. Most people are more familiar with the more coastal regions, and often think of Nice and Cannes and St. Tropez when they consider heading to southern France, and indeed the region of Provence does include the department of Les Alpes-Maritimes. But for me, when I think of Provence, I think of the parts further west, the departments of the Vaucluse and the Var, and even as far west as Bouches du Rhone. These are the places that filled my imagination 20 plus years ago when I became enamored with Peter Mayle’s delightful memoirs, beginning with A Year in Provence; I prefer the places that aren’t quite so posh and polished as the Côte d’Azur can be. It’s also the part of France where I found myself working while in my 20s, for the Air Force, as an interpreter while the US flew planes out of a French airbase there near Marseille. I got to know as much of this place as I could during my half year there, and this area has without a doubt become part of my history and of my heart.
And lucky me, on my most recent trip to France, part of a scouting and planning trip for an upcoming workshop which you can read about here, I found myself once again driving tiny roads that I used to know so well through Les Alpilles, those rocky foothills to the Alps themselves, towards one of my favorite places: the town of Gordes. Gordes is a village perché, or perched village, meaning that it’s clinging to the top and off the edge of one of the rocky outcroppings of Les Alpilles. You can probably figure out pretty quickly why these towns would have been built in such precarious locations: naturally difficult to access, these hilltop villages made for excellent fortifications against whatever the marauding forces of the moment during the medieval period when they were built may have been. Now, however, these little villages that remain, clinging to their hillside, are simply extraordinarily picturesque.
Such is the case with Gordes. In fact, it’s considered to be one of the most beautiful villages in France, and has apparently become rather an “in” spot for the very posh sorts that I would really rather keep in Nice and St. Tropez…
I knew I couldn’t keep these places to myself forever!
But really, even on a Sunday afternoon at the very end of summer and its busy tourist season, it was a wonderful place to spend an afternoon, discovering art galleries, buying bread and pastry (at the only place open on a Sunday!), and settling in to have a glass of wine in a bar with a lovely terrace overlooking the Luberon valley. We could have lingered much longer, except that we were watching our time in order to make Vespers at the nearby Abbaye de Senanque.
I’ve been to the Abbaye so, so many times and it just never gets old. When I was working near Marseilles, I drove up to hear Vespers countless times. There’s just something about the mystery and the feeling that things have gone on forever just so that soothes me and centers me down. It had exactly the same effect this time as it always has; it was the deep, relaxing breath I needed after the rigors of travel.
The Abbaye is a Cistercian monastery, founded in the 1100s. Situated in a long, narrow valley, the abbey itself is a comfortingly solid example of Romanesque architecture surrounded by lavender fields. I’ve never managed to see it when the lavender is in full bloom, but it’s hard to imagine it being even more beautiful than it already is.
My heart soars when I hear the church bells begin calling the monks in for evening prayers.
Have I mentioned yet that it is an entirely sung Vespers? By the monks themselves, in a rather austere little stone chapel. It is truly other worldly.