, DrFrance is part of me and the last week or so sometimes felt like a travelling déja vu. My ‘holidays’ were in fact a manic race from the south of France to the north. En route we scooped up Provençal sun and rain as well as endlessly twisting roads to a lost monastery, now a convent (where I opened a little wooden shutter to pick up a phone & ring the Abbess but chickened out – that would mean the end of my globetrotting life).
The nearest point of secular civilisation was the pretty little hill village of Grimaud, deserted apart from one packed, smokey (they’ll never give up) bistro, though displaying a fine little church, see above. As we wandered the shuttered streets of Provence, it seemed life had come to a full-stop. It’s definitely a 6 month region, where activities stop completely or at least grind down several gears during the mild winter months before leaping into top gear from May onwards. Many of the houses are holiday homes; in some ways the beauty and easy life-style of the south of France has been its death. I know, because I lived there many aeons ago – once in Monte Carlo and earlier still in Montpellier – the two extremes of the Midi. But the friends we stayed with in the rolling Massif des Maures, who have just moved lock stock and still smoking barrel from Los Angeles, don’t mind at all. In fact that’s precisely what they and their young children came for: no freeways, no guns, a gentle rhythm and fantastic food-markets.
Parts of it are still lovely but northern Provence became far more spectacularly bucolic as we rolled through the hills northwards into the Drome, a region that I’ve always thought is one of France’s most beautiful – and I’m not alone. Dieulefit, a market town much loved by potters and bohemian eccentrics, once a stronghold of the Resistance, felt like New York compared with the sleepy villages further south. After dinner with a friend in her arty stone house, considered ‘nearby’ but in fact miles from anywhere, a spookily foggy drive (leaving us lost at a hilltop crossroads at one point – thank god for mobiles) took us to a remote guest-house. It seemed acceptable enough in the darkness but next morning it turned into a semi-paradise. Or was it China? Drifting cloud created endless perspectives of mountains and valleys down below, perfect stuff for those industrious water-colourists and perfect for a dreamily slow departure.
So on we drove north through icey fog which clung to the bare trees, turning their branches into sprays of icicles, up through Lyon and the bleak Cote d’Or, a quick swing into the beautiful medieval town of Vezelay in the Yonne (another of my favourite regions) a few goats’ cheeses and a bottle of Vezelay Burgundy – a Chablis taste-alike, and finally we screeched into the sparkling lights and thundering traffic of Paris – Porte Maillot. A couple of hours late for our Hertz contract meant another day was slapped on the car-hire bill – who cares, it’s Christmas isn’t it, though the Hertz employees didn’t seem to be aware. Parisians are special.
Days of walks in the clear light flooding my old haunts like the arcaded Palais Royal (bizarre to think back to those long hours I spent reading by the fountain) and Saint-Germain – so welcomingly twinkly and alive on Christmas Day it made us think with glee of dead London with families imprisoned for the day. And all this accompanied by divine dinners cooked by old friends where excellent food is just normal, not a huge drama produced from the latest foodie best-seller. There’ll always be Paris.