Words by Nicky Ginsberg – Provence 2017
The cold of winter is upon me, I am traversing the rugged countryside, the mountainous valleys, its rocky canyons and deep escarpments in the Alpilles and Luberon region. Medieval hill top villages, perched, tumbling and sometimes with crumbling ruins, reside on craggy limestone cliffs and church spires rise tall and enchant with their architectural features, Romanesque, imposing and strident. Ancient castles and grandiose chateaux punctuate the landscape and hold my gaze and wonderment.
Within the manicured grounds of the homestead in which I sojourn, the aged stone lion head fountain is semi frozen and shimmering with the morning dew. The gardens are deplete of their flowers, but the evergreen bushes and topiary shrubs are fanciful, and can withstand the unusually blistering cold winter. The crunch of the gravel in the early morning silence is comforting and familiar.
An elaborate gated entrance leads to a narrow country laneway within a landscape of dense foliage, and I preamble along the canal, the rush of water oozing and gurgling towards the footbridge. The winter sunlight is glowing. It reaches for my skin and teases with its rays. A bursting ball of yellow swells, hopeful, alongside a piercing azure sky, startling and cloudless. The varying shades of green sombre, now glisten with the promise of spring and in the distance within a lush vegetation, I sight the olive groves with trees ancient and hardy, anchored to their roots. Rows of vines, barren with frost, sparkle with their droplets and slow trickle. Orchards adorn the paysage, and await the warmer temperatures, for their flowers to blossom and their fruits to ripen.
I hear the blades of thick, lustrous grass whistle and a threatening mistral wind blows sonorous, howling and flapping. Standing tall, the almighty cypress reign, undisturbed, proud and steady. The plane trees naked, stripped bare of their leaf are ghostly figures, weathered and beaten. Their wrinkled branches swirl and pirouette. I take in a deep breath, and the alpine cool air is icy and chilling, catching in my throat. I taste the damp as I swallow. I am glowing within the warmth and snugness of my woollen attire, my gloved hands in the pockets of my winter jet black coat and crimson red knitted scarf cozily tucked under my chin.
I reach the village and ascend the cobbled hill to a market place buzzing and beaming with stalls abundant, glinting with antiques, curious object d’arts and vintage bric à brac. It is a treasure trove for the collector and I remarkably resist the temptation. Embroidery and French lace soft to the touch, slide through my fingers. Silk threading of all colours are still intense with pigment, and I marvel at the detail, the patterning, the intricacy and intimacy of the handiwork. Conversations ensue with vendors eager and engaged, and colourful stories unfold of their wares and provenance. A vibrant tableaux is painted, where inanimate becomes animate, and I travel back in time.
The sun as it sets mid afternoon, is more golden than I have ever seen, and casts its shadow amongst the tangle of trees. A merry dance plays out before my eyes. The light fades into a burnt orange and low lying red brick rooftops dazzle with their last rays.
At Café de la Place I feast on a café allongé and sacristain, a favourite, dusted with icing sugar, and a light buttery pastry. I am lounging in the comfort of an old armchair amongst a roaring fire with flames ablaze. The local villagers gaggle and gossip and share their day’s labour over a glass of robust red and I listen to their chatter, heartened by their bonhomie and companionable silence, both warm and welcoming. We exchange pleasantries, my french coming in handy, I join in. Others scurry off into to the hearth of their homes with fresh produce in hand, the scent of a crusty loaf and stinky, ripened cheese, a staple in the traditional family maison.
Night falls abruptly, and I gaze into the blackened sky and with searching eyes, I navigate between the stars, a vast oasis stretching into the unknown. I contemplate the pilgrims on the St Jacques de Compestelle route, the painters, the poets and the philosophers who have all graced this terrain, capturing its very essence in their life’s work.
A soirée of regional Provencal fare in the local eatery, humble and hearty, I rejoice the local wines. I am heady with good humour. With each dish the chef thoughtfully prepares, my palate is tickled and generous serves, tender and succulent, I heartily devour. Replete and perfectly content, I amble along the country laneways under a moonlit sky, dazzling and opaque. The silence in the night air quietens my robust mood; the mistral wind is sleepy, and with its last breath, I welcome the heady scent of burning embers from the smoking chimneys. The evening comes to a close and the country scape lies dormant, serene and resplendent.
I have returned. I am home.