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A Week in Provence, Reflections upon Peter Mayles’ A Year in Provence

by David Sclar

Anyone who has read Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence will appreciate the anticipation that consumed me when I had the opportunity to spend the last week of August attempting to live the author’s Provencal life in southern France’s Luberon Valley. Though I was only to spend a week, my family and I would rent a car and a house in the countryside. In our backyard, rows of grape vines were weighed down with heavy bunches ready for collection. In the front of the house grew fig trees that bore fruit so sweet that by journey’s end figs had become a favorite food of mine. Having read A Year in Provence, I had fashioned a mental image of Provence that was surprisingly close to the real thing. But I couldn’t help but feel inspired with awe as I witnessed stone villages with earthy pink and lush green valleys extending for miles. And as I experienced the splendor of late August in Provence, I relished the experience of rereading Mayle’s colorful descriptions of a year of his own experiences.

His tale of places and people in Provence, a region tucked away into France’s southwest corner, is also surprisingly well-known. When I explained to friends that I was traveling to Provence, they often seemed to associate the place with the book, rather than the other way around. Perhaps the book’s popularity results from his pleasing style. His writing might be described as relaxed–never hurried or anxious. And he has a keen eye for details, as he relates, to his readers’ delight, the many wonders of Provence.

Mayle witnessed the wonders of Provence first-hand when he and his wife moved into a countryside home, and spent a year living a Provencal life and writing about his experiences there. The result is a collection of a year’s worth of stories, descriptions, and anecdotes. The reader experiences the author’s life with him including the changing of the seasons, for the story is told month by month where the months form each of the book’s twelve chapters. Unfortunately, I did not have the luxury to experience multiple seasons or even multiple months–I was forced to condense my Provenal experiences to a week. However, I did have the opportunity to live a country life similar to Mayle. Our house for the week was just outside the small town of Caromb (population 2700) at the base of snowcapped Mount Ventoux and neighboring the Luberon Valley where Mayle lived. The countryside was simply gorgeous, with fields of grapevines leading from my bedroom window to the mountains in the distance. Towns even smaller than Caromb perched on the mountain sides, the silhouettes of the village’s church spires pointing up at the clearest of skies. Every night before bed I thought how I wished I could paint the view through the eyes of Van Gogh, for the night sky was a hundred shades of midnight blue, and the trees seemed wavelike and reminiscent of his Starry Night. At least I was able to console myself by traveling to the town of St. Remythe, which is the town depicted in that famous painting. In fact, in a way I did look through Van Gogh’s eyes when visiting the asylum in St. Remy where he stayed in 1889 and painted the now famous view from his window. The town of St. Remy was only an hour’s drive south, and the Mediterranean Sea was only another half hour further.

My family and I traveled to countless towns and locations all within an hour’s drive many of which Mayle travels to and describes. One is almost never further than 5 or ten kilometers from another gorgeous town with its own unique flavor. I reread Mayle’s book as I traveled, adding color to my journey and comparing my own impressions with his. I experienced the lively city of Aix-en-Provence where the Cours Mirabeau cuts through the heart of the city, dividing the stone buildings and streets of the old city from the university town. Mayle’s impressions of the Cours Mirabeau were both accurate and insightful, for the street really is divided in light and in shadow which forms “a nice geographical distinction” between work and more frivolous activities. “On the shady side of the street, appropriately, are the banks and insurance companies. On the sunny side are the cafes.”(105) I also experienced the early Sunday morning market at Coustellet (according to Mayle, “All good Sundays include a trip to the market”) with its purveyors of fresh vegetables, meats, oils, and cheeses. (71) And I shared with Mayle the joy of buying fresh delights from the market to cook at home and experience outdoors at our table in the yard. We both witnessed groups of old men playing an afternoon game of boules. They held a cigarette or cigar in one hand and the “dense, gleaming spheres of steel” with which one plays the French game in the other. (129) And I made great friends with the charming lady and bread expert at the boulangerie Chez Auzet in Cavaillon, where Mayle describes “the bread is elevated to the status of a minor religion.”

I must admit to receiving a certain surprise from the friendliness of the locals, whom Mayle depicts in a number of cheerful, eccentric and memorable characters native to Provence. The caretaker at our home, Antoine, was particularly outgoing and offered to show me around Caromb and even take me out for a beer. One day I dared to inquire to him and few other Provenal locals about their pleasant attitude. Only in the north, they assured me, will one find unfriendly natives.

I must say, then, that the only unfriendly resident of Provence I encountered, through reading, was actually Mayle. Perhaps my only significant disappointment with reading A Year in Provence while traveling through Provence myself was witnessing the disdain Mayle seems to harbor towards tourists. He explains how he dreaded the summer months of July and August and the influx of tourists they brought. When the vacationers arrived in Provence, “Roads would be jammed; markets and restaurants impossibly full. Quiet villages would become noisy, and everyone without exception would be in a filthy humor.” (131) Mayle’s belief is that visitors from big cities (whom he refers to as “invaders” (133) expect a fast paced life that is not to be found in Provence. He actually implies that visiting Provence for less than a month, if not a year, was an almost futile venture.

In his view, a visitor would lack the time to experience even a fraction of all Provence has to offer or to adjust to the slow pace of life in Southern France. In fact, Mayle laments how visitors only disturb the harmony of Provence with the traffic jams, attitudes, and tempers they bring. I was one of those very invaders Mayle dislikes so much, but I had no intention of disturbing Provencal life with my presence. In fact, I was hoping to settle into that life, to absorb all that surrounded me in that wonderful region of southern France. While Mayle is certainly correct that Provence becomes crowded with large numbers of out-of-towners (and their numbers have been continually increasing since A Year in Provence was published), most seemed to share my attitude of wishing to assimilate into Provencal life. If anything, visitors may have contributed to the energetic atmosphere in crowded summer markets and the warm feeling of evening dinners at well-patronized restaurants. Furthermore, while one who only spends a week in Provence can’t possibly experience all that the region has to offer, he should not be discouraged by this fact. For he can certainly experience many aspects of Provence. If possible, I highly recommend staying in a countryside house for the duration of one’s visit. This experience is essential if one is to feel at home there. Because Provence boasts so many towns, markets, concerts, restaurants, views, and tastes – not to mention startling colors and rich summer smells a week in Provence can be a marvelous dive into life in Provence that only wets one’s appetite for the splendor of spending a whole year.

Mayle is far more successful in capturing the triumphs of Provencal cuisine. Only with difficulty have I refrained thus far from raving about the food in Provence. A week in Provence richly rewards all of the senses, but none more than the sense of taste. Mayle describes the olives, truffles, fruits, vegetables, fish, and meats that he experienced during the course of a year. One rich meal he describes included “crisp, oily salad and slices of pink country sausages, an aioli of snails and cod and hard-boiled eggs with garlic mayonnaise, creamy cheese from Fontvielle, and a homemade tart.It was the kind of meal that the French take for granted and tourists remember for years.” (191) I too had a number of meals to remember; each was better than the next. From local wines to duck with vanilla sauce to the creamiest selection of local cheeses, I sampled an array of foods that left me savoring the flavor of every meal.

Finally, A Year in Provence includes much that I did not have the opportunity to experience first hand during my week-long stay. Most significant is a year’s worth of anecdotes that Mayle relates with wit and with humor. I caught myself smiling while I read his discussion of the challenges presented by greeting others with varying numbers of kisses and his unspoken rules for cafe etiquette. He also captures the wonders of all four seasons in Provence–seasons which are quite distinct and which all offer their own pleasures. In the middle of the summer, before I arrived, the lush July valleys brimmed with purple fields of lavender and rows of bright yellow sunflowers. In the winter, long after I left, the cold would set in, a blanket of snow would cover the valleys, and the famously strong wind called the Mistral would rip across the region. For now, I am forced to have experienced these seasons as well as much else second-hand, as Mayle tells them. To be sure, his descriptions and anecdotes make that second-hand experience quite enjoyable in itself. Mayle followed A Year in Provence with two more books: Toujours Provence (1991) and his recently published Encore Provence (1999). I look forward eagerly to an encore of my travels in Provence as well. Until I have that opportunity, however, I look forward to reading his next two books, and imagining a return to Provence once more as a literary traveler.

David Sclar is a graduate of Harvard University. He grew up in Newton, MA, and he is a former intern at The Atlantic Monthly.