Monday, April 25, 2011

I'm in love ...

God knows I am no poet, despite Sophie's accusations, but I think I may have fallen in love. Just let it be said that if there is a more savage, beautiful place on this earth than the northern tip of Provence, I have yet to see it.

It actually turned out fine, despite the gloomy forecast, and so we headed down on the route Napoleon to pick up Jerry after all - through the Vercors, which is magnificent in its own right, and you can see how the Germans had such trouble during the war  trying to winkle out the partisans - and then, all of a sudden, you cross some invisible line somewhere and find yourself in Provence.

There's the light that drove van Gogh mad, and the smell of lavender and pine and godnose what else (probably bunny-crap, if the truth be known): olive trees cling to the dry soil and the rivers, that started out as half-dry streams, rush through the gorges. And overhead the sky is that appallingly bright blue, with fantastical clouds heaped up in great masses of white and gunmetal grey.

And something seems to have carved the rocks, having time and nothing better to do, into great buttes and knife-edged slashes coming out of the ground. Around a corner, and a sudden huge triangle of rock is just sullenly sitting there, pointing at the sky.

The signs of human presence are few and far between, with just the odd house that seems to have grown out of the rock, and everything is bone-dry. Until you whip past a bright green and yellow pasture next to the river, 10m below the road going through the gorge. You really should go take a look, preferably sometime before you die. If only because afterwards, it gets a bit tricky.

But do not plan on doing it in a day. We did, because we didn't have much choice, but even so with all the stops en route it took about five hours to cover 250 km, and we could easily have taken another couple of days without getting bored.

(Let it be said, the temporary misorientation at Ste Cécile des Vignes - we were not lost, don't even think that -  occasioned by a road sign cunningly placed so as to be invisible from the direction we were approaching, did not help. But what the hell.)

That said, the countryside is at its most majestic in the Hautes-Alpes, north of Sisteron, and if ever we look at opening a gîte or somesuch, that would be where we'd start looking. We had to head right at Serres to get into the Côtes du Rhone, and the further west you go the more domesticated the land becomes as the mountains get rolled out into hills and then rolling valleys, and the earth becomes more fertile.

Or perhaps it's just that there's more actual earth, and fewer sheets of exposed rock - olives and grapevines are still about the only things that really seem to thrive. You're still in Provence, but the lived-in part. I still prefer the more desolate east.

Could be a bitch in winter, mind you.

Whatever, we eventually made it to Rochegude to get the first-born son and load him and his belongings into the car. I swear one of his suitcases was trying to spit clothes out as we forced it into the boot: I expect the washing machine is going to see a bit of use for the next few days.

Because I'm a sucker for that sort of thing, I came away with a bottle of balsamic vinegar flavoured with truffles, which I thought I'd use in a béarnaise that very night (gotta get rid of all that bloody asparagus somehow). That was possibly an error. Have you ever smelt or eaten truffles?

I've had them once in my life: fine shavings with slivers of crisply barbecued lamb with pasta, at some fancy restaurant up in the hills around Turin (Fiat was paying, don't worry). The scent is earthy - crueller tongues would say that it recalls a rotting dog, but they're the sort that would say that Burgundy smells of shit. Which, to be totally fair, it does. The good stuff, anyway.

But I digress. The point about truffles is that they're kind of powerful, and they definitely wrestled the asparagus to the ground. I think I'll save it and just stick a couple of drops into the salad dressing on occasion.

They'd had a wedding at the hotel the previous night, and of course clearing up afterwards the chefs encouraged the stagières and apprentices to polish off the bottles. So after a cocktail of champagne, pastis and white wine going on until 5am, Jerry's main aim in life was to get a bit of sleep if he could.

And as it was getting on, and there was still dinner to be got ready, we thought we'd be boring and just barrel straight back home on the autoroute. Dull, but quick. (As an aside, even on the autoroute you can tell you're in southern parts. At the rest stops the toilets are squat affairs, toilet paper is either optional or notable by its absence, and the use of rubbish bins seems to be actively discouraged. Just saying.)

So we made it back a little after 19:00, and Jerry woke up, looked around and sighed "mountains". Nice to be home again. Then he disappeared into the kitchen, and demolished all the scraps he could find, just to hammer home the point that he was back amongst us.

And while he was occupied with that, I baptised the stand mixer, making up some herby bread for chickeninnabun, and caramelised some garlic cloves to go with it. Miam, leftovers for tomorrow's lunch!

Still haven't had a barbecue, mind you. Have to get onto that Real Soon Now. That is assuming that we haven't had our yearly quota of good weather, and that from hereon we can still hope for a few fine sunny weekends. Not exactly a done deal.

There seem to be three main industries down that way: roadside snack bars, gîtes and  craft shops. We didn't bother with the glass or procelain shops - got enough of all that, and didn't really have time either - but as the Vercors is known for its wool we did stop off - mainly for lunch - so that Margo could get some cashmere.

Purple cashmere. Also picked up a bottle of hydromel, so that Jerry can taste it, and some beer - for lunch - which did not last long. Completely forgot to pack some with the picnic before we left home, most remiss of me.

While I'm still in the mood, the other thing about Provence is how timeless it all seems. Not that time doesn't go on, (it does, just a bit more slowly, or perhaps they don't pay quite as much attention to it until it's l'heure de l'apéro) just that the sun has been blazing down forever (or a reasonable approximation thereof), the places seem to have been baked into the earth yonks back, and they're not going anywhere soon.

Even the olive trees seem to have been there since the beginning.

Makes me think of lizards somehow - lying baking in the sun, smugly thinking they've seen it all before, and when all the johnny-come-lately warm-blooded meatsacks have disappeared they'll still be here.

Smug bastards, they'll be laughing on the other side of their faces when I push the "nuclear winter" button. (Incidentally, and should anyone come asking which they have no reason to do because the discharge papers were completely in order even if the counter-signature was in yellow crayon, I have absolutely no idea, nor am I in any way at all responsible for, what happened to that tree. I was not there, and I have no recollection of that at this time. Is this your first napalmed Ent?)

Which reminds me, oddly enough, of a time many years ago, peacefully driving in the old Alfetta (at speeds we'll not discuss right now, we have children and have always been reasonable) along the Desert Road only to find myself paralleled by two helicopters, which then proceeded to napalm the scrub to left and right of me. Fortunately, I was - if memory serves - listening to Killing Joke at the time, not Wagner. So that's alright then.

Blogger quiz - why does this man feel that his balcony is a good place to get dressed? Doesn't he know that people have cameras these days?

In other, unrelated news, Mal should turn up in ten days or so to visit before she heads off to darkest Ecuador to hug trees. Or kiss frogs, or possibly both. Not that I would dare put it like that to her, caring as I do for my life.

Unfortunately Tony won't be coming over with her, I was kind of looking forwards to some more hilarious misunderstandings. (More to the point, my looking like a complete idiot having failed to understand a simple remark. In my defence, may I plead that the accent can be impenetrable? Thought not.)

Be good to see her again - she should have a couple of days overlap with Jeremy before he goes back to lycée, which'll be just about enough. Also means I shall have to buy in a ton of coffee because, as they are their parents' children, life does not begin in the morning until kick-started with a mug or two of caffeine.

One of these days, I swear I shall go and get a drip-stand for each member of the family, like that we can just have the stuff direct to the blood-stream. If only I could work out a way to get croissants or pain au chocolat in there too ...

Whatever, not too bad, as Easters go. Even if we didn't do the bunny-hunt down in the garden. I've known worse. At least we still have skies like this, from time to time.

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