26 February 2008

The most touristy village in Provence

Gordes is one of those places like Rocamadour (here are my photos) and the Mont Saint-Michel (blog topics here and here, and elsewhere on the blog). These places are so touristy that the idea of going or being there in the middle of throngs of people can turn you off.

Gordes, in Provence

But there's a reason why such places get to be so touristy: they are so magnificent. It's a trade-off. You need to go at least once, if you ever have the chance. I've been to all three at least twice, and to the Mont Saint-Michel more times than that. You learn that the time to go is on a weekday in the off-season.

The houses in Gordes climb up a steep cliffside.

When I think back to my first stay in Provence, which was by far my longest, I'm surprised to realize that as students we didn't even go to see the hilltop villages of Provence. At least I didn't, and I don't remember my fellow students taking trips to the Luberon villages and coming back with glowing reports. And they are so close to Aix.

There's a Renaissance-era château
at the top of the village of Gordes.

I guess one reason we didn't to to Bonnieux, Gordes, Ménerbes, and Roussillon was that we didn't have cars. The travel we did was by train, and the train took us to Avignon, Arles, Nîmes, Marseille, and even Cannes and Nice. And Paris, of course. But the train didn't go to Lourmarin or Lauris, as far as I know. I remember taking a bus to Cassis and on to Porquerolles (which required a ferry ride). But I don't remember Apt or even Cavaillon.

Looking down from Gordes over tile-roofed houses

When I was in my early 20s, I realized I loved France but I didn't know much about it. I spent those six months in Aix and I traveled mostly to the Provence towns I just mentioned and not much farther. I had seen Paris when we first arrived in France, spending one night there before flying on down to Marseille for our semester in Aix. The pull of Paris was irresistible to me.

Not all the shutters in Provence are painted in bright colors...

At spring break, a lot of the students took off with their Eurail passes for trips to Switzerland, Spain, Scandinavia, or Greece. For me, having two weeks off from school was a chance to go to Paris. And that's where I went, by myself. Nobody else was interested in such a trip. I stayed for two weeks in a hotel just off the Place Maubert in the Latin Quarter, and I explored the city by metro and on foot.

...but here are some more blue ones (and a blue sky)

The woman who ran the hotel (it was called Le Pierwige and doesn't exist any more — the building now houses a bank at street level with, I assume, apartments upstairs) was called Madame Suzanne. She seemed pretty old to me (I bet she was in her 50s), she had unnaturally blond hair, she lived in the eastern suburbs of Paris, and she loved to talk. She was kind of loud, actually. I have memories of spending rainy mornings or cold afternoons just sitting in the lobby of the hotel talking to her, soaking up her French.

The Cistercian abbey called Sénanque is in a valley just outside
It is surrounded by woods and by fields of lavendar.

I also met other English-speaking students who were staying in the hotel and went with them on trips out into the wilds of the city (remember I came from a small town in North Carolina and was a student at a small college there).

I remember going to Les Halles before the central market there was completely dismantled and moved to the suburbs out at Rungis, near Orly. On a gray, cold, rainy day, the experience was overwhelming. I think I was vaguely afraid and disoriented that day — such were the smells, sounds, and colors of the chaotic scene — and I couldn't wait to get back to the quiet and warmth of the hotel.

Years later, an American woman I knew who was spending a year learning French in Paris described her experience this way: Every time she came up out of the metro in an unfamiliar neighborhood, it was like being reborn. There she was, emerging into the light, with no knowledge of her surroundings, no experiences to rely on, and almost without language skills. That's how I felt in 1970, I realized.

View of the landscape of Provence from Gordes

I remember going to Versailles with a young woman named Denise. It was early March 1970, and she was staying at the Pierwige too. She was from Christchurch, New Zealand. We went to spend the day in the palace and the park at Versailles, and it snowed all day. Big wet flakes stuck to our clothes and faces. It was so cold but it was exciting to be there. It seemed so real. France does to me: it seems so real.

Another picture of those houses at Gordes

And that's how I think of Paris: cold, gray, and raining or snowing lightly. A cocoon of clouds. Wet shoes and a wet head. It's pretty different from Provence. Don't get me wrong — there are plenty of bright sunny days in Paris too. Just not nearly as many. The overall feeling is gray, whether you look up or look down. For color, you go into a café or a museum or a shop.

And another of the Provençal landscape

In 1970, I found a place to eat dinner in Paris. It was called the Restaurant St-Michel, on the Boul'Mich, and a four-course meal with wine cost five French francs, which was a little less than one American dollar back then. A starter course, a main dish, some cheese, and a dessert. It reminded me of a place some friends and I had found in Aix, called Chez Nénette, where we could eat similar food at similar prices. And where we did most nights before trudging back to our rented rooms.

Oops, I was supposed to be writing about Gordes and Provence. I got carried away. It must be the band of rainy weather that's moving over Saint-Aignan right now.


  1. Ah! Provence. And the "villages perchés."

  2. I enjoyed your Paris feelings--I think those of us who were lucky enough to experience Paris in our youth will always have intense feelings of the place.

    I suppose these feelings are tinged with our youthful inexperience which gets mixed up with the beauty of Paris. I still get a heartache when I'm in Paris and a bit of nostalgia for my youth.

    I also like your thoughts about taking in the language when you were first learning French. I still love to hear french being spoken.

    I don't think perched villages are things that we would have found interesting at 20.

  3. Evelyn, I think you are right about not being interested in such villages at that age. I was interested in Aix, Avignon, Arles, and Nîmes. And especially Paris. I wanted ancient history and urban environments, coming from such a small town without a long past. K.

  4. My senses are in turmoil - I feel the cold greyness of Paris and see the brilliant blues of Provence ;-)

  5. france seems real -- this is picking up on a thread with which i'm very familiar, but haven't heard anyone talk about. i've always felt it, growing up in the third world.
    i have an acquaintance who left her upper middle class life in new haven, just up and left, forever, to go open a bakery in phnom penh. i asked her why. she said, because it's real. (as life in NH was not: the whole movement of american life into the twilight zone of SUVs, novels formed on movies and sitcoms instead of "life", etc.).

  6. Isabella, oui. :^)

    PJ, France to me is real food, real families, real cities, real countryside, and on and on. There is a vividness to events and sights that I don't feel in the U.S. It's one of those things that's hard to define.

  7. Hey, Ken, great photos. Want to test whether I can post this comment.

    Nope, it won't let me do it, except as Anonymous. Go figure. (ginny)

  8. I visited Gordes once eons ago! It was springtime and there were not all that many people there. But I can imagine that in the summer it must be a nightmare. However, as you said, there's a good reason why people visit Gordes or Le Mont St Michel, or the Grand Canyon for that matter! And one would really miss something if one didn't go!

  9. Testing in Firefox instead of Safari. It looks like it's a browser error. Sigh.

  10. Hi Ginny. I use Safari because I had problems with Netscape [now I use Firefox] but get only half of most pictures. No problem though with Name/URL. Why does it work for me and not for you? Mystère.

  11. It's too late for me. I'll never go. Yet, because I grew up very French, feeding on the culture, the language, the arts, the History, I look at your photos and I read your reactions with a sense of belonging.

    Bien oui, moi aussi je ressens tout cela. J'ai marché dans ces rues, j'ai admiré ce ciel, j'ai senti l'air de Paris et de Provence. I am not a stranger, though I see it for the first time.

    Merci pour ce "retour" au pays de mes ancêtres. With smiling tears!

  12. One interesting feature of the Gordes area is the dry stone shelters called "bories" whose use is not exactly clear.
    I used Firefox to post this.

  13. If I didn't know better, I'd swear that those blue skies were retouched. It does my heart good to see them. Thanks...

    Meilleurs voeux!!


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