If Provence were splashed over an artist’s palette, huge dollops of ochre, greens and blues would run into each other, punctuated by bright dots of violet, yellow and deep, blood red. The area has long been popular with artists and photographers alike and it’s easy to see why. Its balmy weather frequently mimics the beauty of its colours and only serves to enhance the vivid array of shades that the countryside and ancient, bunched towns offer.
I was revisiting after many years, and for the first time as a fully appreciative adult. School holidays spent exploring this Mediterranean niche were ensconced in my memory. I was eager to find out if these places would now live up to the rose tinted glasses of my warm, fuzzy childhood.
As I stepped off the plane, the Mistral swept hair from my face in a sudden, tepid gust. I was immediately transported to the past, where this inoffensive breeze signalled the ritual of my French family summers. Leaving the modernity of the airport behind, the Provençale landscape unfurled before me, in a swash of azure blue sky and dark green foliage. Distant villages were nestled within steep, rocky valleys, glowing rich orange in the afternoon light. I was delighted to discover that this place had stayed faithful to my mind’s eye in the twenty years that had passed and I bristled with childlike excitement as I neared the enclave of Aix-en-Provence.
In Centre Ville, large greying fountains gushing crystal clear water, sprayed vapour into the mild evening air. Well-dressed alfresco diners littered narrow pavements outside brasseries and pizzerias. Bright red chairs were dotted around the square like the fields of poppies on the outskirts of town. Medieval churches and guesthouses loomed tall and majestic above the crowds, their wooden shutters partly opened onto buttery facades. The intense sound of boisterous chatter was surpassed only by the occasional growl of a passing moped. The evening would gradually hum and buzz its way into a still, placid night.
I joined the throngs at Chez Jo’s, watching in awe as the plates before me filled with dishes that put the countryside’s colour palette to shame; My salad Niçoise boasted green hues of beans, capers, frisé lettuce and wonderfully salty anchovies, bright yellow egg yolks and the glistening black of locally grown olives. My feu de bois pizza showed off rich reds of tomato sauces and the rustic beige of crispy dough that seemed to be inspired by the wash of the historical buildings around me. My Rose wine, not pink but the clear mink of the prize-winning, native grapes completed my rainbow meal.
My final morning passed sipping hot, creamy coffee and meandering through the walled streets of Salon de Provence, a small town between Aix and Marseilles that boasts an impressive ex-resident. Nostradamus, famous scientist, and apparently, renowned recluse, made Salon home for almost twenty years. I could understand the old fellow. A medieval chateau surveyed the scene – curving roads encircled the old walled town with its picturesque cafes and old churches. Petite gift shops brimmed with postcards and lavender goodies and black chalkboards announced tasty lists of ‘plats du jour’. Walls covered in ivy rose around cobbled squares and archways hung laden with stone effigies and haunting gargoyles.
On a pleasant, blustery drive towards the airport, I realised that I was wrong. This beautiful area doesn’t need rose-tinted specs to do it justice: it provides its own polarised filters. As the plane gently soared over the etched fields and vineyards of Marseilles’ outskirts, I wondered when I would return. I held only one regret: I’m no artist. I’ll never be able to transform this slice of France into a tangible piece of colourful canvas that I can take away with me. For now, at least, my mind’s eye would have to suffice.
Just in case my mind’s eye failed me, I also took some photos!