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Provence is Plagued With Beauty

October 10, 2011

Rosalie Earl, The Charleston Gazette, W. Va., October 9, 2011

I wasn't in Provence when the lavender fields were in bloom. And I missed the early fall season in this southeast part of France when the sunflowers cover the landscape.

But I did visit in early May when the red poppies sprout like dandelions in fields, along railway tracks and in cracks of old stone walls. The stately iris, or fleur-de-lis in French, was blooming in various shades of purple and blue in fields and in formal garden beds.

Broom, the same sunny yellow as forsythia, brighten the woods and roadsides. And roses of all shades covered the doorways and blue-shuttered windows of many houses in the small villages.

For a region that is similar to and becoming almost as popular as Italy's Tuscany, Provence seemed remarkably underdeveloped. Except for Marseilles, of course. The huge seaport on the Mediterranean is in the most southern portion of Provence.

I was staying for a week with a walking tour in Malaucene, a small, two-bakery village at the foot of Mont Ventoux.

During the week, our small group walked through olive groves and vineyards. Thirteen grape varieties are grown in the region, one guidebook told me. We walked through small villages, stopping to look in the local chapel or soak up the view of the countryside from a castle courtyard.

Some of the walks led through woods and along streams. Along the way we passed ruins of aqueducts, shepherd's stone huts and medieval stone walls. During the scourge of the black plague, the pope in Avignon had a long wall built to keep travelers from the north from carrying the deadly disease into the region. Although sections of the wall still stand, it didn't keep out the plague, brought in by sea through the port of Marseilles.

Earlier, the area was invaded by the Romans around 125 B.C. and the name Provence is derived from being a province of Rome.

Since it's still standing, it doesn't seem fair to call the Pont du Gard a Roman ruin. The 2,000-year-old aqueduct is considered a masterpiece of civil engineering. Unfortunately, I didn't see it on this trip. But that gives me reason, along with sunflowers and lavender fields, to return to Provence someday.

Instead, on the tour's free day, I elected to go to Avignon, with its walled old city containing the palace of the nine popes who used the city as their base during the 14th century. You can walk on the wall around the historic area, or meander through narrow side streets full of interesting shops. There's a park at the top of the hill with a wonderful view of the Rhone River and the bridge that now stretches only partway across it.

A couple of the walks ended in quaint places, usually with enough time for some shopping or for sipping wine or coffee at an outdoor cafe. One such place was Gordes, an ancient hilltop village; and the other was Fontaine de Vaucluse, where the river Sorgue is the shade of emerald green.

Whether you drive, cycle or walk through the Mont Ventoux region of Provence, I highly recommend the three-star hotel where we were based in Malaucene. The Domaine des Tilleuls is in a renovated 17th-century building with an extensive lawn and an outdoor pool.

Arnould Chastel used to work for Monsanto before buying the hotel and moving his wife and three sons there. For more information on the hotel, visit

Reach Rosalie Earle at [email protected] or 304-348-5115.

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