Tuesday, 30 July 2013

La Féerie Provençale

"Alors commença la féerie et je sentis naître un amour qui devait durer toute ma vie." 
"And so the enchantment began and I felt a love was born that was to last my whole life." 

So Marcel Pagnol wrote in his enchanting book, "La Gloire de Mon Père", of his first encounter with the  Provençal countryside.  Here the young Marcel and his family spent a series of idyllic holidays, in the hills above the Marseilles suburb of Aubagne, where his father taught and the family lived for most of the year. These holidays were immortalised both in his directly autobiographical books, "La Gloire de Mon Père" and "Le Château de Ma Mère", and in his novels, "Jean de Florette" and "Manon des Sources" all of which, of course, have been turned into charming films.

Pagnol writes of the first years of the 20th C when the French countryside was almost unchanged from how it had remained for centuries.

The villa or "mas" that the family rented for the summer months, was typical of the sturdy, stone houses that have been built in Provence and elsewhere in the lands bordering the Mediterranean, for generations - thick-walled, wooden-beamed and topped with those characteristically elongated, rounded tiles in varying shades of buff, soft apricot, rose and terracotta.

The Pagnol villa, like most of its kind, did not have proper plumbing or running water although, unusually, it did have a cistern which collected rain-water that was connected by a pipe to a single tap over the stone sink in the kitchen. This tap, from which water flowed when you turned it on, was nothing short of a miraculous innovation, that transfixed local visitors when they saw it, on account of its rarity!

The heat of the day was kept at bay, as it had been for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, by closing up the wooden shutters that shielded windows and doors from the glare of the sun and relying on the insulation of the thick stone masonry.

Beyond the sketchy garden of the villa itself, lay the unspoilt garrigue and the slopes of the limestone hills - perfumed with the intense scents of wild rosemary, thyme, and fennel and the aromatic, dense and prickly underbrush. Here the young Pagnol, accompanied by his friend, "Lili des Bellons", a local boy of the same age, explored and delighted in "la féerie", revelling in all that the natural landscape offered, watching the rich variety of insect and animal life, tracking the migrating and native flocks of birds, learning the names and properties of the fragrant plants that grew everywhere underfoot.

Today much of the countryside in Provence is no longer unspoiled. Towards Nice and the Côte d'Azur, expensive villas, complete with swimming pools, are two a penny and the big resorts have sprawled inwards from the coast. Further west too, Provence is no longer untouched - building has encroached on the garrigue in many places and even where it hasn't, there are signs forbidding entry to the casual explorer such as Marcel and Lili were. The countryside no longer belongs mostly to the flocks of ortolans and thrushes or the famous "bartavelles" or grouse, the millions of cicadas and  extraordinary panoply of other insects, with the necessity only of accommodating a relatively small proportion of human beings. Now the land has to host a much denser human population, both permanent and seasonally transient, and all the attendant requirements for modern amenities.

But despite the changes that the years of the 20th C and 21st C have brought, la féerie Provençale still exists. At its best, you will not find it in touristy hot-spots or even in those famously quaint, guidebook villages. Come here to look for it and you will certainly not stay in a house without running water or just a cistern filled by the autumn rains, even in this "pays de soif", this "thirsty country", where for years the location of a "source", or spring, was a secret you kept, even from your nearest and dearest. And while modern plumbing is now, of course, perfectly standard, you may still see an ancient well close by, covered now with a sheet of metal, but probably still in use more recently than you might think, and you may even find a venerable, shallow stone sink, that used to serve alike for all washing and food preparation, incorporated into the fabric of the main room in the house. Your kitchen today will have all mod cons, including a dishwasher and fridge - unheard-of facilities for Pagnol and his family, - but you will still need to close the faded, wooden shutters, once the sun has climbed high enough in the sky to be hot, or the interior of the house will be unbearably stifling, by evening.

Outside you may well have a swimming pool to cool off in, but step off the beaten and built-up track and, with luck, and perhaps with a following gust of the Mistral wind, the garrigue will be very close to you. You will smell it before you see it - the pungent scent of the wild herbs, the dry smell of sun-burnt grass and wild-flowers bleached pale by the intense Provençal light.

You will breathe in the aromatic waft of resin that comes in waves off the tall, bright-green, long-needled pines, along with the companionable and kindly chorus of the cicadas singing away the summer, as they have done since time immemorial, before even the Romans made this land the province that gave it its modern name of Provence.

The silvery leaves of new and ancient olive trees lighten the cultivated areas of which there are many, irrigated by water drawn off in canals, like the Canal du Midi or the Canal St Julien, connected to the Durance and the Rhône, and above the slopes of vines and fruit trees, rise great limestone buffs against the sky, exactly like those that marked Pagnol's beloved holiday horizons.

Nowadays you will travel about by car (or perhaps train or bus) of course; or may be, if you are energetic, you will join the many cyclists that intrepidly brave the winding panoramic roads taking you into the Alpilles and the Lubéron National Park. But there are still opportunities to walk and to experience, as Pagnol did, the perfumed, ancient landscape, slowly and savouringly and be enchanted.

I first came to Provence many years ago, aged nineteen, and like Pagnol, felt a love was born that I know will last all my life. I don't return every summer, like Pagnol did, but it's the place I come back to in order to reconnect with myself most deeply. My own French family roots lie further north, in Burgundy, but it's here at the foot of the Alpilles, that I feel most at home and "la féerie" never fails to exert its magic. I notice, interestingly, that it sends me happily on my way again - it never imprisons me or seeks to hold me back from the normal routine that reasserts itself when "les vacances sont finies". La féerie Provençale changes something in me - I am more content in what I have; I am more at ease with my own smallness in the world's great vastness and the timelessness of this landscape, that was old long before the Romans came, is like a well in a thirsty land that I draw from and am revivified by.

At the end of Pagnol's second autobiographical novel, "Le Château de Ma Mère", he writes movingly of his mother's death that occurred when he was 15 - a great inconsolable grief that even la féerie Provençale could not avert. He writes poignantly,

"Telle est la vie des hommes - quelques joies, très vite effacées par d'inoubliables chagrins." 
"Such is human life -  a few joys, very quickly wiped out by unforgettable griefs."

That is true, of course, in some ways, but not in others. There are some joys which come our way, which, like "une source secrète", bubble up, unbidden and sometimes even unlooked-for, giving life and meaning to the rest of our existence.

You cannot buy these joys; they are not exclusive to holidays at home or abroad although I think they often occur when we have more space and time to be open to them; they are frequently to be found in contexts which one cannot possess or perpetuate; but they are nonetheless very real so I want to whisper back to Pagnol, wistfully reflecting as an old man, on his childhood,

"Il y a des joies encore à nous, qui apporteront toujours la lumière à l'âme, quoi qui se passe. Il faut les chérir même si elles ne durent pas longtemps, parce que la vie des hommes (et des femmes aussi) est trop vite effacée." 

Here are three personal "féerie" moments from my holiday that I will treasure for a long time to come and which, I know, will lighten many a long, less light-filled day:

1 Making Provençal ratatouille with H outside, just as we made it together when he was two and we brought him to Provence for the first time. Then, he had to stand on tiptoes to pour in the olive oil!

He may now be thirteen years older but some things are just the same. He is just a rather more efficient peeler of onions and snipper of wild herbs now!

Before anyone says anything, I know this is not entirely an authentic ratatouille which should, I think, be made by sautéing the vegetables in olive oil before layering them but this is how we make it when "en vacances" here - a selection of aubergines, courgettes, onions, peppers, tomatoes, possibly mushrooms and ideally garlic, peeled, trimmed where appropriate, and thickly sliced and layered in a deep cast-iron casserole (or any container to hand that will do a similar job), with salt (ideally local Camarguais "fleur de sel"), black pepper, lots of wild herbs and liberal swirls of the best local olive oil we can lay our hands on. This is then baked in a hot oven for a couple of hours, or so, until everything is soft and melting. 

We leave it to cool a bit and then eat it with bread, sometimes just on its own, sometimes with grilled lamb steaks, washed down with vin gris, the beautiful pale Provençal rosé wine. 

For me it's the essence of Provence on a plate! Simple; intense; vivid in every sense. And sadly, it never ever tastes the same when made at home!

2 Watercolour painting in the hills, breathing in the scent and essence of the landscape and trying to transmit something of it onto paper. As with most creative activities the process is as important as the results, if not more so, which is good news as my watercolour efforts are rather amateur!

3 Spending a wonderfully idyllic afternoon with my Provençale friend, Christiane, and her family, chatting about everything under the sun, even though my French stumbles woefully aground, periodically!

"Féerie Provençale, je te remercie!
Et je reviendrai!"


  1. Dear E
    What a stunningly beautiful post, full of wonderfully evocative words. You look as though you have had a marvellous time.
    Best wishes

  2. What a beautiful post - full of such lovely words and pictures. It's not a part of the world that I know about but it sounds divine. I hope the sun shines again here now that you've returned. I fear the best of the summer may be over! x

  3. It looks idyllic; I hope you had as wonderful a time as your writing suggests. Painting always seems an excellent choice of activity on holiday, giving a chance to observe with all your senses.

  4. Thank you Mrs T. for your words. Marcel Pagnol is my favourite author, ever ! He describes so beautifully the real soul of Provence. And did you know he had been an English teacher when he was young ?
    Chère Madame Trotte-Menu, your French is much better than my poor English, but friendship goes beyond borders !


  5. I love your moments - and so beautifully written too.

  6. Thank you for sharing your travels with us. You have a way of drawing us in. And your ratatouille looks absolutely delicious:)

  7. What a lovely time you must be having. It looks like a memory that will make you happy. Beautiful scenery.

  8. You never fail to put out lovely and inviting posts, E. This visit...pure bliss!

    I will try your take on the ratatouille; makes my mouth water to think of it. And then, naturally, down with rosé. :-)


  9. You don't just share your holiday - you educate too! I don't know Provence at all but you've certainly made me want to visit. I adore ratatouille and I suspect it does taste better in France as even the supermarket veg tends to be sun-ripened, fresh and certainly more flavoursome than here. I always stock up on bags of "Herbes de Provence" in France - amazing stuff. It all looks wonderful. xx

  10. Beautiful I enjoyed that so much, Provence is a place I've always wanted to visit.
    Clare x


Thank you so much for taking the time to visit me at Mrs TT's and comment. I love to read what you write.