How does one get to all these enchanting villages and towns? By driving on narrow roads scarcely wide enough for one and one-half cars. My son, a world traveler, agreed to be the designated chauffeur. Then one day he decided to sit in my seat and I became the appointed driver. White knuckles gripping the steering wheel with terror-stricken tear-filled eyes, I gave myself a pep talk, “get a grip… lots of people drive on these roads, I can too.” The combination of driving an unfamiliar rental car, using a stick shift instead of my automatic, watching the car navigation system and keeping my eyes on the narrow road, all at the same time, interfered with my tranquility. I’m certain my “passengers” were stressed too, as their lives were now in the hands of an amateur international driver. Providentially, I lived to tell about it.
Once we got used to driving on the constricted roads, we found the scenery captivating. Especially in out-of-the-way places like the magnificent little hilltop village of Oppéde-le-Vieux built high on a rocky outcrop. Parking below the town, our shoes crunched along a gravel path through multiple terraces of lush vegetation until we reached the ancient town. A 12th century church dominates the skyline along with the ruins of an ancient chateau. Along the narrow cobblestone streets, we passed enchanting 15th and 16th century restored houses until cresting the ridge and being awestruck by the view from the plateau.
Hearing about the incredible wines of the Vaucluse region, we navigated to the medieval village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Arriving early for our lunch reservation, we strolled over winding stone streets to the castle ruins before sitting down at Le Verger Des Papes. Wisely, we selected the three-course menu du jour for the day along with a fine bottle of wine, and concluded with delectable cappuccinos. Lingering at lunch for over two hours, we basked in the panoramic view which overlooked the lush vineyards, winding river and fertile valley below. While savoring each bite, we relished our authentic dining experience of fine French cuisine.
The strategic location of this restaurant in the midst of numerous wine shops made wine tasting both logical and inevitable. Several of the local winery estates host intimate shops in the village so we set out to sample local wines until we accumulated a large enough wine collection to last throughout our week at Moulin de la Roque.
Prior to arriving in France, a beloved artist friend told us about the unusual art exhibit at Carriéres de Lumiéres near the village of Les Baux-de-Provance. Built in an old stone quarry, the creators designed an immersive experience to display the work of a different artist each year. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) is the featured artist this year. Entering the quarry, we stepped into Van Gogh’s art where an array of pictures, literally “bigger than life,” shifted and merged and changed to music. While leaning on a rail, I glanced over to a nearby wall and realized my son was standing in one of Van Gogh’s doorways. Utterly mesmerizing.
Have you ever dreamed of staying in an old stone cottage in the south of France? One where a creek meanders by, time slows down and you live in the moment? Welcome to Moulin de la Roque. The proprietor, Guy, first met Gaby when she arrived as a guest with a group of painters to reside for a couple of weeks. Two people, different cultures, language barrier and a chance meeting.
Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately) the airlines lost Gaby’s luggage. After a week with absolutely nothing but the clothes she wore upon arrival, Guy, in limited English, offered to take her to town to shop for something to wear. To her surprise, she found Guy chatting with the sales lady near the dressing room, who abruptly started to take Gaby’s measurements and then told them all to Guy in French. Embarrassed, Gaby stated, “If you ever want to date an American woman, don’t ever do this again!” Nevertheless, after a couple of years of long-distance dating, a romantic relationship developed between them. Gaby mastered French, Guy mastered English, and they made their life together over the last twenty years. Through hard work and creativity, they developed Moulin de la Roque into the exquisite estate it is today.
The origins of La Roque go back to 1454, beginning as a textile mill. In 1651, Denis Roux began renting the grounds of La Roque from a local noble family, the Seigneur Charles de Miley and owner of the Villagrele castle. In 1789, the French Revolution abolished the privileges of the nobles and the Roux family automatically became the owner of this land. Receiving the right to capture water, they proceeded to build a flour mill, and subsequently, this property stayed in the family for over three centuries. When necessity caused the family to sell, Guy, a fervent admirer of this domain and its old buildings, bought La Roque in 1994 and began the long restoration process.
When we arrived on a bluebird sky autumn day, Guy strolled with my husband, son, and me toward the charming historic stone house of the miller, La Maison du Meunier. By courtesy of Guy and Gaby, the fragrant aromas of a freshly baked pear tart greeted us as we entered the French country kitchen. Moving through the villa, we took note of the trellised garden patio, alluring sitting room with fireplace, old stone steps to the second level bedrooms and travertine tiled bath with a stone sink. Incorporating the initial rock walls whenever possible, renovations showcased the original dwelling throughout these lodgings. The sense of full immersion into fine country living for our week in Provence warmly embraced us. The immediate consensus was to stay here forever!
What better way to kick off exploring in southern France than to go to the market? On Gaby’s recommendation, we headed out to Coustellet, one of the most renowned traditional farmer’s markets in Provence, which proved fruitful. While shopping, we were delighted to discover feathers on the freshly laid eggs. In addition to purchasing a variety of seasonal fruits, colorful vegetables, honey, cheeses, olive oil and soap, we bought a recently slaughtered chicken… head tucked neatly under her wing! Eating such a fresh bird, roasted in provincial herbs and red wine, tantalized our taste buds for more.
Beginning on market day, a new daily tradition immerged. Whatever town we found ourselves sightseeing, we searched for the best boulangerie to buy French breads and pâtisseries, along with a neighborhood café to linger over a hearty espresso, cappuccino or café crème. Midweek we wandered the narrow little streets in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence historic center, which yielded a delightful café near art galleries and unique boutiques.
Our perfect week included simply relaxing at the estate. One morning after sleeping in, we sauntered into the town of Noves to the Boulangerie, where we caught the scent of fresh-baked bread. Returning with our bagged treasures, we roamed through the nearby forest. The expansive views were worth the hike. Taking a random trail, we happened upon a vineyard tucked in the middle of the woods. Returning to La Roque, I slipped into my swimsuit. The Roman pool was warm last week — before nights turned chilly. I couldn’t resist the inviting turquoise water and took a plunge… for two seconds!
Laughing, we decided to learn how to play Pétanque, a traditional Provencal bowling game. Competition among us resulted in several tournaments. Cooking together was a grand way to bring the day to a close. We felt quite provincial making Ratatouille and roasted chicken to go with our baguette, which we served with Châteauneuf-du-Pape region wine and French chocolates in our very own country kitchen.