Fiona McIntosh

Saignon…home base in the Luberon, Provence

The village of Saignon

Provence is the location of the first scene of the novel and this region’s  personality and presence is noticeable even when the story shifts to Paris.   I had never been to Provence, and that had to be corrected especially if I was going to write about it with confidence.  I decided to spend 10 days roaming the region and I had only a three-week window in which to do that because that’s how long the famous lavender fields are in bloom in their full glory.  Then they are rapidly harvested.

In field of lavender in Saignon

July was the month.  Nature, of course, is contrary and sometimes that window can ease into August or begin earlier.  Either way I committed to mid July and held my breath, hoping to see the glorious fields of blue I needed to.

The Luberon, or alpine region of Provence is where the wild lavender grows in concentration and where the main commercial lavender growing districts occur.  But the Luberon is a huge area with dozens of tiny villages.  We needed to choose a base from which to explore.  That was tricky from long distance but we finally settled on a tiny, off the map hamlet, called Saignon (pronounced Sen-yon), which sat above the major town of Apt.  This didn’t come recommended.  We simply researched on the Net and then took pot luck.  We found a guest house and our hosts – the Blanc family – were so hospitable even via email that we felt we had chosen well.  Our Provencal headquarters did not disappoint.

Beautiful Saignon's village square. We stayed in the pink house, behind.

Saignon is a sleepy village, hanging precariously off a hillside over the much larger, busier town of Apt (famous for crystallised fruit), and whose daily life typically revolves around its tiny square and central fountain.  That fountain was its life force, fed by the spring in the mountains, which the locals say is many hundreds of years old.  Today it is somewhere for children to play, for waiters to fill water carafes for their guests, for hot and dusty tourists to wash their hands or cool their faces after a long walk or drive.  It’s where brides come to pose for photos and riders comes to water their horses, bikers come to quench a thirst and where a donkey called Caesar visits most days for a ponderous drink and to scratch himself against the stonework.

Caesar, who came for a drink each afternoon

Riders water their horses at the same fountain we drank from

Our home was a huge, cool, rambling home of four storeys that towered over the square and from its uppermost point looked over the rooftops, and out beyond to the hills, or straight up the main path to the Romanesque church – St Mary of Saignon.  That church had us baffled.  It’s enormous for such a tiny population and a tiny village.  We discovered it was a favourite stop off point for pilgrims from southern France and Italy, most of them on their way through to join the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  It’s known more commonly as ‘The Way of St James’ and Martin Sheen starred in a recent movie called ‘The Way’ if you’re interested.  This pilgrimage dates back to the middle ages and I must admit I am seriously considering doing part of that pilgrimage sometime soon and I would like to leave from the French side to walk into Spain.

Our host in Saignon was Alain Blanc, who was born in the tall pink, shuttered house in which we were guests, so he’d lived in tiny Saignon for his life.  lunch near the pink houseHis lovely wife, Colette, and daughter spoke only a smattering of English but Alain and I, with his broken English and my woeful French, had many a tall conversation about his memories of wartime and when the first German soldiers came ‘up the hill from Apt’.   Together with his friends I learned about the day they cut off the spring so the village folk could laugh at the Germans drinking water from the fountain’s well rather than its spout – ‘they drank from the same spot our horses did,’ Alain said proudly.  He had been only five then but he was a staunch patriot and would have joined the Resistance in a blink if he were old enough.  I learned from his friend that she and all the other little children, including Alain, would use their bikes and trolleys to store food and other important goods beneath blankies and teddies, and haul them up the hill to a given spot where they’d leave it for the ‘maquisards’ which the brave French resisters of the south were known as. (more on maquisards in a later blog)

For Alain many of the memories were tinged with sorrow; he remembered a Jewish family being slaughtered in their home by Germans, he remembered how every French family’s radios were taken but many brave people defied their occupiers and the villagers would cluster around one radio and listen to the BBC broadcasts and ‘personals’ as they were known (again, more on that in another blog).

He hated that so much of what the tiny hamlet produced had to go toward the German war effort rather than feeding the French who were starving in the north and needed the bountiful south’s fresh produce.  He recalled accidentally on purpose dropping the two eggs that were destined for reaching German hands.  He was only six at the time and could claim clumsiness but he admitted it was deliberate and was congratulated later by those who defied at every instance.  Alain told me that the local olive oil maker would rather give the Germans his money than his oil.

‘They never found our olive press,’ Alain told me with glee.

But as Alain pointed out, you never knew who was a resister or who was a collaborator.  ‘Your neighbour might tip off the local police or German soldiers that you had a radio or you were aiding resisters,’ he said.  According to Alain every villager had to remain extremely tight-lipped as a result.

Alain Blanc - our host - and friends, who shared their wartime memories

I learned in Saignon that Provence is the luckiest of regions.  ‘In spring we have the promise of all our lovely fruit,’ I was told.  ‘In summer we have our lavender.  In autumn comes the grapes…and for winter the precious olives.’  It rang nicely in my mind as we walked amongst acres of bursting fruit trees, admiring the landscape that was a genuine patchwork of orchards, vineyards and lavender.

In wartime these families were farmers and growers, to their south was the lively fishing port of Marseille, to their west was magnificent Avignon – home of the Popes, and to their north was Lyon and of course, Paris but a lot in between that I couldn’t get to on this trip.  There was more than enough ground to cover as we roamed the hilltop villages that make this region even more famous than its lavender.

These hilltop villages were each charming, romantic, welcoming and crammed with tourists!  I would like very much to return at the end of autumn when the chill of a looming winter is around the corner and has chased away the holidaymaker.  In winter snow is normal up this high.  The most popular town is Gordes but that means it’s also the most commercial and most choked with hot tourists and clicking cameras and everyone looking for a toilet stop!  However, you can’t not visit it and pause a while to enjoy its beauty from a slight distance, observing how the town spills down the cliff-face clinging tightly to the stone.  It’s a marvel.  Film stars of course live here…but I didn’t see any, more’s the pity.  We had a tiny Renault, which zipped us cheerily around the countryside and so we were forever on the move with the infamous Senanque Abbey a shortish drive from Gordes and worth the visit to see the valley in full glorious lavender.  It is a setting from the story too so I was thrilled to have seen it.

But all around are villages – some more famous, like Lacoste, to the lesser known like Rustrel or Rousillon.  We tried to visit all and we particularly enjoyed our day in Lourmarin, which was a fabulous – but hair raising – drive down the mountain on a winding, cliff-hanging road.  Remember to drive on the right, Fiona!

Lavender is obviously very important to these people and so it features in everything from meringues to cordials.  You can buy culinary lavender, by the way, through Bridestowe and I can vouch for it.  I made a beautiful chicken casserole scented with lavender and it was delicious – the recipe was devised by co-owner, Jennifer Ravens.  But more on Bridestowe in a forthcoming blog!

The higher you go in the Luberon, the wilder and more pure it gets!

Meanwhile in the villages you can expect narrow, winding streets, shady squares that are always serving food, plenty of lovely galleries, even more watering holes where you can sample pastis – the local specialty.  Food is simple, usually of a salad based nature, lots of fish.  We used to go into Apt most days and struggle with my terrible French but get by ordering food and hunting through bookstores, buying curtains of all things and then leaving them behind for poor Monsieur Blanc to find via my shocking directions and then have to post to Australia.  Alain and I stay in touch to this day and I know we’ll go back and stay with the family again.  They took a shine to us, particularly that I tried to use French – it was appreciated.  Teaching me how to use the washing machine was especially fun.  They loved treating us to breakfast on the street outside the house and would think nothing of running down several flights of stone stairs with hot croissants, butter, home made preserves (scrumptious!), cakes, cherries, apricots, strawberries, pots of tea, pots of coffee, toast….Monsieur Blanc knew no bounds.  And they’d wave us off each day and tell us not to get lost and always look relieved when we’d lurch down the main path toward the fountain.  They could see us approaching and he would join us outside for a glass of wine and a chat before evening fell.  Swallows swooped above us and doves cooed in the eaves.  It was such a lovely spot and we could happily have settled down to live and write from there for six months.

Looking out to the patchwork of vines, lavender, orchards, olive groves

Favourite places included Fontaine de Vaucluse, which is so picturesque and the source of the great river Sorgue that flows on through into L’Isle sur la Sorgue, famous for its water wheels, antique stores and arguably the most theatrical ice creams ever from Isabella’s.  At Fontaine de Vaucluse we met the family Crôtet, to whom I have dedicated The Lavender Keeper, but more on them later.  In this town we visited the comprehensive Museum de Resistance that I learned plenty from.  L’Isle sur la Sorgue is a key location in novel and Fontaine de Vaucluse is featured heavily in the sequel.

It was here, in Provence, that the French Resistance had its most toughened and perhaps determined group of supporters.  The Germans struggled to hunt them down in the arid, rugged terrain that they knew so well and could move across with ease.  And it was here in the south that some heroic fighting was undertaken to stall the German advance north, in order to give the Allies time to take the beaches and storm Paris for its liberation in 1944.  It was through the south that Britain ran some of is most successful spy networks and real heroes were born out of ordinary people from schoolteachers to bus drivers.  More on that in another blog!

This tale is already long enough but the truth is I could chat about Provence for twice as long.  It’s a beautiful part of France, that despite its popularity with globetrotters, remains simple, its people amazingly friendly and down to earth and  – especially the more you get off the beaten track, as we did.

Without this visit I could never have hoped to re-create the sun-drenched, lavender scented village of Saignon for the book and once again I am reminded of the necessity to research…it’s time, money and energy never wasted.

One of our local eateries in Saignon.