I’ve always wanted to go to Provence; to smell the lavender, to see the swaying fields of sunflowers, to walk in the shaded, cobbled lanes of medieval villages, to taste sun warmed tomatoes fresh from the market stall, to feel the glorious heat of a southern summer on my skin. Everything I’ve ever read about Provence has promised a land of dreams to a sun-starved, concrete-circled Londoner, and the thought of drinking wine in a shady courtyard, vines casting a greenish, dappled hue across the sun-bleached cobblestones, sustained me all through the grey and chilly July I had to endure before I boarded the Eurostar to Avignon. From last summer, Londoners can now catch a direct train to the sun-soaked south of France – hop on at St Pancras, and just seven hours later, after a blissful ride through the heart of France, where tiny villages appear beneath the folds of green hills, and the wheat fields shimmer as far as the horizon, you can get off the train in the blazing heat of Avignon or Marseille, with none of the stress of dealing with an airport. I will definitely be availing myself of this opportunity every summer for the rest of time, because Provence exceeded every single one of my expectations. It is a land of pure bliss.
On arriving in Avignon, we picked up our hire car and made straight for the small village where we had hired a house for our week’s stay. We found it nestled in one of the tiny cobbled streets that meandered away from the main square; a thick walled medieval house with the vine-covered courtyard of my dreams. Our host explained that there was plenty to do in the village; there was a castle, and a windmill, and all the shops we could need were in the main square or opposite the church. We promptly set off for a walk to explore, and after seeing the Café du Commerce, boules pitch, tabac, boulangerie, mairie and church, I was inwardly bursting with joy at actually finding myself in the village from Chocolat. Every stereotype about rural France was alive and well in Boulbon, and as we wandered down the cream-coloured streets that glimmered brightly in the afternoon sun, I felt that time had truly stood still here for centuries, and nothing bad could ever possibly happen in such a peaceful place.
We used our marvellous little village as a base for exploring the many amazing sights in the surrounding area. Driving along dusty roads bordered by fields of sunflowers, we visited the medieval market town of Tarascon; the wonderful former Papal city of Avignon, with its glorious medieval palace, stately shopping streets and glorious gardens; the Roman stronghold of Arles, also home to Van Gogh, where we saw an excellently preserved ampitheatre and bath house, and enjoyed some delicious local produce; the awe-inspiring Roman aqueduct, Pont du Gare, where I cooled off by swimming in the river beneath its arches, and the incredible abandoned Roman city of Glanum, which gives Pompeii a run for its money. Everywhere we went, we saw beauty and history, all set against the backdrop of a breathtakingly blue sky. I loved every moment, and I have never felt so relaxed in my life. I’m already counting down the days until next summer!