Best Seller or No, Provence Remains the Same


The Mistral will blow. The peasants rail, quaff pastis and chew on their Gitanes. The sun will shine, and Provence is still Provence.

But that general style and cliche-ridden picture of the place that made Englishman Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence" and its follow-up, "Toujours Provence," runaway best sellers is only part of the picture.

"And hey, we're still people here, this is a viable town with a school, church and small-town shops," says Lynda Mazet, who owns a top hotel-restaurant, the Bastide, in Gordes, not far from Mayle's territory in Menerbes. "Our men don't all lug baguettes and wear berets."

Some natives and many expatriate settlers around this southern area, known variously as the Vaucluse or the Luberon, were furious at Mayle's book, claiming it brought busloads of gawkers, even impositions like queries to every other farmer about selling his property.

"Personally, I haven't noticed our real estate business being overwhelmed since the book," says Annie Rosier, who runs an already successful Gordes real estate firm.

"And if a book can bring in clients, well, we at least are happy," says Mazet. "Anyhow, the fuss was really about Menerbes, where Mayle did his grocery shopping. Gordes hasn't changed much."

Already somewhat of a tourist haven with a certain amount of souvenir-hawking, Gordes nevertheless is a charming base for touring the region and other hill towns nearby.

Its stunning views, an interesting art museum, refurbished ancient houses and curious beehivelike historic structures offer lots of diversion.

It's no secret that an international assortment of artists, writers and celebrities have made the Luberon their country-hideaway headquarters, since it was "discovered" after World War II by artist Marc Chagall.

Some of the denizens relaxing in the area here include Englishman Barry Sainsbury, of grocery family fame; English-French film star Jane Birkin; Josephine Chaplin; American artist Joe Downing, from Horse Cave, Ky., and American publishing tycoon John Fairchild (Women's Wear Daily, "W" and other publications).

"I still love it," says Fairchild, "but I don't see why anybody would want to go there after the way Mayle wrote about it."

Visitors to Gordes can hardly miss the Renaissance chateau leased by painter Victor Vasarely as a showroom to complement the monumental Vasarely Museum in Aix-en-Provence.

Even non-Vasarely fans can be convinced of the artist's talents by the guardian named Edmond Avon. A retired farmer, he gives a passionate commentary on the impressive array of Vasarely's experimentation, from figurative to coolly abstract works.

Country-market enthusiasts should aim to spend Tuesday morning in Gordes, when farmers, artisans and caterers of the Luberon set up shop on the central square.

Besides souvenir jewelry and pottery, visitors can revel in the veritable mosaic of olives, succulent jams, condiments, honey and olive oils.

And try a sample of country specialties from the preserve jars offered by Francois Moussu. He regularly tours the region's markets with his black part-Labrador, offering adventurous fare such as "rooster in beer" stew or preserved tripe in wine, made by him at his own farm.

Antique buffs should try to catch the flea and antiques market at nearby L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on weekends.

Les Bories, just outside Gordes, is a village of restored beehive-like limestone structures apparently used since time immemorial to house shepherds and their flocks. This group is supposedly 14th-Century, and though interestingly restored, the huts look Spartanly uncomfortable.

Just a few kilometers away is Senanques Abbey, which many consider a moving Provencal site. Set in a desolate hollow under the Luberon Mountains, the Cistercian abbey founded in the 12th Century (and lately restored) offers a special magic if you arrive about sunset and are lucky enough to hear echoes of the monks intoning vespers with singing cicadas in the background.

Besides Menerbes, with its spectacularly perched cemetery looking like the prow of a ship, there are other high points--at Roussillon, Lacoste and Bonnieux. Roussillon is a riot of pinks, ruddy reds and ocher, a stage-set of a village carved from its native stone. Lacoste is notable for a craggy ruin, once the stomping ground of the Marquis de Sade.

Hiking is a favorite activity, and the sportive visitor can huff, puff and scramble through some wonderful scenery, following hiking maps obtainable through the Gordes Syndicat d'Initiative (tourist office).

Touring here, you're bound to work up a hearty appetite, and the region has plenty of little bistros and more elaborate restaurants to satisfy cravings for good French food and wine.

Among the most picturesque and very best is Lynda Mazet's Bastide, now starred in the Michelin guidebook. Hanging precariously over a ravine below the town square, the hotel--in a converted old gendarmerie --offers stunning views.

After a hefty investment of more than $3 million by the Mazet family three years ago, the wreck that had been pockmarked by bullet holes since resistance fighting in World War II was turned into a luxurious hostelry, swimming pool and all.

Mazet's chef, Alain Soliveres, has gained an enthusiastic following with his seasonal food based on local produce and ingenuity. Some recent delights included a cream of pumpkin soup with grated fresh truffles, sauteed shellfish with butterfly pasta, fillets of John Dory fish served with a juice of green tomatoes flavored with chopped olive tapenade, farm-raised pigeon with endive--not to mention fabulous wines and desserts.

Also in Gordes, Le Victuailler, mainly a catering establishment, gets kudos for intriguing dishes served at its few bistro tables.

Nearby and noteworthy, Patrick Payet's Le Tonneau in Goult (another old perched town) offers charm in an antique, farm-tool decor. The reasonable (about $20) menu may include baby artichokes stuffed with warm goat cheese, aubergine pate with tomato sauce, raw fish marinated with lime, or spinach-stuffed crab, just for starters.


Gordes, Provence

Getting there: Gordes, about midway between Orange and Aix-en-Provence is an ancient village in the Luberon region of Provence. The area, at the foot of the Luberon Mountains, is full of towns rich in charm and character, worth exploring by car on a day trip from Avignon or Aix, about 20 miles north of Marseille. The nearest airport is Marignane at Marseille, for both national and international flights (about a 30-minute drive from Gordes). The TGV fast train from Paris goes to Avignon and Marseille, where cars may be rented.

When to go: Fall, from Sept. 15 through October, is particularly lovely, with warm days, luminous color and light. This felicitous weather can go on into November. Spring may be great or dicey, according to natives, with plenty of blowy Mistral activity. Winter ranges from bitterly cold to cool and sunny. Avoid the overcrowded, overheated peak seasons of July and August.

Where to stay and eat:

La Bastide, Le Village, Gordes. Above $120 for a room, but worth every centime. Excellent cuisine, dinners from about $60. From U.S. telephones: 011-33-90-72-12-12.

Le Gordos, route de Cavaillon. This is a more rustic retreat nearby, also owned and managed by the Mazet family. About $80.

Les Bories, Route de l'Abbaye de Senanques. Built like the stone shelters of yore but with infinitely more comfort, including heated pool and tennis courts. About $100. 011-33-90-72-00-51.

Comptoir du Victuailler, Place du Chateau, Gordes. Good food for about $50. A simple setting.

Ferme de la Huppe, Les Pourquiers near Gordes. Small hotel with rustic-style rooms, swimming pool. About $80. The restaurant has a good reputation for reasonably priced innovative dishes by the owners' son. 011-33-90-72-12-25.

Le Tonneau Restaurant, Place de l'Ancienne Mairie, Goult. Reasonably priced food, charm and atmosphere. 011-33-90-72-22-35.

Le Bistrot a Michel, Cabrieres d'Avignon. Garden and bistro-style dining, a hostelry of three rooms only, with terraces. Lower price range than many. Menu at $20. 011-33-90-76-82-08.

For more information: The French Government Tourist Office has a number, (900) 990-0040, that costs 50 cents per minute. Or write to the office at 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Beverly Hills 90212.

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