“Désolé,” he replied. “Sorry, the kitchen is closed.”
So we snacked on peanuts and decided to take a walk instead.
In the village of Banon, the only way to go is up, toward a castle built by Simiane, Lord of Banon, back in the 12th century. Simiane’s family kept it running until the French Revolution, when the last owner, Alexandre Tournon-Simiane, was run out of town and the castle was burned.
The steep, newly paved road quickly turned to cobblestones as it wound past tiny hobbit-size doorways in the lower village, then through a strange stone portal marking the castle entrance. Above us were openings in the castle walls that defenders used to drop rocks and hot oil on invaders.
We rested twice before reaching the old church at the summit. The ancient wooden door opened not to rows of wooden pews or religious images, but to an exhibition of contemporary paintings. We’d stumbled upon one of the secret spots of Banon.
To many visitors, Provence has become synonymous with thousands of English and German tourists jamming narrow, winding roads with tour buses and camper vans. The idyllic village depicted two decades ago in Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence” has become harder to find. But there’s still some of the old Provence out there, a place that’s more rugged but still has the sharp light and the breathtaking vistas that have drawn visitors to the south of France for generations.
Haute-Provence, or upper Provence, as this area is called, is a bit more like the hardscrabble landscape of Wild and Wonderful West Virginia than the pastoral Virginia Blue Ridge. It’s more isolated and less affluent, but becoming a haven for some French artists and intellectuals looking for the next unspoiled place where they can find inspiration and enjoy a slower lifestyle.
On the road to Banon
We found this rugged rural spirit of Provence in Banon, a town of 1,000 people about two hours’ drive east of Avignon. Banon is tiny, but known to the outside world (i.e., Paris) for two things: its chestnut-wrapped, brandy-soaked cheese and a four-story bookstore called Le Bleuet, tucked into a 15th-century stone building. After years of expansion, including to a warehouse just outside town, it now boasts more titles (190,000) than any bookstore in France except for one in Lille.
“I live in a privileged place,” says Joel Gattefosse, a Parisian who moved to Banon in 1990 to open Le Bleuet. “Even in August, it’s calm. We have the sun, the light, the forest for walking.”
There are no hotels in Banon, just a few guesthouses. Like most summer visitors, we found our lodgings through a determined Web search, followed by e-mails and a phone call to the owner of a small apartment at La Bastide des Muriers. The renovated 17th- century stone farmhouse sits at the base of Banon, about a half-mile from the town center. The photos on the Web site looked pretty good, so we crossed our fingers.