It's an odd but pleasurable experience to feel completely at home in a foreign country. It happened to my husband and me when we rented a surprisingly inexpensive apartment in Provence in the lovely village of Lourmarin. By day we explored the countryside, and at night we dined sumptuously, and cheaply, on our own rooftop terrace, always with a sunny view of the surrounding hills of southern France.
Renting a house or an apartment abroad is an ideal way to become more intimate with a different culture, and Lourmarin proved an excellent choice for this goal. An unhurried, yet lively place about 20 miles north of Aix-en-Provence, it welcomed us warmly.
Never a late sleeper, I went out before 8 each morning to buy the baker's delicious fresh bread for breakfast and to pick up an English-language newspaper from the tabac, which ordered it for us from Marseilles. Even that early, the cafe's were busy. Old women in black, carrying baskets over their arms to collect the day's groceries, smiled at me and gossiped with one another as if they hadn't met for months. I felt as if I were part of a stage set.
Lourmarin is a very pretty town, made up of clusters of stone houses, golden brown in color, separated by tiny winding lanes. Outside seemingly every door and window sit pots of cheery verbena, impatiens and geraniums. At the top of the village are two nice old Gothic churches and a separate bell tower; and on the outskirts is a 16th-century chateau, now a rather gloomy government building but one that nevertheless gives the area considerable distinction.
Beyond the chateau is a vast grove of olive trees rising out of fields of poppies. On other sides of the village, the land is planted in vineyards and cherry orchards, whose fruit was ripe while we were there. A few miles north stands the 3,690-foot Montagne du Lube'ron, a backdrop to this perfect scene. A dozen cypress-lined roads lead off in various directions from the village, providing an abundance of peaceful after-dinner walks.
With the steady exodus from rural France since World War II, many French villages are now bare of shops. But Lourmarin, while it has fewer than 1,000 inhabitants, has managed to retain two bakeries, a butcher shop, two little grocery stores and a tabac. It also has three busy cafe's and several simple restaurants.
We had chosen a private apartment in the French countryside because we wanted to be a part of the life, if only briefly. In Lourmarin, we felt accepted almost immediately. The shopkeepers came to recognize us quickly, and we spent quite a bit of time just watching the daily flow of the village, sipping coffee at the Cafe' Gaby by the fountain in the town center.
We were, indeed, at home.
How did we find Lourmarin? Often little towns fail to live up to the beauty of Paris or of the French countryside that surrounds them.
We saw an ad in a British paper for a small Cheltenham-based agency, VFB (Vacances Franco-Britanniques), that specializes in renting properties of character in rural France. The brochure the firm sent stressed that its clients should be people who "will look forward to the prospect of becoming involved, albeit for only a week or two, in the life of some small rural community."
Among the 300-plus properties described, we found one that seemed to be what we were looking for. The village was described as "charming," and the lodgings promised there were in a first- and second-floor apartment in an independent part of the owners' 17th-century stone-built home, restored in 1976.
The cost of the apartment was the equivalent of $200 a week -- a real bargain -- and we rented it for three weeks in June.
We arrived in Lourmarin on a cool, sunny Saturday after a five-hour ride north from the busy Riviera through remarkably peaceful back roads. We found the apartment to be just as the brochure had described it -- charming, comfortable and splendidly equipped.
The retired owners, too, were charming. They had restored much of the building themselves, with taste and love, and they were tickled to have foreign guests who appreciated what they had done. They spoke no English, and my husband was glad that he had taken the trouble of spending spring evenings at the Alliance Franc,aise resurrecting his French conversation level.
My French had never really made it to the conversation stage to begin with, but I found that I could follow what was said quite well and manage simple transactions without any trouble.
Our life in Provence involved more, of course, than simply sitting on our terrace or at the Cafe' Gaby. Like most tourists who choose France for a vacation, we were drawn by the food, and we spent a lot of time photographing it, shopping for it and eating it.
Lourmarin itself proved to be a good source of fine things to eat. Not only did the bread I got each morning disprove the cliche' that the French can't bake bread anymore, but the bakery itself turned out to sell delicious roast chicken. Moreover, every four or five days a sign would appear on its door that said "Parella" or "Aioli" or "Couscous." I would place an order in the morning and at suppertime pick up a double portion of one of these delicious dishes for a ridiculously small amount -- less than $3.
One of the most noticeable effects of the still-favorable exchange rate was how cheaply we could buy meat. From the cheerful Lourmarin butcher, we got thick veal chops and little lamb chops for a few dollars, and he also provided slices of excellent rabbit pate'.
Fish was reasonable, too. Twice a week a refrigerated fish truck would drive up from the Mediterranean and park across from the Cafe' Gaby, selling loup, rouget, limande and other perfectly fresh and delicious fish that have no exact American equivalent. Good cheese was also obtainable nearby. A short walk outside of town took us to a farm that made and sold fresh che vre (goat cheese) for 60 cents each in an endearing and unhygienic-looking muddle of dogs, cows, goats, sheep, vegetables and children.
The only foods that were better bought outside of Lourmarin were fruit and vegetables, but the shopping was certainly no hardship. Each of the bigger nearby towns had a market day, some of which overlapped. I suspect you could stay in the area for two weeks and go to a different market every weekday.
The local farmers travel from market to market selling fresh fruit, vegetables, chickens and eggs, and Provencal markets are further swollen by vans that specialize in cheese, fresh pasta or charcuterie (cold cuts). Some markets also sell odd collections of cheap kitchenware and gadgets and a large variety of ugly printed dresses. We found them endlessly entertaining.
When it came to eating out, the restaurants we chose ranged from the splendid to the humble. Near Lourmarin, we found two special places hidden away in the Montagne du Lube'ron. The first, L'Aiguebrun, gets two toques in the Gault-Millau guide to France and a mention, but no stars, in the rival Michelin. For all the virtues of Michelin, Gault and Millau are more on track this time.
L'Aiguebrun is a small hotel-restaurant off the road over the mountain to Bonnieux, hidden away by itself amidst wild rocky country and huge trees. The glassed-in dining room was filled with the biggest and most beautiful wildflower arrangements I had ever seen, and Mozart tunes played quietly as we ate elegant fish pate', thin slices of salmon with fresh tomato sauce, gratin dauphinois (potatoes in cream), local chevres and cre me bru le'e over fresh fruit. At 150 francs each (about $18), the meal was a remarkable bargain.
Even more memorable was another dinner at the Auberge de la Loube in the little hamlet of Buoux, a few miles farther on. At Buoux, the wild scenery so typical of the Lube'ron mountain suddenly gives way to a little green valley right out of Heidi's Swiss Alps. The view took in old red-roofed stone farmhouses, fruit trees and flocks of sheep and geese.
The Auberge is one of the old farmhouses. Ignored by Michelin, it does draw praise from Gault-Millau, which notes that it is "ame'nage'e sans tra-la-la." I assumed the guide meant the auberge was simply furnished; in fact it is stuffed with copper pots, dried flowers, faience plates -- you name it.
In a tiny dining room with a slanty red-tiled floor and great stone fireplace we ate our way through the 99-franc menu, beginning with a wicker tray of "H'ors d'oeuvres du Maison," full of little china dishes that held marinated red peppers, mushrooms, cauliflower, squid, saffron rice, sour cherries, ratatouille, beets, carrots, cucumbers, radishes, melon, zucchini, tomatoes, hot sardines in the lightest possible batter, brandade de morue (pure'e of cod), tapenade and onion confit.
After that, under the watchful eye of the friendly chef-owner and his waiter son, we had perfectly roasted lamb with country potatoes, a whole goat cheese wrapped in leaves and a plate of four little desserts featuring the fruits of the countryside. With it we drank the good cheap red wine of the Co tes du Lube'ron.
The whole meal cost less than $30, and when we paid with a French franc traveler's check, the owner shook our hands enthusiastically. He had arrived; he'd never had a traveler's check before.
Lourmarin is strategically located just north of the fertile Durance valley less than an hour north of Aix and less than an hour east of Avignon. We visited both fine old towns, timing ourselves to coincide with market days. Aix in particular we loved at midday, when the markets in the beautiful old squares closed and cafe's appeared by magic to take their place.
We also went farther afield, southwest of Avignon, to the ugly old city of Tarascon, home of the Souleiado factory that produces the elegant typically Provencal fabrics, tablecloths and bags sold in this country under the label Pierre Deux.
After much difficulty, we located the factory smack in the middle of the stark 17th-century quarter, and once there we also found (to our considerable surprise) the only Americans we saw during our three weeks in Provence -- well-dressed women with New York accents who spoke no French, trying to zero in on bargains with French saleswomen who spoke no English, while uncomfortable husbands hovered in the courtyard. It was all very odd and unexpected, and soon we fled.
Many other famous spots were easily accessible from Lourmarin, including Ni mes, Arles, the Pont-du-Gard and the Camargue. But we had visited Provence before, so on most of the days when we felt like leaving our roof terrace we ventured instead a few miles to the north through the lesser known Montagne du Lube'ron area.
The highest point in the Lube'ron chain is 3,690 feet, hardly Alp-like, but high enough to offer some good climbs and lovely views. Along the ridge of the mountain some 10 miles due north of Lourmarin the French government has set aside 247,000 acres of wild scenery for one of the series of Parcs Naturels Regionaux scattered throughout the country. Marked walking trails cut through wonderful vegetation -- cedars, holly, thyme, masses of sweet-smelling yellow broom (in bloom in June), wild roses and all sorts of wildflowers that we were unable to identify.
When we went for a Sunday hike we found the parking area jammed with cars, but we soon discovered that most of the visitors were sticking close to their vehicles, eating carefully set up picnics by the side of the road and playing ball. As soon as we got a few yards away, we were on our own.
The best thing about the park was a view down the mountain in the opposite direction from Lourmarin across the hilly Vaucluse plateau to the highest mountain in Provence, Mount Ventoux. The panorama was reminiscent of the detailed pictures of the French countryside in my childhood books about Babar the Elephant, and encompassed little medieval villages rising from the plain, with patchwork surroundings of lavender and vineyards, cypress trees and orange-roofed farm complexes, and herds of cows and sheep.
Our most satisfying excursion was a visit to the 12th-century Cistercian abbey of Senanque, one of the Romanesque treasures of France. Tucked away in a wild and narrow valley, the elegantly curved but unornamented buildings are well-preserved, and all of the rooms survive, giving an unusual opportunity to get a sense of the austere rounds of the Cistercians. The tall main church, empty now, is serious and touching.
We found no end of things to see and do, but our fondest memories are of Lourmarin. Walking with my hot bread in the early morning sunshine, smiling at the old women of the village, I was in a different world. A sense of abiding tradition, of genuine participation in the serenity of French country life, made me feel very lucky indeed.