The door to the car rental trailer flies open and my seven-year-old son collapses beside the suitcases at my feet. “They gave away our Mercedes-Benz A-Class,” he wails, “now we’ll never be able to park our car!” OK, I am to blame. I talked R.J. down from the larger luxury vehicles into picking a modest economy car from the agency’s website, wary of the dollar-euro exchange rates. I terrified him with tales of spaghetti-thin streets and peas-in-a-pod parking. I said the French drove very little cars. Meanwhile through the window my husband Ron smiles politely at the coiffed agent, a silk scarf knotted around her neck. I smell an upgrade. Ron comes out. “C’mon, son,” he says, scooping R.J. up with one hand. With his other, he jingles a set of keys.
We drive north from the Marseille Provence Airport on the A-7 in our roomy glossy-black BMW 320 Series, a sonorous French voice emanating from the GPS. Ron grins, as he fiddles with the GPS, trying to reprogram it in English. With my lousy map-reading skills rendered obsolete, I stretch my legs and absorb the scenery: craggy mountains baked gold in July, black cypresses like plumes on a hat, white-hot flashes of silvery olive trees, the extraordinary interplay of shadow and light. The light is crisp and bright like a good Sauvignon Blanc. When Vincent Van Gogh moved to Arles in his last, productive years, he wrote, “…finally, I seek a stronger sun.” Even on this mundane highway, I see the clarity that drew him—and others—to the region, leaving their tracks on stretched white canvases.
After we switch to country lanes lined with plane trees, we ascend a steep hill to the Renaissance village of Castillon du Gard in Languedoc Roussillon west of the Rhone River. My aunt meets us at her townhouse. “Here’s the key,” says Farideh, brandishing a six-inch-long medieval iron key that she generously turns over to us for ten days. After some fumbling, the heavy door swings open onto a cobbled courtyard partly covered by a vaulted stone ceiling. Beyond this lies the kitchen and dining room, and to our left, outdoor stairs lead up to the living room and bedrooms. Further up, a roof garden overlooks terracotta roofs on one side and vineyards on the other. The last time I was here, I was in my twenties, far more anxious to get to the Riviera than appreciate my surroundings. I had friends waiting for me in Cannes, where we gunned mopeds from packed cafes to exclusive nightclubs to fashionable beaches. That was a different time, a different road.
We now wander through the sparely yet comfortably appointed rooms with their whitewashed plaster walls and turquoise-glass mosaic floors. Ron notices dates from earlier centuries etched in odd places, above a doorway or behind a stairwell: an architectural road map. From a well-stacked bookshelf, I reach for a familiar cover. Did I read this the first time I came? The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin takes place far away in Australia and explores the meaning of aboriginal walkabouts. Only after I finish the book at the end of this trip do I appreciate why it drew me. As Chatwin notes, “I have a vision of the Songlines stretching across the continents and ages; that wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song (of which we may, now and then, catch an echo)…”
The first morning of our holiday, we hear the ubiquitous cicadas singing, and set off in search of Roman songs.
The Greeks introduced the cultivation of grape vines and olive trees to Southern France, but the Romans put down roads. After establishing their first province in 121 BC, the Romans began an incursion into France that lasted roughly 500 years. They built roads, bridges and aqueducts, and founded cities with temples, coliseums and theatres. All we do is tap ‘points of interest’ into our GPS—now in English thanks to Ron’s technical agility—and Roman relics pop up like groundhogs on a fine spring day. “Let’s go to a coliseum,” begs R.J., hoping for gore. The city of Nimes founded in the first century BC lies in the middle of the Via Domitia: the first Roman Road built in Gaul connecting Italy and Spain. Though the road is no longer intact, Nimes’ centre de ville, characterized by wide leafy boulevards encircling a maze of narrow streets, remains rife with Roman architecture.
La Maison Carree, a multi-columned temple once part of a forum, becomes our starting point. I climb stone stairs worn like bars of soap and reach my arms around a scarred Corinthian column, as I would hug an old tree. “Mom,” says R.J., rolling his eyes, “There’re loads of these at home.” I am overcome by the moment, “But this building is what they copy.” Inside, a 3-D film plays in a movie theatre—we hear roaring lions, clashing metal—that we forgo in favor of the local amphitheatre. Les Arenes rises like a wooly mammoth on the cityscape. Today the preserved Roman coliseum seats 20,000 for rock concerts and bullfights (“Everything west of the Rhone is Spain and everything east is Italy,” Farideh told us.) “What! They don’t feed people to lions anymore,” hollers R.J., teasingly, while charging up an ancient stairwell to the highest level of seating, where the plebeians once sat.
At noon, we lunch like the French for a couple of hours at La Brasserie on Boulevard Gambetta. Beneath the panoply of mature trees, Ron and I drink rose wine and eat salade nicoises. R.J. dives into a steak frites like a hungry lion. Afterward we wander past Porte Auguste, the crumbling remains of a city gate crowned by a statue of Augustus, and pop into the Musee Archeologique where Roman artifacts—sarcophagi, bits of columns, mile markers and statuary—stack up beneath porticoes around a courtyard. Then we stroll alongside canals to the Jardins de la Fountaine, watching elderly men in shirtsleeves smoke cigarettes and play boules, a game similar to marbles played with fist-sized metal balls. We reach the hilltop Tour Magne, a Roman watchtower. Nimes sparkles below us, and we rest a moment in the shade before heading back, while R.J. vaults into an olive tree.
Other Roman trails lead us to Orange in Provence, with the Theatre D’Orange and its rare stage wall, as well as to the Pont du Gard aqueduct in Languedoc Roussillon. The 2000 year-old aqueduct rises 50 meters high and spans 275 meters across the emerald Gardon River, over which it once carried water from a spring in nearby Uzes to Nimes, 50 kilometers away. From the aqueduct, we watch olive-skinned boys splashing in a watering hole, oblivious to the history around them. Memories of the Pont du Gard stay with R.J., who later assembles a model version for a school project. My memories remain of a sun-baked day, making our own tracks in the mountains. I feel the warm stones through my thin-soled sandals, the sun on my back. I delight in panoramic views of the Cevennes Mountains and the aqueduct. I smell and gather wild rosemary, thyme and sage.
On the way home, we pick up groceries at the Carrefour (like a super Wal-Mart) and a sprig of lavender from a bush. That night I roast a chicken spritzed with lemon juice, slathered in Dijon mustard and sprinkled with the chopped herbs, my makeshift herbes de Provence. “Mom, best chicken I ever had,” says R.J. “Me too,” says Ron, following a mouthful with a sip of red Cotes du Rhone. We eat off Provencal crockery at an antique French country table. A purple sheen washes over the vineyards as seen from our small yet perfect cutout window straight from E.M. Forster’s Room with a View. We decide to eat in most nights and try to experience the remainder of our holiday more like a native family. While washing up, I inexplicably find myself humming an old regional song Sur le pont d’Avignon about a partially standing twelfth century bridge that used to connect the two sides of the Rhone River.
The next morning we drive to the medieval town of Uzes. We skip the Office de Tourism (“Please not another Office of Torture and Torment,” pleads R.J.) and go straight to the Place aux Herbes in the historic district, where the Wednesday market is underway. The Saturday market, which we later attend, swarms with tourists and features far less produce. Today, vendors travel from nearby farms and erect food stalls to cater to locals and tourists alike. I begin by nursing a steaming café crème on the square. R.J., his cheeks full of pain au chocolat, not-so-innocently asks, “Why can’t we eat pastries for breakfast at home?” “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” I conveniently reply and take my leave to shop.
I buy sunflowers still dewy from the fields, heirloom tomatoes that smell of sunshine, marble-sized new potatoes, tiny sweet raspberries, marinated Provencal olives, aromatic apricots. I cannot resist the thick creamy lavender honey at a honey tasting of different varieties named for different pollen sources. (Our breakfast staple becomes butter and honey on ficelle purchased daily from the village boulangerie.) I marvel at an almond farmer who in French fashion has tastefully capitalized on everything one can possibly get out of an almond: from almond soap to almond oil, from candied almonds to raw almonds sold in their fuzzy green skins. We cook some of our best meals in France, inspired by simple, seasonal ingredients.
In our quest to live like locals, we mute the GPS, toss the tour books, plan less and meander more. One night after dinner, we amble aimlessly around our village on a labyrinth of walkways sandwiched by stone buildings the color and texture of butter biscuits. The violet sky shines with stars. In the square, an accordionist plays a polka for locals nursing glasses of cloudy anise-flavored pastis. We pass frisky stray kittens, see the distant glow of the Pont du Gard, pay homage to a World War II Memorial, and envy those who will soon eat the fruit still ripening on an old fig tree. Suddenly, a well-dressed woman addresses us in rapid-fire French, inviting us to join ‘them’ for a glass of wine. ‘Them’ turn out to be her, the docent, along with the artists and patrons of the Art-Castillon (yes, an art museum opening, even in this miniscule village.) We enter a courtyard lit by fairy lights filled with people conversing in art and nibbling from banquet platters. The evening turns magical.
Another time we spontaneously follow the rural road luring us daily from our dining room window and end up in Tavel. So far, our only experience with wine villages has been Chateauneuf-du-Pape, very scenic but with all the appeal of an oenological Disneyland. I half expected someone dressed in a wine-bottle costume to chase us as we drove through. Tavel, on the other hand, proves intriguing. We taste wine at the Domaine de la Mordoree (a koi pond conveniently just outside entertains R.J.) and at the Chateau D’Aqueria, an eighteenth century family-run estate where we watch some of the region’s best rose wine being bottled. At the chateau, we also find a tree filled with the music of hundreds of cicadas. Only 3 kilometers down the road, we stop at an unassuming wine co-operative in Lirac and sample a nice red Cotes du Rhone. We purchase a bottle for dinner and head back, passing vineyards with clustered green grapes beginning to blush in the late afternoon sun.
Our last impulsive outing gives R.J. a well-deserved stake in a largely adult- driven holiday. An amusement park outside Uzes hosting a traveling circus entices us to put on the brakes. Before the show starts, R.J. steers a racecar around a dusty track with an expression of grim determination equaled only by that of Tour de France cyclists ascending Mont Ventoux. Then Le Grand Cirque d’Alexandra Dumas commences and turns out to be a literal family affair.
Madame Dumas’s mother sells tickets and candyfloss, while her father doubles as top-hatted ringmaster and Cossack-costumed Shetland pony trainer. Her ten-year-old daughter performs acrobatics and her five-year-old son clowns around. But Madame Dumas’s husband, the remarkable Spaniard, Esteban, steals the show. Laden with more personalities than Sybil, Esteban enthralls the audience as a tiger-tamer, juggler and unicycle rider; as Chocolat the clown; and as a trumpet player blowing a moving rendition of Strangers in the Night. Little could be stranger—or more enchanting—than this unexpected family circus convening to tinny music around a small ring. The yellow brick road has brought us to Oz, and sadly, the time has come to click our heels and go home to Kansas.
The day we leave for the airport, we take a wrong turn. “Recalculating…” says the smug voice back on the GPS. Unlike the unplanned portion of our trip, this time we cannot wander, so we struggle with unwieldy maps, argue for a while and arrive at the airport barely in time. I finally relax as the international portion of our flight falls into the airborne route bridging continents across the ocean. Next year, we hope to travel this same invisible trail back to where our adventures in Southern France began. I recline in my seat and listen to the thrum of the engine. When I listen very carefully, I hear the beginnings of a song.
Charlotte Safavi is a freelance writer. Her work has been featured in many publications including The Economist, The Washington Post Magazine, House Beautiful, Country Home, Victorian Homes, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, and Better Homes and Gardens. Though born in London, England, and educated at Oxford University, Charlotte is of Iranian heritage. She resides in the Washington D.C. area with her husband and son.