April 17, 2014

The Call of Provence

It’s said that the howling Mistral of Provence drove Vincent van Gogh insane. Here, stone country houses are built facing south, their windowless backs hunched against the winds that come tearing out of the north. Yet it’s the merciless Mistral that helps create the starry nights, surreal colors—and yes, the excellent olives, herbs and grapes—that make Provence one of the most visually and gastronomically sublime places on earth.

Van Gogh also had a vision impairment that caused him to see halos around lights. He saw everything in yellow overtones. Without this, his masterpiece, Starry Night Over the Rhone, might have never existed.

The Rhone River, which ribbons around walled 12th to 14th century medieval cities, anchored van Gogh’s universe. It’s a world colored by fields of sunflowers, wheat and lavender ... steeped in the perfumes of wild savory, basil, rosemary and thyme.

So when Naples travel planners Gala and Doug Reitz suggested I join PerryGolf and a dozen or so other golfers on a float down the Rhone aboard a très chic barge with its own five-star chef, “Yes! Yes! A thousand times, yes!” came out way before the “other golfers” part sank in.  

Here’s the thing: PerryGolf is the guru of luxury golf vacations, and I don’t play golf. Besides, we’re talking France, for goodness sake, not Scotland. Do the French even play golf? Do the water stations dispense wine with crusty bread and fromage de chèvre?

Should I confess and decline, or take some quick lessons and fake it?   

I choose confession, and—voila—I’m not disinvited! The cruise includes three rounds in seven days, Gala explains, leaving abundant time for even avid golfers to explore Provence.  


And so I find myself, this fine June Sunday afternoon, in the heart of van Gogh’s world, Avignon, City of Popes. Over the riverbank looms the magnificent Palais des Papes, Europe’s largest surviving gothic palace. PerryGolf host Iain Doig leads me along the canal where several barges are moored. Le Phenicien is easy to spot: She’s the picture-perfect one with red-accented hull and large yellow-trimmed windows. Through one window, I see a yellow terra cotta pot overflowing with lavender and white hydrangeas. Through another, a man in chef’s white glances up from his chopping block and smiles. Oh, this is going to be good.

I change from traveling clothes to barging attire for the welcome gathering. Though the salon and dining room are sophisticated and polished, the dress code is casual. Cotton, linen and sandals are in; ties, high heels and showy jewels are out.

The 127-foot Le Phenicien is the beloved project of Michel and Claudette Joly and their sons, Bertrand and Marc. Bertrand is here to greet us personally. Our resident host, Mikael, introduces Melanie and Aurelien, our guides/bartenders/servers and official pamperers, and Karl, our pilot.

My fellow passengers are Malcolm and Jane from the U.K., Graeme and Pam from Australia with their daughters and partners, Lindsay and Ben, Taylor and Will. Richard and Nancy of Hawaii, long-time PerryGolf travelers, are here with their daughter, Caron, and her husband, Michael. Three of us are non-golfers. One golfer plans to play two of the three courses. Our ages span from 24 to 85.

Thierry, my chef in the window, brings forth flavorful black and green olive tapenades and a mouth-watering artichoke dip. Iain gives a golf briefing. Excellent wine is poured and camaraderie is established over the first of many Provencal feasts. The castle is illuminated like a fairy tale, and stars come out over the Rhone. Sleep comes easy.

Breakfasts Aboard Le Phenicien are artful displays of fresh fruits, croissants, creamy French yogurts, Thierry’s homemade granola and hot dishes to order. The golfers are anxious to take on Pont Royal, a tough Seve Ballesteros-designed course that has wiped the smirk off many an excellent golfer’s face.

Aurie escorts the rest of us up many stairs and through beautiful gardens to the Palais des Papes. The popes who took over in the 14th century have long since returned to Rome, but the grand palace, cathedral and city walls remain intact. While the others tour the palace, I wander through the maze of cobblestone alleys, soaking in the textures of ancient stone walls, heavily carved doors, statuary and window boxes brimming with summer flowers.

It’s still early. An organ grinder plays for nobody in particular. Some old men are engaged in lively disagreement over coffee beneath the linden trees. The fragrance of fresh bread wafts from a corner boulangerie.

Too soon, waiters are setting café tables in the picturesque Place de l’Horloge, reminding me that I’m due for lunch aboard Le Phenicien.

After dessert of chocolate mousse and poached pear in vanilla syrup (oh, Thierry, love of my life), we’re whisked away to join the golfers for a private tour of the caves (cellars) at Domaine de Beaurenard, a seventh-generation wine estate. We sample the wines that will be paired with several of our multi-course dinners this week. On our last night, Graeme, the serious wine connoisseur among us with caves of his own, will declare the 2006 Red a highlight of his trip. But I’m ahead of myself.

After the winery—as if more chocolate were needed—we stop for samples at Bernard Castelain Chocolaterie.

Our berth tonight is just below a storybook castle guarding the tiny village of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. At its base, I see my first lavender of Provence. In a lingering wine and chocolate haze, I wade right in, no doubt to the surprise of several hundred bees. While I’m inhaling lavender, Chef Thierry is in another field gathering wild basil for a nice pistou. All’s right in the world.

On Tuesday, a non-golfing day, we’re all off to see the soaring arches of Pont du Gard, a 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct, still intact, the longest in the world. It’s good to walk off Monday’s decadence. But honestly, what’s the point? My dreams are now dominated by scallops in filo pastry and rhubarb tarts.

Wednesday’s golf course, Servanes, is more forgiving than the first. The clubhouse is a former olive mill, and its fairways are lined with gnarled olive trees. Being golf-challenged, I’m more taken with the stark, rocky peaks of the Alpilles mountains, and the fruit-laden apricot tree near hole 13.

The non-golfers’ treat for today is a drive to the picturesque town of Les-Baux-de-Provence, noted among Les Plus Beaux (most beautiful) Villages de France. We make an executive decision and divert to St. Rémy-de-Provence to catch the region’s most colorful weekly market. Nearby is the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole Asylum, where van Gogh admitted himself after that unfortunate ear incident. He did some of his finest work here, including Starry Night.

Three hours dissipate like Thierry’s chocolate mousse, as I savor the fragrance of fresh-ground spices, sampling cheeses, sausages, olives, tapenades and spreads, breads and pastries.

Olive oil being second only to chocolate in my gastronomical order of things, I linger longest at the tasting table of Moulin du Calanquet, a fifth-generation local olive producer. My senses reel with the luminous colors and progression of flavors. I wistfully pass up the five-gallon can and select a bottle of earthy green oil with a satisfying afterbite.

My companions have scored textiles, jewelry, lavender soaps and original art. Now they’re off exploring the Roman arena, galleries and architecture of Arles, while I splurge on a private guide to see the lavender fields of my fantasies.

James waits patiently as I peer over walls, pick my way through brambles, sample juicy red cherries right off a tree, and stare openmouthed at scenes I thought existed only in paintings.

As we head homeward, James has one last surprise for me. Turning onto a winding one-lane road, we arrive at an old farmhouse at the edge of a lavender field. Francis and Genevieve Silvestre welcome him like family, and I’m allowed to wander the field with my camera. A row has been harvested, and I wonder if I might buy some. Genevieve leads me inside to a wondrous antique armoire filled with dried lavender blossoms, essential oil and lavender honey from her own bees. I buy some of everything.

After Thierry’s feast tonight (artichokes barigoule, sea bass with ratatouille and antiboise sauce and obscenely rich Melty Chocolate Cake), Mikael, Aurie and Melanie herd us to the park for pétanque (boules), the national pastime of Provence. We play till it’s too dark to see the little metal ball. My dreams now involve dancing barefoot through lavender fields.

On Thursday, we enter the outback and marshy wetlands of the Camargue, home of rice paddies, salt ponds, 20,000 pink flamingoes and the fabled wild white horses of Camargue. It feels more like the Everglades than the South of France. We’re invited to a manade (ranch), where, from the back of a hay wagon, we watch gardiens (cowboys who look suspiciously like Ben Cartwright and Richard Gere) round up their herd of rare black running bulls. Unlike traditional bullfights, the object here is to snatch a ribbon from between a pair of sharp horns. Very civilized.

On Friday morning, with the imposing castle of Aigues-Mortes in sight, the golfers depart for their final round. Robert Trent Jones’ resort course, La Grande Motte, reflects the famed designer’s mischievous tendency to put bunkers right in front of the greens.

As the non-golfers shop for postcards and Camargue sea salt, and walk atop the 14th century castle walls, I’m wondering how to safely transport my precious olive oil home. But first, Thierry has pulled out all the stops for our farewell banquet. The golf stories and prizes are paired with excellent wines as the new friends linger over a bittersweet adieu.

Epilogue
While sleepily packing in the wee hours for a 5 a.m. departure, I must have concluded that my precious olive oil would be safer in a carry-on than checked luggage. Bad idea, says the customs guy as he gently pries the liquid gold from my hands. Well, he can't confiscate the memories. ______________________________________________________

PerryGolf, www.perrygolf.com, (800) 344-5257
2010 golf cruises: June 12–19 and Sept. 18–25. $6,095/golfer; $5,595 non-golfer, all-inclusive except electric golf carts, 5 percent crew gratuities, air and transfers to Le Phenicien.

The prestigious golf travel company celebrates its 25th year with the introduction of a new epicurean program blending equal parts food, wine and worldwide golf destinations. C’ést magnifique.

More cruise destinations:

www.atravelcrew.com,
(239) 592-7233

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