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Mediterranean Cruise, day nine: Provence, France

I admit it, I’m one of the Francophiles who believe there are few places on Planet Earth more beautiful than Paris. Well, Readers, I can also admit when I’m wrong. I’ve now been thoroughly seduced by Provence. I’m cheating on Paris. My French tour guide Olivier did his job well, which as he told us: “My promise to you is to help your mind birth beautiful memories of Provence, full of crystaline light. Together we now drink in the joie de vivre that is the hinterland of Provence. To Lourmarin!” I mean, seriously. That’s the sort of poetic day I was in for right off the bat.

The Noordam docked in Marseille, the gateway to Provence via the Mediterranean Sea. Six-hundred miles south of Paris, Marseille has 1,000,000 inhabitants, making it the second largest city in France (behind Paris). The Noordam docked 12 miles from the city center and a HAL shuttle was 16 Euro roundtrip. I decided instead to become one of 22 million annual visitors to the “orchard of France.”

Prior to WWII, 50% of the French population were farmers. Today, only 8%. © 2014 Gail Jessen

Prior to WWII, 50% of the French population were farmers. Today, only 8%. © 2014 Gail Jessen

Our excursion was to take us to Roussillon and Gourdes, medieval hill towns (or as the French say in their lyrical way, “villages that are perched”). Our guide and driver decided to surprise us with a third town, Lourmarin. The town is most known for its olive oil production. I learned that 10 pounds of olives make one liter of oil. You always want to purchase the Extra Virgin Olive Oil, first press. They typically leave the green olives to ripen on the trees until deep black. Lourmarin was just waking up as we arrived. The village is small and winding, with friendly locals rightfully suspicious as to why we were invading their little village. I considered spending my free time people watching at a cafe in one of the town squares; but alas, I spotted a boutique selling scarves down an adjacent alley. Game over, no cafe for me. Clearly I needed to purchase something in which to wrap all those bottles of honey and olive oil. Totally justified.

I found the most charming part of Lourmarin to be the doors. © 2014 Gail Jessen

I found the most charming part of Lourmarin to be the doors. © 2014 Gail Jessen

The most significant difference I noticed between the medieval villages of Italy and France is that France has modernized the villages to a greater (more fashionable) degree. © 2014 Gail Jessen

The most significant difference I noticed between the medieval villages of Italy and France is that France has modernized the villages to a greater (more fashionable) degree. © 2014 Gail Jessen

This is a private residence in Lourmarin. It appears from the outside to be three stories with a single mailbox. Delightful. © 2014 Gail Jessen

This is a private residence in Lourmarin. It appears from the outside to be three stories with a single mailbox. Delightful. © 2014 Gail Jessen

Charm as only the French can. © 2014 Gail Jessen

Charm as only the French can. © 2014 Gail Jessen

On our drive through the mountains to Roussillon I learned about the pigeon houses of Provence. Back in the day owning pigeons was a sign of wealth. One bird equaled one acre of land. The pigeon houses are large stone towers, most converted into guest homes and B&Bs (something else to add to my wanderlust bucket list). The mountains climbed to 4,000 feet above the sea level of Marseille and wound around olive fields and wine vineyards. Someone on the coach asked about the lavender fields and Olivier broke the bad news: “Only three weeks from the end of June to beginning of July is there lavender in bloom. We hide it in the mountains nowhere near the sea, 2,500 feet up. What you think you will see is only a tourist brochure.” The disappointment was short lived as we rounded each corner and the panorama became ever more beautiful.

Once in Roussillon we had a bit of free time before lunch (included in the price of the tour). I spent my free time the way I’ve spent most of my time for the past eight days, which is to say getting lost in narrow cobblestone alleys, popping into non-souvenir boutiques when I see them, and photographing gorgeous labels in wine stores and unique doors I spy along the way. Rousillon is known for its ochre quarries and towering red rock formations. I felt right at home coming from Utah’s red desserts and stone arches. There were many places in my walk around the town to overlook the whole of Provence and admire the red cliffs on which the small village is perched.

The red ochre cliffs of Roussillon get their color from high iron oxide content. © 2014 Gail Jessen

The red ochre cliffs of Roussillon get their color from high iron oxide content. © 2014 Gail Jessen

Steep shortcut to the old town center of Roussillon. © 2014 Gail Jessen

Steep shortcut to the old town center of Roussillon. © 2014 Gail Jessen

The Maison Commune de Roussillon. Could there be a cuter town hall in all the world? No. © 2014 Gail Jessen

The Maison Commune de Roussillon. Could there be a cuter town hall in all the world? No. © 2014 Gail Jessen

We all met for lunch at Restaurant David in the Hotel Le Clos de la Glycine. It was elegant and delicious. The warm Provence light streamed in the windows as we overlooked the lush green valley. To say it was a charmed experience is an understatement. I may have picked up a Provence Real Estate Guide on my way back to the bus. You know, some day.

A posh Provencal lunch indeed. © 2014 Gail Jessen

A posh Provencal lunch indeed. © 2014 Gail Jessen

Gourdes is hailed as the most beautiful village in France. I would eventually like to visit every village in France to confirm (because journalism), but for now I’ll agree. It’s another village perched above rolling vineyards and chateaus. The name means water reserves or springs. Approximately 1,000 people live in Gourdes today and according to my Provence Real Estate Guide, you can rent a four bed, four bath property for 7,000 Euro in the month of July. I’m told the temperatures reach “no higher than 95 at that moment.” In related news, I’m also told there is a high speed train running from London, Paris, or Amsterdam that arrives in Provence in less than 6 hours. About the price tag Olivier cooed, “When you love, cheri, you don’t count.” He of course said this in French and I of course nearly signed the dotted line right then and there. Dreamy.

The view of Gourdes in the warm Provence sun is, as Olivier promised, a lasting memory. © 2014 Gail Jessen

The view of Gourdes in the warm Provence sun is, as Olivier promised, a lasting memory. © 2014 Gail Jessen

Thankfully at least one medieval engineer thought to put steps in their hilly streets. © 2014 Gail Jessen

Thankfully at least one medieval engineer thought to put steps in their hilly streets. © 2014 Gail Jessen

The Baroque church with tromploi painted everywhere was not at all what you'd expect from the stark stone facade. © 2014 Gail Jessen

The Baroque church with tromploi painted everywhere was not at all what you'd expect from the stark stone facade. © 2014 Gail Jessen

The stairs to the organ in the cathedral in Gourdes are built like the town, steep and narrow. © 2014 Gail Jessen

The stairs to the organ in the cathedral in Gourdes are built like the town, steep and narrow. © 2014 Gail Jessen

One parting word, if it’s even necessary, about the myth of The Rude French. I for one, on the record, have never had a negative experience in France. Not one. I speak enough French to get by and that may contribute to my friendly treatment, but regardless. Olivier explained the cultural difference in such a beautiful way in answer to someone’s question during our tour. He said that as long as you say “Bonjour” in the proper accent…and wait a moment…you will be treated kindly from there on out. He said, “To speak to the French, you pull us out of our mind. You pull us out of our reflection. This is the purpose of life, no? So you say hello and give us a moment. We are a thoughtful people. Slow down to go at the speed of France.”

Tomorrow the Noordam will go slightly faster than the speed of France as we enjoy a day at sea. We arrive in Barcelona the next morning. I’m going to be honest with you about Barcelona: We have an overnight in port…meaning I’ll be roaming the streets eating tapas well into the night…meaning I’ll likely write my Barcelona report on the flight home…meaning you can pop back here in a couple days to read the wrap up of this itinerary. It’s been a joy to share this experience with you, so do come back. We’ll finish strong.

Be sure to follow along in real time on Instagram and Twitter @fourthirtyam, hashtag #livevoyagereport. The Noordam Mediterranean Explorer Live Voyage Report landing page leads you to each day’s post.

I hope you’re enjoying your virtual vacation. Until the next report…bon voyage,

gail

Mediterranean Cruise, day eleven: Barcelona, Spain

Mediterranean Cruise, day eight: Nice + Eze, France