Every year, around late spring or early summer, Sam and I visit his family in Florence, Italy, and my family in Slovakia. During this time, we are able to immerse ourselves in the warmth and vibrance of our parents' and siblings' lives, with invitations left and right to non-stop get-togethers where we celebrate a few days with our folks, who call us "the Americans." But before we join our families, we like to venture out on our own. It's our annual European honeymoon, where we get to escape the everyday rat race of life and relax, explore and enjoy. This time we embarked on a ten-day tour of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur in Southern France.
You wake me up with a kiss. "Bonjour, my love," I hear your gentle whisper in my ear. My face turns into a smile as my soul returns from a galaxy of dreams to reality with you. It is a beautiful morning in June, fresh scent of gardenias is in the air. Then I realize we are in Provence, France, and my face is griming now. A wave of excitement of a new day in a foreign land dashes me out of bed. So much to see, do, explore, and most importantly, to taste. After all, we are in France.
Minutes later, we run down the flight of stairs from our rented apartment in Aux de Provence, and we are in a small square with a thousand-year-old fountain. The sound of slowly trickling water for a moment brings me back to a memory of my childhood, fountains of Zilina, a town in Slovakia where I grew up. They were all around the town, just like here. I can't resist; I put my finger into this cascading freshwater as we stroll by. It's predictably refreshing.
Ten more steps and we are across the street in a local boulangerie (bakery). One fresh baguette, two chocolate croissants, and two plain croissants complete our breakfast order. We exchange a look and smile, "we won't eat all of it this morning" we fool ourselves. Moments later, we are back in the apartment, sipping on a fresh coffee. I am taking a bite out of the best baguette with butter and jam that I have ever had. Life feels complete to me in this simple moment, as I am indulging in my favorite food. You start with a croissant, rolling your eyes back from enjoyment. Words are not necessary; I know we both feel ecstatic.
After we struggle to leave behind some of the pastry for "later," we finish getting ready for the day out in the new town. Our first stop is checking out the local farmer's market. I can't wait. I read way too many blogs about this absolute 'must-do' in Provence, and now is my turn to live it. Needless to say, a local food market, wherever I am, would be exciting. This is the next level. I am ready; fresh strawberries, peaches, lavender, cheeses, here we come.
As we get to the market, I am overwhelmed. There are so many places to stop, so many fruits, meats, spreads to taste… so many flowers to admire. Am I really here or dreaming? I think to myself. I want to skip around, like a five-year-old, and yell out of joy: "Being here, experiencing this, all with you, makes me so incredibly happy."
About an hour later, I get my basket of strawberries 'to go,' and we are ready to move on to the next adventure - a lavender monastery a few miles out of the town.
We hop into our small rental Fiat 500. Sam tunes in a local French pop station, and we are driving down the two-lane country road with our windows down. My eyes are gorging on bursting red poppy fields, bordered by rows of cypresses, over whose tops we are admiring Alpine hills. Only a few puffy clouds across the sunny blue skies. This is summer in the South of France countryside 'vis-a-vis.'
Back in San Diego, California, I kept imagining how the Provence countryside will feel and look like. It was better. These views are giving Van Gough's "Poppy Field" painting run for its money. The air smells of sun, mélange of flowers, and carefree joy. I know that, unfortunately, we came here about three weeks too soon to see the lavender flower be in its full bloom and compete with the poppies for the glory. It is all right. As is, there is a lot of here to take in.
We inevitably stop several times to attempt to capture the South France poppies' beauty in full bloom on a film. Being here among these elements of nature, we both feel intoxicated, meandering around baffled in Van Gogh's painting. Surreal.
An hour later, we finally arrived in the famous lavender monastery as I named it. In reality, it is called - Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque. I think we didn't need to follow the GPS the last few miles – the sense of this monastery and its famous crop – was leading the way. Despite the lack of purple hue effect – this place is daringly romantic and peaceful. It's oozing of history and secrets that play on our curiosity.
We walk around the monastery, its fields, and the enigmatic buildings. The fully functioning lavender farm here is producing – soaps, oils, creams, scents for keen tourists like us to take a piece of France with them home. I struggle with not buying out the monastery's gift store from all its lavender offerings. Only the frugal airline weight limits and Sam's practicality are keeping me in check. We buy a few items for our families only. And now, leaving the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, instead of feeling intoxicated, we are high on a robust Lavender scent.
We arrive at Arles. Several travel blogs recommended Arles as among the most pictorial villages of the region. They all mentioned Van Gogh, who spent part of his life in this town, although the emphasis was on the colorful produce markets and hypnotic treats in the boulangeries. But the town is empty, it's Sunday, and most of the shops are closed. We don't mind. We stumble upon a beautiful square with yet another fountain and magnificent church.
We are walking in a shadow of history, the narrow streets where Van Gogh had put his stand and detailed his canvas with sunflower fields, poignant clouds, and bright stars. "The only thing that could make this better is a gelato," I tell Sam. And just like that, I follow my impulse to satisfy my craving.
We leave town with the mistral wind blowing through the air and the sensation that we had stumbled across Van Gogh's footsteps.
The next few days, our trip continues to Aix, Avignon, Verdon Gorge, and Bargemon. (On a side note, we wrote another blog about Bargemon and an amazing thing that happened to us there. The blog is called: Top Chef Surprise. See/click here for our earlier blog).
It's not until two days before crossing into Italy that we ran into the village of Saint Remy. From the highway, we see the neoclassical bell tower pointing out from a hill. We follow the signs of Saint Remy into town. "This is what I am talking about," I tell Sam. Boutiques, art galleries, cafés, and restaurants along the narrow cobblestone streets of this rural village. This time all of the businesses are open and welcoming.
Even though this village is remarkably similar to several other towns we had visited, it sits high on a hill with the Mediterranean Sea's most magnificent views. This place is so quaint, and I am instantly in love. As we walk through the town's famous cactus sculpture gardens and I am beyond indulging in all of my senses from the surroundings, you point out to me: "Yet again, destiny is guiding us into van Gogh's wings."
You continue: "Van Gogh spent several months in Saint Remy's psychiatric institution, where he painted the famous The Iris, The Starry Night, and many other compositions. The painting was therapeutic and a way to cope with his psychological discomfort. He relentlessly studied light, color, and portraits." I love how you always read about the background and indulge me in all these historical anecdotes and details.
Later that night, we sit on our Airbnb terrace, surrounded by the olive grove and serenading cicadas hiding behind the trees. We are enjoying sipping on a glass of wine, admiring a Mediterranean sunset while digesting another splendid day in southern France. Our stomachs, as well as our senses, are full. This place, trip is something else. There is yet still a lot ahead, but we want to slowly take everything in as it happens.
Tomorrow we have yet another adventure ahead. We are visiting a Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. It will be remarkable as the photos we saw promise. Probably even better. As I am falling asleep in your arms, excited for tomorrow, I close my eyes, and all I see are spectacular colors: the blues of the sea, the fuchsias of the roses, reds of the poppies, golds of the sun, and greens of the olive trees. Just like Van Gogh's paintings, the life here is bursting in exciting hues, and I am grateful to experience it with you, my love.
~ Written by: Viktoria Rusnakova & Samuele Bagnai, authors of Enthusiastic All the Way & Tuscan Who Sold His Fiat to the Pope, respectively.
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