After the long drive to Banon from Paris, we'd hoped to find a cafe still serving a late-afternoon meal, something besides pastis, the powerful, licorice-flavored drink mixed with water that residents like to sip slowly.
“Could we get a sandwich?” I asked the waiter at the outdoor cafe in Banon's tiny main square.
“Desole,” he replied. “Sorry, the kitchen is closed.”
So we snacked on peanuts and decided to take a walk instead.
In the village of Banon, the only way to go is up, toward a castle built by Simiane, Lord of Banon, back in the 12th century. Simiane's family kept it running until the French Revolution, when the last owner, Alexandre Tournon-Simiane, was run out of town and the castle was burned.
The steep, newly paved road quickly turned to cobblestones as it wound past tiny hobbit-size doorways in the lower village, then through a strange stone portal marking the castle entrance. Above us were openings in the castle walls that defenders used to drop rocks and hot oil on invaders.
We rested twice before reaching the old church at the summit. The ancient wooden door opened not to rows of wooden pews or religious images, but to an exhibition of contemporary paintings. We'd stumbled upon one of the secret spots of Banon.
To many visitors, Provence has become synonymous with thousands of English and German tourists jamming narrow, winding roads with tour buses and camper vans. The idyllic village depicted two decades ago in Peter Mayle's “A Year in Provence” has become harder to find. But there's still some of the old Provence out there, a place that's more rugged but still has the sharp light and the breathtaking vistas that have drawn visitors to the south of France for generations.
Haute-Provence, or upper Provence, as this area is called, is a bit more like the hardscrabble landscape of Wild and Wonderful West Virginia than the pastoral Virginia Blue Ridge. It's more isolated and less affluent, but becoming a haven for some French artists and intellectuals looking for the next unspoiled place where they can find inspiration and enjoy a slower lifestyle.
We found this rugged rural spirit of Provence in Banon, a town of 1,000 people about two hours' drive east of Avignon. Banon is tiny, but known to the outside world (i.e., Paris) for two things: its chestnut-wrapped, brandy-soaked cheese and a four-story bookstore called Le Bleuet, tucked into a 15th-century stone building. After years of expansion, including to a warehouse just outside town, it now boasts more titles (190,000) than any bookstore in France except for one in Lille.
“I live in a privileged place,” says Joel Gattefosse, a Parisian who moved to Banon in 1990 to open Le Bleuet. “Even in August, it's calm. We have the sun, the light, the forest for walking.”
There are no hotels in Banon, just a few guesthouses. Like most summer visitors, we found our lodgings through a determined Web search, followed by emails and a phone call to the owner of a small apartment at La Bastide des Muriers. The renovated 17th- century stone farmhouse sits at the base of Banon, about a half-mile from the town center. The photos on the website looked pretty good, so we crossed our fingers.
My wife and I were looking for a place to see the French countryside after a week of tromping about the sidewalks, cafes and museums of Paris with our 7-year-old son, Diego. Rather than take the fast but expensive TGV train from Paris to Avignon, we decided to economize and rent a car for the entire nine-day trip.
Delays at the car agency in Paris pushed our departure to noon on a Friday, not a great time to be negotiating the city's famed peripherique, or beltway, along with thousands of other Parisians headed out of town for the weekend. We followed the Autoroute du Sud, a six-lane highway that winds down the heart of France through Burgundy, Lyon and the Rhone Valley.
Despite my best efforts to keep up with the southbound traffic, we didn't reach our overnight stop just north of Avignon until 9:30 p.m. To make matters worse, the hotel manager had misread the Internet booking and had reserved our room for the following night.
“I'm sorry, I just wrote it down wrong,” he told us. All his rooms were booked for the night.
We were hungry, tired and confused, and even my best French wasn't going to help us out of this jam. So we decided to place ourselves at his mercy. A few phone calls later, the owner had found us a room — for the same rate — at Le Moulin de la Roque, a nearby country lodge set in an olive grove. The next morning, our breakfast of fresh croissants, cafe au lait and sweet apricots made us feel as if we'd finally started our vacation.
And there was an unexpected bonus. It turned out that our lodge was only at few miles from Chateauneuf du Pape, a small village where Pope John XXII had established his own vineyard when the papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon in the 14th century. Today, the village of Chateanneuf du Pape is surrounded by France's top-quality Rhone Valley wine district of the same name. Its lush reds are characterized by powerful raspberry, violet and lavender flavors that come from a blend of up to 13 different varieties of grapes.
Sampling these wines was on my mind as we pulled up to a little knoll where the ruins of the pope's old castle overlook the Rhone. The stone archways and crumbling walls made a great playground. Diego and I fired imaginary arrows through openings in the thick stone walls.
We headed down the ancient steps from the castle to the town below as buses disgorged visitors in search of the same magical red wine. We stumbled into a cool tasting room built into the hillside over an old Roman wine cave. After a few tastes of Chateauneuf du Pape, I imagined myself living like, well, a pope with his own vineyard in southern France.
In the afternoon, my wife took the wheel of our Renault Clio as we headed east from the rolling vineyards to a massive mountain on the horizon — Le Mont Ventoux. The two-hour drive took us through more farmland, fruit orchards and agricultural towns. We stopped at a bicycle shop in Sault, a village perched at 2,500 feet.
Sault is a launching pad for cyclists of all abilities to make the 15-mile climb to the summit of Ventoux, the last few miles along a barren moonscape of white rocks that provide no shelter from often howling winds. I rode up Mont Ventoux with some friends in 2002 and then watched cyclist Lance Armstrong close the gap and nearly beat a French rider during the Tour de France. This year, a Kenyan rider for a British team crushed all his rivals on his way to winning the three-week race.
With three bikes strapped to our car, we pushed ahead on the 45-minute drive to Banon, winding through industrial-size lavender fields and down through the cedar forest into the town, arriving at La Bastide des Muriers just in time for a late-afternoon swim.
Diego was the first one in the water and quickly became friends with children from two French families through his expert use of cannonballs and an inflatable beach ball. Our room was small but had views of the rugged mountains above Banon and alternating patterns of gold and purple fields of wheat and lavender.
We spent the next week exploring Banon and the nearby towns of Haute-Provence. We canoed down the icy Sorgue river, which springs from an underground source at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse; hiked through formations of red ochre at the old Colorado de Rustrel quarry; and stumbled across a group of field workers harvesting lavender in the town next door.
Along the way, our daily ritual was simple: scavenge the countryside for the best ingredients to accompany Banon's creamy goat-milk cheese. Sometimes we had it with tomato salad and bread, other times with local sausages made with bits of pine nuts or walnuts, or as an hors d'oeuvre before dinner. Everyone we met had their own favorite food pairing.
“The best way to eat it is with a fresh potato,” counseled the proprietor of Super Banon, a small grocery in town with an impressive lineup of Banon cheese. He explained that each of the three-inch rounds of unpasteurized goat's milk are wrapped in bronze chestnut leaves and then aged in eau de vie, or fruit brandy. The result is a nutty, earthy flavor that's hard to find even in artisanal U.S. cheeses.
In the evenings, we found plenty of dining choices in Banon. The simple pizzeria La Braserade served great lasagna with outdoor seating at the town fountain. The wine bistro Les Vins du Vert served tastings of local charcuterie served on small slate plates. One night, we nibbled on ham with white truffle, country pate on toast, zucchini soufflé in a small Mason jar, olives and cheeses, all accompanied by a red blend from nearby Baux de Provence.
Of course, all this cheese-eating and wine-drinking required at least an effort to exercise. Splashing around the pool didn't really count. So I set out for a bike ride early one morning with Jean-Pierre, another guest at Les Muriers who had come down from Dijon with his wife and their three teenage children for a two-week stay.
Jean-Pierre had already ridden his bike up Mont Ventoux earlier that week, so we decided to attempt the nearby ski station at Montagne de Lure. We set out on a grueling 3,000-foot climb at an average gradient of 7 percent for 2 1/2 hours.
At the summit, we were rewarded with a fantastic view of the Provencal Alps and a few wayward mountain sheep. We celebrated with a few snapshots before the hairy descent back into the starting town of St. Etienne-les-Orgues.
The race to the bottom — our reward — took only about 25 minutes. By the end, our hands ached from gripping the brake levers. When we reached the tiny town, I passed a donkey pulling a farmer sitting on a wooden cart.
On the ride home to Banon, Jean-Pierre and I gazed at the forests of scrub pine and lavender growing along the roadside.
“The air here is different,” said Jean-Pierre. “That's why we come here. It's a bit wilder than the rest of France.”
My thoughts exactly.