Two working days in Provence for David happily combined with a visit to Saturnin-lès-Apt in the Lubéron where we spent the weekend with Rob and Joanna (and other friends) in their new property La Madre de Dieu.
British Airways from Heathrow delivered us safely and on time to Marseille’s terminal 1 (the smart end) and Firefly produced the car in time for us to reach our rural B&B Le Mas de la Noria before sunset, close by the A50 and La Cadière-d’Azur, north of Bandol. Madame explained the family’s routine (including the school walk) and we agreed breakfast at 08.00.
The village of La Cadière-d’Azur was on the other side of the main road, built on an imposing ridge of rock, and though undoubtedly dependent on tourism, has settled for an extended weekend model of services, with only Le Regain open for dinner on Wednesdays. Our competent if expensive supper was accompanied, unsurprisingly, by a local Rosé – the first of many. So far, so good.
We must have been tired! Not only did we miss our breakfast deadline, but we woke with only 32 minutes before our first appointment. Madame was forgiving; breakfast in the conservatory was rushed but delicious with the vineyards almost in reach, while the mistral winds had put paid to Monsieur’s daytime occupation – fishing off Bandol.
He explained that La Suffrene was visible from our breakfast table, as well as the local vineyard. To walk would have taken no longer than our scurrying drive. We were ‘politely’ late, giving our host Cedric just time to down his espresso before giving us a comprehensive and very detailed explanation of Bandol’s ways. A great start for this fact-finding visit. Cyril – shy and relatively new, took over for the tasting, keen to explain exactly where the top wine’s grapes are grown; best achieved by a rough terrain buggy, he thought; or, yes, even on foot…. clearly a strange idea.
Our next appointment was at Le Château Pibarnon to the south of La Cadière-d’Azur with a windy drive rising high enough to catch glimpses of the sea around Bandol’s coast. The winery is the creation thirty odd years ago of a Paris business man keen to grow grapes and make wine. The beautiful house and its astonishing setting overlook the extraordinary amphitheatre of terraced vineyards, ‘worthy of Epidaurus’ as their publicity rightly claims.
We turned north for Cotignac, and an appointment at 15.00 with a surprisingly youthful-looking wine consultant Nathalie Longefay. Lunch was eaten en route – a very delicious french pizza from a roadside Boulanger. We were slightly late, having arrived in sleepy Cotignac metres from Mirabeau’s tastefully but inconspicuously signed shop, and then lost time navigating its quaint if narrow and one-way streets. Mirabeau is the small but fast-growing project of an English couple committed to quality and a fashionably pale colour. First choice of the discerning hen party!
La Maison du Bonheur made us welcome and gave us helpful instructions on both car parking and dinner. The restaurant (not café) of L’Hôtel du Cours was deemed to be the only authentic place in town. And as important, it was open.
The following morning I drove, turning south via Le Luc and the very quiet and fast A5 for La Londe les Maures and Domaine Ott* . After a quick tour of the winery, Angelique handed us on to Jean-François Ott to answer David’s technical questions.
Jean-François was very generous with his time, explaining their vine replacement and training policies (the old vine below was about to be grubbed up…)
as well as taking us for a tour of the vineyards in his golf buggy and a visit to the sea
followed by a comprehensive tasting of his delightful wines. Thank you!
The Provence coastal strip seemed as densely inhabited as the M27 corridor in south Hampshire and as busy on this Friday afternoon, but still awaits its motorway. None the less, we pressed on to nearby Clos Cibonne to sample the indigenous Tibouren variety.
The family business is rejoicing still in the far-sightedness of an earlier generation having this variety included in the production regulations (Les cahiers des charges) of the region, and is now making the most of its rarity value, still using its historic label. (Not to mention an authentic Roman amphora propped up in the cellar!)
It was a slow drive to St Saturnin lès Apt, made slower not only by endless tolls but also by our choice to drive over the Montagne du Lubéron via Pertuis and Cadenet, but we arrived at our google destination as dusk set in. There was an element of déjà vu; the road disappeared down an improbable narrow wooded track, marked only by a notice prohibiting wood foraging. (Pontessieve Sept ‘18 – to be precise for the pedant – sprung to mind.)
Of course Jason had ploughed on; Jason would. We took advice – and having learned the postal name of the property La Madre de Dieu, we finally achieved – by metalled road.
The property was delightful, and the company pretty good too! Rob and Joanna had assembled a blind tasting of four each of the region’s white, rosé and red wines, and we guests – Jason, Suzanna, David and I – had a wonderful evening eating and drinking the delights of the Lubéron and Provence.
The next day we were gripped by the needs of the garden despite the local market’s charms (Joanna’s and Suzanna’s preference) and Rob’s mild impatience with our insistence that the new mower be petrol driven. (Even Jason’s tolerable French failed to impress as we tried to buy the shop’s display model at a discount.)
It is interesting how much more mowing other people’s grass appeals than one’s own. David did the first rough cut and Jason was on his third by the time four of us peeled off to visit the curious reservoir and barrage, way above the little town, and the newly restored wooden windmill.
The next day the house was shut up for the winter, and we went our separate ways after a sunny outdoor lunch in the town of Goult; some to Marseille, Jason to Nimes, to fly home. We moved on to Aix-en-Provence, to the hospitable and good value Hôtel Paul, a very short walk to the pedestrianised centre. The city’s cathedral is on the site of the Roman forum, but suffers today from its cramped position near by, but not facing the main square.
Aix teemed with young people enjoying the warm autumn sunshine. Les Deux Garçons cafe made for a very civilised early evening aperitif and the Table Saisons restaurant provided excellent supper. The drive to Marseille next day was reasonably straightforward despite the heavy morning traffic. Easyjet left on time (from the bargain end of the airport) and we avoided serious train delays at Gatwick by taking a train heading for London Bridge and then benefitting from an unscheduled stop by a Gatwick Express at East Croydon. Home by 15.00!