The contrasts of southern France in March

Southern France in March is a place of vast and impressive contrasts. Of sun-drenched valleys ribbed by endless rows of budding lavender, all lorded over by craggy, snow-capped peaks that abruptly rise from the valleys to the heavens.

It is a place where lycra-clad cyclists work the winter kinks out of their muscles while testing themselves on routes frequented by the Tour de France, whirring through tiny villages and past elderly shoppers clad in down parkas on their way to a local market.

The brown landscape of rock and windswept earth torn bare of vegetation by the Mistral winds that pummel this region is peppered by vast groves of olive trees, apricot and cherry trees, and of course the ever-present vineyards that produce some of France’s best wines.20140305_074525

At sundown, the warmth of the sun rapidly dissipates at it ducks behind Mt. Ventoux, at 1912 meters looming so high over the smaller mountains and adjacent plains that it always serves as an effective landmark.

The abundance of local markets serve as colorful palettes against otherwise somewhat drab and grey villages still mostly asleep in the early spring. Stone homes and shops sport brightly painted shutters of lavender, blue and green, and many homes display carefully tended window boxes awash with brilliant pansies.  20140307_171358

In the markets, vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, clothes and countless produit de terroir appear as beautifully displayed explosions of color, fragrance and textures to the delight of the weekly shoppers. The merchants set up well before dawn and greet their first customers around 8. By 12:30 or 1, they are gone, abandoning the streets and alleys of Buis les Baronnieres to the few locals in search of a noontime feed, or to simply disappear as seems the rest of France at the mid-day hour.

Snowy mountains loom over barren valleys awaiting the kiss of summer's sun to come alive.

Rural France closes between noon and 2 (and sometimes 3), and it is common to find oneself unable to locate a place for a repas et verre du vin in some of the smaller communities.  Signs with “Ferme” grace most shops, and shuttered doors and windows in homes and apartments advertise that it is time for the locals to eat and relax.

We’ve learned that this is the best time of day to discover some of France’s best surprises.

Drive any road along a mountain pass and your breath will be stolen by a vista that is unimaginably beautiful. Round a corner on an unfamiliar pass – as we did – and stare, awestruck, at the wonder of a small church built 200 feet up on the peak of an enormous rock formation. There is only one way up to take Holy Communion in this place, and it is by foot.

With nearly two weeks into our time in Plaisians, we have circled most of the local routes and explored the peaks and valleys of this magical region. We have climbed nearly all of Mt. Ventoux – though in the confines of our wine-colored car, in stark contrast with the countless cyclists who follow the path of the sport’s greatest. Hinault, Anquetil, Fignon, LeMond, Contador and even Armstrong have suffered up the relentless vertical incline of Mt. Ventoux in pursuit of the reward at the top. The most famous part of the climb – the last six kilometers – was still closed due to heavy snow when we made the drive, so we were denied a close look at the iconic weather tower which signaled the end of a long day for many a spent cyclist.

We have bought “expensive” bottles of red in local caveau and degustations, sipped inexpensive rose in streetside cafes, and even bought a five liter plastic jug of cheap table wine from a wine cellar in Nyons.  The cost: About $10. When in France, do as the locals do, and there was a decent queue to snatch up the latest vintage when I bought mine. 20140313_123925

This is a place of sensory overload. Of stunning sights and soundless nights. Of starry celestial displays disturbed only by the blinking red light atop Mt. Ventoux. Of warm days that force us to shed layers and parade about a local market in t-shirts and jeans, only to scamper for the fleece and windbreakers should the sun depart behind a misguided cloud.

And when the sun goes down, we retreat to the warmth of a wood-fired stove and a wonderful canine companion named Noisette.

Life is good in Provence, whether you’re a pampered chocolate Labrador or two grateful foreign visitors who have been allowed a glimpse into a very special part of the world.