SPRING ARRIVES EARLY IN THE ALPILLES. By the end of February, the almond trees are in blossom, snowy pink promises of more to come. In March, leaves suddenly appear on the chestnut, linden and plane trees that border every country road and village street. With April come roses, jonquils, irises and the flowering of the peach and pear and apricot trees. Soon everything explodes into color and the herbs of the garrigue (the Provencal moors)--thyme and rosemary, chervil and sage--perfume the soft, warm air.
The Alpilles are a short, sharp range of mountains in the south of France, just east of the Rhone River--great balding, pine-stubbled white rocks lurching out of the Provencal plain, carved into strange shapes by the violent lashings of the Mistral, the region's punishing north wind, and by the quarrying hand of man. Spread beneath them are the fertile fields of Provence, checkerboard acres of vineyards and silvery olive groves outlined by single files of black-green cypresses--Van Gogh landscapes, just as the artist himself painted them, again and again, during the two years he lived in the region, in Arles and St. Remy.
Sun-dappled St. Remy is the most seductive town in the Alpilles. It's the quintessential Provencal village: narrow streets of stone houses with jaunty blue-gray shutters and hanging geranium pots, a rectangular central square with a miniature City Hall and a Saturday morning market, a handful of shops, restaurants and little hotels, all enclosed within a circular avenue shaded by plane trees. St. Remy is lighthearted and uncomplicated. Its contagious joie de vivre erupts periodically in festivals such as the Carreto dis Ase (Donkey Cart) on May Day, when several dozen donkeys tow a flower-cart through town; or the Abrivados, the arrival of the bulls, held on Bastille Day (July 14), Aug. 15 and the last Sunday in September, when six bulls are run through the streets to general mayhem--a sort of mini-Pamplona.