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High on Provence

In the Hill Towns Strung Through the Haut Var, Above the Flashy Riviera, Are Delectable Tableaus of the French Art of Living

April 19, 1998|MORT ROSENBLUM | Mort Rosenblum lives in Paris and Provence and is the author of "Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit" (North Point/Farrar, Straus & Giroux). His last article for the magazine was on Spain

Driving down a narrow road in the wilds of southern France on the way to dinner one night, I got caught in a traffic jam, just as I often do in Paris. But it wasn't exactly the same. A thousand sheep ambled by, following a raggedy shepherd who looked as if he hadn't changed clothes since the 17th century.

This, I decided, happily counting sheep, was the heart of Provence.

Depending on your map, or your historical prejudices, Provence can stretch all the way from Nice to Nmes, west from the Italian border halfway to Spain. It can run from the Camargue marshlands on the Mediterranean to high up into the Alps.

What is Provence? In fact, it is simple enough.

Never mind official geography. When the scent of lavender wafts through your car window, boule balls click in town squares and people add a G to words that ought to end in N, you're in Provence.

The posh part is around St. Remy-de-Provence, with its stonework mansions and lush fields, where each weekend expensive German coach-work jams the country lanes behind clattering Citroen 2 C.V.s. Then there is the Lubern near Aix-en-Provence, heavily peopled with Japanese tourists seeking the long-gone author Peter Mayle (he moved to Long Island). For Roman remains, there is Arles at one end, Frejus at the other. The Provence in Marcel Pagnol's classic stories might still be found in a beguiling patchwork that has escaped urban sprawl from Marseille to Aubagne.

But I like the Haut Var, a region of the high country strung with little villages perched among oaks and olives. This is honey and truffle country, where farm families cling to a disappearing way of life by hauling their green beans, goat cheese and fresh eggs down to weekly markets.

I'm not, of course, a neutral source. My decade in the Haut Var started in 1987 after a visit to a friend's retreat here. By the second day, I was scouring the hills for real estate. Now the restored ruins of my house, which sits among the 200 ancient olive trees that willed themselves back to life, color my objectivity. I know what I like.

The Haut Var takes in the loosely defined highlands of the Var, a French departement (state) that spreads north from the Mediterranean port of Toulon and the coast around St.-Tropez. From Cotignac to Bargemon, via the old Roman crossroads at Aups, narrow roads snake through flower-splashed stone towns. The high Var runs south from the Gorges du Verdon, France's bite-sized version of the Grand Canyon, with its breath-catching vistas and swimmable lakes. It drops down to the little city of Draguignan, midway between Toulon and Nice, and due north of St.-Tropez. Along the way are towns with unfamiliar names: Tourtour, Seillans, Mons, Lorgues, Salernes, Ampus.

In the ancient style, many of these villages were built atop steep hills, so narrow streets wind upward from thick walls toward an imposing church. Stone spires doubled as belfries and watchtowers. Other towns were positioned halfway up the hill, straddling a river or a Roman road. Each had fountains, public squares, marketplaces, mills and stone laveries for washing clothes. Centuries back, French kings ordered trees planted along roads and plazas.

Outside the villages, settlements grew up around bastides, the main houses of terraced olive groves and farms. Simple shelters, cabanons, expanded with each generation to become rambling grand manors, with barns, watering pools and monster fruit trees. In town, or deep in the woods, people invariably built with ochre-tinted natural stone, oaken beams and curved red roof tiles.

Some modern outrages notwithstanding, the result is a picturesque tableau of times long gone. Beauty lies in the details: iron fancywork, louvered shutters, cornerstones, lintels, roof lines. Killer geraniums rise from tiny patches of dirt between stone walls. The royal trees now tower majestically, shading the old men who clunk boules to raucous laughter until the afternoon light fades.

Hardcore sightseers can find the odd Roman bridge, all but forgotten down a rutted road, spanning high above a wild mountain stream. But this corner of France attracts outsiders less interested in landmarks than in people living the way their great-grandparents did, all within an hour or so of the flashy discos on the French Riviera.

Guidebooks seldom mention this micro-region, and only detailed maps take note of it. It has a reputation for mediocre wines and so-so cuisine. A hearty band of devotees, who know better, prefer it that way.

"They've built another one of those damned roundabouts," Nicholas Mailaender is apt to mutter if you stop near Aups for any of the jillion varieties of fresh fruit jams his wife and daughters make in copper tubs atop an old iron stove. Traffic engineers seem determined to stamp out simple crossroads on the two-lane blacktops that thread among the hills, and it infuriates a lot of locals.

Others, comfortable in their bit of paradise, don't mind sharing the secrets.

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