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Destination: France

Return to Old Provence

Medieval Venasque is rural France at its best, though a bit of its romance is gone now that tourists have discovered the town

October 11, 1998|ELEANOR KEATS

VENASQUE, France — Twenty-five years ago, when we first discovered Venasque, doves were nesting and cooing in the blackened ruins of some medieval buildings. The only epicerie in the village had no refrigeration and almost no light. Instead, a cool marble counter top kept tasty foods--earthy French ham, brie cheeses and local olives--from perishing, while the darkness aided this process by keeping out the hot sun of Provence.

My composer husband, Donald, had won a grant that allowed us to live anywhere, so for five months we called Venasque home. Our three children attended a two-room schoolhouse where tiny, husky-voiced Madame Chalandard pointed to each of the French words on the blackboard with a long stick as the class chimed their pronunciation together. Our 6-year-old Jocy's main memory of school was having to wipe her lunch bowl clean with bread and sop up every last bit of soup.

But to us adults, this was all a marvel. We were living in an exquisite medieval village on a soaring plateau in Provence with houses strung out like beads. Except for these attached houses, there seemed to be only one of everything else in town. We delighted in being able to say church, gate, wall, fountain, bakery, cemetery. We exulted in finding a village so small (only 300 inhabitants) that life could be reduced to its essentials within a stone's throw. One could traverse Venasque in 10 minutes, on foot.

Broad Saracen stone walls anchored one end of town, where old-timers played boule on the ramparts. The unornamented, plain geometric lines of the 12th century Norman church, rectangular with a triangular bell tower on top, secured the other end. Behind it sat the mysterious 6th century baptistery built on a Roman foundation, with four rounded apses supported by carved Roman columns. Ancient grayish stone was illuminated by softly golden mystical light coming in from the right over the simple altar.

The few people in Venasque then were stereotypically French. Monsieur Buou, the mustachioed postman, delivered mail from his bicycle, carried long baguettes over his shoulder and wore a beret. The family that ran the bakery were rumored to have "talked to the Nazis." And the mayor was a cheery farmer who once arrived at our doorstep at Christmastime, unwrapped a wrinkled newspaper and pulled out a large truffle as a gift.

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Times change. Now Venasque has been officially designated un beau village, one of the most beautiful villages in France. Of course, once word got out, Venasque became chic, a great place for Parisians or people from Lyons and Marseille to get away for a weekend or buy a country house; and for Germans, Americans and Swiss to come visit.

We had been back to Venasque for short visits, but last fall we spent two full weeks there. It is still an absolutely beautiful village, and its popularity has helped fund repairs to the town and put it back in better shape. But for us the place doesn't quite have the same sense of mystery and romance. When we first saw the village, it rose from the valley like a spectral vision from another age, sending us back to all the fairy-tale settings we'd ever dreamed ourselves into as children. "Where are we?" we used to ask ourselves, shedding several hundred years as though waking up from a long sleep.

Today, the lovely stone fountain in the main square still rings out its watery music, though all its cracks have been fixed. There's now a sewer system instead of soapy-water drainage down canals, and the bumpy cobblestones have, alas, been smoothed over. The men no longer play boule on the ramparts, for they, and this old Provencal custom, are dying off. But the extraordinary view from up there of white-capped Mt. Ventoux, the highest mountain in Provence, with a limestone summit that looks like snow, remains unblemished. The fields below Venasque are still patterned with rows of grapevines and cherry trees, the cliffs have stayed verdant with rampant growth around exposed ledges of limestone, and the white cemetery in the valley, with old Venasque names, remains punctuated by two dark green cypresses.

The convent at the foot of Venasque's cliff seems untouched and is largely responsible for the fact that the landscape has barely changed and probably never will. Martine Maret, proprietress of the charming blue trompe l'oeil-doored B&B called La Maison aux Volets Bleus, told me the convent buys up all vacant land in the valley for farming purposes and will never allow the growth of dense suburbs around the cliff-perched village. The nuns form the majority of voters in Venasque and thus have considerable power to help elect a mayor and make sure their needs are met. France's historic preservation laws also help.

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