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Soaking Up Flavors of Provence

Finding fine food and wine in the lavender-scented shadow of ancient Roman ruins

September 29, 2002|CANDICE REED

VAISON-LA-ROMAINE, France — Rays of sun spilled over my shoulder as I stood on the terrace of our bed-and-breakfast. They poured onto the Ouveze River and the lower part of town and caught on the hillsides, turning them lavender. As I looked out over the tiled rooftops, I noticed a small blue house on the opposite riverbank. It was a stroke of color among Vaison-la-Romaine's gray stone buildings. The shutters swung open on the upper floor. A couple stood in the window, and they embraced and kissed.

Romance comes naturally in this ancient city, as I would learn on my seven-day visit here last fall.

Before I arrived I had known about Vaison from American writer and cookbook author Patricia Wells, who lives with her husband in a converted farmhouse outside town. I envied her for being able to live in a region that is, essentially, an immense garden planted with vineyards, orchards and cypress trees and watched over by Mont Ventoux, at 6,300 feet one of the highest peaks between the Alps and the Pyrenees. Every time I roasted a leg of lamb or prepared the classic French potato dish called gratin dauphinois in my kitchen in San Diego, I thought of the bustling Provencal market where Wells filled her basket with fresh-picked tomatoes, purple stalks of asparagus and pungent ropes of garlic. And although I didn't bring any pots and pans to Vaison, I wanted to soak up the inspiration for her dishes, to sit in a cafe feasting on roasted chicken with apricot stuffing or some other culinary delight that I couldn't get back home.

My husband, Ralph, and I have the palates for fine wine but not the budget. Still, we have managed to visit Provence once or twice a year for the past decade, drawn by the region's good food and wine. This is the kind of place where, when they are not eating, people are either planning their next meal or talking about their last one.

Last October we were driving on curving country roads of the Vaucluse, the sun-drenched departement, or county, where the Alps and the plains of the Rhone River Valley meet, when I saw a small white sign with "Vaison-la-Romaine" painted on it. On impulse, I asked Ralph to turn our rented Renault up D938 toward the rolling green hills in the distance.

Vaison has a little more than 5,000 residents. In summer tourists swell the population, but it remains mostly a sleepy farm town with touches of sophistication. The fields along the banks of the Ouveze River, which bisects the town, contain mostly wine grapes.

People were living in Vaison as far back as 4,000 years ago, but it was the Romans who put this place on the map. They arrived in the 1st century BC and created a town called Vasio Vocontiorium on the north bank of the Ouveze. Drawn by the lush agricultural lands, wealthy Roman families moved in, building luxurious homes with gardens and mosaic-tile floors, as well as an amphitheater, a bridge, an aqueduct and baths.

Vaison's population soared to 10,000 by AD 14, and it became a center of politics in the region. The ruins of Vasio Vocontiorium are one of the largest and best-preserved Roman archeological sites in France, and they alone made our detour worthwhile.

We arrived at the base of the Ville Haute, or high village, an area of narrow medieval cobblestone streets at the base of a chateau, an abandoned stronghold that dominated the town in the Middle Ages. I saw a wood sign that pointed to a chambres d'hote, a B&B called L'Eveche. A few shops and restaurants were scattered around, and I made a note to peek in later after we checked in at L'Eveche, which was a bishop's palace built in the 16th century. Its owner, Aude Verdier, greeted us with a warm smile and a "bonjour" and led us past a small sitting room with a sofa, a few chairs and a mantel lined with regional guidebooks, up a steep, narrow staircase past walls filled with colorful posters of art shows featuring local painters. Using an old-fashioned skeleton key, she unlocked the solid wood door to the "rose room," named for the pinkish Provencal bedspreads and tiles in the large bathroom. I took in the whitewashed beamed ceiling, oversized tub and pink geraniums along the windows and promised myself a soak after I had satiated my hunger. Ralph was eager to taste the local wines, so we said au revoir to our hostess and set off on foot down the hill.

Walking past splashing fountains and a large city gate, we crossed the 2,000-year-old, 55-foot single-arched Gallo-Roman bridge that connects the old Roman city to the south bank's medieval Ville Haute. The river's slow, shallow current looked harmless enough, but a large marble memorial at the bridge's entrance reminded us that the Ouveze's periodic flooding had taken lives. It honored not only the men and women who died in all the wars the French had fought, but also 35 villagers who drowned in a flash flood in September 1992.

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