Jacki Hill-Murphy in Provence

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Jacki Hill-Murphy in Provence

Journey Nº6 - Provence

'The Adventuress', Jacki Hill-Murphy hops on her bike and rides through Provence, following in the tracks of one of her heroes, the Victorian butterfly collector Margaret Fountaine. Fountaine crossed the French countryside searching for specimens in 1861, on a heavy-framed bicycle while wearing a full-length dress. Jacki cruises from shuttered farmhouse to crumbling château, through sun-drenched fields of lavender, reliving Margaret's journey while giving thanks for progress made in bike technology and women's couture, but lamenting the difficulty of handling maps and handlebars simultaneously. 

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Dubbed ‘the Adventuress’, Jacki Hill-Murphy recreates the journeys of the first female explorers, fusing the untold stories of women from history with her passion for adventure. Since 1988, she’s been exploring and filming in some of the most inhospitable and remote places on earth – including her first major expedition crossing the Sahara and most recently a trip down the Amazon in a dugout canoe. 

Now in her 60s, the author, traveller and film-maker provides indisputable proof that age really is just a number. A few days cycling through hilly Provence would surely, we thought, just be a little light relief...   

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As I left Aix-en-Provence heading towards my first stop in Mimet, the golden sunshine, the smell of the ubiquitous lavender and the drifting blossoms from the fruit trees made me feel like the world was just made for cycling through. A few hours later, when the heat had become intense and I mistakenly arrived in a small village called Luynes, I was feeling a little less enthusiastic and much more inclined to do as the locals were doing. Outside a café, old men drowsed languidly on plastic chairs and looked more inclined to slide off onto the floor than to ride anywhere. They watched with sympathy and confusion as I desperately absorbed two pints of Panaché, the local shandy. Returning to the bike and the road I reflected that they definitely had the right idea.

Margaret Fountaine’s diaries talk of covering thirty miles in a single day, on a heavy Victorian-era bicycle while wearing a full-length dress. But, as I huffed up and down the wooded hillsides, I remembered sneaky mentions in the text of people carrying her luggage and even the occasional horse and carriage interlude. Curiously, she never mentioned getting lost, which was beginning to feature heavily in my version of the trip, thanks to unnamed country lanes and the impossibility of reading a map with both hands on handlebars. At one 'navigation stop' I found myself outside a farmhouse and a gaggle of children tumbled out to peer at me over the garden wall. Their mother soon appeared and they all made a great ceremony of plying me with water, for which I was extremely grateful.

A gaggle of children tumbled out to peer at me over the garden wall. Their mother soon appeared and they all made a great ceremony of plying me with water.

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Sometimes the beauty of getting lost is that it creates those chance encounters. Strangers came to my aid again later the same day, as I sat on a wall beside a roundabout, once more puzzled by the many routes through the hills winding into the distance. A local striding home from work took pity on the dishevelled English lady in the lopsided pink helmet and marched my bike up the short rise to his house. His wife took her husband appearing accompanied by a strange blonde with typical Gallic apathy and soon the two of them were loading the heavy green bike into the family car and driving me up the final climb to my first overnight stop. I was blissfully happy to be moving without pedalling. Sooner than I could ever have hoped, I had passed through the gate garlanded with soft pink oleander and sat on the terrace of La Bartavelle with the fragrance of lavender again drifting up out of the magnificent valley views, and a glass of rosé helping me to forget my sore backside.

In the morning, I awoke excited by the prospect of whizzing back down the hills of yesterday on my return to Aix-en-Provence. I was to carry on my trip by car and I pictured myself on my last ride - freewheeling with the wind in my hair. I had barely left the driveway when my tyre blew and I quickly discovered that a vital part of my repair kit had fallen through a hole in the pannier. I walked the entire 20km with the tyre flapping like a rubber glove!

I left Aix-en-Provence revelling in the luxury of the car and stopped in Salon-de-Provence, where a squat castle looked down over a jumble of weathered stone buildings and strips of bark peeled off plane trees in the heat, shattering on the pavement like falling tiles. After lunch, I pushed on to my second stop, La Bastide de Voulonne in Cabrières d’Avignon. The walls of the rustic country house among the fields shone gold in the sun and a shaded courtyard with a stone fountain gave the place a dreamlike quality. Dinner just happened when it happened, falling in with the rhythm of the day’s heat. As dusk came on, people gathered for drinks on the lawn and food slowly appeared until eventually a sociable, tranquil meal was suddenly in full flow. I had buffalo mozzarella so fresh that it exploded when the knife went in and the lavender infusing the air and tinting the scenery also appeared in the water, a gentle floral accent to every aspect of local life.

At La Bastide I saw what I realised was my first butterfly, a pale green Brimstone, whose angular shape and veined wings made it closely resemble leaves. I felt a pang of remorse that Margaret had taken so many in the collection that she had donated to the Castle Museum in Norwich, with the eccentric restriction that they wait 50 years to open the masses of trunks. When they finally did, they found a simply enormous number of specimens. In one of her journals she lamented, ‘the death of the butterfly is the one drawback to an entomological career.’

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The next day I set out for my final stop in Var. The route led me through Goult, where little stone dwellings seem to pop up out of the rock and there’s a real sense that people have lived this way for hundreds of years. I was so taken with Goult that I sneaked peeks in the windows of estate agents, picturing myself living below the 12th-century château or in the deep shade cast by the windmill over the dusty earth. Reluctantly I moved on to Gordes, often given the accolade of “the most beautiful village in France”. I sat on a verandah with a glass of wine, enjoying the vanishing spread of fields and hills and chatting to fellow guests. Her diaries reveal Margaret Fountaine to be an incorrigible flirt and in the spirit of her trip, I got talking to a handsome German man in a Panama hat. We headed to L'Isle sur la Sorgue for lunch, walked along the river and took pictures of the great waterwheels with mossy blades in the canals, narrow ancient streets full of antique shops, and locals carrying armfuls and armfuls of the ubiquitous lavender.

The Abbaye de Sénanque
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Continuing on to Var took me into the heart of Provence through landscapes of barley and sunflowers. I stopped at St. Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, at the foot of the St. Baume mountains, where I ate a floral and colourful salad involving nasturtium and viola flowers. I carried on to Cotignac, an amazing town packed with character, set against a great cliff with narrow streets of 16th and 17th century houses and curious fountains that bubble over with cool, clear, spring water. The Domaine Le Peyrourier in Var, my final stop, was a gorgeous example.

The exquisite, fortress-like guest house had immense charm and a remarkable garden where water trickled through ancient channels and sculptures hid among a sea of blooms. My hosts made homemade ravioli served unaffectedly with champagne and took me on an excited tour of their estate, bursting with the desire to share not only the beauty of the restored chapel and the view from the tower that surveyed their land, but the ethos that it embodied. “We don’t overweed or keep the gardens manicured, we never tell children to be quiet. We just want things to be relaxed and people to be happy.”

I reflected on Margaret Fountaine, who travelled here over a hundred years ago and who had inspired my journey. I wondered if, in the depths of these vast landscapes, nothing has changed. Quiet and quirky stone villages nestle within them and are testimony to a region of France that has retained its individuality and charm within the modern world and beckons us to return to its sunshine and lavender days.

 

My hosts made homemade ravioli served unaffectedly with champagne.

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An unforgettable moment

Vaucluse

The garden of La Bastide de Voulonne, in Vaucluse, is a paradise of aromatic plants. I immersed myself in discovering nature, putting names to plants and breathing in the heady aroma of its cultivated terraces and wild walks. Beyond the garden lay purple lines of lavender stretching out towards hills that cast deep shadows in the noonday sun. How could anything surpass this beauty? I smiled inwardly with pleasure that nature had provided me with such a wonderful backdrop for my visit.

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Take the journey

Provence map
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Where to stay

Stop 1

La Bartavelle

French Myriam and English Alastair, kind helpful hosts, share their traditionally-styled modern farmhouse, with exceptional views across the valley and sunrises framed by oak woods. Alastair knows every path and trail of the region off by heart and can send you on treks up through the woods to restaurants with sea views in the ridge-perched village of Mimet.

Stop 2

La Bastide de Voulonne

The utterly Provençal bastide sits in splendid isolation in a broad sweep of lavender fields spread beneath the ancient hilltop villages of the Lubéron. You’ll find ancient plane trees, wisps of tamarisk and yet more lavender in the grounds, while the produce of the herb garden and the cherry, apricot and fig trees will grace the table at dinner.

Stop 3

Une Campagne en Provence

An isolated paradise for all ages, overseen by a charming family and one dear old dog. Splash in the pool, enjoy the calm of a Mediterranean garden surrounded by vineyards, then tuck into delicious homemade food. Breakfasts are scrumptious; dinners put the accent on Provençal produce and their own wine.

Stop 4

Le Domaine des Tilleuls

Bowl down a tree-lined road into the touristy, buzzing atmosphere of the town, with its shops and eateries, then step through an ancient gate to the calm of a huge garden, cooling pool and the shade of lime trees, where cyclists can relax before taking on the famous Mont Ventoux ascent!