A Day Of Joy En Provence

If I must get a cab at the tender hour of 3.30am, then let the driver be that gentle Sufi, with his broad love of all things spiritual and his CDs of devotional music.

Wales was asleep, save for a few vacationers at the capital’s tiny airport.

Two flights (and a 4-hour stopover in Holland) later, amidst an assortment of unknown faces, a mixture of languages, and mingled colognes, I arrived in Nice, seeking my next ride. I soon met with familiar smiles, and we followed the Côte d'Azur by car.

I’d only seen the South of France on telly and in magazines, but it really is just so. Take Saint-Paul de Vence, where we paused for an hour. Rodin’s Le Penseur holds one eternal thought. A surround of mountains reflects his stillness and solidity. The buildings cling together on a narrow ridge, leaving only slender cobbled alleys where the artists trade.

The men were at petanque in the square. The ladies offered wares in the market – knobbly lemons, sweet-peas tied in bunches, honey in jars with cloth-covered lids, leathery greens, and potted herbs.

The colours were utterly vivacious. There in the generous sun spread orchards of olives, mandarins still hung from their birthplace branches, brilliant bougainvillea competed with roses clambering for wall space, but all were outshone by curtains of perfumed jasmine draping the ochre walls and red-tiled roofs.

We gasped at the views, we shopped, we chatted, and meandered through the alleys until an ice cream parlour beckoned our curiosity. (Despite extensive research) I have never found proper Italian gelati outside of Italy, but there it was – fresh as clouds, fruitier than fruit itself, tray upon tray of light Heavenly sweetness. We took our tubs to a patch of sun and had our blissful fill, entranced in the jasmine air.

Our road climbed to Les Courmettes, and on we drove, skirting the raw cliffs, transcending points we took for peaks.

It seemed our resting place was more in the sky than beneath it. The air moved not at all, but sounds betrayed much life in the mountains. Sweet birdsong heralded twilight with the chirping of crickets. The throaty groan of goats and the clang of their neck-bells suggested it was time for turning in.

Our lodgings were extraordinary - one stout rustic house, so old and rooted in the earth it seemed an annex of the mountain. Wreathed in homely roses, it peered down to Mediterranean miles of blue.

Here were many familiar smiles – some returning from an evening hike or strolling through the adjoining meadow, others simply gazing at the view. I had never tasted bread the way my grandmother used to bake it, but there it was, in earthy rounded loaves – one wholesome feature of a fully wholesome meal offered by our hosts.

It is not always hot in the South of France, especially not up a mountain at night – so we discovered at our evening meditation. We were warmed by Sri Chinmoy’s poetry and songs (and admittedly by some borrowed blankets).

The blankets followed us to our rooms for a cosy sleep, and back down again for 6am meditation, where we discovered new faces had arrived overnight. We sat silently as the birdsong heralded dawn, and the clang of neck-bells suggested it was time to start the day. We sang together and then did just that.

The traditional Joy Day 2-mile race was not easily arranged on such terrain. The incline made it all but impossible to run for most, yet it was the most fun I have had in a 2-miler, and with by far the most spectacular views. The goats came out to watch, and I must say that goat-fondling made for yet slower times, particularly amongst the female runners.

Breakfast al fresco was accompanied by the same views and indeed some of the same goats. Their brown coats made them fawn-like but with such an affectionate and inquisitive nature as to win the hearts of many a human. One – whom we were sure must have some unicorn connection (above right) – did not mind helping herself to any dish within reach.

There is something about togetherness that makes the impossible seem altogether feasible. Our race was not our only exploration of the local terrain. A hike turned into a spot of amateur mountaineering as we tackled a nearby peak. Perhaps in search of yet more views, or perhaps just because it was there, we soldiered up the ever-steepening face, over boulders, through dappled groves with rough rubbly passages, snatching glimpses of the widening ravine, and scents of wild rosemary, thyme, and lavender.

It was time for me to take an easier route across the Alps to Holland again, and on to Wales. Peering down at the snowy tufts of mountain beneath me, I feel I carry weeks-full of sun and laughter with me – polished bright by friendship, broadened by silence, humbled by nature, and closer to God from just one day in that paradise: Provence.

Sumangali Morhall
June 2006