Well it’s been a bit of a hiatus since my last blog post, but for good reason. For the past few weeks I left the wonders of Tokyo to gallivant around Europe with my sister for a bit. My cousin had a beautiful wedding in the south of France, and we met in Europe for that occasion. So I’m going to diverge a bit from my Tokyo travel rehashings to devote one blog post to that trip. I spent about a week and a half solo-traveling in Paris, London, and St. Andrews, Scotland before meeting up with my sister. That leg of the trip was interesting, slightly lonely, and memorable in its own way, but by far my favorite part of the trip was our sojourn to the south of France, and not only for my sister’s company.
When we arrived in Avignon, equipped with our ill-fittingly fancy BMW that, after many tribulations, incomprehensible fees, waiting, and French impatience we managed to rent at the train station, we contemplated severely the debatable appeal of this place. To be fair, we entered in on this discussion after 2.5 hours drenched in sweat at the Avignon train station, already hundreds of dollars poorer than when we had arrived. But to us (seasoned world travelers no doubt), this place couldn’t compare in exoticness or handsomeness to many of the vastly cheaper places we had visited (e.g. Ogasawara Islands). It seemed like perhaps the unique beauty had been overstated, and nothing, in fact, made it completely worthy of its exorbitant costliness.
About 40 minutes of contemplative cruising and near accidents on the tiny French roads later, we arrived at our inn, which soundly silenced our debate.
The inn we stayed in was a gorgeous manor that stretched over acres of greenery. Our room itself was enormous, with high ceilings, antique mahogany furniture, a fireplace, a claw-foot tub in the similarly enormous bathroom, and nearly floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the garden below. We immediately befriended the two dogs on the property, who we took the liberty of naming Butler (pictured left following my sister), and Piggy (pictured right, just barely, waiting patiently at the inn’s kitchen entrance). Butler’s name came from the fact that he followed us around the property, seemingly to offer his services, though he ultimately proved to be unhelpful in unloading our luggage from the car. Piggy just sounded unmistakably like a little piggy.
It was immediately clear that this is why you visit the south of France. Nothing I had experienced before compared to this warm, lush, austere beauty. What might otherwise have been a cold, ostentatious, severe handsomeness, became softened, cozy; wrapped in the balmy southern air and the pervading scent of thyme and lavender. For something so wildly out of our budget and vastly richer than our tastes, its comfort felt so natural and effortless; its luxury so idyllic.
After luxuriating in our new home for quite some time, on the day following our cousin’s 10-hour wedding, we ventured (on our cousin and her new husband’s recommendation) to a nearby monastery in Provence renowned for its fields and fields of lavender.
Unfortunately, most of the monastery (including the lavender gift shop it supposedly had) was closed by the time we had arrived around 5pm, so we had to make our own tour of the place around the grounds. We walked around the side gates and towards the back fields, peering up at the stone windows and imagining cloaked monks slowly shuffling through the halls clutching candlesticks, poring over books (we stubbornly ignored the signs of electric lighting on the outdoor staircases– I think we were more or less envisioning the monastery from “Ever After;” not completely inappropriate given the location).
The dirt path we followed crossed around and through fields, with more and more stones encroaching upon the path, until it was nothing but stones, all the while winding upwards and downwards. After a short, steep ascent, we rested on some boulders in a clearing where two crosses had been lain in stones. While we rested my sister regaled me with a story that she had just heard on a pod cast, about an orthodox Jew living in a completely isolated society, until he was exiled from the community when his discovery of the Internet “radicalized” him. A very sad story I thought! The community lives in complete ignorance of the outside world. They’re not completely technology-adverse like the Amish–rather, they only ban technology that could be perceived by the community elders to threaten the cohesion of the society. The story’s hero was the first member of the society to use the Internet, and at that point no one had any idea what the Internet was, and therefore didn’t understand its threat. Once this small window into the rest of human life had opened for him, he found it very hard to live in this dark and profound isolation. At the end of her story, the Jewish man received a photo of his daughter’s wedding, which he didn’t even know was taking place. And as he looks at her beaming face, all he can think is how incredible to him it seems that she can look so happy when he is no where in her life. And so we peered over the fields onto the monastery below, and entered into some mild religious musings, before continuing on our walk.
I think my sister looks like Tess of the D’Urbervilles in that picture on the right. I might have said as much to her at the time, but I don’t think she responded very enthusiastically, as I had recently categorically denounced the book. The problem with that book is that the modern reader is on board with Thomas Hardy from Tess’s first tragic turn, which makes the rest of the book, where he attempts to prove that Tess should not be judged or condemned for the misfortune that befell her, but pitied and even exalted, a completely pointless, tiring exercise.
But continuing on our walk, the stone path eventually led us to the mountains behind the monastery. We boldly thrust forwards and began a steep, slippery, stony descent. We stumbled down the rocks, not talking much, focused wholly on not losing our footing, and vaguely following the phantom sound of rushing water that we assumed belonged to a nearby stream, which perhaps we could follow back towards the increasingly-distant monastery. We continued in this way for maybe an hour, climbing the rocks, following the poorly-marked trail, our confidence and adventurousness starting to waiver. And just as we hesitated on our next turn, the most horrific, blood-freezing growl sliced through the air, and we had to beat a quick, laborious retreat.
But we were rewarded for our recklessness; returning upon the lavender fields just as the sun began to set.
I think that meandering hike with these beautiful oceans of lavender was my favorite memory of the trip. And I believe that this peaceful monastery captures our trip to Provence well, with its grandiose tranquility. The south of France is certainly known for its extravagance and luxury. But it’s a warm and tranquil luxury that is truly unique. If you’re lucky enough to have the fortune to visit, it’s another place that shouldn’t be missed. Maybe when I’m older and the budget better suits my lifestyle I’ll go back. I only hope Butler and Piggy are still there to greet me.