Provence forever at the foot of Sainte-Victoire – Meanderings through France n° 203
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
Provence shelters a small valley stretching at the foot of the Sainte-Victoire Mountain. It’s called Vallée de l’Arc. Its landscapes are a harmonious patchwork of vineyards, olive trees, pasture and forests. Created by Mother Nature and human labour, this preserved area is today valued and developed by dedicated farmers and craftsmen. A 90 km long hiking path has been created and invites us to discover the sweet Provencal way of life.
Ever since Paul Cézanne immortalized Mount Sainte-Victoire on numerous paintings, capturing its very soul, it seems that this iconic mountain is part of our collective unconscious and saying its name is enough to evoke its sun drenched white cliff, the scents of garrigue and the cicada song.
You may call these the never-ending Provencal clichés… Maybe yes, but here, no matter how sophisticated you may be, you could well fall under the spell of this magic mountain. Just like Cézanne did…
“Emblematic Mediterranean Mountains”, a new European network
This network has been created to promote, in a sustainable and authentic way, iconic European mountains. There are two in France, Sainte-Victoire and Mount Canigo in the Pyrenees, two in Italy, Etna Volcano and Gran Sasso the highest peak in the Apennines, two in Greece, Mount Olympus and Mountain Idi in Crete, two in Spain, El Pedraforca in Catalonia and Serra de Tramuntana of Mallorca and one in Albania, the legendary Mount Cika.
Those who avoid crowded touristic sites can find in these nine sites one or several itineraries taking them to remote and quieter hinterlands to discover preserved landscapes and authentic people.
Don’t miss to get the essential guide called “In the Mood for Sainte-Victoire”. You will easily find it in the local tourism offices. In this 75-page small book you will find all the information you need about the eco-itinerary, the history of the area and the address of the producers and craftsmen connected with the network. They all promote local seasonal products and most of them have already been awarded with French or European ecolabels.
Meeting the people of Sainte-Victoire
The Sainte-Victoire site is a preserved natural area and was listed as “Grand Site de France” in 2004. This label guarantees that the site is conserved and managed following sustainable development principles, as well as the quality of the visitors’ experience. If the Arc Valley is only 15 km (10 miles) away from Aix-en-Provence and 35 km (22 miles) from Marseille, it nevertheless takes you to totally different sceneries. The story began 12,000 years ago when men started breeding goat and sheep in the area.
Still today these useful animals literally design the landscape by clearing the garrigue, going up and down the hills looking for any sprig of thyme, rosemary or oregano… No need to say that this wonderful food help them produce great milk with which farmers make tasty cheese.
Along the eco-itinerary you will be able to meet several breeders who willingly welcome tourists. Among them Thierry and Patrick Faure are two brothers who founded “Les chèvres de Mimet” (Mimet village’s goat). They breed a rare Provencal species, the Rove species. These lovely animals have impressive curled horns and from February till October make a creamy and rich milk with which the Faure brothers make great cheese that is on sale in the little farm’s shop.
After working several years in the computer industry, Jean-Jacques Malet went back to his roots. In 2001 he took over the family farm and started breeding bees. He now is a successful apiarist making different honeys with lavender, thyme, linden and many other local flowers. He recently started growing ancient wheat and legume varieties. He has his own mill and makes craft flours and pasta tasting like no others… and low in gluten. His brand is “Le Pastier de Provence“. You can meet him in the shop of his farm near Fuveau village. www.mielleriesaintevictoire.fr
The “Terre de Mistral” estate also is a family business founded by Nadia and Serge Davico. They make iconic Provencal products, wine and olive oil. They love welcoming visitors and have already been awarded for their warm way to welcome visitors. They propose wine and olive oil tasting, and also have a restaurant with a spectacular view over the Sainte-Vicoire Mountain where you can enjoy a great cuisine with worth discovering wine and food pairing.
Harvested in the vineyards stretching on the low slopes of the Sainte-Victoire their wines are mostly rosé wines, the famous “Rosés de Provence”, meant to be drunken young and fruity. But they also make great red and white wines to keep.
“Terre de Mistral” also has its own oil mill. During olive harvest time from October till December, they press their own olives of four different varieties. It allows them to make three different types of olive oils, each one with its own flavours. www.terre-de-mistral.com
Nothing in their lives had prepared Mariane and Richard Abba to become apiarists. In 1997, on the spur of the moment, they gave up their city life, and bought 300 beehives from an apiarist who was retiring. They learned on the job, overcoming many pitfalls!
Twenty-two years later they definitely have no regrets and are glad to share their authentic way of life with visitors. You will get to their farm in Trets village following a small road going through vineyards. In their shop you will find plenty of bee products 100% organic and natural. Nougat, gingerbread, soaps, essential oils, herbal teas, marshmallows, ice creams and of courses a wide choice of honey… just make your choice! www.lechaudrondesfees.com
Although Provence is far away from Northern France coalmines, it nevertheless also has a long history of mining. For five centuries coal was extracted at the foot of the Sainte-Victoire. Admiring this beautiful landscape, it’s hard to believe that some of its hills actually are spoil heap now covered with vegetation.
You will easily spot Gréasque ‘s mineshaft with its high metallic tower overlooking the valley. The mine was shut down in the 1960’s and has been turned into a museum. It’s an interesting way to discover the life and difficult working conditions of the miners who, hundreds of feet under the earth. lived far away from the hot Provencal sunshine. Former miners take visitors on tours through the museum and will tell you their life, hard but where friendship had a real meaning. www.museeminegreasque.fr
For a memorable dinner you should go to Mimet, the highest village in the valley. A great chef, Michel Basaldella will warmly welcome you in his restaurant, “Le Grand Puech”. The restaurant is open year round and while you can enjoy a spectacular view from the outside terrace in summertime, you will also have a great time by the fireplace in the winter.
Michel carefully selects fresh local products to make an ecofriendly yet tasty cuisine. Every day farmers bring him fresh organic vegetables, wild mushrooms or fruits, game or lamb and kids grown nearby. Michel Basaldella was born in Italy and makes a successful mix and match of Provencal and Italian recipes. Make your choice among a wide range of homemade pasta, have sage and pumpkin gnocchi, eggplant lasagne or a crispy and tender pork shoulder. Not to forget desserts, such as the delicious almond, fig and apricot tart. www.legrandpuech.fr
With its mild weather Provence is a great destination all year round. Get off the beaten tracks and do something special this winter, go discover Saint-Victoire. Paul Cézanne would tell you that this is the best season to enjoy the unique light of Provence.
Text & Photos ©Annick Dournes