A week later we were on the road again—Saturday, January 8, 1983—six children and six adults in Perceval’s grey Peugeot van, Dominic driving—off to Provence and Les Alpes de Haute Provence, following the southern portion of the A6 Autoroute du Soleil since Lyon, the Rhône Valley all the way down from Genève, heading east inland at Orange into the Vaucluse, on the D 950 for an overnight stopover at Isabelle’s parents, resident caretakers of l’Hermitage (le jardin provençal de l’Harmas), the hideaway house and garden of the reknowned Jean-Henri Fabre, entomologist of butterflies and dragonflies, in Sérignan-du-Comtat, not far from Carpentras.
The next morning saw us southwest down the D 942, for Avignon and its famous aquaduct, then the N 7 southeast through Aix-en-Provence and Brignoles, Fréjus, and a swim at St. Raphaël in the Mediterranean despite the blowing Mistral and the cold sea.
Only Dominic and I dared into the salt, the others all clambering the rocks for a good spot to view the sea and these two crazy swimmers. I stepped into the waves, swam several metres out, enduring the cold for a few minutes before having to return, stepping up but not seeing what was beneath me on the rocks. Suddenly a purple starfish shot from the water, latching onto my lower left arm, clinging tight. In the surprise and fright I reacted by pulling at this creature, stretching it until it released its grip, tossing it back into the sea. I was left with a bruise that lasted over a week. From this moment on I had earned the nickname “the crazy Canadian”.
Near here General Eisenhower had the Americans land at three beaches just east of the town, August 15, 1944.
Then back in the Peugeot, continuing east along the Côte d’Azur, following the winding coast road and local rail line, the N 98 through Agay, le Trayas, Miramar, Théoule, la Napoule, and Cannes, onward Golfe-Juan, Cap d’Antibes, Antibes, and into Nice, touring through the streets of the old parts of the city before following the Var inland along the N 202, passing the village of Puget-Théniers on our immediate right, and Entrevaux where we turned left at the parking lot across the river from the village, immediately up steep, narrow, tight hairpins. Soon we were high above a long, deep gorge far below the sheer drop right there on our immediate left. One wrong turn at night or in the snow, and it was your launch into oblivion. Dominique said this was a route for the Monte Carlo.
We were somewhere southeast, above and south of the Col de Toutes Aures. Here we had the use of Dominic’s family vacation home, a long, narrow stone-crafted building—slate tiled roof, earthen floors, no hallway, the five or six rooms in series, access by their dividing walls, necessitating crossing each one if one wished to go from one end to the other. The toilet was a stone outhouse, water only available from a hand pump and well with cistern out in the yard, all perched on a mountain top table about 200 metres across with a 360° view—a fantastic way to view sunrise and sunset.
Dominic told us stories of his father operating an air balloon in the late sixties and early seventies, once bringing the Rolling Stones up this way for a stay in this reclusive, rustic retreat.
I enjoyed this simple although rough living, all reminiscent in Jean Giono’s L’homme qui plantait des arbres and Un de Baumugnes (in my top ten list of favourite books) and Marcel Pagnol’s Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (in my top ten list of favourite books and my second and third all-time favourite movies, directed by Claude Berri).
When I mentioned the Jean Giono tale, having read it with difficulty a few years earlier when my French was still poor, Dominic was sure of it’s historical truth, that some of the hills and mountain sides had been touched by Elzéard Bouffier’s caring hands.
Years later I was to hear and read of others stating that this tale was of Jean Giono’s imagination. Regardless, the good shepherd’s actions were what is important about this, my favourite story of all time.
Local hikes revealed oaks and birches but also a few abandoned villages high in the mountains. We visited one such village where the road ended a few kilometres up from our vacation residence, and Puget-Théniers and Entrevaux.
Sunday, January 16th, we returned to Perceval by way of Digne, Sisteron, Gap, and Grenoble.