An Introduction to Provence

Friday, April 15, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Day #45:  Saint-Tropez to Saint Julien, France
Soon after we retired, a dear friend gave us a DVD copy of the PBS miniseries A Year in Provence, based on the book of the same title by Peter Mayle.  In the 1980s, British ad executive Mayle and his wife quit their jobs, sold their London flat, and moved  to southern France intending to enjoy the idyllic country life while Mayle wrote a novel.  What came out of his typewriter instead was a memoir of the trials and tribulations, joys and celebrations of the couple's first year in France as they tried to learn the language and adapt to the local customs.

As our friend predicted, we were intrigued with Provence and have since watched the series a couple of times and read several of Peter Mayle's other memoirs about this picturesque area in the south of France.  Like so many others who have fallen under the spell of his witty descriptions of expatriate Provencal life, we looked forward to the day when we could make our own sojourn to Provence.  For us, that visit began today.

Leaving the exotic French Riviera and its mega-hyper-superyachts behind, we drove north in search of the bucolic pleasures of the simple life.  And in the course of our quest, we hoped to locate a few treasures in a Provence series of letterboxes.  On our way to the first letterbox in the town of Mansoque, we saw in the distance a hill town of the type we loved to explore in Tuscany. 
Saint Julien-le-Montagnier
Shortly after we caught our first glimpse of this promontory, a signpost pointing in the right direction lured us to set off for Saint Julien, only 6 kilometers away.  Half an hour and innumerable twists and turns later we arrived in the charming Saint Julien-le-Montagnier.  Its official name is just Saint Julien, but since France has so many towns by that name, the unofficial le Montagnier, a reference to an earlier name of the town, is often added.
Saint Julien's Table d'Orientation
A proper tour of a hill town requires that you at least try to make it to the top.  So we wound our way through Saint Julien's narrow cobbled streets to the apex of the 1,896-foot hill on which it sits.  What we found there was quite a surprise.  Near the ruins of a castle and the town's medieval church at the summit, the village had built a table d'orientation, or viewpoint, at the top of a low water tower.
Stairs invite visitors to the top where not only do you have an unobstructed 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside, the orientation table tells you exactly what you are looking at, including the compass reading for the direction you're facing.  The table is built in the form of a ring around the top of the observation point.
Painted tiles mimic a watercolor mural of the panoramic vista, pulling you into a game of matching what you see with the representation.  This little village definitely believes in maximizing its assets.

Perched on its ridge above other towns, Saint Julien still retains some of its ancient stone walls from the days in the late 12th century when the city's first leader was a woman, Laure de Saint-Julien, known for her beauty.  With its medieval architecture, 11th century Romanesque village church, and magnificent view, the same could be said for Saint Julien today.

What a fitting introduction to Provence, we sighed as we drove out of the town on our way to the location of our first letterbox of the day.  Only later did we discover that we had not quite made it to Provence.  Saint Julien lies in the department of the Var, known for its famous seaside resort of... you guessed it, Saint-Tropez.

Saint Julien Stats
Population:  1,625
Year founded:  1182
Elevation:  1,896 feet
City Government:  1 mayor, 1 deputy, 4 assistants, 13 aldermen
Other Saint Juliens in France:  88 (some with official suffixes, some without)