Monty Don on French gardening leave

In an extract from his new book, Monty Don revisits a Provençal garden that he first fell in love with on a teenage voyage of discovery

I was 19 and living in Aix en Provence. Through a remote contact I introduced myself to Madame Tailleaux who lived at Le Tholonet, in the hope of finding some work. A pattern emerged. I would go to La Bertranne, her house in Le Tholonet, a few days a week and work in her garden and in return she would make me lunch – a proper French, two-hour lunch – introduce me to local people and act as a guide, mentor and friend.

She would also expect me to accompany her on jaunts, often without notice. The Renault would stop in Rue Portalis and she would call up to the window for me to come down because we were going to Gardanne to buy some tiles or to come quickly – it would be eleven in the morning – because Poublier who lived two fields away had a bouillabaisse ready.

She seemed old to me but was no more than 60 – just a few years older than I am now. She was half American, half French and brought up in pre-war France and had married a French painter. Her house had various lodgers, waifs and strays and friends of various nationalities who were treated as a cross between children and members of a commune.

While the basic lingua franca of the household was French, she rarely completed a sentence in the same language that she began it and jumped from French to English to German to Italian as she talked, seemingly unaware of doing so.

I went back to La Bertranne last summer and learnt that she had only died a few years ago in her late 90s. I also learnt from her son Carlo that she had been sent to a concentration camp in the war for helping the resistance and Jewish escapees. She hated injustice and authority in equal measure, treating both with an aristocratic, imperious fury and was scared of nothing.

I loved that fearlessness and complete lack of philistinism and the connection to the artists and writers of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. She had been the living key to a world otherwise unobtainable to me and her influence spread far beyond the actual time or things that we did together. So I travelled back along the road to Le Tholonet to see if I could find La Bertranne. I had no plan. I just wanted to go down that road again.

The route from Aix was fringed with villas for perhaps a kilometre and then quickly left town and cut and twisted into the hillside through pines and oaks growing among pink boulders. Blue shadows. Hollyhocks in the long grass and a meadow dotted with thousands of white spiders.

The little marble plaque tucked into a stone wall that I noticed 40 years ago commemorating six names "Fusiles par les nazis Le 17 Aout 1944", presumably right here, at this bend in the road, far enough away from the town to be out of earshot and with a bank high enough to absorb bullets, was still exactly the same. A plastic water bottle was stuffed with a florist's lily and hydrangea. Sad, only half noticed, shameful.

And then against that clear blue sky, with a lick of pine branch framing its contours, Mont Sainte-Victoire rising and growing before me. Mont Sainte-Victoire always seems, as Cezanne so brilliantly portrayed, to be always in the process of becoming, as though its heaving geology is just momentarily stilled and the iconic shape is a temporary assumption.

Forty years ago I climbed to the Croix de Provence at the top of the mountain. There is a track all the way up, steep and at times needing all hands as well as feet but, like so many of the wonderful Grand Randonnée right across France, clearly marked with painted red and white stripes stripes on the rock, helpful without being bossy and at times daring you on without unnecessary and unwelcome consideration for your health or safety in the process. The Alps could be seen in the east, their snow surreal in the hot, resinous light. As the afternoon light angled down from the west towards them they turned golden and then pink. I stayed watching, transfixed, until the light slid down and the peaks sunk back into shade and then stumbled down the mountain in the dusk.

I assumed that by now, a full generation on, La Bertranne would have been bought by a German banker and be replete with swimming pool, gym and sleek fast car outside. Half tempted to turn back and not risk the disillusionment, I went up the long track, encouraged to find it as bumpy as I recalled it and parked by the house. The banging and sawing from builders confirmed my suspicions and I was turning to leave when a voice said "Monty!" A figure appeared in the doorway with Madame Tailleaux's deeply sunken eyes and high cheekbones. Her face but carried by a man, probably in his sixties. It was Carlo, her son, who I had not met but had heard much of. It turned out that he had come across me on telly in England, where had lived for a while, and also something of me from his mother. He was moving back and repairing the house.

We sat on the terrace and drank a glass of wine and talked of those years ago that we had shared without ever meeting. I was, Carlo said, in many ways a replacement for him. A biddable version of the impossible, uncontrollable son. It was a strange role for me, who had always been the black sheep of my own family, to become the safer substitute for someone whose adulthood was so much freer and more interesting than the versions that I grew up with at home.

He said that the garden meant a lot to her and that I helped her keep it in some order would have mattered. He wanted to try and live here, didn't know if it would work out, but wanted to make it beautiful again in her memory.

I left, bouncing slowly down the track to the road between the barley fields infiltrated with fennel and St Victoire looming out of the shadows in the East. I felt at peace. It was not so much a case of seeing old friends but seeing and laying the ghosts of my old self and settling that piece of my past easily into my present.

'The Road to Le Tholonet: A French Garden Journey' by Monty Don is available in hardback and ebook (Simon & Schuster, £20)

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The nearest mainline train station is at Aix-en Provence, approximately 10km away and served by a direct trial Eurostar service from London St Pancras and Ashford from 4 May to 29 June (08432 186186; eurostar.com).

More information

letholonet.fr

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