Provence: French affair
With its stunning scenery and fine cuisine, Rhiannon Batten finds the true star of new Ridley Scott film 'A Good Year' is Provence
Saturday 11 November 2006
Working in a restaurant may be a natural stepping stone for an actor in LA, but in Provence the kitchen is a more natural place to aspire to for a starring role. So, when I arrive at Le Bistrot de Patrick, in the small French village of Goult, it comes as a surprise to find that the owner is a frustrated thesp. In fact, he recently appeared in a Hollywood movie, playing a banker in Ridley Scott's latest production.
Filmed last autumn in Provence, A Good Year went on general release in the UK yesterday, much to Patrick's approval. "Some of the crew were renting one of my houses and they came to eat in the restaurant. It was natural that they would ask me to act," he brags, placing a small plate of canapés on the table. Did he get to meet Ridley Scott? "Sure. He has a house in the area. He has been coming to my restaurant for the past 15 years." Russell Crowe, the film's lead? "Of course, though he didn't eat here. He went back to the house he was renting in Joucas every evening to be with his family."
How about Peter Mayle, the author of the book from which the film has been adapted? "Don't you know anything? I am in his book, A Year in Provence," sighs Patrick, flabbergasted by the possibility that there are still people in Britain who might not have read it. "If you want to know anything, ask me. I know everything," he says, looking me up and down as warmly as he might a bottle of Côtes du Cornwall.
I'm tempted to ask him where the nearest exit is, but I don't. An hour later, I'm glad I stayed, if only for the gob-smacking lavender sorbet his kitchen has delivered to the table. As I scrape the final trickle of purple from the bottom of the bowl, Patrick tells me how rapidly the region has developed since Mayle wrote his iconic book about expat life in the region. The ensuing publicity may have helped trigger a vigorous local tourist industry - and a 25-fold increase in the number of restaurants, more to the point for Patrick - but those who already wince at the exorbitant knock-on house prices the attention has generated are unlikely to start singing Mayle's praises when A Good Year hits the big screen.
A kind of posh, European version of Sideways, the film tells the story of Max, a London investment banker who inherits a neglected French vineyard and starts a love affair with wine and a local woman. Filmed largely in the Luberon region, A Good Year is the result of a long standing friendship between Mayle, who has a house in the village of Lourmarin, and Scott, who has a house in nearby Oppède.
If the book is anything to go by, the film is likely to be cheesier than a croque monsieur. But, if you can forgive a predictable storyline, the spectacular Provençal scenery will compensate. You can't blame Mayle and Scott for wanting to set a story in the Luberon. With no must-see sights, it's a place to mooch lazily among avenues of cypress trees and take in huge rocky outcrops juggling pretty medieval villages, castles, bell-towers and terracotta roof tiles.
With its patchwork of taupe, sage and duck-egg paint-work, shuttered stone houses and chi chi olive oil and lavender soap shops, this is Provence for the Jigsaw brigade, rather than the flashier Versace tastes of the Côte d'Azur. Much of the region is also a Natural Park, a protected area where building has been kept relatively low-key and forests have been allowed free reign.
If you're won over by the scenery on screen, it's easy enough to experience the real thing. While some of the filming for A Good Year took place to the west of the Luberon (at L'Opera Café in Avignon - a lone outpost of style among the Place d'Horloge's tourist menus - and at L'Isle Sur La Sorgue - a pretty, waterwheel and canal-strewn town with the biggest flea market outside Paris and a booming antiques business), dedicated location-hunters should start with the village of Lacoste.
Perched precariously on a hill, the castle here is supposedly haunted by the ghost of former occupant, the Marquis de Sade. Further south, in Cucuron, the local extras showed a penchant for masochism when they allowed the production team to drench them under a fake storm in the middle of the night. Closer to Lacoste, Ménerbes is the one-time home of Peter Mayle and officially one of the most beautiful villages in France.
Stand, as Crowe has, outside the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin and the scene that spreads out below is quintessentially French. Mist trails from wooded dips, neat rows of vines stretch out to the horizon, old women scurry from the bakery with baguettes tucked under their arms and secret gardens are glimpsed through elaborate iron railings.
You get a similar sense of having stepped into a living, breathing tourist brochure from the terrace of the Restaurant Le Renaissance in nearby Gordes, another location used in the film. Under a canopy of gnarled plane trees, an old stone fountain is ringed by a cluster of picturesque shops, Yoplait children munch baguettes three times their height and a man sketches in the early morning sunshine. Most central of all to A Good Year is the village of Bonnieux. Described by one guidebook as gorgeous from a distance but disappointing up close, in reality it's hard to make out what stopped it winning a place as one of the most beautiful villages in France.
In early autumn, it is a vision of trickling fountains, buzzy cafés and sun-drenched stone buildings scrambling for purchase on what appears to be a sheer rock face. Down the road from here is the Château des Eydins winery. Stop for a tasting and you'll glimpse the pretty farmhouse that plays the role of Max's estate manager's home in the film. More integral to the movie - and to wine buffs - is the neighbouring Château La Canorgue, an award-winning organic winery that takes a starring role as the estate that Max has inherited.
"I think the thing that attracted the film here was the warmth of the house," says owner Jean-Pierre Margan, looking up at a building more shabby chic than a World of Interiors-style château. "It has been a family house for generations and you can tell that. It has a soul," he adds, showing me past planters bulging with lavender and water gurgling from a fountain to look out over his 40 hectares of sun-drenched vines.
Though it has been in the same family for four generations, in common with the fictional Max, Jean-Pierre took on what was essentially an abandoned vineyard when he inherited the vineyard 30 years ago. Starting again was a chance to produce high quality wines using only natural methods, he explains, as we stroll around the vineyard. "We're in the Natural Park here, surrounded by pine trees, birds, olive trees and dry-stone walls. There is no pollution."
The setting wasn't quite so untouched this time last year, however, when filming started. As well as having to pack up all the family possessions and suffering the anxiety of having their antique brown Provençal kitchen tiles temporarily painted a Farrow and Ball shade of blue, the family had to put up with 200 production crew milling around in the middle of the harvest.
The thing that grated most, however, was the petanque contest that Russell Crowe organised on a weekly basis during the shoot. Much to Jean-Pierre's annoyance, the home team were eventually beaten by a bunch of English gardeners. "We are from Provence. We've played for years and we hadn't been drinking. The English were drunk and they hadn't played before. I don't know what happened," he says.
I think I might. Just before I leave, Jean-Pierre leads me to the tasting room. I try red, white and rosé and then, finally, a sip of the vineyard's red garage (boutique) wine. A blackberry and chocolate swirl of Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah, it's like liquid velvet, rich enough to inspire anyone. If only films came with surround taste.
The writer flew to Marseille with Ryanair, which flies from Stansted year-round and from Prestwick seasonally (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). Ryanair also flies to nearby Nîmes from East Midlands, Luton and Liverpool and to Toulon from Stansted. To reduce the impact on the environment, buy a Climate Care "offset" (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Marseille, in economy class, is £1.80. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects. To avoid flying, go on Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) and TGV to Avignon.
The Bastide de Capelongue in Bonnieux (00 33 4 90 75 89 78: www.capelongue.com) is a Michelin two-star restaurant with double rooms from €160 (£114), room only. The writer stayed at La Bouquière guesthouse (00 33 4 90 75 87 17; www.labouquiere.com), just outside the village, on Route du Pont Julien. Doubles start at €75 (£54), including breakfast. Bastide des Papes, Ile de la Barthelasse, Avignon (00 33 4 90 86 09 42; www.bastidedespapes.com). Doubles start at €90 (£64).
The winery at Château La Canorgue is open to the public from 9am-noon and 3-5pm daily, except Sundays (00 33 4 90 75 81 01; Route du Pont Julien, Bonnieux). Château les Eydins is open daily (00 33 4 90 75 61 58; www.chateau-les-eydins.com; Route du Pont Julien, Bonnieux). The flea market at L'Isle Sur La Sorgue takes place on Sundays from 9am to mid-afternoon. Le Bistrot de Patrick is on Place de l'ancienne Mairie in Goult (00 33 4 90 72 22 35).
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