Villages worth losing your head for

6th June 2003 at 01:00
Renata Rubnikowicz enjoys the hilltop jewels of Provence undiscovered by Posh and Becks

Gigondas, Beaumes-de-Venise, Roussillon, Chateauneuf-du-PapeI the names were familiar from the wine shop shelf that's out of reach of my pocket, but here they were on the map and all within a short drive of our holiday house in Provence. The map was creased after the hair-pinned drive to the hamlet of Suzette, but wrong turnings were forgotten when we saw the view of Mont Ventoux from the bedroom windows. We would have been reminded of what Petrarch wrote after climbing the mountain in 1336 (if we had already read that bit of the guidebook, which we hadn't): "Surprised by the strange lightness of the air and the immensity of the spectacle, I remained immobile, as if struck by stupor." At 1,900m, Mont Ventoux is the highest peak in the region, and there was nothing between it and us but olives, vines and the chapel bells.

After exchanging greetings with the cheery builders preparing the house next door (does the local tourist board think we all expect the Peter Mayle experience, we wondered), we headed for the lively Monday morning market at Bedoin, which has Provencal prints and olive wood bowls for classy souvenirs. After some tasting of virgin olive oils we followed the sound of a hot jazz trio playing "Everybody Loves My Baby (But My Baby Loves Nobody But Me)" to Le relais de Ventoux for coffee under the ancient plane trees.

We talked about walking or renting bikes - we'd seen several aged mountain bikers fit as walnuts in bright Lycra making for the little tracks that criss-cross the rocky heights of the Dentelles de Montmirail - but settled for a leisurely drive. It was near the summit of Mont Ventoux that Tour de France cyclist Tom Simpson collapsed and died in 1967, his last words being: "Put me back on the bloody bike."

Our first discovery, Crestet, a hilltop village with a tiny, somewhat ragged "botanical garden" and an open-air cafe terrace at its very top, was a delight and set a standard for views and quaintness that the boastful Seguret could not match, for all its advertising itself as "one of the most beautiful villages in France".

On Wednesday morning, we found that even its market fails to wake up sleepy Malauc ne. It's a place for sitting in cafes, wondering if you dare order alouettes (skylarks) for lunch. We read up on our next stop - Vaison-la-Romaine, which under the Romans grew to a population of 10,000, twice that of today, and had streets lined with statues of local dignitaries designed with removable heads in case of a change in regime.

But given the heat, we found it more tempting to climb up to the ruined castle of Vaison's medieval haute-ville past narrow streets full of flowers and splashing fountains, where even the "mini-golf" off the rue de l'Horlorge looks 15th-century.

Back across the Roman bridge that survived the devastating floods of 1992, in which the modern bridge over the Ouv ze was washed away, we tested the stone seats of Vaison's 6,000-seat Roman theatre, which lends its stage to a dance festival in July, and enjoyed the small museum housing treasures dug up nearby: a baby's footprint on a roof tile, mosaic floors, a silver bust, and several statues that managed to keep their heads.

As this year is the 500th anniversary of the birth of Nostradamus, it seemed worth a longer drive the next day to his birthplace of St-Remy-de-Provence, a town that's now a favourite of arty Parisians with second homes. Could he have predicted that the museum that included a celebration of his achievements would not have quite finished its refurbishment? Happily, the Hotel de Sade, full of Roman artefacts from nearby Glanum, enabled us to fulfil our history quota and we were soon free to wander around St-Remy, spotting the great sage's house with the help of a map from the local tourist office.

Finding none of the artist's paintings in the Centre d'Art Prescence Vincent van Gogh, we passed on that, decided it was too late and too hot to take the walking trail advertised as being "through the artist's landscapes" to the Hospice St Paul de Mausole, where he lived for a year just before his death in 1890, and treated ourselves to a tisane and cake in a chic little courtyard where the chairs, tables and napkins were colour co-ordinated with the roses tumbling off the walls. But driving back past cypresses whipped by the mistral, it was easy to see how van Gogh painted not only the stars and the trees, but the wind.

Enough history, enough sights, the builders had long gone and it was time to relax. We basked by the pool, the village walls sheltering us from the wind, and looked forward to sundown and the short stroll to Les Coquelicots, a pizzeria with local melon and peach aperitifs and a terrace with a view of mountain and vineyard any top hotel would envy.

Voyages Ilena has houses available in this part of Provence for the summer holidays, including Maison du Ventoux in Suzette (sleeps six adults and two children, pound;1,850 for one week, pound;3,375 for two weeks), and Mas de Bovis, a two-bedroom house with swimming pool near St-Remy-de-Provence (pound;1,590 for one week, pound;2,855 for two). Prices are for the whole house and include Eurotunnel crossings. The company can make alternative travel arrangements by air or ferry. Details: 020 7924 4440;

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