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Latin quarter

Harry Mount tracks Roman footsteps in Provence

22 January 2011

12:00 AM

22 January 2011

12:00 AM

When the Romans pulled off their first conquest outside Italy in the second century bc, they weren’t too imaginative. Although the territory was officially named Gallia Narbonensis, they simply called the province ‘Provincia’ — modern Provence.

The pleasure-loving Romans weren’t too original in their choice of settlements, either. They were like Naomi Campbell and Joan Collins in that they preferred the coast to the Provençal Alps, which start climbing from sea level about 10 miles inland.

So, if you want to spray rap stars with pink Cristal, stick to Nice, Cannes and the Côte d’Azur. But if you actually want to drink good rosés — half of all French rosés come from the 18,000-hectare Côtes-de-Provence — head inland, to the Alpes de Haute Provence and the Alpes Maritimes, further east, on the Italian border.

The Romans did get here, if in small numbers — the pretty hilltown villages are still referred to by the Latin name, oppidum (meaning ‘town’); there’s even a village called Oppedette.

The prettiest of them, Tourtour, looks like it hasn’t changed much since the legionaries headed back to Roma 1,600 years ago. It has an Asterix and Obelix feel to it — crumbling, honey-coloured stones piled high into the teetering towers that give Tourtour its Towertower name.

Tourtour also has a restaurant on its doorstep, Les Chênes Verts, which puts the supposed British gastronomic revolution to shame. Can you imagine a British restaurant in an out-of-the-way spot in, say, Warwickshire, that served truffle, foie gras, risotto and snails; and, more importantly, served it in a straightforward, unponcey, unhushed way? And all for £25-£46.

The dining room is lined with original gastronomic drawings by Ronald Searle, presented to the chef, Paul Bajade. Our greatest living cartoonist, now 90, lives just round the corner, and dines here regularly.

As the diffident Mr Searle would appreciate, it’s mercifully unfashionable round here — Peter Mayle country is further north-west, towards Avignon, clustering around Mayle’s old home town, Ménerbes. The social life of Tourtour revolves around its pensioners, engaged in marathon all-day conversations on the town bench. But it’s Elizabeth David country round here. If you can’t deal with the richer food at Les Chênes Verts, there’s plenty of ratatouille, salade Niçoise and bouillabaisse everywhere.

Like the food, Provençal architecture depends on plain, simple ingredients. The Romans may not have been too keen on these inland mountains, but the Cistercians were.

A few miles south of Tourtour is the Abbaye du Thoronet, the first Cistercian foundation in Provence. For almost half a millennium, until the late 19th century, the abbey was left to the elements. It’s still being cleared but, from beneath the undergrowth, there have emerged the pleasingly austere, rounded curves of Romanesque masonry — moving gently into pointed Gothic — following the strictures of the 12th-century Cistercian pioneer, Bernard of Clairvaux.

The road west to Aix-en-Provence TGV station takes in shifting views of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, named for the victory by the Roman general Marius over the northern tribes, the Cimbri and the Teutones. Provençal parents still call their children Marius in his honour. 

Montagne Sainte-Victoire was the mountain Cézanne painted 60 times; sometimes the colour of a purple bruise, sometimes white with snow, sometimes the same sandy colour as the sun-bleached plain below.

‘I am trying to get it right,’ he said, when asked why he painted it so often.

Cézanne’s home town, Aix-en-Provence, is a Roman settlement, founded in 122 bc; but its pleasures are chiefly 17th- and 18th-century, when the king-appointed Parlement built themselves a grid of 160 hôtels particuliers — grand private houses — in a restrained baroque style that fills the arrow-straight streets with pilasters, caryatids and volutes without being cloying.

Before you catch the train, visit Aix’s one great Roman monument, the baptistry of the Cathédrale St-Sauveur. Those pleasure-loving Romans could go in for admirable asceticism when they were in the mood. The Roman Christian baptistry was built in 375 ad with Roman pagan columns from the old Temple of Apollo on this site.

Light floods down from a ceiling oculus, bathing the columns’ Corinthian capitals and the most basic of holes in the ground, used for the baptisms. A real palate-clearer for the journey home; more salade Niçoise than foie gras.

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