As we drive away from Barcelonnette heading south towards Sisteron, the landscape gradually changes. The mountains are softer, less mineral, greener. The forests, fields and orchards tell us we are slowly entering Provence. Deciduous oak gives way to the shorter, evergreen oak and Provençal pine, and we see the first olive groves; the houses take on a paler shade of ochre, their roofs covered with terracotta tiles rather than flat stone.
We are taking the picturesque route, winding our way down on B roads through mountain passes and hillside villages. Occasionally there are signs for small, almost unknown, ski resorts such as Montclar, reminding us we haven’t quite left the Alps yet. This J-shaped itinerary involves going as far south as Dignes and then, as we reach the Durance valley, veering west and back up north to Sisteron.
From that point, we’re traveling partly on the ‘Route Napoléon’, the road which the former emperor, having escaped from Elba in early 1815, took to avoid running into the royalist troops in lower Provence on his way up to Waterloo.
Another unmistakable sign that we are now in Provence is the wind, the mistral, which is blowing up the Durance valley. I can occasionally feel it buffeting the car and it hits us full on in Sisteron. “Don’t go to the citadel,” the elderly lady in the hotel says, “or you risk being blown over all the way to Marseilles”. We smile; people in the south of France are known for their tendency to exaggeration. Still, on this occasion, we heed her advice.
Even though it is sunny, the mistral brings a cutting, unpleasant chill to the air. The wind follows us around the old town, it waits for us at the corner of a narrow alleyway, it gets into our eyes and rolls round our necks. I remember my grandfather once visited us in southern Provence at Easter – my father worked for a while on an agricultural project requiring his presence there in the spring for a number of years in a row – and swore not to come back again, because he had found the mistral so discomforting.
Built in a kink in the Durance between a cliff on one side and a dramatic fold in the rock face on the other, Sisteron, at 485m altitude, is the gateway to Provence. To the north are the foothills of the Alps, with higher, snow-capped peaks in the distance; to the south, the Durance valley opens up, flat and wide.
The old medieval town is a warren of narrow streets down from the fortress which overlooks the river. The new town, a bit further up and facing south towards Provence is more open. This is where we find refuge at an unassuming patisserie whose shelves overflow with calissons, chocolate tuiles, marzipan figures, and rows of cakes including the local speciality, brioche sisteronnaise – a rectangular brioche with a big soft centre of candied fruit in light patissière cream.
The next morning we find ourselves retracing our steps to the patisserie for breakfast. Our waitress is just as friendly. No bread, as this is not a boulangerie, but who needs baguette when there are croissants, pains au chocolat and pains aux raisins galore.
The wind has died down by the time we start our onwards journey. After a brief stop at Chateau-Arnoux to look at the town hall, in a former fortified renaissance house, we cut up towards the hills. This is the garrigue, the dry moors typical of Provence, where low-growing shrubs share the poor limy soil with gnarly trees; it is the home of dark-leaf evergreen oaks, fragrant wild thyme, arbutus, and prickly juniper. Half hidden among this dense vegetation is the lovely 11th century Chapelle Saint Donat.
Dr K’s guidebook describes the neat basilica-shaped chapel as a jewel of Provencal Romanesque architecture. It sits on a crag above the road, and from a distance, you couldn’t tell it is in fact a ruin. The walls are still standing and the roofs are holding, but inside everything is gone. There are railings instead of doors and the site is officially a dangerous building.
We picnic in the shade of green oaks and get to Les Gauds, our gîte, near Apt, just after 3pm. It’s bright and warm, and although the pool feels on the cool side, we’re already opening the suitcases in search of swimming trunks.