Myriad Memories of St Remy de Provence

Here I asm in St Remy de Provence in 2004.

Time for reflection on sweet memories of my favourite village in France.  Here is a photograph of me on market day in St Remy de Provence in 2004, and it is so exciting that I will be there again in six weeks. Yes, it will be nostalgic to return, but also cathartic to know that I can travel to France without my late husband, Olivier and enjoy myself.  I will be hiring a car!!! But, wisely,  have a reliable girlfriend in the passenger seat to ensure I stay on the right!!! side of the road.

Take, for instance, memories of market day in St Remy de Provence when hundreds of stalls jam the town meandering around to the ring of boulevards which encircle the old city built where once there was the moat.   From outside the ancient Basilica of St Martin along Rue Carnot through the village to Boulevard  Gambetta there are food stalls, jewellery stalls, cheese tastings, charcuterie, flower stalls laden with lavender and stall upon stall of linen with familiar Provincial patterns. The market holds so many pleasant memories.

In my memoir, From France With Love, I recall my first visit. “A blend of intoxicating aromas, sights and sounds assails us and the stallholders entice us to buy their wares. There are myriad smallgoods, pates, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, leather goods, clothing and accessories. The air hums with joyful chatter. Everywhere there are buckets of fresh Provencal herbs, lavender and olives and trestle tables laden with jewellery and Manchester. Along Rue Carnot we shop haphazardly among stalls selling cooked chicken and raw fish, pastries and scented soaps until we reach Place Pelissier, the open space heart of the village , where locals and tourists jostle for a bargain.”

To me, St Remy is the quintessential French village, and while it is home to 10,000 people, it has an intimacy of a Provincial village with its narrow, winding streets no wider than a cart and old shop facades, and all the usual food outlets – the fishmonger, the boulangerie, news agent and fresh fruit stalls – offering typical French village life. Around the Place de la Resistance with its mature plane trees, opposite the Basilica (which dates from 1122) there is a string of cafes and bars – all frontingPlace de la Republique. Olivier’s mother, “Mammy” lived around the corner from here, past the post office, no more than three minutes’ walk away.  Our ritual was to walk to the village daily to buy a French stick and indulge in café noir. I would sit in the café which spreadeagled around into Boulevard Marceau and write postcards.


Here too, that first year, Olivier and I danced at that very spot to the music of singers and a band performing at a street rock concert on a stage mounted on the back of a huge truck outside the Basilica and I wrote about that dream night too in From France With Love: “When Madame changes the mood and croons love songs, we dance cheek to cheek and he guides me through the thro9ng. Ah, that’s much better, I think. It’s so delightfully seductive that I almost melt with warm feelings for him.”

There are many grand Renaissance “town houses’ which have been renovated into prestigious art galleries and St Remy’s fashion stores carry quality  French-designed fashion and accessories, while the many shoe shops carry the  same ranges as in Paris.

What I love about St Remy is the circle of Boulevards, particularly Boulevard Victor Hugo, where every delectable specialty food store is located. The chocolate shop, next door to the biscuit factory outlet, has hot chocolate running out of a fountain in the window and on the other side of the road, there is a huge “maison” marketing the olive products of the region.  There are rooms laden with myriad porcelain pieces, manchester, bread or cheese boards and anything you could imagine is decorated with the images of olives. Forget all those Francophilia shops in suburbia, this is the real thing. Further down on the Boulevard Mirabeau there is the delightful Musee des Aromes to learn more about the distillation of Provence aromatic plants.

The architecture in St Remy is also historic, the most authentic being a Renaissance mansion, richly decorated, which now operates as the Musee Des Alpilles. Its remarkable inner courtyard includes a bust of Vincent van Gogh sculpted by Ossip Zadkine.  Hotel du Sade dates from the 15th century and there are family connections to the notorious Marquis du Sade. It is distinguishable by an arch that stretches across the narrow street just off Place de la Mairie, but was closed for renovation.  Behind it are the ruins of Roman Baths. There is St Paul de Mausole Monastery, the asylum where Van Gogh recovered from a breakdown and from where he painted iconic images of Provence. I remember going to a “garage” sale there as old nuns dispensed with their unwanted items. There were religious icons aplenty, valuable silver and superbly maintained linen, too. In the 16th century, Michele Nostredame lived in Rue Hoche, a dwelling in the old fortified walls to be the town’s most famous son and each day we passed the Fontaine Nostradamus the village’s central fountain decorated with his bust.

Five kilometres away is the Greco/Roman ruins of Glanum which includes some spectacularly preserved Roman structures including an intact Mausoleum datged from 40AD and an Arc de Triomphe from the same era with defineable carved battle scenes of Troy.  A few more kilometres down the road past many olive groves  is the exquisite medieval hilltop  village of Les Baux de Provence. Sure, it’s now a restored tourist trap, but those 16th and 17th century Renaissance mansions reconstructed with tourism dollars gives us a taste of how life was centuries ago when the village was owned by the Prince of Monaco. In one of those restored mansions Olivier and I oogled over an amazing exhibition of antique erotica.  Its ruined castle, Chateau des Baux  is silhouetted against the sky and from here there are panoramic views of Provence with its vineyards, olive groves, iconic avenues of pencil pines and far away to the horizon, seablue hints of the mystical Camargue. Then there is Les Alpilles, the stunning mountain range which forms the backdrop to it all. Dug deep into the mountain range is the disused quarry which has become the Cathedrale d’Images des Baux de Provence with huge images from top photographers  projected onto the floor and the 20-metre high walls.

Back in 2005 in St Remy de Provence, I bought the exquisite floral fabric which is now the curtaining in my bedroom.  It was in St Remy de Provence over the new year period when my daughter Serena, husband Jon and the two grand-children came from the United Kingdom and stayed in a villa on the outskirts of town. We were granted a tour of the chocolate factory and I remember how little Angus,  eagerly eyeing off the goodies, could no longer wait patiently for the chocolatier to offer him some. “Can I please try it?”, he said.

Another memory was the running of the bulls in the streets of St Remy. Unlike the notorious Spanish occasion, these young bulls run free in a contained street course with the crowds mostly barricaded behind tall fencing. The sport is to see which are most likely to be aggressive enough for the bull fighting ring. It is surprising how some bulls are simply timid and don’t even want to leave the big truck which opens to the street.  Young bucks from the village, taunt the beast and when one of them charges, they flee up lamp posts. The rest of us sit on high walls or behind barricades and one time, my husband  Olivier became separated  from me in the crowd and then I spied him out there on the street hiding from the raging beast behind a rubbish bin. Iwas horrified and screamed -a silly act given the noise of the spectacle.

In these same streets we watched the Fete de la Transhumance on Whit Sunday when herds of sheep are driven around the perimeter by shepherds and, of course, the dogs and afterwards, we walked with the villagers to sit at trestles under the pine trees to enjoy  a community luncheon.  Far more glamorous was the cultural festival to choose La Dame De Saint-Remy,  where single young women dress in traditional Provencal costumes to be chosen as an ambassadrice for the village. Each entrant is presented on a white horse accompanied by handsome young picadors.  Is it really nine years since Olivier and I sat in a restaurant on Boulevard Victor Hugo cheering on not only the women but the whole procession which presented the traditions and livelihood of the region.  It was all part of the patchwork of my rich French life with Olivier in St Remy.

This chapter has now closed. Both mammy and Valentine have died and no more than 18 months after his mother’s death in July 2010, Olivier himself passed away in May 2012.

The cheese shop in St Remy is outstanding

When I return to St Remy in September this year, I have no doubt it will be nostalgic, I will probably weep, the way Olivier wept the first time he took me to the quarries at Les Baux in 2004 as he remembered his late wife, Colette.  However, mostly I will be filled with happiness as I relive all of these wonderful experiences with him.



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4 Comments to “Myriad Memories of St Remy de Provence”

  1. By Dominique, 10/08/2013 @ 1:29 pm

    I can see you are writing again! This is good news, you have so many things to say and this will undoubtedly help you building this new episode of your life. Surely Olivier must be watching up there and be so proud.

  2. By Nadine Williams, 10/08/2013 @ 2:02 pm

    Dear Dom, I can remember that it was you who said I must continue to write, not only for my own well-being but also for Olivier who put so much into establishing and administering the website. Well, it took some time, but I am now writing each day. And yes, Oli, who I feel is “with” me rather than “watching” me, will be proud.

  3. By Jane, 20/08/2013 @ 8:25 am

    Reading your article has made me realise how lucky I am to be travelling to France with you. I’ve left all the organization up to you knowing that I would be swept up in all your energy and enthusiam, but I’ve not fully realised until now the depth of your knowledge, understanding and affection for the country. You’ve been saying to me for ages that you want to show me St Remy, that it is special, and now I understand what you have been saying. What a beautiful description of this Provincial village you have evoked. I am so looking forward to visiting it with you.

  4. By Tracee, 10/03/2014 @ 10:48 am

    Hi everyone, it’s my first visit at this site,
    and paragraph is genuinely fruitful designed for me, keep up posting these types
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