Jouques seen from the ridge

The hidden gem

June 2014 and we were, finally, heading to the village in Provence which my husband, Jean-Louis, had happened upon four years earlier!

Significant things had transpired for us between June 2010 and June 2014 when Jean-Louis (JL) first came upon Jouques by chance and phoned me in Australia, excited, to tell me that he thought he’d found the place where we might like to live in France. Since then JL had taken a huge leap of faith in giving up his career of many years as a visual arts teacher, to pursue his artistic vocation full-time! To paint, draw and create original artworks. Four successful exhibitions later, plus one arts prize, and he had found his métier as a practicing artist.

As for me, I’d stayed in my job as an in-house graphic designer and evolved from working mainly on publications for print, to designing for web, and so found myself having to think in pixels instead of picas, points and vectors! If I were honest, I’d have to admit that I was feeling rather unmotivated by the constant need to keep up with technology in my profession, not to mention having to sit for most of my eight-hour working day at a computer!

Fortunately for me the carrot of travel adventures had been dangled often during the past four years and so we’d been to a fantastic array of varied and interesting places. The holidays had tided me over whilst JL found his feet. However, since JL was now established in his solo career as an artist, we felt that the time was ripe to get back to France and, together, see what we thought of that village in Provence.

A holiday to that village

So at the end of May we flew into Nice and stayed a couple of nights, which we enjoyed tremendously, the weather was warm and perfect for walking around, the sky was blue and, although we’d visited years ago when we were newly married, it had been just a fleeting few hours, so this time we gave ourselves more time. We explored the colourful and interesting old town precinct, then climbed up the stairway at the end of the Promenade des Anglais to Castle Hill, via a veritable maze of small paths and greenery, to take in the fabulous view over the beach and city of Nice on one side, and the beautiful old port and the Baie des Anges on the other; as well as admiring the waterfall and ruins of the old Chateau de Nice along the way. It was a truly fabulous way to start our holiday. 

Nice and the Promenade des Anglais.

Of course Nice was just a prelude to the main event!

And so it was that we drove on a sunny Sunday afternoon in our little red hire car, north into the hills beyond Aix-en-Provence, with exaltation along the magnificent avenue of plane trees, passing fields of golden wheat, plus a small field of lavender, along a lengthy stretch of narrow winding road, over two ancient bridges, and finally, with my heart beating far more rapidly than normal in my chest, (perhaps I was even holding my breath and had moist eyes) we turned the last corner onto the Boulevard de la République and voila, we’d arrived!

JL had booked a studio apartment in the village as our home for the month, which thankfully we located quite easily – the owners were there to greet us and, in a trice, we had the keys and our bags down – we were ready to explore!

Our accommodation in Jouques
Our accommodation in Jouques.

What struck us first was how very quiet the village was, but we have since learned that it’s perfectly normal for a Sunday afternoon in France – after the busy-ness of market-day morning in Jouques there is the all important lunch, followed by a mostly quiet, family oriented afternoon, maybe even with a siesta!

We spent the afternoon walking some of the little streets set back from the main road, paved with stone and river pebbles, each lane different to the others in the way the stones or pebbles were laid and gutters arranged, there was no bitumen or potholes in sight! We made our way up to the chapel on the hill, from where we could see most of the old village below and take-in its rustic charm – the old roof tiles presented such a fantastic patchwork of terracotta tones and pure earthiness I could hardly believe it! Of course there were innumerable little satellite dishes poking out from the roofs at various awkward angles, the occasional ugly air-conditioning unit strapped-on to a roof here and there, but overall an absolute picture of Provencal postcard perfection!

Jouques seen from the ridge
Jouques seen from the ridge.

It was such a great vantage point from which to appreciate the vastness of the forest all around and the hilly landscape of Jouques which sits within the nationally recognized ‘area of natural beauty’, called le grand site Sainte Victoire. The commune of Jouques we would learn, extends north to the Durance river, south almost to Montagne Sainte Victoire (the main geological feature of the landscape around Aix-en-Provence), east to the border of the next department called the Var, and west to the village of Peyrolles-en-Provence, which we’d passed through on our way.

Later we discovered the quirky attributes of our little apartment – being the bottom level of a four level village house, it was probably once used as a barn in which to store agricultural tools and stock, and perhaps to house animals over night as well. The back wall was directly against the hillside and there were large rocks protruding into the room. An ancient stone staircase in one corner was blocked off so that we couldn’t continue up into the owners house above, and for practical purposes it had been transformed into shelves for a makeshift but adequate wardrobe, with hanging space and a broom closet tucked in under the sweeping upward swirl of the stairs. The owners entered their front door from the next street up on the hillside, how convenient!

Within there was everything we could need for a comfy four week stay, including a washing machine and tasteful decorative details like the small bunch of dried wild-flowers hanging from a huge ceiling beam which was such a nice touch. For outside we had a folding table and two cute folding bistro chairs, so that we could sit out in the little street with a glass of wine of an evening and watch the locals go by. 

The location was smack, bang in the middle of the old village, right below (as we would soon discover) the horloge (the clock tower), and directly behind the large impressive building that is the Mairie (the Town Hall). To one side of the Mairie was a stepped path which, because it goes between buildings, from one street to another, is called a traverse – la traverse de la Mairie! This would prove to be a main thoroughfare for many inhabitants of the old village as they came and went from their cars parked in community parking around the village, since there was not parking in the old village itself.

The next day we awoke to the sound of the clock tower tolling, its first for the day, at 7am. Conveniently the night before it had stopped announcing the time at 11pm. During that first day we visited the local tourist office and found it well stocked with loads of information, maps and pamphlets, many of which we took back to the apartment to study, but not before adding our names to a list for a guided walk to take place the following week around the outskirts of the village, plus another in a village about 45 minutes drive away, on the other side of Montagne Sainte Victoire, for the following week. We also checked out all the little shops along the main boulevard, finding that there was a post office, florist, tabac (from where we could purchase bus tickets), two small supermarkets, a fruit and vegetable store, two small restaurants and a pizzeria, two bars, a traiteur (delicatessen), and a store for the local hunters! We were thrilled to discover there were three boulangeries too, so naturally vowed to try as many of the different breads and pastries as possible in the time we had!

Pastries for breakfast
Pastries for breakfast.

We realised that the local bus was not only very regular throughout each day but also super cheap at only 1€ each way, so at 9.30 the next morning we were sitting on it, making our way to Aix-en-Provence.

The 45 minutes bus-ride to Aix was a picturesque reversal of our excited experience driving to Jouques of two days before, made all the more enjoyable for being chauffeured, so we made the most of the elevated seating to observe the countryside as it went by. Plus we smugly felt like locals on a jaunt into the main town of the region to do some shopping or meet friends! And so it was with this sense of fun that we arrived in Aix.

Aix en Provence Mairie
Aix-en-Provence, Hotel de Ville (the Town Hall).

The best thing was to not have to drive – we’d had many stressful instances of trying to find our way into and around some of Frances’ cities and larger villages, none of which we wanted to repeat. Four years earlier we’d got terribly lost and confused on the outskirts of Aix at dusk as the light faded to dark, trying to find a place at the edge of town to stay the night.

On this occasion we arrived better prepared to explore the town, rediscovering the artistic and inherently rich and cultured city. Above all we found Aix to be a city with a wonderful human scale to it, the perfect size to walk around and enjoy its narrow, irregular pedestrian streets and admire the elegant architecture, as well as its numerous fountains – perfect to sit by and drink from in the warm Provençal sunshine.

Water everywhere

During our few weeks in Jouques we noticed that people frequently stopped in the village to collect water from the many fountains; always eager for an experiment, we readily compared the source water to some bottled mineral water we’d bought and deemed it to be better! How fantastic, no more buying bottled water for us! 

It turns out that the Romans tapped into the natural source in the area of Jouques in the 2nd century AD, and built an aqueduct some 30kms to Aix-en-Provence, which supplied drinking water to that growing city until approximately 1850. Hence Jouques was a very important place way back then. Even now having nine fountains of drinkable water flowing 24/7 in a village is quite something!

Jouques fountain
One of many fountains in Jouques.

We also soon noticed the fast-flowing Réal river which runs right through Jouques and has, it seems, always been a source of economic prosperity for the village. We learned that there were once up to eleven mills along its banks, but today there remains just one, which operates as a ‘Bed and Breakfast’ (Chambres d’hotes). 

Every day we were building on our knowledge about the village and finding it to have a long and important history. We were also having many friendly chats with locals (well JL was chatting as he is fluent, but I had very little conversational French at that time) and finding that there were a handful of folk from elsewhere who had also serendipitously discovered Jouques, and now called it home. Most were from other parts of France, some keen to escape the cold north to live in the southern warmth, while others were ex-pats from various parts of Europe; every one of them was keen to keep Jouques a secret! The reason being that Jouques was a place that had somehow retained immense authenticity and was barely touched by tourism; close enough to the facilities and services of Aix, yet far enough away to remain serene.

Jouques seen from the river
Jouques seen from the river called ‘Le Réal’.

We actually couldn’t believe how such a visually appealing, historically important and well-located village could have escaped mass tourism, particularly as it has all the ingredients of a picture-postcard place: beauty, rustic charm and ruins on a hill-top to name just a few! 

Gradually we found out that the local government (the Mairie) in each village can choose for their village to be listed as one of the ‘most beautiful villages of France’ or not (of course it must also satisfy certain criteria to be listed); can choose to accept money from the generous portfolio of culture (allocated at a national level from Paris) for Summer events that may attract more tourists; or can choose to simply upkeep the integrity of the village for it’s residents and provide economic stability through good management. Conservative it may be, but the latter style of local government was definitely alive and well and living in Jouques!

Jouques equestrian festival
Jouques equestrian festival.

Exploring the surroundings

Four weeks certainly gave us time to properly explore the surrounding area too, to find out what was within an hour’s drive of Jouques. We visited the Luberon valley, a drive of 40 minutes north-west following the Durance river, to reach Lourmarin and enjoy its wonderful Friday morning market; then onwards another twenty minutes along a twisting, narrow road to get to Bonnieux and then a host of other lovely villages in that area to make a really fun day trip. However this area is overrun with tourists from June to September in particular and, despite being pretty villages set in spectacularly beautiful countryside, is no longer a truly authentic representation of Provence. 

We also drove an hour north-east following the Durance river, to the pretty village of Moustier Sainte Marie and on to the spectacular Gorges du Verdon and Lac Saint Croix, which made for another wonderful day trip. Just over an hour south we were able to visit the picturesque coastal village of Cassis, take a boat trip out to see the Calanques (limestone coves) and then have lunch in the village followed by a swim. A day trip by bus to Marseille was also very do-able, though required an early start. In fact we found that within a neat radius of 30-90 minutes by car from Jouques, there were an immense assortment of places to reach to be able to experience an exhaustive exploration of the region.

Yet all the while we kept our minds alert to other villages that may have been a contender for our affections, there were a few. Some perhaps a little smaller, some even slightly prettier, some had a cinema (which appealed to me), some were more touristy and therefore offered lovely boutiques and more English speaking opportunities. In considering all the points we wanted in a village, what we thought was important, we kept coming back to Jouques. 

Aside from authenticity and being able to walk easily to get our bread each morning, one big thing we felt was important was to be able to get on the local bus with our bags, then take the shuttle from Aix to the TGV (Train å Grande Vitesse = very fast train) station or to the airport in Nice or Marseille, and so travel to anywhere in the world, without having to drive and park the car. Many other alluring villages had plenty of appeal for lots of reasons, but none of them also had this single important factor of being in a convenient location with easy access via public transport.

Cassis seen from Cap Canaille
Cassis seen from Cap Canaille.

One of the best things though . . .

. . . was simply to walk the 10 minutes from our door to the edge of the village into the forest; to follow some of the many marked trails, with a picnic lunch and a bottle or two of Jouques water in our backpacks! 

We discovered that there are thousands of well-marked trails all over Provence and maps are usually available at tourist offices or online, there are also lots of books illustrating these walks, plus clubs in every city and many villages for keen walkers. We noticed that the only tourists who did seem to frequent Jouques, were different groups of (mostly French) walkers, armed with walking poles and back-packs, who’d gather in the car park near the church and set off into the forest on any given morning, then reappear in the village at noon, ready to déjeuner at one of the local cafés. 

Likewise we went on jaunts into the forest whenever we could and, by the time our four week stay was drawing to an end, we were fitter, healthier, suntanned, certainly well-fed, relaxed, well-travelled around the area and, most importantly, feeling like we’d found a true hidden gem!

Jean-Louis and I on the hilltop above Jouques
Jean-Louis and I on the hilltop above Jouques.

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