August 3rd 2009

by Ellen Barone The real genius of a Wayfarer vacation is that it’s as much about the essence of the experience – exposure to another way of life, learning a new language, the smells and sounds of the countryside, the enjoyment of fine food and wine and visits with local people – as it is about the walking. I went to Provence because of Paul Cézanne and his Provençal landscapes of gnarled olive trees and lavender terraces. I went to meet the wonderful, warm and sometimes-irascible characters in Peter Mayle’s books. I went lured by the photogenic promise of rolling vineyards and orchards, picturesque hill towns and honey colored stone farmhouses. And, I went to walk: to experience, on foot, a Provence that I could see, taste, smell, touch and hear. Now, after a week of rambling through Impressionist landscapes infused with the perfume of flowering broom and aromatic herbs, lingering over café lunches in pretty villages tumbling down hillsides and attuning my ear to the melodious lilt of Provençal French, I’m hooked. I realize, of course, that falling in love with Provence is beyond cliché. The region’s legendary charms have seduced and enchanted generations of artists and foreigners. It’s the kind of place where visitors arrive for a week and stay a lifetime. I was prepared to fall for Provence’s culture, character and cuisine. That was a no-brainer. What I was not prepared for was to fall head-over-hiking-boots in love with the pleasures of a walking vacation. The camaraderie. The knowledgeable guides. The exercise. If you’re picturing grueling marches weighted down by heavy backpacks and Spartan hostel-style lodgings, think again. A walk with The Wayfarers falls into the category of 'luxury adventure.' Which is to say, after a day spent wandering along sleepy rural tracks, shaded forest trails and ancient village streets and chatting with friendly farmers and villagers, you get to take a long hot bath, eat a gourmet dinner, drink fine French wine and sleep in the comfort of a luxury hotel. Our guide, Eric, a convivial 58-year-old Frenchman and 15-year Wayfarers veteran, brought the landscape to life with his passion and understanding of the history, culture and people of Provence. Eric could identify any plant that sprouted, explain the life cycle of a grape vine, and seemed to know everyone in every village we visited. There were herbs everywhere - fennel, thyme, rosemary, sage and lavender - and Eric loved to point them out and talk about what made them special. Behind the scenes, assuring our coddled comfort, was tour manager, Antonia, an elegant Brit who’s been living in France since the 70s. From the picnic snacks, to the fruit basket in the van, to the delicious café lunches and multi-course dinners that awaited us each evening, Antonia made it impossible to go hungry. Better yet, she would shuttle you to/from town in the van, drop you off for an afternoon massage, cart your purchases and, if you asked, enthrall you with tantalizing bits and pieces of her fairy tale life. In the evenings, Après hike, when we would gather in the hotel bar for a drink and hors d’oevres, and, later, sit together family-style quaffing French wine, and enjoying a seasonal bounty of artichokes and asparagus, duck and lobster, strawberries and lemon, it seemed as if we’d known each other for years. Afterward, we’d go to bed, dead tired, ready to do it again the next day. We left Provence on the morning of our seventh day. We packed our gear, had one last delicious breakfast, and, when the time came, boarded our trains and taxis with the slight feeling of melancholy you have when you depart something you know you’re going to miss. All of us were buried in our own thoughts. Me, I was busy plotting my next walk. They say Tuscany is lovely in September … Ellen Barone is a Travel Expert, Speaker, Journalist and Photographer

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