A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle was written more than 30 years ago – the book had an initial print run of three thousand copies, and Mayle was assured by his publisher that there would be plenty left over unsold. Since then it has sold over six million copies, in forty languages: an astonishing success for any book.
Peter Mayle and his wife moved to Menerbes in the Luberon region of Provence in 1987 with the idea of writing a novel. However he kept being distracted by his new life and these distractions became the subject of A Year in Provence, retold in Mayle’s witty, warm and anecdotal way.
A Year in Provence was followed by two more best-selling sequels – Toujours Provence and Encore Provence – but it also accidentally spawned a whole new genre of travel writing, one of relocation and renewal, allowing other best-selling writers like Frances Mayes in Italy (Under the Tuscan Sun) and Chris Stewart in Spain (Driving Over Lemons) to find a huge, ready market.
How Provence has changed
Since the publication of A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle has been accused of ‘spoiling’ Provence but, living here, it’s hard to see how. It’s true that real estate prices have gone up in the last thirty years, but then they’ve gone up everywhere. Tourism has increased too but, with the advent of low cost flights, it has in every other desirable place. The world has changed since 1989 and so has Provence.
Of course not all of these changes are negative. For example, local wines have definitely improved beyond all recognition. Thirty years ago, the wine at the local wine co-operatives was squirted from petrol pump-like distributors into large glass or plastic containers or sold in returnable bottles with plastic flip tops. Now local wine co-operatives pride themselves on offering good and affordable AOC wines along with single varietal wines from grapes such as Viognier or Chardonnay not previously grown here.
There are many more restaurants, some with Michelin stars, some just serving honest country food. And of course there are many more places to stay, and in much more comfort too: the plumbing of 30 years ago in rural France is something nobody misses. And it’s easier than ever before to get here by car, high-speed train or by air.
How Provence has not changed
More interesting, perhaps, would be to concentrate on what hasn’t changed over the last thirty years. You can still walk along tracks through empty woods and hills with glorious views to centuries-old hilltop villages, your feet releasing the scents of thyme and rosemary. Big and small markets (some of which have been going since at least the 16th century) still provide glowing mountains of seasonal fruit and vegetables picked at most a few kilometres away just hours before going on sale. On the terrace of a café it’s true that you’ll now hear languages from all over the world, but listen to the locals and the thick twang of the Provençal accent is still there.
The essentials of Provence are still here. Boules is still played in village ‘boulodromes’, wild boar still rootle in the woods, truffles still grow when rain comes at the right moment, the colours of the vineyards follow the seasons, artisans are always late, the sun still shines 300 days of the year, lunch lasts for 2 hours, and the stars still sparkle on a clear night.
A Year in Provence brought the wonder of the region to a broader audience, and this is as much to do with the people of Provence as the natural environment. Living here, we all recognise the local characteristics fondly portrayed in Peter Mayle’s books. Some things never change, and long may that last.