Journey

Secret Saignon

It can be hard to live in the moment. The idea that time can actually stand still and what you see in that instant will be imprinted on your mind forever seems a fantasy. Too many thoughts crowd in; past mistakes, the ache of lost love, mundane shopping lists and useless worries about the future. All compete for attention and all for nothing.  But sometimes there’s a break from the cacophony. You take a deep breath, blank your brain and open your eyes and just. stop.

I’ve stopped in the medieval village of Saignon, a tiny commune of about 1200 residents, clinging to the craggy mountains above the celebrated wine growing Luberon valley in southeastern France. Its lofty position is landmarked by Le Rocher, the majestic rock which was used as a lookout in ancient and more dangerous times.
From my fourth floor eyrie, I look out over mossy terracotta roof tiles and well-worn stone buildings, to lavender fields and lush vineyards which stretch in every direction. The old bell at the Romanesque church of St. Mary of Saignon tolls every fifteen minutes to acknowledge that time is ticking by, but there’s no rush.

Saignon is meant to be savoured slowly. It’s a beacon for walkers, riders, hikers and cross-country skiers and its winding narrow streets mean bus tours need not apply. Descending the vertiginous marble steps of a beautifully and sympathetically renovated Maison, I emerge onto the street and into the centre ville and am instantly captivated. The old buildings with their colourful shutters and window boxes lean against each other like drunken mates, weaving along cobbled lanes that dip and rise along the mountain top.

Across the way, Christine is already hard at work in her little patisserie, whose glass shelves groan with pastries, eclairs, tarts, croques monsieur and the most wonderful crusty bread. The aroma of coffee and cake is intoxicating and surely this high up, it’s all calorie free?
To the right, an old man has set up an eclectic table of perfumes and knickknacks and has settled in for a snooze. The mechanical birds he’s selling will chirp a warning if anyone draws near. To the left, the stone maidens in the fountain by the Presbytere fill my bottle with chilled pure artesian well water. Well-fortified, I spend the morning exploring this magical village.

I’m obsessed with the doors and windows of Saignon; what stories lie behind the wooden shutters and iron-latched doors? Who tends the profuse window boxes and petite gardens of hydrangeas, ivy, lavender and roses?
I’m let in on some secrets; the 12th century chapel which nuzzles the Rock is owned by Michele and Adrian Passey, who fell in love with Saignon many years ago, and dedicated countless back-breaking hours to transforming a pile of stones into a serene sanctuary, let out year-round. They lovingly restored the old chapel, which is now a triumph of minimalist chic, mixing concrete and stainless steel fixtures with a gourmet kitchen and crisp, cool linen sheets to welcome the weary traveller after a day exploring Provence. The outdoor pizza oven commands a spectacular view across the valley. Whether a honeymoon to remember forever, or a chilled family holiday, the Chapel will catch your breath and let it out on a sigh. Bookings at airbnb.com/rooms/2779429.

There is a smattering of hotels, bed and breakfasts and restaurants in Saignon. La Bastide du Jas is an ivy-wrapped gift down another path, offering cheap and pet-friendly accommodation, which is a good thing as I’m sure I saw a couple walking a wolf down the lane.  Several other pocket-sized places open in the evening for wine and snacks, but you need to be passing by at the right time of year.

There’s an ephemeral quality to Saignon; a sense that if you blink, the whole village will disappear behind those shuttered windows and crooked doors. It’s Brigadoon without the kilts, and lavender on the hills instead of heather.
I’m so glad I stopped there.

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