After My Daughter’s Semester Abroad in Provence Got Cut Short From COVID-19, We Went Back Together A Year Later

On the evening of March 11, 2020, I called my daughter Hallie, who was studying in Aix-en-Provence, in southern France. I told her wed booked her a flight home; shed have to be on the 7 a.m. bus to the Marseille airport the next morning.

What? she kept asking. It was 2 a.m. in France. Whats happening?

Just two weeks earlier Id been with her in Aix. On February 29 Leap Year Day we went to Paris. Ste.-Chapelle, the Muse dOrsay, cafs, the Mtro: all packed. Id known things were bad in China and Italy; now, in hindsight, my wishful thinking seemed reckless.

Later I learned that Hallies host mother, Marie-Paule, woke on the morning of March 12 to discover that her American students had all fled overnight. On our daughters bed she found a pile of clothing and souvenirs things Hallie thought shed have time to ship home and a note scrawled in haste:Chre Marie-Paule, Sil vous plat, donnez ou recyclez tout ce que vous pouvez. Merci pour tout. Jespre vous revoir bientt. (Please donate or recycle whatever you can. Thank you for everything. I hope to see you again soon.)

From left: The 11-acre botanical garden in the city of Montpellier holds more than 2,600 species; the studio of painter Paul Czannenow a museumin Aix-en-Provence, France.

Anas Boileau

Then came long months of isolation at home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Masking, testing, disinfecting groceries. Our neighbors, Amy and Jon, invited us to sit on their deck and sample wines from Domaine Montrose, in the French Languedoc region. Their son Geoffrey works at the vineyard. Hallie and I drank ross with Jon and Amy, listening to them describe the life Geoffrey has in the south of France. Or used to have, before COVID. From this distance, sipping this wine, it was easier to imagine France in the present tense.

Fast-forward to April 2021, when President Macron announced the four planned stages of therouverture: on May 19 (stage 2), nonessential businesses would reopen; cafs and restaurants would allow some outdoor dining; the 7 p.m.couvre-feu, curfew, would be extended to 9.

Hallie was about to graduate with her degree in French. As a graduation gift, I decided to take her back to France. A chance to see friends and say proper goodbyes. Jon and Amy connected us with Geoffrey, and we arranged a side trip to visit him in Montpellier.

I cant believe were actually here, Hallie kept saying. It did feel miraculous, and somehow ephemeral, as if we were on borrowed time.

We landed in Paris on May 24 and caught a connecting flight. It was a clear morning the Seine below us shimmered gold in the rising sun. By the time we descended into Marseille, sky and sea were an ecstatic blue, nearly indistinguishable. As the limestone cliffs of the Mediterranean coastline rose to meet us, the father and son beside me pressed their faces to the window and spoke excitedly in rapid French.

We took the bus into Aix, the windows cracked to admit the breeze. The plane trees, skeletal last February, were lush with green. I never got to see it like this, Hallie said. In bloom. Wed rented the flat where I had stayed last time, a spacious one-bedroom beside Aixs historic Place dAlbertas. Patrick and Mireille, the owners, met us on the street. Both didla bise,kissing our masked cheeks.

On a t vaccines, Hallie said quickly.

We are vaccinated too, Patrick said.

Inside, Patrick told us about the lockdowns, theattestation de dplacementdocuments required to leave their home. Patrick and Mireille, literature lovers, were eager to hear about Hallies senior thesis, an analysis of the works of French-Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Cond. Mireille said we were the first guests to stay in their flat since the last time Id been there. So you see, it is almost as if no time has passed, she said.

The Coste family breaks for lunch at their vineyard, Domaine Montrose, in Tourbes.

Anas Boileau

That evening we had dinner with Emma, one of Hallies former classmates. Emma is British, from London, and exactly my age. Her husband, Mark, works at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), in Cadarache, just north of Aix. If all goes as planned, Emma said, ITER will become the worlds largest and most powerful fusion device: an endless source of safe, non-carbon-emitting energy.

Back at the flat, we flung the balcony doors open. It was still light out, and the silence broken only by the occasional sound of a moped was eerie. I cant believe were actually here, Hallie kept saying. It did feel miraculous, and somehow ephemeral, as if we were on borrowed time.

The following day we rode the train 3 hours west to Montpellier. We met up with Geoffrey Jon and Amys son on the Promenade du Peyrou, just past Montpelliers Arc de Triomphe. Geoffrey has lived in France for 11 years, speaks impeccable French, and in 2019 officially became a French citizen.

I ripped a scrap from my journal and wrote Vive la France. It wasnt really a wish. But standing in front of this centuries-old tree on a glorious spring afternoon, my daughter and Geoffrey, our new friend, beside me I couldnt think of a single thing more to wish for.

The Promenades focal point is a large statue of King Louis XIV on horseback. Le Roi Soleil, the Sun King a nickname Louis apparently gave himself. The ruler who would enlighten the minds of his subjects and become the center around which they would orbit. From the esplanade at the back of the park, the panoramic views of Montpellier were stunning.

After touring the Cathdrale St.-Pierre (nicknamed Fort St. Peter because of its fortress-like appearance), we went to the Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier, the oldest botanical garden in France, established in 1593. There we found a Phillyrea latifolia tree whose knotty trunk was pocked with cavities. Inside each one was a bit of folded paper. At more than 400 years old, the placard read, this filaire feuille large is the oldest tree in the garden. Visitors confess to the tree their most secret desires, writing them on small pieces of paper and tucking them into the notches. The tree has become known as la bote aux lettres des amoureux the lovers mailbox.

I ripped a scrap from my journal and wrote Vive la France. It wasnt really a wish. But standing in front of this centuries-old tree on a glorious spring afternoon, my daughter and Geoffrey, our new friend, beside me I couldnt think of a single thing more to wish for.

More Trip Ideas: 20 Best Places to Visit in the South of France

Vines are like people, Geoffrey said. They have a lifespan. We were in Geoffreys car, driving into the Languedoc countryside. Vineyards were everywhere. A young vine takes about three years to start producing. For a while its robust. As it begins to age, it produces less. But the older grapes have a richer, more concentrated flavor.

Its an exciting time to be producing in this region, he continued. Since the late twentieth century, Languedoc has been experiencing a renaissance. Some of the best wines in the world, in terms of value, are coming out of here now, in part because the vintners still work in nonindustrial ways to create quality wines with their own identity.

Whats the industrial way? Hallie asked.

Lots of additives, Geoffrey said. Blending without paying attention to the terroir.

A view from the top of Montpellier’s Arc de Triomphe.

Anas Boileau

Domaine Montrose was founded in 1701 and has been owned and operated by the same family ever since. Bernard Coste and his children Olivier and Jeanne are the current owners. Their ancestral lands boast three distinct types of soil: clay-limestone; Villafranchian terraces, where the ground is full of heat-trapping pebbles; and a dark volcanic soil. Grapes from this third type are rare in France. But a wines terroir encompasses more than soil, Geoffrey explained. It also includes things like sun exposure, the slope of the land, and weather patterns.

We slowed and pulled into a long driveway between rows of four-foot-high vines, where I spotted the clusters of nascent grapes, bright green. We were greeted by Lascar, the familys dog, a gentle giant. He licked Hallies hand and went back to lie in the shady courtyard.

The Coste home is the type of traditional country manor found in the south of France: large and warm and elegantly rustic, with a sun-soaked ocher faade, gray-blue wooden shutters, and a terra-cotta-tiled roof. I noticed a sundial painted onto the north-facing wall. Above it were the Latin words DUCERE SOLE EO (Let the sun guide him). The grounds were verdant: loquat trees with ripe yellow fruits, tall arid pines, low palms, cypress.

It was a busy market day. The squares were jammed with vendors selling vegetables and fruits in rainbow colors; baskets of peonies and roses in every shade of pink; thick melty sheep cheeses and thin hard goat cheeses flavored with herbs; shimmery fish and craggy oysters laid out on chipped ice; handcrafted Marseille soap; and jars of honeycomb.

Geoffrey led us through a pair of rustic wooden doors into the dark coolness of the aboveground cellar, where Michel Le Goaec who, along with Olivier, is in charge of the wines development was expecting us. Le Goaec has been cellar master of Domaine Montrose since 1995, the year the vineyard started producing its own bottles, rather than just selling grapes in bulk to the local cooperative. My French is passable but nowhere near advanced enough to handle the vocabulary of wine making, so he was gracious enough to explain the basics in English.

After harvesting, which is done at night, the grapes are placed into a pneumatic press. A balloon gently inflates to squeeze the fruit against the presss sides, and the juice falls into an underground receptacle. This method allowing gravity to do the work minimizes damage to the grapes. Sometimes the skins are immediately removed after pressing; for certain wines, especially premium ross, the juice is allowed to macerate with the skins in order to extract color and tannins. The solids then settle to the bottom, and the liquid is pumped into tanks made of concrete (for reds) or stainless steel (for whites and ross) for fermentation. Michel explained that he uses a variety of yeasts to produce variations in flavor. When there is no more sugar for the yeast to eat, Le Goaec said, fermentation is complete.

As he began to describe his blending process The first red is the most difficult; sometimes I must blend up to five varieties to discover the right notes I struggled to understand. It wasnt a language barrier as much as a conceptual one. Blending is an acquired skill, sensory, impossible to learn without years of trial and error. It was where how-to ended and savoir-faire began.

Theres a certain mystique surrounding wine making, Geoffrey said later. We were standing at the top of the Valros Tower next to the Montrose property. VOUS TES AU SOMMET DUN LOT VOLCANIQUE! the placard read. (You are at the top of a volcanic island!) The site held a necropolis from the seventh to 10th centuries and a fortress in the 13th century. The views of the surrounding countryside were breathtaking. A directional sign pointed out the various appellations, or wine-making regions: AOP Minervois; AOP Corbires. In one spot someone had drawn an arrow in Sharpie: CANADA.

From left: Place Richelme Market, in Aix-en-Provence; the cloister of Aix Cathedral, completed in the 16th century.

Anas Boileau

Despite that mystique, Geoffrey continued, at the end of the day its all aboutthis. He spread his arms wide to indicate the vines. Agriculture. Subject to the elements. At its roots, wine making is a humble vocation.

Back at the house, lunch was waiting. Geoffrey introduced us to Bernard Coste; his wife, Marie; and their son Olivier, who now oversees the family business. We later met Oliviers wife, Valentine, and their three children. All the adults exuded a natural, enviable youthfulness in fact, until I met Valentine, I mistook Marie for the childrens mother. Vos enfants sont si mignons. Your children are so cute. Ah, mes petits-enfants! Marie laughed.

The children fished for tadpoles in the stone pond while the rest of us snacked on fava beans and made small talk. We drank a ros called the Prestige, a blend of Grenache and Rolle grapes. It had hints of mandarin and spice. The main course wasbourride de baudroie: stewed monkfish and vegetables mixed with homemade mayonnaise and served over rice. We drank the Montrose signature cuve, 1701, a blend of Grenache Noir from the volcanic terroir and Roussanne from the garrigue, or scrubland. Partly aged in oak barrels, the 1701 is considered one of the best ross in the world.

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While we ate, Bernard described the transformation of his ancestral vineyard from a small weekend operation to a full-time family business with a worldwide market. It sells in large volumes to countries with colder climates: the U.K., Norway, Germany. Marie told me theyd decided to make this onetime summer home their year-round dwelling in large part because she wanted to live there as a family, parents and children and grandchildren together. The Costes were the embodiment of the dichotomy Geoffrey mentioned earlier: mystique and humility in effortless, elegant symbiosis.

During the cheese course, Olivier rose from his chair.

We believe wine should be accessible to everyone, not just connoisseurs, he said in English. Ros is an easy wine to drink. Its approachable, full of warmth, family, and friendship. »

When you drink our wines, youre drinking the south of France and our lifestyle here, he said. I thought of the sundial Id spotted earlier: let the sun guide him. And I couldnt help thinking of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. An unexpected confluence: generations of winemakers bottling the sun and shipping it out to the world; scientists from around the world coming here to build a synthetic sun. The visionaries of past and future, in the south of France, 150 miles apart.

Domaine Montrose dates back to 1701.

Anas Boileau

Back in the center of Aix, it was a busy market day. The squares were jammed with vendors selling vegetables and fruits in rainbow colors; baskets of peonies and roses in every shade of pink; thick melty sheep cheeses and thin hard goat cheeses flavored with herbs; shimmery fish and craggy oysters laid out on chipped ice; handcrafted Marseille soap; and jars of honeycomb.

Hallie and I walked uphill on Avenue Paul Czanne, hoping to visit Atelier de Czanne, where the famous artist worked from 1902 until his death in 1906. Alas, the studio was still closed because of COVID. On the way back we stopped at Aix Cathedral, where children in white robes flocked near the entrance for the first in-person confirmation since the lockdowns ended. Hallie and I entered the coolness of the nave. The cantor sang a hymn while the children hundreds of them, it seemed processed in. The priest called each child up by name, and we heard their voices responding, one by one: me voici. Here I am. The priest explained that the profession was metaphorical, that they were claiming their place within the Catholic Church. But sitting inside that packed cathedral, I couldnt help hearing the phrase a little differently.

The day before we left, we were invited to have lunch on the terrace with Marie-Paule, Hallies host mother, and her husband, Xavier. Their daughter Juliette would also join us. Theyre a little bit formal, Hallie had told me. Youll have to speak in French. Xavier doesnt speak English. Plus its their job to make sure I get practice.

The house was a short walk from the historic city center. Marie-Paule was hospitable and friendly and hugged us both. Xavier is an amateur photographer; their daughter Juliette attends a nearby university. We sat beneath an awning beside their swimming pool. After olives and chips, Marie-Paule brought out a salad of bulgur, eggplant, peppers, and nectarines, topped with feta and another type of cheese, the name of which Marie-Paule couldnt remember.

Cest de Chypre, she said.

I heard sheep, so we took turns guessing. Manchego? Roquefort?

Non, Xavier said. Chypre.

Je comprends, I said. Mouton. Baa baa.

Marie-Paule and Xavier looked at one another and laughed. On veut dire le pays, Marie-Paule said. (We mean the country.) The cheese Halloumi was from Cyprus.Chypre.

After lunch we went indoors and Xavier showed us some of his artwork, photographs hed taken on a visit to New York City. (They loved it, they said, but is it always so dirty?) And then it was time for the long-awaited goodbye.

Thank you so much for everything you did for me last year, Hallie said. I could tell she was emotional. Marie-Paule gave her a brisk hug.

You will be back, she said, as if it were an established fact. Both of you.

Perhaps,I thought.Me voici. In that moment, in Aix, it was enough.


Where to Stay

Htel Le Pigonnet: While its only a 10-minute walk to town, this 48-room property has a secluded
feel, thanks to its expansive fountain-dotted gardens.

Where to Eat and Drink

Crpes GoGo: Located in an underground tunnel, this lunch spot is a
little hard to find, but worth it for the best crpes in Aix.

Mickal Fvel: For contemporary French food, this Michelin-starred restaurant is one of Aixs fancier dinner options (lunch is decidedly less formal).

What to Do

Atelier de Czanne: Visit the studio of Paul Czanne, where he
created some of the worlds most famous Post-Impressionist paintings.

Place Richelme Market: This farmers market in the center of town offers the highest-quality produce available, as well as cheese, bread, and flowers.


Where to Stay

Htel Oceania Le Mtropole Montpellier: Steps from the main train station, this modern hotel
has a pool and spacious rooms, yet retains touches of its origins, like the hydraulic elevator from

Where to Eat and Drink

Augusta Vins dAuteurs: A bar and shop with a large selection of organic and natural wines from throughout France, along with a frequently changing menu of regional cuisine.

Chez Pinot: This intimate wine bar features a deep list from
the south of France, as well as tapas-style dishes. Let the owner surprise you with his pairing suggestions.

Des Rves & du Pain: Some of the best baked goods in Montpellier including artisan bread, pastries, and cake are sold at this small boulangerie.

Mah: Seasonal food beautifully prepared in a cheerful dining room near the Lez River.

What to Do

Domaine Montrose: In Tourbes about an hours drive south of Montpellier (or 2 hours southwest
of Aix-en-Provence) the Coste familys vineyard makes an ideal day trip.

Montpellier Botanical Garden: Created in 1593 by King Henri IV, this 11-acre park is the oldest botanical garden in France.

A version of this story firstappearedin the June 2023 issue ofTravel + Leisureunder the headline « Postcard From Provence. »
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