Outside the sky is a bruised, fast-moving grey and the wind is battering the garden. Through the kitchen window I watch the black and green of the elder tree thrashing and twisting. The hens are firmly in the henhouse. The wind whistles in the chimney and tugs at the doors. The old house hunkers down between the yew trees, its back to the shelter of the rock.
In another world a few days ago the sky was this colour:
There was a wind there too, the mistral blowing hard and cold from the North, but the colours were vivid and the light was strong. Hundreds of enthusiasts were re-enacting an assault on the castle at Les Baux. It was an extraordinary spectacle with horses and geese as well as soldiers and archers and peasants. In the audience were numbers of children also dressed in their chainmail or carrying their wooden swords. For a moment the lure of dressing up was strong and I would have loved to ride side saddle in medieval dress on a black horse if only I had a dress or a horse or could ride.
But by morning the mistral had blown away and the terrace was a warm and peaceful place for cats to snooze and lounge.
It was the end of September so beaches were empty and in the open spaces of the Camargue white horses dreamed in the sun.
I have always wanted to go to the Camargue and had not realised how close to it our friends now live. I suspect early autumn and spring or even winter might be the best times to see it, empty as it is intended to be, a landscape of dreams.
There is a surreal quality to Arles too, although it is a robust and practical place. Houses live cheek by jowl with the huge remains of the Roman amphitheatre. I am awed, admiring and occasionally repelled by the Romans. With what total singlemindedness they extended and subdued their vast empire. Here in Arles they were not so very far from home but in Chester near my home and even further north on Hadrian's wall they must have looked west and north into Wales and Scotland and shivered in the sleet.
But it is hard to imagine cold on a sunny day in Provence. By lunchtime it is warm enough to sit outside and spend a leisurely hour or so on two or three courses. There are cafes to sit in and squares to wander through.
And there are markets. I love markets. I like my local market in Mold but nothing compares to the variety and beauty of continental food markets. In Les Halles there are fabulous stalls at every turn. The stall holders are friendly and welcoming too. If they are driven mad by visitors photographing their produce rather than buying it they don't let it show.
And after Arles, Avignon: grander, more beautiful, more polished and moneyed. Lunch in a family run restaurant that has been in the same ownership for thirty years and delivers beautiful, thoughtful food, day after day in gentle well kept surroundings. How do they do it, lunchtime and evening, day after day, week after week, year after year, all lovingly prepared and immaculately presented? I do love France.
After lunch we went to the Le Palais des Papes. The whole building breathed power and wealth. How amazing it must have been to the peasant in his soil floored hovel to see this building almost the size of a small town. I felt a bit of an overawed peasant myself. The power and the maleness of the papacy was crushing, portrait after masculine portrait, room after room full of money and business and prayer and power. It is a stunning spectacle and not for the first time I am glad to be a woman now in the twenty first century with my own power and choices.
And up on the roof, Avignon spreads out below you, with the wide curve of the Rhone and the narrow streets and wide squares. It is a place to explore and to wander and to get to know.
And in no time at all we were preparing to come home again. It felt as though we had been there both just for a few hours and for a week. Our friends have created a fabulous house, sitting high amongst the trees in Les Alpilles. It has clearly been a long hard road to get there but what a result - full of space and light and peace. It was wonderful to see it and so good to catch up with them. Now when I think of them I can imagine them in their new space, the new garden quietly putting down its roots around them.
And here at home there are snowdrops to be planted down by the dogwoods and my new grasses to settle in and apple cake to be made and work to do. It all looks impossibly green, the wind is dropping and it is almost time for lunch.