Before innkeepers unlocked their romantic potential, the vehicles were tough if not impossible for gadje to penetrate. For years before and after restoring an 1814 ruin in Provence in 1994, I have gone out of my way to stop at a roulotte that sells olive oil and dried herbs at the entrance to Fontvieille, the village made known by Lettres de mon moulin, Alphonse Daudet's humanist masterpiece. My interest in the dusty herbs is feigned, but at least they get me inside. And there is always some fashion lesson to be learned from the owner, who may or may not be a Gypsy and who wears clanking jewelry and a cinched blouse pulled down to expose her shoulders. But the last time I visited she showed what seemed like a dangerous level of admiration for my friend Odile's long and colorful flounced skirt. We both felt that if we lingered any longer in that dark airless room a line might be crossed. "J'aime ta jupe!" the woman exclaimed, pulling at the hem. "I love your skirt!"
There are more recycled roulottes in Provence than anywhere else in France because the Provençaux have long observed les gens du voyage, or travelers, and been students of their customs. Every May, Gypsies from all over the world make the pilgrimage to the Camargue to the whitewashed coastal town of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to celebrate their patron saint, Sara. The pilgrims believe that in the ﬁrst century A.D., Jesus' two aunt Marys, Jacobe and Salome, and their Egyptian servant Sara miraculously crossed the Mediterranean from Jerusalem without a sail, oars, or provisions, landing and ultimately being entombed in Les Saintes. (Actually not everyone agrees that the servant was on board.) During the spring celebration, effigies of Sara, who is depicted as black, and the Marys, all in festive spangly capes, are held aloft in a procession into the sea. It's a frenetic moment made more so by a splashing convoy of horses.
In the quasi-cryptic realm of second-use roulottes in France today, all roads lead to Jeanne Bayol, who chases down vintage examples from England to Estonia, then rehabilitates them in her plein-air atelier in St.-Rémy-de-Provence. An average model, in wood or tole-faced wood, is 20 feet long, has seven-foot ceilings, costs $18,000, and is not capable of doing more than a short turn around the garden. Bayol's reputation was sealed, and the vogue for roulottes informally ignited, when Jacques Grange, a neighbor and the nearest thing the French have to decorating royalty, became one of her first customers.Since then she has supplied roulottes to a portfolio of auberges de charme in the region, including La Pauline, Le Mas dou Pastre, and Le Mas des Câpriers. Les Roulottes de la Serve offers a similar experience in the Beaujolais. And though the roulottes at the hotel-restaurant La Fenière, in the Luberon mountains, are new, they follow traditional designs and are made by artisans, Les Roulottiers, in the Midi-Pyrénées. The wagons at most inns are gently priced. Except for Serve, all of the above places also have conventional lodgings.
I'm going to stick my neck out and say that Mas des Câpriers, lost deep in the countryside, has the most arcadian setting of any guesthouse in Provence. Delivered on a flatbed truck, its 1897 roulotte is marooned on a rise on the edge of a bosk and attended by cement mushrooms—garden ornaments—daubed with polka dots. A birdcage hangs from the hourglass chassis, beveled windows betray a kind of Art Nouveau wishfulness, and potted pansies line the steps to the front door (where, by the way, you can check your fears about spending an onerous night: the roulotte is a lot more comfortable than you might think, and you'd be surprised how quickly and naturally you tailor your movements to its constraints). Inside, French doors separate a sitting room and a bedroom with a queen-size bed, both naïvely paneled in oak. Crocheted curtains, long-stemmed cloth roses, a floral patchwork bedcover, an Eiffel tower snow globe, and a crucifix complete the look.
Cloth flowers are lovely, of course, but not strictly necessary, not like, for most of us anyway, a toilet. And hot water. And heating. The roulotte has all three. The toilet is retrofitted in a tiny closet. Water flows just like at home, into a porcelain sink. Space heaters chase the chill. Only the shower is outside. What a shower: banged together from the thick, hairy planks of packing crates, the huge alfresco stall is snuggled under a canopy of pines.
Most of us have memories we fear are too cinematic, or too fantastic, or too picturesque to trust. I checked into Câpriers with what I thought was a complete mental inventory of everything I knew about ambulant Gypsy habitats. But by morning I was remembering something additional, the time some 20 years ago when, driving on a back road in the choking heat between Arles and Fontvieille, I saw a roulotte, drawn by a lumbering mule, being used the way it was meant to be used, by a Gypsy family on the move.
Christopher Petkanas is special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.