I have a particular fondness—a weakness, some friends say—for ceramics, and my cupboards are crammed with pieces that I've bought all around the world. Besides enjoying the quirky beauty of my fire-blackened Indonesian bowls, polka-dotted Hungarian wine jugs, and Tunisian pitchers with their otherworldly iconography, I take a perverse pleasure in the challenge of lugging pottery home from overseas. It's ridiculously breakable; each undamaged plate is a trophy.
My favorite finds, the ones I use every day, are from the south of France, where the history of this craft is long and cross-cultural, absorbing influences from throughout the Mediterranean. The region's earliest inhabitants made primitive vessels for storing, cooking, and serving food. The Greeks introduced more sophisticated techniques when they founded Marseilles as a trading port, circa 600 b.c. (They also introduced wine, an instant hit.) Trade with Italy and Spain brought new shapes and colored glazes. When the popes settled in Avignon, in the early 1300's, they promulgated both religion and luxurious dining.
Pottery making seems especially suited to the Gallic temperament. Like cheese and wine production, it's a blend of chemistry, artistry, geography, luck, and sweat. Southern France's terroir is ideal—clay-rich soil, hot sun for baking, wood for firing. Today, it has become inseparable from what we think of as the southern French style. Provençal cuisine conjures up the mortar and pestle, terra-cotta cookware, and brightly colored olive-oil jugs and kitchen tiles. And the dishes and plates: even on the gloomiest winter day, the warm glazes and familiar rusticity evoke herb-scented Mediterranean sunshine.
I've collected most of my pottery over the years on shopping expeditions with my friend Christopher Corr, the British illustrator; he has a centuries-old limestone maison in Barjac, about an hour's drive northwest of Avignon, on the border of Provence and the Languedoc. Christopher's kitchen cabinets groan under the weight of a collection that is bigger and more eclectic than mine—he has the advantage of proximity.
Meander might be the best description of our time-proven manner of travel. We bring maps but rarely consult them, stop when we feel like it, and stick to the back, or "green," roads (French maps highlight the scenic drives). To be honest, these quests are just a very good excuse to visit some of the most appealing towns in the countryside: a café with a view is as important as the perfect bowl. This time around Christopher brings along his paints and pads to keep a record of our trip, which starts practically in his backyard. Surrounded by vineyards and lavender fields, with a view west to the Cévennes Mountains, Barjac is a quietly enchanting spot. I like it precisely because there's not much to do there. But the Friday market, held along the steep main street, is a crowded local event. In a prime location at the top of the thoroughfare, Jocelyn Nestier has been selling sturdy pottery from northern Spain for as long as I've been visiting, some 10 years now. His pieces are mostly solid-colored, but I keep an eye out for the occasional marbleized glazes that make his pitchers and salad bowls look like earth-toned finger paintings.
From Barjac, Christopher and I drive an hour south to Uzès. On a high Languedoc plateau ringed by fields that explode with red poppies every spring, it is one of the loveliest towns in southern France. The great renegade novelist André Gide spent his school vacations here, in his uncle's house, just off the Place aux Herbes. This wide central square is shaded by plane trees and surrounded in all directions by winding streets. So many prettified French villages have a museumlike quality; Uzès buzzes with an urban energy.
Christopher and I eat lunch in the Place aux Herbes, at Lou Mazet, a restaurant where a waiter hauls around an enormous chalkboard menu to each table. Christopher keeps his watercolors in an antique metal paint box, which he opens everywhere, even in the best restaurants, managing never to get paint on the tablecloths or on his clothes. Taking out his painting pad, Christopher turns his gaze to the neighboring tables, where French couples, sitting with their dogs and babies, drink beer under café umbrellas. Our food arrives and I dig in, but Christopher ignores his warm goat cheese strata: he is fixated on a salon next door, where tattooed locals sip mint tea. Waiters and diners stroll by to peek over Christopher's shoulder. But he pays no attention, as his sketchbook pages become covered with little paintings—of the square's big fountain, of my salade niçoise—rendered in quick swabs of his brush.
The Pichon family has been making pottery in Uzès with the region's signature white clay for two centuries. The current generation, Veronique and her brother Christophe, have separate studios and shops. According to Christopher, who collects gossip as voraciously as he does pottery, there's a rumor of a bitter family feud. His favorite designer is Veronique, so after lunch we head to her store. It's so packed with breakables that we both leave our bags at the door. Veronique works in subdued, earthy greens and grays; her refined tableware has a distinctive scalloped edge. Unlike most Provençal ceramics, her plates would be at home on a formal dining table.
A few miles down the road is our next stop: the hilly Languedoc town of St.-Quentin-La-Poterie, which was a pottery-making center for centuries, thanks to its excellent clay. Though there's no longer a thriving industry here, more than a dozen contemporary artists maintain ateliers, producing a wide and sometimes wacky variety of styles. Most of this work is too modern for my taste, but just outside of town, at Les Céramiques de Lussan, Christopher and I are captivated by a flock of life-sized ceramic chickens. En masse they're wonderfully silly, but take one away and it would work in a garden back home. I, unfortunately, have only a fire escape. Instead I buy a few eggcups, delicately painted with tiny chicken portraits, that will be ideal for serving chilled vodka or sake. (I imagine they'd be good for eggs too.)
The next day we're off again, driving two hours southwest to Aix-en-Provence, leaving behind the farmers' fields and dark river gorges of the Languedoc for Provence'spale hills. Aix may be the most famous town in the region; it's certainly the most energetic, its countless squares humming with students from the university and its lanes lined with wonderful shops, like the outrageous confectionery La Cure Gourmande, which sells chocolate olives (you can't tell them from the real thing until you take a bite), and Le Faubourg, which carries etched glasses. I'm something of a "town square collector" (anthropologist?fetishist?), and my favorite in Aix is the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville—small but perfectly proportioned, with the requisite fountain, a news kiosk, and a few cafés in one corner.
Christopher sets up in the square, while I look for pottery. At first I find only shops selling mass-producedceramics festooned with olives and those tiresome cicadas. Then I arrive at the Rue Gaston de Saporta, a few hundred cobbled yardshousing Aix's best shopping. Tucked between all the big names—like Le Comptoir des Oliviers—I spot Couleurs Provence. In its window are pots and vases I've seen before in a restaurant in the Camargue, with colors wrested right from the region's fields. I've been looking for this pottery for years.
Jerome Beillieu, who owns and runs Couleurs Provence with his sister, Isabelle, is locking up for the evening, but he invites me in for a cup of coffee. His family has been in the area since the 15th century. Jerome's enthusiasm is infectious, his taste impeccable—and his English excellent. He and his sister sell a connoisseur's collection of traditional French pottery, as well as furniture, antique glassware, and quilts. Jerome is a man with strong opinions on everything, including how to clean antique linen. ("Use Savon de Marseilles, soak it overnight, and dry it on the grass in the full moonlight.") The work in the window was made by Richard Esteban—the best potter in France, Jerome insists. He pulls out a map and shows me how to get to Esteban's shop in the Camargue town of Aigues-Vives. But before going there, we should head south to Poterie Ravel in Aubagne, he advises, tracing an ambitious route on the map.
I find Christopher still engrossed in his painting and present the agenda for the next day. We order Kirs and watch the magic hour—that extended moment when businesses and shops start to close down and a lively parade of students feeds into the square from every direction, filling the cafés. At a neighboring table, awoman sits alone sipping a milky pastis. The lights blink on, and it is evening.
A French friend of mine years ago warned me that not all French restaurants are good. He might have also added that not all Provençal towns are charming. About an hour south of Aix, just east of Marseilles, Aubagne is an unattractive town in an industry-heavy area (picture sullen youths with mullets and tight jeans loitering by the side of the road). It's home to the santon figurines that depict traditional life, and to Ravel, a family-owned studio that has been operating for generations. Its business is so big, it has its own clay quarry. The pottery, still handmade, is solid and practical, with subtle pigments. Christopher buys a cornflower blue pitcher. I choose a ridiculously oversized bowl, to hold salads or pasta and decorated on the inside with a red coil design, like a curled-up snake. We were in and out of Aubagne in 90 minutes, and that included an hour at Ravel. It was worth the visit.
Before seeing Richard Esteban, we detour slightly, as if by impulse, to Arles. Henry James once wrote of Arles that, "if it is a charming place, as I think it is, I can hardly tell the reason why." James was being curmudgeonly: Arles's charms are easily discerned. Visitors who flock to the weekly market love the wide-open Place de la République, with its obelisk, and the narrow Place du Forum, packed with café tables. Arles is a bullfighting town, its Roman-built arena still in use; bullfighters once waved to their adoring fans from the balcony of the Grand Hôtel Nord-Pinus.
Our next stop is for lunch in Aigues-Mortes, a half-hour's drive southwest of Arles. This walled medieval town is the home of Mediterranean sel de mer (its image appears on the back of La Baleine salt containers). Between Aigues-Mortes and the sea are the checkerboard salins, or salt marshes, where the seawater evaporates and the grainscrystallize, produced not by machines but by wind and sun.
Built by Louis IX as a port from which to launch his Crusade ships, Aigues-Mortes seems almost deserted when we arrive in mid-afternoon, despite all the tour buses outside the wall (cars are seldom allowed inside). The name, which means "dead waters," sounds like that of a South Dakota cowboy town. And in fact, its calm masks a Wild West-like history. Saint Louis waged a holy war from Aigues-Mortes, and after one bloody battle, the bodies of the dead, too numerous to bury, were salted and kept in a stone tower.
At the pretty Restaurant Le Maguelonne, we spot more of Richard Esteban's pottery. But the young waiter contritely explains that the oven broke down and there will be no lunch. Crestfallen, we head down the street, but don't get far before he calls out to tell us that the oven will be fixed—miraculously—in 15 minutes. We'll be back, we tell him, and go for a stroll. Just outside the southern gate are the salins,and a gleaming mountain of salt that looks like a bleached-out sand dune.
Aigues-Vives ("living waters") is about a 20-minute drive away. Esteban's Poterie d'Aigues-Vives is at its edge, next to a scruffy field. When we arrive, Arnaud Boix, Richard's assistant, is at work at the potter's wheel, turning out plates in the rich red clay from Provence. Richard—who is next door in his kitchen, cooking pasta for his three children—still does everything the old way. Each piece is thrown on a wheel, dried in the sun, and then fired in a kiln. In back of the atelier, his shop is hung with cages full of songbirds. Wandering through the stacks of plates, platters, and bowls decorated with whimsical designs—stripes, birds, dogs, bulls—Christopher and I feel as if we've found the mother lode. Between us, we probably contribute a substantial amount to Richard's children's college fund.
As Katia Commandré, another of Richard's assistants, packs our purchases carefully in newspaper, Richard tells us about another potter who works in the traditional ways, a few hours' drive northwest in the Drôme, in the tiny village of Cliousclat. He offers to call ahead and make arrangements with his friend. It's tempting. But as it is, I'm going to have to find sherpas to help me tote my purchases home. We'll take a rain check until my visit next year, we tell him. It's comforting to know that, even after all these years, there will always be more pottery—and more of the south of France to discover.
Château de St.-Maximin
A 12th-century château outside Uzès. DOUBLES FROM $186. RUE DU CHATEAU, ST.-MAXIMIN; 33-4/66-03-44-16; www.chateaustmaximin.com
Reservations are hard to come by at this 22-room inn and garden oasis. DOUBLES FROM $256. AVE. DE LA VIOLETTE, AIX-EN-PROVENCE; 800/735-2478 OR 33-4/42-23-29-23; www.villagallici.com
Stylishly rustic boutique property with a peaceful inner courtyard. DOUBLES FROM $128. 21-23 RUE DE LA RÉPUBLIQUE, AIGUES-MORTES; 33-4/66-53-66-56; FAX 33-4/66-53-69-61
LUNCH FOR TWO $30. 23 PLACE AUX HERBES, UZES; 33-4/66-20-23-59
Le Clos de la Violette
This restaurant has some of the finest cuisine in the south of France. DINNER FOR TWO $307. 10 AVE. DE LA VIOLETTE, AIX-EN-PROVENCE; 33-4/42-23-30-71
Restaurant Le Maguelonne
Like eating in the country kitchen of a solicitous cook. LUNCH FOR TWO $50. 38 RUE DE LA RÉPUBLIQUE, AIGUES-MORTES; 33-4/66-53-74-60
Lovely restaurant with a tree-shaded courtyard. DINNER FOR TWO $82. 19 RUE DE LA RÉPUBLIQUE, AIGUES-MORTES; 33-4/66-53-86-88
Les Trois Salons
Contemporary French food in a beautiful 17th-century mansion. DINNER FOR TWO $100. 18 RUE DU DOCTEUR BLANCHARD, UZES; 33-4/66-22-57-34
7 RUE JACQUES D'UZES, UZES; 33-4/66-22-65-96
Les Céramiques de Lussan
MAS DE FAN, RTE. DE ST.-AMBROIX, LUSSAN; 33-4/66-72-90-92
La Cure Gourmande
16 RUE VAUVENARGUES, AIX-EN-PROVENCE; 33-4/42-21-26-48
5 RUE AUDE, AIX-EN-PROVENCE; 33-4/42-26-00-82
Le Comptoir des Oliviers
14 RUE GASTON DE SAPORTA, AIX-EN-PROVENCE; 33-4/42-96-21-28
15 RUE GASTON DE SAPORTA, AIX-EN-PROVENCE; 33-4/42-96-36-60
AVE. DES GOUMS, AUBAGNE; 33-4/42-82-42-00
58 RUE DE L'ABATTOIR, AIGUES-VIVES 33-4/66-35-18-79