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Finding Pottery in Provence

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.

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