Video: A Long-Distance Love Affair with Provence, France

Gayle Smith Padgett and her husband Ralph spent many years flirting with France before, as Gayle writes in a memoir she penned about the experience, they decided to finally “shack up” with the beautiful country and “make things official.”

Originally from California, Gayle majored in Spanish and Latin American studies at UCLA, and studied for a period in Mexico and Colombia. Ralph, a North Carolina native, was a mathematician by trade when the duo met on the tennis courts of a local club in Arlington, Virginia—a shared hobby that would follow them across the borders of two European countries.

Although Gayle had previously worked for a period in Germany, she was taken by surprise when Ralph was offered a job as a cost analyst for the U.S. government in Heidelberg—based just one hour from the French border, in the picturesque setting for the well-known operetta, The Student Prince. Before jet-setting off to their new life, the pair were married in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, with their honeymoon put on hold while they settled into the rhythms of life on the edge of two fascinating European cultures.

Between working nine-to-five in Heidelberg, and Ralph’s attempts to find the perfect German lager, their interests blossomed for destinations south of the border. Many weekends were spent exploring France’s Alsace region, with its fairytale, half-timbered towns like Obernai and Ribeauville. Cycling along the fabled Route des Vins (Alsatian wine route) was an opportunity for Gayle and Ralph to discover even more of the captivating vistas of northeastern France.

After placing their honeymoon on the back burner for a little over a year, the not-so-newlyweds sketched out an itinerary for southern France with a stop in the whitewashed town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. This stunning seaside treasure sits directly on the Mediterranean Sea, right at its convergence point with the mighty Rhone River. While Gayle sipped rosé on the beach, and soaked up author Peter Mayle’s famous love story about the sun-soaked region, A Year in Provence, Ralph ventured off on birding expeditions in the protected wetlands around Saintes-Maries, collectively known as the Camargue Natural Park.

The next chapter in the couple’s budding romance with Provence was soon to be written in the stars… quite literally. In Saint-Remy-de-Provence, the once beloved muse of Vincent Van Gogh - who crafted his legendary “The Starry Night” painting while gazing up at the skies above the town from his lodgings at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum—Gayle and Ralph fell head-over-heels in love with the town. They were impressed by how much St. Remy had to offer “in such a compact space and just steps away from Les Alpilles (the little Alps mountain range),” says Gayle. With the welcoming aura of the historic center—lined with cafés, restaurants, stylish boutiques, and iconic squares— pastoral walks among the local vineyards and olive orchards, along with the Wednesday farmers market with its picture-perfect stalls and sunny, southern disposition, the pair were decidedly “smitten” by this new French suitor.

As Gayle shares in her book, Passion for Provence, “Though retirement was a long way off, the Provençal spell had been cast.”

During those in-between years, Gayle and Ralph often counted the days before they could stuff their compact car full of provisions and head down south—visiting Saint-Remy-de-Provence and other charming destinations in Provence like Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Gordes, Roussillon, and Aix-en-Provence. As it became apparent that their love affair with the region had only deepened with every visit, the couple began to wonder if they should make a solid commitment to their long-term beau.

To get all of their administrative ducks in a row, Gayle decided it was essential to establish a home base before starting the process of obtaining a visa, which would have to be done in the United States (applicants must apply at the French visa center nearest to their home address in the U.S.). After securing a lovely rental in Aix-en-Provence, where Gayle and Ralph resided for one year after clearing the visa hurdles, the pair ultimately returned to their first love: Saint-Remy-de-Provence. Finding a needle in a Provençal haystack, i.e., a pool home with an attentive and caring landlord and within walking distance to the town center—the duo has called St. Rémy home since 2012.

Along the way, they’ve done house-sitting, and pet-sitting (for a few felines with big personalities), been warmly welcomed into the local expat community, and established a fine appreciation for French cuisine. Gayle has given a special name to their fine dining, on-a-budget escapades… Destination Déjeuners, or Destination Lunches. Restaurants that “shine” on multiple levels. “They offer a warm welcome, inviting interior, convivial ambience, engaged service, and tasty, often inspired cuisine,” writes Gayle. “Checking out these promising establishments may involve driving an hour each way or taking a week-long trip for lunch prepared by a renowned chef.”

As retirees living their dream in Provence, Gayle and Ralph have put their commitment to the test and plan to continue their love affair with this charming corner of southern France.

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