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AIX-EN-PROVENCE- It's market day and the narrow streets of this ancient city, occupied by the Romans around 124 BC, are filled with locals and tourists.Grizzled farmers, cigarettes dangling from their lips, invite shoppers to inspect the fresh flowers and produce piled high in makeshift stalls sitting in the shadow of the city's historic bell tower.
The quaint Provencal towns portrayed in A Year in Provence come to life.
"Oh look," says one British woman as she arrives at the market, "it's just like HE describes it in the book."
The "he" to whom the woman is referring is British author Peter Mayle, who highlighted this market and one in nearby Avignon in his best-selling book A Year In Provence, the first in a series he has written on the magical places and people who live in this most enchanting of French regions.
"Many of our guests ask about Monsieur Mayle," a dark-eyed woman named Anne-Sophie Guihard informs me as we sip coffee in the colourful surroundings of the Villa Gallici, a 19th century home that has been transformed into one of France's most desirable hotels.
"They want to know where Monsieur Mayle lives," says Guihard, general manager of the hotel, which has been voted one of the top 100 properties in the world and one of more than 200 unique French establishments that display the Fleur-de-Lis emblem of the Relais & Chateaux group.
The 22-room Villa Gallici is where I park my rental car on the sixth day of my drive across southern France, which started in Nice and has brought me here mainly because of my fascination with Mayle's words.
"Our guests use the Villa as a base and go searching the Luberon for the places Monsieur Mayle talks about in his books," Guihard tells me in the hotel's gracious antique-filled living room.
After taking early retirement as an advertising executive in London, Mayle moved to Provence and began chronicling his life there - all the while introducing readers like me to the charming French characters he met along the way.
Because of my noon-time arrival, I decide to tour historic Aix, the birthplace of post-impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, and soak up the hotel'swonderful ambience before setting out the next morning for Lourmarin, where Mayle and his wife now live. Guihard promises to map out a route to the tiny village located at the base of the Luberon mountains, less than an hour from Aix.
The Villa, which resembles a French country estate, complete with iron gates and statues guarding the entrance, is located on a hill overlooking Aix's market and historic area. It has no formal dining room, so guests enjoy gourmet meals in the luxury of the ornate sitting room, decorated in vibrant fabric wall coverings and overstuffed furniture.
Early next morning, with a sumptuous Provencal breakfast under my belt and Guihard's map as a guide, I head out on Autoroute 51, exiting a short while later at Pertuis. This charming town features wine and pottery makers selling their wares on the side of highway D973, one of the local roads that snake through the Luberon.
The pleasant, well-marked roads here are lined with rows of plane trees that, when in full bloom, create a natural canopy that shades drivers from the valley's searing summer sun.
The wonderful drive along the base of the Luberon Mountains introduces me to some dramatic scenery - lush sweeping valleys sitting in the shadow of majestic white cliffs that from a distance look like hills of meringue.
My eyes light up when a sign tells me I'm about to enter Lourmarin. This and other Provencal villages like it seduce travellers with their quiet country charm and narrow streets lined with sweet-smelling boulangeries (bakeries).