Chez Willy and Gert
We visited friends Willie and Gert at their lovely chateau (I don’t know what else to call it) a beautiful complex carved into a steep terraced ancient olive grove in Provence-Cote d’Azure. What a life they have carved out for themselves. Unforgettable!
This post is taking some time to write, because it has been so special and had such a profound impact on us. Since 2001 we have been hearing from our dear Dutch friends Willy and Gert Rietveld about their special place and it’s been one of our life-goals to see and experience it for ourselves. We met Willy and Gert in 1981 in the Maldives – off the coast of India when we were on a winding path back to the US after 3 years working in Munich. Both Willy and Gert were long-term KLM professionals as purser and pilot so they’ve always been able to travel everywhere and have taken full advantage of the opportunity to discover and enjoy the world’s best places. Over the years we’ve come to admire their glamorous, active and adventurous life-style – somehow perfection seems to come naturally to them. Willy visited us in Florida and we visited them at their charming house in Vijfhuizen near Schiphol in 1999.
They are much younger but in 2001 they were already thinking about the perfect retirement haven. They purchased an ancient terraced olive grove on a steep slope in Claviers, France in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur French Riviera directly north of Saint Tropez and began designing their dream retirement place. Gert’s grandfather is the famous Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld and Willy is naturally imaginative and creative… together they created a picture-book paradise with lovely cool house, pool and guest cottage that fits naturally into the terraced grove.
Through vision, planning, brains, dedication, creativity and hard work they’ve managed to create their own slice of heaven in this remote region. They only had to move a few trees and all trees still produce masses of olives that are harvested and pressed into their own special oil – which must have magical properties because they both look as great and fit and tough as they did in 1981. Or maybe it’s pedaling hundreds of KM per week up and down steep mountains and eating mostly fish and veggies.
We knew their home was in a village high in mountains but we were in no way prepared for the spectacular, rugged, white-knuckle scenery of the area. The vistas are so vast we had trouble capturing the wide-open cliff-hugging feeling of the region. We arrived in early afternoon after laughing about the euro three-kisses (which we always fumble) we immediately dropped into our 40-year friendship. We settled into the perfect, tiny but spacious and open “Les Cabanon” guest cottage, had a swim, and after wine and (of course) olives, headed down to the village square for a festival. Willy and Gert know everyone in town and I think we met about half of them… wine, good food, music, and dancing in the picture-book village square made for an unforgetable evening.
Day two was a spectacular (and for height-averse little old me, somewhat harrowing) bike ride through other perched villages, with dramatic descents, hair-raising, hair-pin curves and precipitous unprotected edges, followed a trip to the market by car – OK, I admit it – we were supposed to go to the market by bike, – Willy and Gert swoop up and down these dizzying roller-coaster curves like bats without ever braking – but I wimped out on the steep descents and we wound up going by car. In addition to piloting huge jets, Gert is also a trained race-car driver so the car ride on these 9-foot wide, tight-winding, 2-way roadways was excitement enough for me! At the market we got fabulous fresh veggies, fish and gambas which we grilled on the plancha for dinner…. so another perfect day.
Day 3 we got the grand tour that included a long drive to Parque Natural Regional de Verdon (the Grand Canyon), with crepes and cider for lunch overlooking the gorge. Gert often cycles to these crazy heights and in fact we met several of his cycling friends at the top. These guys are a lot tougher, fitter and braver than we are! The day wrapped up with a lovely seafood dinner in the town square.
Our three days in this lofty, towering atmosphere – considering the choices they have made to create this very personal heaven – really has us thinking. One of our original criteria for retirement spots was “vista” but we didn’t wind up with any kind of distant view in either our summer or winter home. Other criteria – bikability, walkability, weather, accessibility – led us to gentler, less scenic, less dramatic terrains. Is it time to rethink? Is it too late to rethink?