Provence is a dream. A beautiful dream, from which you may never want to awaken. Picturesque towns shimmer in golden light, while fields of lavender give way to roads lined with colourful wildflowers, gorgeous vineyards and ancient trees. Days filled with scenic drives, aimless walks and lazy lunches ease into sunsets and starry nights that continue to inspire generations of artists.
Places appear as if conjured from romantic novels: borie (stone)-filled Gordes, view-endowed Bonnieux, ochre-sheathed Roussillon, pretty Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, historic Avignon, artistic Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, rocky Les Baux, wild Camargue, vineyard-rich Bandol, green Gorges du Verdon or glitzy Nice, Cannes and St. Tropez. Yet, it is not merely the beauty of places that differentiates Provence; it is the sheer unpretentious charm that surrounds them.
To do or not to do, that is the question
When in Provence, the biggest mistake is to try and do it all. The second biggest mistake, is to not do it all. The scenes, flavours and experiences change as the locale changes. To truly experience all that Provence has to offer, it is most important to slow down.
Getting on that tour bus to try and see it in a day will let you do just that: “see” it. Not, experience it. The difference between the two is very simple: drive past a lavender field to admire its beauty, but walk amidst the plants and you will hear the bees buzz as well as inhale the fragrance.
Dream the dream….
Pick the dream you want to live. While the entire region is incredible, we chose to opt for a more simple, country experience with family. Considering there was an infant and two toddlers, we managed to cover quite a bit.
Here are 10 of our favourite experiences:
1. Drive from Gordes to Sault (one of the lavender routes): Scattered lavender fields, wildflowers, vineyards and orchards dot the gorgeous road. Even if you have time only to reach halfway, the scenic views are worth the detour.
2. Explore local markets: Each market is as unique as its locale. We opted to explore the relatively smaller and more eclectic markets, but for a more complete experience, mix it up with visits to markets in Avignon or Aix. A book by Marjorie Williams, The Markets of Provence, provides detailed coverage for each of the markets. Based on the day(s) of your visit and interest, select the appropriate venue. Do keep in mind though that parking can be problematic in many of the places and plan ahead for painful traffic.
- Gordes is a bit touristy, yet musical with a lot of fresh food, fruits, juices, produce, cheese and more free-flowing clothing.
- St. Remy is more artistic, with paintings and budding artists scattered among artisanal foods and funky apparel/accessories.
- Lourmarin is very relaxed, with a lot of homemade food and casual clothing. Visit the stall Les arômes méditerraneens for a range of delicious dips such as artichoke white truffle and pimento mustard. Or, walk around and pick up some freshly baked lavender or raspberry cookies.
Travel tip: Halt for fabulous vegetarian bruschetta and refreshments at Le Comptoir after you have browsed to your heart’s content.
3. Pause to pose: Provence, especially its stunning lavender fields, provides the perfect backdrop for a memorable photo shoot. Trust Rosemary Jackson, a very talented local photographer, to find the perfect setting for a beautiful photo shoot. She also provides invaluable tips and suggestions to enhance your trip.
4. Walk into paintings: St. Remy is like a living painting. Van Gogh’s living painting. As the eccentric genius lived in the monastery there for several years, a large majority of his paintings are inspired by the surrounding scenery. The Van Gogh Art Walk pairs his paintings with the exact location that inspired them – use the map provided for a self-guided tour of the different scenes he painted. Viewing the town from the eyes of one of the world’s greatest artists adds a unique perspective and way to experience the town. Suddenly, you might take a closer look and notice the play of sunlight on olive tree leaves.
Tip: This is a child-friendly experience as it is outdoors and allows for learning with play amidst nature.
5. Discover culinary treasures: A trip to France is incomplete without some gluttony. Eat away or take back some delicious souvenirs:
- Chocolate: If there’s only one chocolatier you can visit, make it chocolatier Joël Durand’s creations. With a flavour for every letter of the alphabet, you will be spoilt for choice. Expect perfectly balanced, yet intense, flavours with an element of surprise.
Tip: Try the violet chocolate. The intense and velvety chocolate with the aromatic and flavourful violet is a taste that is not soon forgotten.
- Cheese: Though fresh cheese abounds in the region and especially at the markets, serious cheese lovers should visit La cave au fromage in St. Remy for award-winning fresh cheese paired with delicious local wines and fresh bread. Pick up some fresh fruits and dessert from the market for a complete meal. Note: Communication in English is a challenge, but manageable.
- Olive oil: No better way to strengthen your relationship with this cooking essential than by engaging in some olive oil tasting at a plantation or mill. The taste of fresh cold-pressed olive oil will forever change how you see this staple. Truffle lovers should use the opportunity to stock up on some delicious truffle oil. Visit Moulin du Calanquet in St. Remy, a mill that has been with Brun family for five generations. Or, head to Les Baux for a taste of award-winning oils at Les Castelas.
6. Visit a lavender field, distillery or museum: The Musée du Lavande in Coustellet provides an overview of lavender and lavandin as well as the entire distillation process, along with a selection of products from Le Château du Dubois. Skip the lavender tea that has a rather soapy aftertaste, but snag the gel refrâichent, which is a God-send for aches or pains of all kinds.
7. Go town or city-hopping: Provence lures the explorer with its postcard-perfect villages, towns and cities. Be it the villages of the Luberon, the sights and cities of the Alpilles, the magic of the Camargue or the glamour of the French Riviera. Each, unique. Each, incredible. If you want to build in some rest and relaxation however, prioritise and know that you simply cannot do it all at once.
Travel tip: Most of the large cities have tourist train rides that are perfect to get a quick lay of the land and some brief local history. However, do note that these close by 6pm, so plan ahead to reach on time.
8. Stay in a classic French countryside retreat: One of the highlights of our trip to Provence was a stay at Le Mas de Fauchon, a member of the Château Hôtels Collection. A quintessential Provençal experience, the property is an 18th century farmhouse that has been converted into a quaint hotel. Surrounded by scores of pine trees, yet within a 30-min drive of Aix-en-Provence, the hotel is a lovely country getaway.
9. Catch a sunset: Look around or simply ask around and you will find some lovely spots to enjoy gorgeous sunset views:
- Taste one of the best artisanal ice creams of the region at Les Glaces du Tinel in Bonnieux. One mouthful of their Pistachio ice cream and it is clear why. Grab a seat outside or take it to go and seat yourself near the wall opposite to watch one of the most beautiful sunsets of the region.
- While in Bonnieux, head for dinner to La Flambée for some delicious pizza and soup pistou (minestrone with pesto). Book a table on their terrace for one of the best views of the Luberon.
- Visit the Ochre Trail, Sentiers des ochres, in Roussillon and enjoy a multi-hued sunset. However, do note that the trail closes at 6pm. During summertime, catch the sunset from the viewpoint just before the trail starts.
10. Dine at a Provençal table: The quintessential image of Provence is one of eating elaborate meals at a beautiful table overlooking fields or farms. To make the vision a reality, dine at Mas de Fauchon in Saint-Cannat (near Aix-en-Provence).
If planned ahead, they rustle up some fabulous vegetarian regional specialties such as Ratatouille and Provençal potatoes along with delicious fresh pasta or mushroom risotto. The dessert is delightful and wines wonderful, but the view is fabulous. The tables overlook the family’s stud farm, so at any given time, there are a number of horses in the coral below. Surrounded by trees all around and atop a slight hill, the hotel reflects the image that appears when Provence comes to mind.
Beyond the Yellow Brick Road…
Some journeys go beyond a destination, to a place within. Long after the trip ends, thoughts collide and emotions flow: flashes of beautiful scenes, memories of slow days, joy over places seen, regret over experiences missed and nostalgia over a fun family trip. Sometimes, travel is not as much about the place as what the place becomes because of the people with whom you experience it.
The missing piece…
Provence is special not just because it is beautiful or because it has fabulous food, but because it touches the heart…a feeling of finding something that has been missing. Maybe a reminder of times when life was simple. Or maybe, finding that life still can be. Much like the beautiful traditional carousels that are at the heart of virtually every large town.
…The beauty of travel is that sometimes it helps you find something that you never knew you were seeking…
Those traveling with kids may want to visit Parc zoologique de la Barben, a wonderful zoo in the area near Saint-Cannat. However, do note that there is a lot of walking involved.
Those travelling in the month of June should note that summer solstice is celebrated with several musical fêtes. Think: Live bands, dancing, drinks and fresh food.