A week in Provence

The Provence painted by Van Gogh and Cézanne is a dazzling palette of richly colored scenes. More than a century later, nothing has changed. A region famous for its pastis and pétanque, rolling fields of purple lavender, storybook hilltop villages, and picturesque markets, Provence offers so many enchanting landscapes and experiences that it would take a lifetime to uncover them all. We had a week.

On Sunday we followed the Rhone south from Geneva. Four hours later, leaving the crowded highway behind, we turned onto a small road and quickly found ourselves in the middle of spectacular countryside. An abundance of fruit stands began to appear along the roadside, tables piled high with melt-in-your-mouth peaches and apricots and an assortment of local wines and juices. We pulled up to a small wooden shack in hopes of finding a nice rosé, Provence’s speciality, which, when served chilled offers the perfect complement to a hot, dry Mediterranean climate. We came away with a local bottle and enough cherries, apricots, peaches, and figs to fill every empty crevice of the car. Twenty minutes later we pulled into our gîte, just past the castle-topped hamlet of Lacoste, which would serve as our base for a week of exploring the exquisite Lubéron Valley.

 

Driss, the  house caretaker, greeted us in the driveway that ran alongside the ancient stone wall surrounding the property and led us through an iron gate into our own secret garden. To our left lay a pool surrounded by glittering olive and almond trees and a private lavender field that filled the property with a soothing perfume. This was set against a backdrop looking over the valley and honey-colored village of Bonnieux, draped over the hilltop opposite Lacoste, so perfect it could have been a painting. To our right stood a spectacular Provençal stone house covered in a web of flowers and grape vines – our new home.

The house was originally built as a single room in 1742, to which others were added according to need, creating a mottled collection of stone and varying floor heights. Each room had a distinct character, from the oldest – now the living room – still centered around the original 18th century fireplace, the air suffused with the smell of wood smoke, to the glassed-in modern dining area for chilly nights, to our airy bedroom with a balcony view out over the lavender to Bonnieux, beams of light streaming in each morning at sunrise. The kitchen opened to an inner stone courtyard covered in bright flowers and set with a massive table chiseled from a single solid piece of stone, exactly matching Peter Mayle’s description from A Year in Provence – I wondered if it had taken as long to carry it in from the yard?

Within minutes, the car was unloaded, the kitchen was overflowing with a large supply of fresh produce and wine, a wooden serving platter had been decorated with an assortment of meats, cheeses, fruit and bread, glasses of rosé were poured, and we were soaking in the sun by the pool, breathing the fresh scent of lavender while the clear blue water lapped our feet. This scenario quickly became our standard afternoon routine, followed by long evenings spent dining by candlelight, surrounded by good food, good wine, and good company.

The Eurocup finals were on that night, France against Portugal, and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch it with the locals. We found a crowd gathering at the village bar in Lacoste where someone had hooked up their big screen TV on the terrace next to an arbor covered in grapevines and twinkling lights above the shadowed Lubéron, unintentionally creating the most idyllic viewing area imaginable. The game remained tied at the end of 90 minutes but our stomachs were eager for the first of our many Provençal feasts, so we skipped overtime in favor of an evening crowded around the kitchen, sipping wine, and enjoying our time together. After a decadent meal of burrata stuffed gnocchi pan-fried with preserved Meyer lemon and fresh spaghetti with shaved truffle, we felt our way through the dark to the lavender field for some stargazing before bed. The calming fragrance lulled us into a trance as the milky way spiralled brightly overhead. While we all lay on our backs marveling at this glorious night a shooting star blazed its way across the sky, the grand finale to a Provençal welcome.

On Monday we spent the morning relaxing in our little oasis, beginning with a leisurely breakfast on the balcony that turned into a picnic and nap by the pool, to the constant hum of cicadas in the background. Then, after a quick jaunt through nearby Goult to find groceries, we headed north through the Lubéron on the lavender route towards Sault, the lavender capitol of Provence, to explore the famed purple fields that had initially inspired this whole trip.

The Lubéron Valley is designated as a regional park and belongs to the worldwide UNESCO network of Biosphere Reserves, noting an area of protection and preservation. Once covered by sea, the sand has since been transformed into ochres, then cliffs, gorges, forests, and mountains, turning the valley into a rugged landscape that houses a huge amount of biodiversity. Passing through the green folds of the mountains we were compelled to stop and take in the view over the valley and brilliant orange ochre cliffs of Rousillion, empty and undeveloped despite its proximity to the glamorous Côte d’Azur Continuing on the narrow roads towards Sault, we suddenly found ourselves engulfed in a rippling sea of purple lavender amidst a haze of bees. Here, the lavender striped the tan and pink earth in rows of all sizes and hues, from baby blue to deep mauve, the fields stretching on endlessly until Sault appeared in the distance. Just before the town was another lookout point with a magnificent panorama over a majestic golden, purple and emerald patchwork quilt of alternating wheat, lavender, and grass fields. This was the Provence we had hoped for.

We took a different route home, recommended by a devoted lavender fan in his extensive Fodor’s travel review. Following his directions, we navigated a series of back roads marked by obscure landmarks, turning at a special tree, then stopping just before the next sign to turn again, then parking and walking into a field.  We were rewarded with a vast expanse of brilliant lavender fields including one quite accurately described as “the perfect field”. We recognized it as soon as we saw it. Stretching far into the distance, the field took on the most amazing shade of deep purple in the soft evening light (which Chris has since identified as crystal violet), begging us to walk through its regal splendor. Up and down the rows we went, grinning at each other with childlike exuberance, the pure beauty of it all too much to keep inside.

As night began to creep in we reluctantly buckled ourselves back in the car, mouths watering at the thought of the lamb, peaches, figs, apricot, bread, and potatoes waiting to be thrown on the grill for another liesurely Provençal feast.

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On Tuesday we set our alarm clocks early, ready for our first Provençal market in Vaison la Romaine, an attractive town of stacked houses, ancient Roman ruins and cobbled streets. The market wrapped around every corner, a tantalizing array of colors and flavors. Dad and Chris ducked and weaved around the stalls, popping out from behind walls of scarves and hats to take candid pictures just as I thought I’d lost them. We bought lavender honey sausages, pizza with caramelized onion and anchovies, baguettes, aged cheeses, apricots and figs, and eyed the collections of cicada ceramics. A sudden downpour sent the vendors scurrying – in Provence, bad weather is taken as a personal affront. We waited until the rain slowed to a drizzle and then followed the crowd to the car for the next adventure of the day, a foray into wine country.

Tucked among the lush vineyards just to our west was the wine appellation and town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the most highly regarded of the Côtes du Rhône AOCs. It was recently named a “Remarkable Site for Taste”, a French label of recognition for “superior quality, history, and presentation”, a hard-won prize in a country entirely devoted to food and wine. Established in a landscape of slopes and plateaus highly exposed to the mighty Mistral wind, the vines have to work their way through pebbles, clay and sand with no irrigation system, which explains the grapes’ powerful characteristics. A lively Frenchman poured us our first tasting in a 2000 year old Roman cellar, walking us through the 15 varietals used to create the area’s wine (sometimes all in the same wine) and sending us off with parting words of wisdom on how to allow the wine to age properly, noting the American tendency to drink their wine too young: “to keep yourself from drinking the wine in your cellar, build a wall instead of a door”. We tasted a variety of delicious wines around town, but the wine we shared over dinner, a 2005 Chateau des Fines Roches was truly exceptional – a complex balance between fruit and spices with a hint of vanilla, like a bottle of blackberry pie with vanilla ice cream.

Saint-Rémy, a small Provençal town that once served as Van Gogh’s muse was our destination on Wednesday morning. The hour drive took us through the lovely Ménerbes, the setting for Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, and down winding country roads lined with sycamores, their bright green canopies creating tunnels overhead, until we reached the entrance to the market and parked in front of a gold sign reading “Van Gogh Residence”. It’s easy to see why Van Gogh felt so inspired here. Gurgling fountains, winding streets of galleries and artists’ shops and shuttered sandstone houses give it a quiet beauty. The weekly Wednesday market spilled out over the streets and into the town squares, filled with freshly woven straw baskets and the rich scent of ripe apricots. We meandered through the beautiful stalls of paintings, colorful bags, and lush produce, collecting as we went and eventually ending up at table licking scoops of lavender, apricot and blackberry gelato as we sat by and admired French culture at its finest. 

Just down the road lay the Saint-Paul Asylum, a peaceful retreat built around a Romanesque cloister where Van Gogh was hospitalised for the last year of his life. Tall pines line the driveway to the entrance of the still-active sanitarium, a sign reading “$5 entrance except for patients”. The grounds are filled with silver-green olive groves, large stones serving as benches, enveloping its guests in a sense of serenity. Looking out the window of this asylum is where Van Gogh painted “The Starry Night”. We walked the paths lined with Van Gogh’s paintings set in front of the actual scenes they were depicting, puffy clouds drifting lazily through the blue sky above just like the pictures. 

Les Baux de Provence lies a little further down the beautiful mountain road, a French commune nestled among ancient ruins dating back to 6000 BC, set majestically on a rocky peak looking out over the surrounding Alpilles mountain park. We admired it from below before the lure of the pool was too strong, and we headed back to the Luberon.

Thursday was Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, and we celebrated by cheering on the cyclists in the Tour de France as they flew up the hill through the neighboring village of Gordes. We had done our research, and based on   a collection of blogs about viewing the race in person, we braced ourselves for the crowds and kept our hopes of finding a spot to a minimum. But the winding country roads were empty as we drove towards Gordes and we parked easily, just below the course, positioning ourselves along a relatively long, empty, laid-back stretch of road.  We arrived in time for the parade, shamelessly waving at the vehicles and collecting swag of all varieties as we picnicked with chilled rosé, cheese, baguettes and fruit. We were just inches away from the racers as they flashed by on their way to the finish line at Mont Ventoux, though our crowd refrained from knocking any of the racers off their bikes. When the riders had passed we hiked up to the beautiful narrow stone streets of Gordes, perhaps the plusPlus Beaux Village” of the Lubéron.

Our successful viewing was celebrated with a strong pastis and game of pétanque on the lawn, followed by a festive meal worthy of our host country.

On Friday morning we set off across the valley on a footpath from Lacoste, headed for Bonnieux’s weekly market. We took a leisurely route, due to the very casual French attitude towards trail markings (in total, two hand painted signs marked “village” with an arrow).  We took a series of detours through heavenly white cherry orchards dripping with ripe fruit, incredible views of both villages on opposite hills above us, the stray lavender field scenting our path, and eventually landed in the lovely market zigzagging up the streets of Bonnieux. Later, after a whole morning exploring, a direct trail through wheat fields, vineyards, and forests filled with wild plum trees took us back home to cool off in the crisp pool water.

After a few hours of swimming we drove out to the admire the beautiful purple landscape once more, taking a new route through more picturesque hilltop villages until we reached the hamlet of Saint Saturnin les Apt where we had reservations at a charming traditional restaurant, Hôtel Restaurant des Voyageurs. Bouquets of dried lavender, wheat, and straw baskets hung from the dark exposed wooden beams on the ceiling above the cozy dining room, creating an image you might see in a Condé Nast. Three hours later, nearly midnight, we had eaten our way through what felt like a few typical Provençal meals, including dishes such as escargot in garlic cream sauce, caper terrine, grilled lamb in a mustard crust, roasted red pepper stuffed with minced lamb, roast duck with fig sauce, a cheese plate, and a round of desserts like lavender chocolate mousse ice cream, pistachio cream cake, and a poached white peach. With some effort we stood from our chairs and wished our host a bonne nuit.

Saturday is market day in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Arles, a Provincial capital of ancient Rome dating back to the 7th century BC before later serving as a source of inspiration for more than 300 of Van Gogh’s paintings (though not a single canvas remains). Arles is home to the largest market in Provence and our goal was to get there with enough time to stroll casually through it. Parking was a challenge, but we eventually found ourselves in the center of the sprawling market, surrounded by hundreds of vendors offering decadent cakes, colorful macarons, potent cheeses, lavender products, meats, fresh produce, crafts and antiques galore. Awestruck by so many choices and feeling the pressure of a meal worthy of our last night in Provence, we were still frantically picking out the perfect prawns, lamb, vegetables and apricots for the grill as the market shut down at noon. The only casualty was getting stuck with an “industrial baguette” as labeled by a German couple sitting across from us while we presented our goods to Mom for approval. To make us feel better the Germans poured us a glass of white wine and distracted us with directions to fabulous wineries near their home in Alsace.

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We brought our picnic to the Camargue delta, a salt marsh created by the Rhone as it empties out into the Mediterranean. The Camargue is home to a large population of wild flamingos and a special breed of wild white horses, reputedly one of the oldest breeds in the world, having survived in the Camargue’s saline wetlands for thousands of years. Most are now used either by the Camargue’s traditional cowboys, for herding and rounding up the area’s distinctive black bulls, or for pony trekking. Passing many horses but no good picnic tables, we realized it wouldn’t be right to spend a week on a vacation so close to the shore and never see the ocean. Ten minutes later, we were spreading our picnic on a stone jetty jutting out into the Mediterranean. Then, after a quick wade in the warm water, we delved into the inner realms of the Camargue in search of flamingoes. We had been warned that we were unlikely to see them and had resigned ourselves to this when suddenly, a shout rose from the back seat, “LEFT!!! LEFT!!!” Out the window, a huge flock of flamingoes was wading elegantly through the water. We scrambled out of the car and watched as the graceful creatures contorted their necks into impossible positions and then spread their wings, deep pink and black underneath, and glided to the other side of the pool. For a while we stood mesmerized, still grappling to understand the bizarre world in which flamingoes reside in the south of France.

Our last stop was an impressive climax to the trip – the Pont du Gard, another of the many UNSECO world heritage sites in the area. We paid the steep fee to enter the park and a short hike later we were gazing in awe at the beautiful three-level Roman aqueduct standing 50 meters high, surrounded by thick olive trees. Built in the 1st century AD, it is the principal construction in a 50 km long aqueduct that supplied the city of Nîmes with water from springs in the north and incredibly is still perfectly intact. We could stand to learn a few things from the Romans.

Sunday began with a breakfast of grilled apricots and figs that caramelized into an amazing fruit jam, spread on grilled buttered farm bread. This was followed by a dip in the pool while we savored the few last moments of fresh lavender air and brilliant sunshine. At noon, Driss arrived and it was time to break the Provençal spell that had captivated us for the week and bid a bittersweet adieu to Provence. For now. Driving towards Geneva, I discovered that it is possible to instantly feel nostalgia for a place you’ve only known for a week, immediately aching for the scent of lavender and the Luberon’s vast wild land. As Provence fell into the distance I found myself humming the same Disney refrain I’d had stuck in my head for months leading up to this trip:

 

…There must be more than this Provençal life!

Although after this week I can honestly say to Belle, who needs more than this Provençal life??

 

 

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Mark Goldstein says:

    Not familiar with the UNESCO designation. Please explain.

    – Mark

    >

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    1. Sure! A World Heritage Site is a place (such as a building, city, complex, desert, forest, island, lake, monument, or mountain) that is listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO – which happens to be down the street from me here in Geneva) as being of special cultural or physical significance. The criteria for selection can be found here: http://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria/ -you can see why they tend to be very beautiful, fascinating places!! Looks like the historic center of Prague is on the list!

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  2. Mark says:

    Just love your posts – do keep them coming. In Prague next week – any pointers?

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    1. Thanks Mark, so glad you’re enjoying it! Fingers crossed that we have inspiration for them for a while 🙂 Prague, however, is on our list of top places we still want to go but haven’t been yet…that’s fantastic that you’ll be there – what brings you there? will you be staying long or traveling anywhere else?

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