We had a two-week gap in the beginning of October and decided to take a road trip to Provence. It was a bit late in the season, but we decided to trust our luck.
People go to Provence because of the good weather, great cuisine and charming towns.
We found that the seasons took a pause for most of our Provence holiday, not summer bien sûre, but not yet autumn. That is, until the Mistral came, and with it, the rains. We had our fair share of the Mistral, le sâcre vent that’s the cause of all mischief as the saying goes. But rains came only at our last days.
The countryside was glorious in October, trees still green and the fields changing to yellow, russet and red as days passed by. The weather was hot enough during the day to enjoy a cold rosé but got cold during the night. The vendange was finished, last grape taken off the vineyards before the frosts and everybody was relaxed until the pruning.
Three times a year at Easter, August and Christmas, the owners of holiday homes – i.e. impressive domains with tennis courts and swimming pools and acres of well kept gardens- escape Paris, London or Brussels in their luxury cars and vintage Aston Martins for the joys of simple country life. In October these résidences secondaires are deserted, heavy chains hanging from the doorposts.
To our delight we found most of the villages empty by Provence standards, no queuing anywhere or no crazy rush to make lunch or dinner reservations weeks in advance. Just us and some Americans enjoying the last days of summer in this lovely part of France.
The downside was some of the more tourist-oriented places were keeping short hours or closed. And the lavenders were gone.
In almost every village we stopped by, old men were playing pétanque. It’s a bit of a cliché, I know. But ever since we learned it from our French friends in Brussels, we came to realise that it’s in fact quite a nice way to kill a few hours and can be awfully competitive. Plus, I like the feel of the boules, the way they smoothly fit into the palm of the hand, heavy gleaming spheres of steel that make a satisfying chock when tapped together.
Another charm of Provence is its cuisine. It’s blessed with good weather, fertile lands that grow anything, a considerable chunk of the Med full of seafood, woods and hills rich with mushrooms and game, in short, every ingredient imaginable to make an excellent meal. Add to that the ingenuity of the French chefs and the nations’ obsession with food, and the end results are spectacular.
Mornings started with café noisette and a visit to the local patisserie for a selection of croissant, pain au chocolat or tranches dorées.
We had delicious meals of salads, pâtés and foie gras laced with marc, creamy cheese, roasted peppers, mushrooms that smell like forests, oysters that taste like the ocean, tarts, charcuterie, Coq au vin from Bresse, Saint Jacques, sardines and mussels from Marseilles served with garlic mayonnaise, roasted canard and lamb with rosemary, tomato and homemade bread with extra-virgin olive oil from the local mills; greenish and slightly peppery.
We started with pastis as an aperitif and continued with chilled bottles of local Côtes du Rhône or Châteauneuf-du-Pape when we want to be serious with our wine.
And we walked. We walked the picturesque villages that smell of rosemary, lavender and wild thyme, the medieval towns with crooked little streets and châteaux in ruins, cities whose boulevards were adorned with cypress and planet trees, ancient Roman arenas and temples and bridges, countless l’Hotel de Villes and cathedrals, museums and a Popes’ palace.
We stayed at a mas – the traditional Provençal farmhouse- close to Aix-en-Provence and explored from there.
We loved Aix, a vibrant exciting university town.
Not for the Cours Mirabeau, the 440m long boulevard with its fountains, plane trees and cafés. Although it was enjoyable for an afternoon stroll, its cafés were on the too touristic side for us, even in October.
Not for following Cézanne’s shadow between Jas de Bouffan – his childhood home and his atelier, although it was entertaining enough.
Not even for exploring Musée Granet; although we throughly enjoyed its collections of Picasso and Cézanne and a very interesting exhibition by Fabienne Verdier. She works with giant brushes on huge canvasses. I simply adored her work.
We liked Aix because we liked strolling its small streets full of shops selling everything from high fashion to junk to savons du Marseilles, museums and crazy exhibitions, its little quartiers with bars and small restaurants full of people, local and tourist alike, eating, drinking, talking non-stop in about five different languages and ten different dialects.
We also liked its people, open, friendly and generous with their time and advice.
One day we decided to drive to the Montaigne Saint Victoire to have a first-hand experience of the mountain that was a major point in Cézanne’s life. The views were breath taking.
We had a memorable lunch at Château La Coste. The food and wine were superb, mais qui, but we most enjoyed walking around and exploring its Promenade Art & Architecture. They are always adding new pieces, so every future visit will be as interesting.
We went to Carrières de Lumières, the quarry turned art-based multimedia centre. There were two exhibitions; Van Gogh, Starry Night and Dreamed Japan, Images of the Floating World. The artwork was of course excellent, but the sheer size of the place and the music turned it into a wow! experience.
Afterwards we went to the nearby Les Baux de Provence, one of the cutest little villages imaginable, located conveniently at a hilltop with a killer view and with its own ruined castle. It’s one of the most visited places in France although only a handful of people actually live there, nevertheless it’s a must see. If the beauty of the nature and architecture were not enough, there was an exhibition that turned the village into an open air museum.
The nearby valley is home to some of Provence’s most luxurious hotels and Michelin starred restaurants.
We spent a couple of days exploring the Luberon region. Frankly, to do it justice, one would need about a couple months, so this could count as an introduction tour.
Luberon is actually a massif and a national park with beautiful villages – most from the medieval times – and splendid views.
The most famous of these villages are known as the Golden Triangle and are located 15 minutes driving distances from each other. Convenient people, the French.
We started with Bonnieux. Built on a plateau above the valley, it is one of the finest villages in the area. No matter what route you take to Bonnieux, you will see the church tower well before you arrive. At a height of 425m, the tower dominates the countryside and the surroundings of this little ancient village. We went there around noon and had an excellent lunch at a little restaurant while chatting with the Madame and her dogs about life, food and horseback riding.
The cobblestoned village of Lacoste is another beautiful and yet distinctly unique place to visit in the Luberon region. Set high up on a hill it overlooks the village of Bonnieux, giving us more of those spectacular vistas. The village has charming narrow streets from paved in calade stone and wandering around is a pleasant way to pass the time.
Lacoste is known for its theatre-driven history and its famous château once belonging to the Marquis de Sade. In 1771 the Marquis fled from Paris to escape the scandals created by his erotic writing and outlandish behaviour which was too liberal for the era. He came to Lacoste and sought refuge in the château which belonged to his grandfather. This huge 11th century château now belongs to the fashion designer Pierre Cardin. Today, musical and theatrical works are still performed there, and in July each year thousands flock to the tiny town for world-class opera, theatre, and music performances.
Menerbes became one of our favourite villages in the Luberon. I was curious about it since I’ve read about it in Peter Mayle’s classic 1989 book, A Year in Provence and reality matched the expectations.
It commands the gorgeous Luberon views over the valley you’ll come to expect as you explore the region, lovely cafés with terraces, cobbled streets with boulangeriés and bouchons and an overwhelming feeling that this village is somewhere where real people live, unlike Les Baux which is more like a film set.
Gordes, a hillside town with its perfectly off-white external walls resembles a giant wedding cake. Looking at it from afar could be even better than sitting in one of its many restaurants to enjoy the view of the countryside down below. It’s another residential town so très jollie, it had to become a tourist attraction. It’s steep and narrow roads hide some hole-in-the-wall bars and art shops.
Unlike some of the other villages in the region, Gordes is also home to five-star hotel, La Bastide de Gordes, which has a fine dining terrace restaurant, giving blessed diners 180 degree views of the valley and the Luberon Mountains. On the outskirts you can find the Village de Bories, an open-air museum with centuries old stone houses.
En route from Gordes to Gault, you can find the most picturesque vineyards in the region. Goult is a tiny village perched on a hill in the middle of the valley of the Luberon. The main appeal of this town is its beautiful résidences secondaires, the views over the valley, and some of the most Insta-worthy street corners that you’ll ever see.
Roussillon is another plus beaux villages de France that definitely deserves the title. Situated in the heart of one of the biggest ochre deposits in the world, Roussillon is famous for its magnificent red cliffs and ochre quarries. The red, yellow and brown shades of the earth form a striking contrast with the lush green pine trees and the deep blue Provençal sky.
Not surprisingly there are many art galleries in the village, the colours could seduce anyone who can draw a straight line or take a half-decent photo.
The red and ochre buildings of Roussillon is wildly different from the rest of the villages in the Luberon valley, making it a place to remember.
Provance is also famous for its open markets and antique hunting. For me the best ones were Le Grand Marché of Aix which opens three days a week around Cours Mirabeau, the Saturday market at Apt that sells absolutely everything and the Sunday market of L’Isle sur la Sorgue with its brocantes and antique shops.
On the road back home, we had a short stop at Richerenches, famous for its history and truffles. In the 12th century, Richerenches was one of the most important Knight Templar preceptory in Provence and some of the buildings are still intact to this day.
Another main attraction for Richerenches is the annual Truffle Market, that runs every Saturday morning from November to March. France’s black truffles, also known as the black diamonds of the culinary world, are the best in the world and Richerenches truffle market is reputed to be quite important. Visiting its tiny but very informative museum I come to understand and respect the farmers and the whole fascinating process.
These market days are the early stages of the truffles journey to the Michelin level restaurants of Europe. But even here in the middle of nowhere, buying from men with dirt under their nails with plastic bags and dented vans the prices are , as they like to say , très sérieux. Truffles are sold by the kilo and last years’ prices started around 2500 EUR. By the time the truffles reach the chefs in Paris, the price will no doubt multiply.
There are two simple reasons for these crazy prices; both obvious. First, nothing in the world smells and tastes like truffles; and second, nobody has proven success on cultivating truffles apart from the mother nature . Farmers in France, Italy, Spain and China are trying but the best they can do is to take some basic steps and pray hard half of the year for a successful harvest at the other half.
Luckily, I bought some heavenly smelling truffle oil and powder from a small delicatessen at L’Isle sur la Sorgue.
Although to the north of Avignon and far from the Golden Triangle , we found this part of Provence quite pleasing, especially the villages Suze La Rousse and Saint Paul-Trois-Chateaux. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time for explore the vineyards and villages. Well, there’s always a next time.
For now, I’m dreaming of spending cold winter weekends eating my oeufs brouillés à la truffe noire drinking a glass of Côtes du Rhône and watching A Good Year, another excellent Peter Mayle book-turned-movie featuring Russel Crowe and the lovely Marion Cotillard.
I can’t wait to go back. So let’s, shall we ?