“So I was thinking,” said a new friend who splits her time between Paris, Provence and New York. “I’m going to go down to Provence next week and think you should come with me.”
While it didn’t take too much convincing, this proposal came only four days after returning to Paris from Morocco so I was a tad hesitant. As soon as she mentioned “convertible,” though, I was sold.
I logged onto SNCF—France’s Amtrak—booked a roundtrip ticket for 3 nights, professed my gratitude for her offering to host and vowed to treat her to dinner (and also get work done among the lavender fields.)
Provence had been tops on my list to see here in France, but I had yet to plan something as I knew very little about the region and the ins and outs of discovering it. It seemed like the type of place to explore by car, and therefore with someone since I’m not the most vroom-vroom, give-me-a-tank-of-gas-and-a-GPS, hit-the-road type of traveler. As far as I knew it was all about hopping from small village to small village through lavender fields in the sun, sun, sun. Hence this would be a perfect introduction since I could quite literally just go along for the ride.
Well, I was right about the sun—it was hella hot down there—and all those wee towns, but I didn’t see one lavender field! After arriving in Avignon on the 2.5 hour TGV fast train from Paris, I learned pretty quickly that the region and terrain of Provence is vast and varied. We stayed on the border of Paradou and Mausanne, both of which lie amid “Les Alpilles,” a small mountain range that one can only guess is considered to be the “mini Alps.” Both towns are about 45 minutes from Avignon and 15 minutes from Saint-Remy de Provence, the charming, mostly pedestrian “circle” of a village that’s well-known for being home to Van Gogh. (For a little while, anyway.)
On my first day, we explored the lovely twisty streets and blue shuttered-buildings of Saint-Remy where I had to refrain from buying more than four lavender satchels and a leather fringe bag from one of the town’s ridiculously cute boutiques. Had it been made in France, not Italy, I’d probably be $500 in the hole right about now. That evening, we had an incredible 4-course, pre-set meal at Bistro du Paradou, a classic French spot where “everybody knows your name” if you’re a local. The cheese platter, which came between the plat (entrée) and dessert was humongous. You just cut off what you want and off it goes to the next table!
On the second day, we visited an olive oil farm and a vineyard in the Rhone Valley, followed by some R&R by the pool and the most insane pizza I’ve had in a very long time. You know you’re in France when they put goat cheese and honey on a pie. If you’re in the area, don’t miss Pizza Brun.
On my last full day, we got up early and went to Le Carrier de Lumieres, which is essentially a museum inside the quarries of Les Baux (an old town on the top of the hill, which is super touristy and not really worth the climb other than for the view). Prior to becoming a space for spectacles in 2012, it was a site for artists and visionaries to find inspiration among the limestone. Now, each season sees a new art exhibit projected onto the 6,000-metered site with an accompanying soundtrack. Last year saw Klimt, this year the Renaissance masters of Leonardo de Vinci and Michaelangelo take center stone. Despite it being a bit cold in the quarries (note to visitors: go in the afternoon after you’ve been baking in the Provence sun all day!), it was one of the cooler exhibits and spaces I’ve ever been too. I’m not sure what the Klimt exhibit was like, or even Van Gogh the season before, but to see such artwork projected onto a similar texture that some of them were created on in the first place was very apropos and moving.
For lunch, we took a ride into Le Gard, another region in Southern France known for its Languedoc wines. I had read lovely things about the unspoiled town of Uzés, so we cruised over there for lunch and a wander through the town, which, like Saint-Remy, was circle-shaped and mostly free of cars on the inside, as well as home to quaint shops and those beautiful blue shutters. I also huffed and puffed up a VERY narrow spiral stone staircase in the King’s Tower of the Medieval Gardens to see an epic view of the region below. It was worth it, but I was shaking in my sandals on the way up and down. Serves me right considering the guy at the ticket booth was all like, “It’s over 100 steps,” to which I huffed and was all like, “That’s nothing.” It was definitely not nothing. Thankfully, there was a cold glass of medicinal tea made from the garden’s herbs to drink upon my return to the earth.
On the way back to Provence, we stopped into “Le Musee de Bonbon“, aka the Haribo Factory because who can resist the Haribo Factory when you happen to be RIGHT THERE?! I mean, the Gold Bears! The Twin Cherries! The Sour Peaches! The museum itself was super informational for both adults and kids. We learned about different types of sugar, molds, coloring and more. My teeth were rotting just from reading all the facts. (That and our ticket entry came with a packet of gummies to munch on while touring.) Then we entered the boutique where we saw dozens of people piling massive bags and containers of candy into carts. I got a magnet and a pen. Not that I’m Little Miss Perfect Teeth or Dieter. It’s just that one bag’s enough for me. Chocolate, on the other hand? Bring it on.
Before I hopped back on the train the next day, we went to a much more healthy showcase of colors and sweet treats: the Saturday market in Arles. This was another town I’d long wanted to visit, despite not knowing more than it being where Van Gogh sliced his ear, so I was happy to get to witness such a vibrant display of local life. I’ve never seen such an incredible market before—and Paris’ markets are pretty impressive. Here, there was just more of everything: More cherries, more lemons, more apricots, more nuts, more confiture jars adorned with ribbon and a piece of country-chic fabric.
Overall, this was a mere tiny, but delicious taste of Provence. Bits of it reminded me of Tuscany: the Cypress trees, the olive trees, the gloriously easy drives into villages, each rich with their own charm. I’d say 3-4 days is a good amount of time for this area alone—that is, if you’re cool to constantly bop around and not sit still so much. Say, by the pool or in a chair that rocks next to sweet-smelling honeysuckle. It’s worth succumbing to the latter, though, because the properties—hotels or otherwise—as well as some of the small towns, are just so beautiful and worth the time to explore or soak up. I can’t wait to return and go deep into the Luberon Park area, find those lavender fields and get lost in the Carmargue, where apparently there are pink flamingos, sea salt and cowboys.
What’s French for yee-haw?