France is such a vital part of chic European culture. Join our intrepid traveler Rose Betty Williams as she jets to the Provence region…and with her five-star point of view recommends only the very best for your next visit.
By Rose Betty Williams Photography courtesy of author’s own and archival
When dear friends asked my husband and me if we wanted to go to Provence and share a villa with them, we jumped at the opportunity. I bought and borrowed guide books about Provence. I also binge-read Peter Mayle’s books A Year In Provence and Toujours Provence, Susan Vreeland’s Lisette’s List, and Lost Carousels of Provence by Juliet Blackwell. I also watched movies about Provence such as A Good Year starring Russell Crowe, Loving Vincent and Lust For Life starring Robert Gubczyk and Kirk Douglas, respectively, as Vincent Van Gogh.
We flew from Austin to Marseilles and then drove to Aix en Provence, which we felt was not only centrally located, but also the perfect spot to begin our exploration of Provence. We loved le Pigonnet, our fantastic hotel in Aix. Our accommodations were charming with a balcony and windows that commanded spectacular views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain that Paul Cezanne depicted over and over again in his paintings.
We relaxed in le Pigonnet’s stunning Versailles-like gardens and enjoyed a light repast of Provençal cheese, fresh fruit, black tanche and green picholine olives, olive tapenade, local charcuterie, and an assortment of bread and crackers. The sunny skies and comfortable September temperatures of 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit were ideal and a short five-minute leisurely walk to Aix’s city center beckoned, but we chose instead to listen from chaise lounge chairs to the live music performed in the open air bar and to go to bed early.
The next morning we were ready to explore. We engaged the services of Tours By Locals for private tours of the hilltop villages of the Luberon. Our superb guide, Nathalie Clairault, met us at 8am in the hotel lobby. Even though she had already advised us to wear layers and comfortable walking shoes, she gave us a quick inspection, and then strongly urged me to get my raincoat, and my husband, his hat. The weather and wind, or mistral, can change very quickly in Provence. The mistral is a strong, cold wind that often exceeds 40 mph. More about the mistral later.
We drove to the southernmost Luberon village of Lourmarin to see the Renaissance Chateau de Lourmarin. When we entered the Chateau from one of its many large courtyard terraces, we were astonished by the decorated fountains, flowers and pools, and the sweeping views of vineyards, olive groves and almond trees. That explained why the Chateau is a favorite venue for weddings, special events, music and art festivals, and why Winston Churchill set up his easel there to paint. I was fascinated by the musical instruments that I thought were just for display but found out later are used regularly for concerts and recitals.
From Lourmarin, we drove to Bonnieux. En route, we saw the Pont Julien, a three-arched 215-foot bridge built by the Romans in 3 B.C. and named for Julius Caesar. We also visited the Chateau la Canorgue Winery, which was where A Good Year was filmed. Clairault regaled us with stories about the transformation of this immaculate winery and chateau for the film and about Crowe, whom she called The Gladiator, eating, drinking and “more” in town. We went to the Caveau, also known as the tasting room, and of course, tasted and bought several reds and a couple of Rosés, all reasonably priced and delicious.
Our next stop was lunch. We went to La Bergerie that is located in a pastoral park setting surrounded by woods and lavender fields, and has suites, rooms, a spa and pool, and offers cooking lessons. We dined on an extraordinary truffle pizza, a goat cheese and ham platter, a mushroom tartine, a beef carpaccio and artichoke candied with lemon olive oil, and the most delicious fleurs de courgettes—stuffed and fried zucchini flowers–all specialties of Michelin 2-star Chef Edouard Loubet. I ordered a pastis to drink, but alas, didn’t like it–too licorice-y for me. We easily could have napped by the pool but we had to work off the calories.
Bonnieux is a high-perched village located on the northern slopes of the Luberon across from Lacoste. The Vielle Eglise, which means old church, is a 12th-century Romanesque and Gothic styled 1400-foot high church at the top of Bonnieux and the village’s most identifiable landmark. To visit it requires a steep climb up 86-stone steps, which without good walking shoes and if the mistral is blowing, can be very treacherous. Nevertheless, the climb is definitely worth it. The old church, also known as the high church, is small but the views are incredible. Quite a few of the trees around the church show the effects of the mistral. They lean sharply to one side and look very eerie. The new church also known as the low church, incidentally, was built when villagers didn’t want to make the climb from the valley below. Another interesting site in Bonnieux is the Louve Gardens, a private French contemporary garden open to the public, but privately owned, and created in 1986 by Nicole de Vésian, the textile designer for the Paris fashion house of Hermès. La Louve, by the way, means She-Wolf, and should not be confused with Musée du Louvre.
We drove to Roussillon. This Luberon village sits atop Mont Rouge and is situated in the heart of one of the biggest ochre deposits in the world and is famous for its magnificent red cliffs. We had every intention of hiking the Ochre Cliffs Trail but the mistral was too strong and the trail was closed. That did not stop us from enjoying the many shops, galleries and picturesque maze of streets and squares. The red and orange ochre facades of the buildings and the brightly painted shutters and doors make Rousillon a magical mosaic of color and charm.
In a gallery on Rue Richard Casteau, my husband and I were drawn to a few paintings that depicted familiar scenes. It turns out the artist Francoise Valenti came to Texas and painted the Hill Country. She now has a growing Texas fan club and for good reason–her paintings are lush with color and movement. We considered buying one but found another painting at the nearby Galerie Porte Heureuse that really appealed to us. Not sure how we’d transport it, we decided to exchange contact info and follow up later, and indeed we did. When we returned to the US, the gallery sent us photos of a stunning landscape of Maussane les Alpilles and we bought it.
From Roussillon we went to Lacoste. The Savannah College of Art and Design has a campus there comprised of 40-plus houses where students live and study for a trimester. Fashion designer Pierre Cardin, who now owns much of the village and resides in the lower part of the Marquis de Sade Castle, helps sponsor an end-of-trimester fashion and art event for the students and also sponsors a summer opera festival. We talked to a student from New Orleans who explained that many of the buildings in Lacoste are closed because Cardin purchased them to store his enormous collections but that his collections are not managed, maintained nor available for public viewing. Nevertheless, it is a treat to visit the castle and admire both Cardin’s renovations and the large sculptures on the property. The word sadism, incidentally, comes from the Marquis de Sade’s notorious pornographic novels and his alleged evil “Sade”-istic behavior.
Also, stone that is currently being used to help rebuild Notre Dame comes from a quarry in Lacoste that is worth visiting. We went to Gordes next. It was an active resistance village in WWII and where Marc Chagall and his wife hid from the Nazis. Gordes is the stunning setting for the movies Mistral’s Daughter, A Year In Provence and Mr. Bean’s Holiday, among others.
It is interesting to note that in the Luberon, each village has rules regarding the colors of buildings and the shape of roof tops. Homes built in Bonnieux have to have terra cotta rounded tile roof tops. New buildings in Gordes must be made of stone and use terracotta roof tiles. No fences are allowed, only stone walls. With a few exceptions, all electrical and telephone cables have to be put underground. In Roussillon, natural ochre–red, orange and yellow, not synthetic ochre colors of blue and purple–must be used on the outside. Also, throughout the Luberon, calade limestone tiles that were first used by the Romans are still used today. Roadways are paved with long stones placed vertically with their sides facing upwards to help with drainage and to enable traffic circulation in all seasons. The steps leading up to Bonnieux’s Vielle Eglise are calade as are some of the streets in Gordes and Uzès.
After our private tours in the Luberon, we decided to self-guide in Aix-en-Provence. We visited Cezanne’s Atelier, the Hotel de Caumont and the Musée Granet. We loved seeing Cezanne’s studio, watched the video of his life, ate lunch at Les Deux Garcons on Cours Mirabeau (the Champs–Élysées of Aix), and were stunned beyond words at our good fortune at being able to see the Solomon Guggenheim Thannhauser Collection From Manet to Picasso on loan to the Hotel de Caumont. We could have spent days there. The exhibit and the Caumont Centre d’Art are phenomenal.
Our villa in Maussane les Alpilles was the next stop. Villa Jolie is gorgeous with private quarters for four couples, a kitchen and a large living-dining area, a pool and very tranquil surroundings overlooking vineyards, olive groves and les Alpilles. Laurence Vedder of Exclusive Resorts arranged a welcome snack for us that was almost too beautiful to eat, but eat we did, enjoying every delicacy and a couple of bottles of divine Cotes du Rhone and Gigondas wine.
À VOTRE SANTÉ
In the early morning we drove to Domaine de la Verriere, owned by my friend Nicole Rolet and her husband Xavier Rolet. La Verriere is a majestic estate and winery nestled in the foothills of Mont Ventoux in Crestet that produces the award-winning Chêne Bleu wines. We toured the organic vineyard and the state-of-the-art winery, learned about the history and terroir, tasted Chêne Bleu’s critically acclaimed Abelard and Heloise, Super Rhone, Viognier, and Rosé wines, and then enjoyed a Farm to Fork luncheon with Chêne Bleu wine that was expertly paired to complement each course. Absolutely delightful.
The following day we immersed ourselves in everything Van Gogh. We started with a visit to the Carrieres de Lumieres in Les Baux. Van Gogh’s clouds, suns, stars, portraits–his greatest masterpieces–are brought to life on cave walls that are more than 16-yards high and also on the cave floor and ceiling. It was a visual and musical tour de force. The constantly changing projections of Van Gogh’s most famous canvases illuminated the enormous Carrieres space and the accompanying sound gave every visitor the opportunity to journey into Van Gogh’s very “emotional, chaotic and poetic inner world”. The paintings pulsated with color and depth and gave me an entirely new perspective and admiration for Van Gogh’s genius. This experience for me was truly one of the most memorable highlights of our trip. I hope to return for the next exhibit that opens in March 2020 and will feature the art of Monet, Renoir and Chagall. Fantastique.
We went to Arles and ate lunch at the Café la Nuit depicted in Van Gogh’s painting of the same name. The restaurant is definitely a tourist trap and the food very mediocre, but it was kind of fun to be there anyway. We visited Espace Van Gogh, the site of the hospital where Van Gogh was admitted after he cut off a portion of his ear. It has classrooms, a library and surrounds a courtyard that Van Gogh often painted. Then we visited St. Paul Monastery and Hospital in St. Remy where Van Gogh as part of his therapy produced more than 100 paintings. We visited a replica of his room and could see the same views he painted more than 120 years ago. The hospital still treats patients today with art therapy.
No visit to St. Remy would be complete without going to its chic boutiques, especially the store Souleiado, considered by the fashion savvy to be the unofficial ambassador of Provence with gorgeous dresses, blouses, skirts and home décor items, in vibrant fabrics that showcase the culture and traditions of the region.
The next day we visited Moulin Castelas, an olive mill at the foot of the Chateau des Baux. We toured the facility, “blind” tasted the olive oils and learned which flavors, aromas and complexity most appealed to us. No surprise, my husband loved the ail (garlic) olive oil. I loved the Classic AOC Provence. I bought two cans. Yes–cans because I didn’t want bottles to break in my suitcase. I definitely will order more but in the meantime, Central Market carries a couple of selections of Castelinas Olive Oil. AOC, which means Appellation d’Origine Controlee, is found on the labels of wine and olive oil bottles and is the government’s seal of approval that the wine or olive oil has met specific requirements. AOP on olive oil labels means Protected Appellation of Origin and refers to the specificities of a terroir: geographical area, climate, geology, olive varieties, and know-how.
Our next day consisted of Avignon, Uzès and the Pont du Garde. Rome’s lasting legacy is evident everywhere. Avignon is busier, grander and more urban than the Luberon villages. It was the capital of Christendom for nearly a century beginning in 1309 when the French Pope Clement V left Rome for the security of Avignon. Nearly three miles of walls and 39 towers were constructed for added protection, and the Palais des Papes was built with 10-foot thick walls, large ceremonial rooms and accommodations for 500 people. Seven popes lived in the Palais until 1403. In 1378, however, the Catholic Church had two popes, one in Rome and the other in Avignon. Eventually, Rome prevailed. Today the Palais is pretty much empty of its original furnishings and paintings. We were given “Histopads” (like tablets) to help us imagine what each room probably looked like. We were impressed with the Romanesque cathedral next to–and also predating–the Palais. Its modest simplicity provided us a serene and comfortable place for prayer, meditation and rest.
Seeing the Pont d’Avignon, also known as Pont St. Benezet, was a sentimental and surprising experience. As a child I sang the nursery tune, “Sur le Pont d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse, sur le Pont d’Avignon, on y danse tous en rond”, which means, “On the bridge of Avignon, we will dance, we will dance, on the bridge of Avignon, we will dance all in a circle.” Not sure what I expected but I was surprised that the bridge ends halfway across the Rhone. That’s because only four of the original 22 arches of this half-mile long bridge exist today.
The Jardin du Rocher des Doms is on a bluff overlooking Pont St. Benezet and is a great place to take photos. We could see the shuttle boat going to the Ile de la Barthelass, an island retreat in the middle of the river. We could also see Mont Ventoux, which means Windy Mountain. It is known as the Giant of Provence or Bald Mountain because its barren peak appears from a distance to be snow-capped but is actually bare limestone without vegetation or trees due to the mistral that on average on the summit blows more than 56 miles per hour, 240 days a year.
We drove to Uzès that for us was a welcome break from the more touristy and bustling Avignon. Nevertheless, because we were there on a Saturday and that’s market day, we wandered through a labyrinth of stalls and shopped for lavender, soap, ochre, textiles, nic-nacs, and looked at the fruit, veggies, cheese, breads and meats that were a kaleidoscope of color, texture and aroma, and made us hungry. We stopped for gelato in a café shaded by big Plane trees. Uzès dates back to Roman times. All the buildings are made with the same pale and porous limestone and have beautiful ornamental fountains. However, it’s Uzès’ location near the source of the spring that fed the very important Roman Pont du Gard aqueduct that give it real historical significance. The Romans built the 30-mile long Pont du Gard in the first century A.D. It is considered one of the best preserved Roman ruins anywhere and has the largest main arch ever built by the Romans–80 feet, which is the width of the Gardon River. It is hard to believe the Romans didn’t use mortar to build the arch, and that the Port du Gard supplied the city of Nimes with nine million gallons of water every day. What a remarkable engineering feat.
When we returned to the United States, we reflected on the history and beauty of Provence and were exhilarated by our memories of the extraordinary food, wine, art, architecture, sunshine, and people of the region. Beyond c’est magnifique.