Monday, May 7, 2012

Top 10 Things To Do in Provence (Part 1)

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When I was in college I had the opportunity to study in Aix-en-Provence, France. It didn't take me long before I realized Provence was my favorite place in the world - I loved the Mediterranean style food, the weather, the history, the landscape, the architecture and decor, the outdoor markets, and the people of course! The people of Provence are friendly, relaxed and like all French, know how to savor life.

Saturday flower market in Aix-en-Provence, beside Hotel de Ville. See how blue the sky is? It's always like that :)

I didn't know if I'd ever get to return, then suddenly we got word my husband would be going to France on a work trip. Before long we were making plans to spend a week in Provence! Sometimes life can throw you really nice surprises :).

In case any of you are interested in taking a trip to Provence, I wanted to share with you some top things to do, places to eat, and places to stay. I hope you find this information useful and enjoy the photos taken by my talented photographer husband!

Without further ado, here are some of my favorite things to do in Provence, in no particular order:

1. Visit L'Isle Sur La Sorgue
 
View of down town L'Isle Sur La Sorgue. All the little shops are along the canals, connected by the cutest bridges! We really recommend the restaurant on the left (red & white building) called Les Terrasses du Bassin - lots of delicious traditional Provence food for a reasonable price!

L'Isle Sur La Sorgue is a small medieval village built on what once were marshy islands, so it looks like a mini Amsterdam or Venice! The Sorgue river actually flows through the town. It is known as the antique capital of Provence, and along the canals you will find dozens of antique shops. There is also a large antique market on Sundays, as well as a traditional market with food, produce and Provençal goods. Even if you don't like antiques, you're bound to find something you like here - the town is so charming!


Handmade pottery for sale at the Sunday market!

Here's something my husband can appreciate - trying out the local meats!

 

Woman praying in the 17th century church Notre Dame des Anges. In the midst of the crowded market, the church was so peaceful!

L'Isle Sur La Sorgue is an ideal place to stay to explore other sights in the Bouches du Rhone and Luberon region of Provence. It is centrally located, near the historical and cultural attractions of St. Rémy de Provence, Avignon, Arles, Les Baux de Provence, Pont du Gard, and the Luberon villages of Eygalières, Gordes, Roussillon and Bonnieux.

We stayed 3 nights at the bed and breakfast La Maison Poynder. The bed and breakfast is owned by a very kind British lady, Jenny (this is helpful if you don't speak French). Jenny is no ordinary bed and breakfast host - she truly treats her guests like family. She gave us great advice on planning our day trips and always went out of her way to make sure we were comfortable. It felt like staying in a warm, welcoming home, not a hotel. Her house is newly remodeled and decorated in the cheerful Provence style!

I loved this shot as it made the villa look like something out of a Monet!

Jenny's sweet dog in the garden
The backyard at La Maison Poynder




The green bedroom at La Maison Poynder


2. Brave the Mistral at Les Baux de Provence

Here I am at the place the Mistral is the strongest - right in front of the Chateau des Baux!

The Mistral is a strong cold wind that blows across Provence, especially in the spring. Just like people complain about the rain in Seattle, everyone goes around grumbling about the Mistral in Provence. We happened to go to the perched Medieval village Les Baux, where the Mistral is the strongest, on the day it was blowing the strongest, which meant we could barely walk against the force of the wind! The Mistral blows up to 90 kilometers an hour, and believe me, I think it was this strong that day! The castle at Les Baux was strategically placed to maximize the force of the wind as protection against invaders. It's hard to climb up a mountain to invade when there is a 90 kilometer an hour wind blowing you away!

Mistral aside, Les Baux is an interesting place to visit. The original buildings from the middle ages - shops, restaurants, church, even hotels, are still being used today. While the castle itself has crumbled, the town is well preserved.

View of Les Baux from the top of (what's left of) the castle
View of the countryside from Les Baux. Yes, those are olive groves :)


3. Get lost driving in the country

Lone tree in the middle of a field. The Mistral was blowing the grass fiercely!

My favorite thing about Provence is the rolling countryside and small villages. Take a day and drive down the country roads - you never know what you may find!

I couldn't resist stopping to pet the horses!
We got lost and ended up in an apricot orchard, where we met the most friendly farmer, who was so excited we stumbled down her road (she took our picture)!
Beautiful tree in the apricot orchard blowing in the Mistral
Vineyard we passed (one of many). You'll see many olive groves, and in the summer there are blooming lavender fields (especially in the Luberon region)!

We had rented a small manual transmission Peugeot (almost all cars in Europe are stick shift and diesel), and the slow country roads were the perfect place for me to learn to drive stick shift. While it was stressful, the beautiful scenery made up for it - I can't think of a better place to learn to drive stick shift!

4. Drive through the Luberon region and stop by the perched villages of Gordes, Roussillon and Bonnieux

View of Gordes on a perfect spring day

The Luberon region of northern Provence is known for its many historic villages, rugged landscape, and lavender fields and olive groves. The first village we visited was Gordes, which was my favorite. The village has adorable shops and fantastic views.

Pretty streets of Gordes


Next stop was Roussillon, which looks completely different from the other villages in the region:

Roussillon

Roussillon is built on a large ochre (red clay) deposit, so the entire village is made of red clay. The fiery red-orange buildings are beautiful against the bright blue Provence sky!


Only Provence and Italy can pull off the look of peeling paint!


Near Roussillon is another perched village, Bonnieux. It is the largest of the 3 perched villages, and has a beautiful view of the valley and rolling countryside:

View from Bonnieux

5. Visit St. Remy de Provence for some shopping (and a burger?)

St. Rémy is a small town in the Bouches du Rhone region of Provence, which is less rugged and mountainous than the Vaucluse/Luberon region. It is known as a shopping center and has plenty of shops that sell traditional Provençal pottery, dishes and linens. If you plan to buy Provençal pottery/dishes, I suggest you do it here (I recommend the store Terre e Provence) - other larger towns we visited such as Aix had no stores that sold traditional Provençal pottery (the two that were there a few years ago have both closed). Also make sure you do not go to St. Rémy on a Sunday or Monday. We went Monday and ALL the shops were closed (sniff, sniff). Apparently most are open on Sunday, but not all. So the best bet would be to go on Saturday or a weekday other than Monday!

To show you what Provençal pottery looks like (since we got no pictures of our own), here's some photos from Souleo, one of the companies that makes the traditional pottery:

Image from here
Image from here

I love the sunny, cheery look of the Provençal pottery and hope to have a few for my kitchen one day...

The best way to get over disappointment after finding all the shops in St. Rémy were closed? Eat a burger of course! But not any burger... Cafe Mirabeau in St. Rémy has put a very French twist on their delicious cheeseburgers. How about one drenched in Roquefort cheese sauce? One with fromage de chèvre chaud (hot goat cheese), or egg, or even foie gras and port sauce?

My husband chose the burger with Roquefort sauce and bacon.

I selected the more tame chevre chaud (hot goat cheese) burger.

This was one of the best burgers I've ever had - meat was juicy and full of flavor, and nothing gets better than chèvre chaud  - it is one of my favorite foods, and the chèvre in the U.S. is nothing like the real chèvre in France! The fries were crispy, hot, and topped with herbs de provence, mmm! The burgers & fries are about 18 euros, which sounds pricey, but they are so big you could split one. Thanks to Julie from the blog Provence Post for recommending Cafe Mirabeau!


Stay tuned for Part 2 of Top 10 Things To Do in Provence - I'll talk about parfumeries in Grasse, coastal drives through Cannes, Nice and Monaco, bouillabaisse in Cassis, fountains in Aix, and historical Roman ruins :).

5 comments:

  1. Amazing pictures and story Ashley!!!! I'm now dying to get back to France. Have you ever thought of going into photography? Your pictures could be part of a tourist brochure or made into postcards, they are so beautiful!

    And that hamburger with goat cheese? OMG, let's just say I am now soooo hungry!! :)

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    1. Nadia, my husband does the photography, not me lol! It is his new hobby. I'll tell him what you said. :)
      I also get hungry when thinking about the goat cheese burger & fries...

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  2. I love your pictures! Great story too. My sister went to Provence and purchased terre e provence dinnerware while she was there. She loves them. Looks like you had an amazing trip!

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    1. Thanks, Sally! Yes one day I hope to find those Terre e Provence dishes :)!

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  3. About les Baux de Provence and le Mistral, it reminds me of a childhood memory:
    As village children, we played a big wait gust of wind then we open our jackets and we dropped ... the first who touched the ground lost!
    Luckily the wind does not blow all the time here!
    If you visit another time les Baux-de-Provence, we advise you to stay in a place quite singular, a bed and breakfast located against the rocks of the castle at the top of the old village ( http://www.leprincenoir.com/ ). This place as you know is very well known and so ... busy during the tourist season. Sleep here allows you to visit this historic site where visitors have left the village in the late afternoon.

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