Sunday, June 3, 2012

Top 10 Things To Do In Provence (Part 2)

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Finally, here is part two of my top things to do in Provence series (you can see part one here). I apologize for taking so long to post; I started a new contract job and my parents were visiting, leaving little time for writing. Here are the other five things I highly recommend in Provence!

6. Take a drive along the French Riviera (Côte d'Azur)

View of Monaco from Roquebrune-Cap-Martin

The Côte d'Azur is the southern coast of France that stretches from Italy to Cassis (near Marseille). The coastal road winds through St. Tropez, Cannes, Nice and Monaco, and the views are worth every twist and turn! Deep blue and turquoise water, red cliffs, beaches, beautiful villas...need I say more? :)

View from somewhere between Theoule-sur-Mer and Mandelieu-la-Napoule

On previous trips both my husband and I had visited Cannes, Nice and Monte Carlo (in Monaco), so we didn't feel any need to linger in these cities, and instead chose to spend time in smaller villages. To be honest, I do not like the superficiality of Cannes at all, and I prefer small villages to a city like Nice any day. That said, if you haven't been to these cities, do take some time to do some sight-seeing there.

We started our drive in Théoule-sur-Mer and ended near the Italian border in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. The views from Roquebrune are so outstanding that I do think it is worth driving that far.

One of our favorite villages was Eze, which is located on a cliff high above the water (near Nice).

View of Eze at night

We stopped to have some pretty amazing seafood at the restaurant between Eze and Nice, in Villefranche-sur-Mer. The restaurant was called Mediterraneo, and it was attached to Hotel l'Oasis. A lovely way to end a day of driving!

Seafood at Mediterraneo in Villefranche-sur-Mer, near Eze and Nice

I do have a few tips for the drive. Obviously you'll be taking the winding coastal road to see the views - but on the way back, pay to take the interstate! (Yes, all interstates are tolled in France!) It takes at least twice as long (feels more like four times longer) to take the side roads, and the endless roundabouts are utterly exhausting. Going one way it's ok....but not bearable on the way back (trust me, I speak from experience!). Make sure you have plenty of cash and coins with you - many of the toll booths do not accept American credit cards, and some don't accept paper bills. If you're caught without're stuck for quite a while waiting for an attendant (with cars honking behind you, it is stressful!) And often the attendant won't give change you lose a lot of money in the process.

7. Spend a day (or two!) in Grasse

    Outside the Parfumerie de Fragonard in Grasse

    Grasse, which is located in the hills overlooking the French Riviera, is known as the perfume capital of the world. Perfumers, or "noses" have come to Grasse to learn the art of perfume making since the 1700s, and most of France's perfumes even today are made here. To learn about perfume making and the history of Grasse, I suggest you take a tour of one of the parfumeries and the International Perfume Museum, which takes you through a 4,000 year history of perfume making (unfortunately we didn't have time to go there).

    Distilleries at the Parfumerie de Fragonard

    We toured the Fragonard parfumerie and museum, which was nice, but I felt it was too much of a tourist trap, and the Fragonard perfumes were so strong and synthetic smelling that it made both my husband and me sick. After the tour, I spoke to some locals who recommended the Molinard tour instead, which is a bit more under the radar and has higher quality perfumes...oh well, we'll go on that one next time!

    One thing you cannot miss when you are in Grasse is Didier Gaglewski's perfume shop. It was the highlight of our trip to Grasse. Mr. Gaglewski is a skilled perfumer who specializes in natural perfumes. His perfumes do not contain phthalates or other harmful synthetic materials like most do, and the quality of his perfumes was evident at first sniff :). I'm a bit of a perfume nerd and love learning about and sampling perfumes from all over the world. I'm incredibly picky about what scents I'll wear, and believe me, Mr. Gaglewski's perfumes do not disappoint.

    The outside of Parfums Gaglewski. You can see me inside talking to Mr. Gaglewski!

    I enjoyed chatting with Mr. Gaglewski as much as sampling his perfumes - it's not every day you get to meet the man behind the scent! Mr. Gaglewski is knowledgeable and friendly and takes time to explain each of his perfumes to every customer. You'll feel like you're having a private lesson in the art of perfume making as he describes his inspiration behind each scent, his methods, and the perfume notes.

    Mr. Gaglewski demonstrating Cambouis, his genius men's cologne

    The prices of his perfumes were shockingly reasonable - about 40 to 50 euros, which is cheaper than most synthetic mass-produced perfumes in department stores in the U.S.! We couldn't pass up the chance to have such unique, artisan-crafted perfumes, and ended up buying a cologne for my husband and perfume for me (I'll review both of them in an upcoming post!).

    What better way to end a day of perfume sniffing than with decadent chocolate? Just a few doors down from the Parfums Gaglewski shop is Le Péché Gourmand, the highest rated (on Trip Advisor) restaurant and patisserie (pastry shop) in Grasse! The chocolate desserts (we shared a dark chocolate pyramid and dark chocolate flourless cake) were the best we had in France. It was also a delight to chat with the owner who was so jovial and full of interesting information about Grasse!

    Le Peche Gourmand, home of some of the most delicious chocolate desserts in France :)

    While we were in Grasse we stayed at the bed and breakfast La Cigalière, owned by the most kind and inviting couple, Monsieur and Madame Vandelli. Our only regret is that we didn't stay longer! The guest room we stayed in was spacious, the atmosphere laid-back, and the breakfasts were delicious.
    With the Vandellis on their backyard terrace

    The bed & breakfast is in the hills near Grasse (in Placassier) with gorgeous views from the backyard. I wish I had spent some time just relaxing on their terrace, where they grow citrus fruits and herbs and have a very pretty pool. The house is decorated in an international eclectic style, reflecting the Vandellis' years living in India, Japan, and many other countries. We enjoyed having long conversations with Monsieur Vandelli, who regaled us with so many interesting stories! We really felt we were treated like family.
Monsieur Vandelli and his dog named Q-Tips :)

The pool at La Cigaliere. Even the cloudy days are beautiful!

8. Spend a day in Aix-en-Provence

Fontaine de la Rotunde in Aix-en-Provence

Aix is my favorite town in Provence. Yes, I have a soft spot for Aix because it is where I studied in college, but there truly is something special about it. 

Aix is known as the city of 1000 fountains, and it's easy to understand why - just around every corner you'll find another beautiful fountain! Aix was built as a spa town for the Romans due to its hot springs, and a few of the fountains date back to this period. Most, however, were built in the 15th and 16th centuries. The cobblestone streets, fountains, 16th century architecture and perfect weather create the most enchanting atmosphere. 

Aix is a university town so it was the most lively city we visited in Provence. We had no trouble finding plenty of great restaurants open late (in most other towns, everything closes between 9:30 & 10:00 p.m.) I feel Aix is the perfect size - not a village, but not large enough to be a city, either. Life is relaxed and slow paced, but there is still plenty going on and a plethora of cultural activities.

Aix also is in the perfect location - just next to Mount St. Victoire, 30 kilometers from Marseille and the coast, and very near the mountainous Luberon region and the cities of the Bouches du Rhone region (St. Remy, Avignon, etc). It's a perfect place to stay to explore the region! 

I apologize for not having more pictures; Aix was the last place we visited, and we were so tired we spaced out on taking pictures. Nonetheless, I had to include it in my top things to do!

Here are some things I recommend doing:
  • Take an afternoon to leisurely stroll through the city center. Stop and admire the fountains, have a coffee, sit with the sun on your face - enjoy just being. Ahhhh, it's so peaceful!
  • Definitely walk down the Cours Mirabeau, Aix's main street.
  • If you have time, hike up Mount St. Victoire. This was the painting featured in many of Cezanne's paintings! Speaking of Cezanne:
  • Tour the Atelier Cezanne - Aix was his home town!
  • Go to the Saturday market. Every Saturday Aix has a wonderful market with crafts, food, produce, soaps, flowers, and more!

Saturday market

  • Visit the Aix Cathedral, or the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d'Aix. The organ inside is breathtaking! We were lucky enough to tour the cathedral when the organist was practicing:

Organ inside Aix Cathedral

9. Tour historical Roman sites

Pont du Gard, Roman bridge and aqueduct

Did you know that the name "Provence" comes from the Latin "provincia," which means "province"? The Provençal region was the first Roman province beyond the Alps, so the Romans called it "Provincia Romana." They built infrastructure and established large towns, such as Arles and Nimes. Many of the Roman monuments are still standing today. If you like Roman history, visiting some of these sites is a must.
  • Pont du Gard (pictured above) served as both a bridge and an aqueduct, bringing 44 million gallons of water to Nimes each day in its heyday. It was built some time between 19 B.C. and 40 A.D., and was used until the 9th century. Pretty cool something that old is still standing in good condition! You can walk over the bridge for a nice view of the (mostly dried up) river.
  • Nimes, a town of about 140,000 today, was a large Roman town dating back to 28 B.C. The Arena of Nimes is the best preserved Roman arena/amphitheater (looks like the Colosseum and served the same purpose) in France. In fact, it is still being used today! When we walked in to tour it, we were surprised to find we had stumbled into a bull fight! It was a bit spooky to hear the spectators cheering, just as they did for gladiator fights in the same arena in Roman times - if you closed your eyes you could imagine you were there. (Please note I do NOT support bull fights and think they are horribly cruel.)

Bull fight we happened to walk into when touring the Arene de Nimes
In Nimes there is also a well-preserved temple (one of the best preserved Roman temples in the world), the Maison Carée, which was built in 16 B.C. If you're in Nimes, also take time to stroll in the Jardins de la Fontaine, which is a restored Roman garden built over ancient Roman baths.
  • Arles was another major Roman city, used as headquarters by Roman emperors in the 4th and 5th century during military campaigns. It also has an arena (similar to the one in Nimes) and a Roman theater. The Musée de l'Arles et de la Provence antique houses a collection of Roman artifacts. (And if you, like me, don't care about Roman history, you can instead take a little van Gogh tour and visit the cafe that was the subject of his Cafe Terrace at Night painting - it still looks the same today!
Vincent van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night, image from here
Van Gogh painted some of his most famous works in Arles, including Starry Night Over the Rhone. You can also visit the hospital where van Gogh stayed a few times before he was transferred to the St. Paul Asylum in St. Remy.

10. Eat bouillabaisse in Cassis!

The enthusiastic owner of Restaurant Calendal showing me how to eat bouillabaisse!

Bouillabaisse is a traditional fish stew that originated in Marseille (which is a historic fishing city). There are many varieties and recipes, but most have fish, shrimp, mussels, fennel, leeks, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, saffron, cayenne, Provençal herbs and Pastis (a local licorice liquor). Needless to say, it is fragrant and fabulously tasty! It is served with fresh parmesan, croutons and rouille, a roasted red pepper, garlic and olive oil spread. This was without a doubt, the best meal we had in France. In fact, it was one of the best meals of my LIFE.

I'll let you in on a little secret - go to Cassis, not Marseille, to eat your bouillabaisse (and you can't leave France without eating some!). Cassis is a small fishing town a few kilometers from Marseille. We highly recommend Restaurant Calendal! The staff was so friendly, and the owner was so passionate about the food! Best part: the prices were reasonable, unlike Marseille. The restaurants in Marseille have set up a bouillabaisse tourist trap and charge 60 euros per person. According to the reviews, the bouillabaisse isn't even that good there... Restaurant Calendal in Cassis charges about 35 euros for a bowl of bouillabaisse large enough for two people to split!

Restaurant Calendal in Cassis

Go to Cassis early enough to see some daylight and watch the sunset. The boats and colorful buildings on the water are so pretty!

View from the Cassis beach

And as a final picture, I couldn't resist showing you the pink pepper duck at Restaurant Calendal, mmmm!

Inevitably I didn't have room to talk about all the things there are to do in Provence. A few things I didn't mention that you may really enjoy are Avignon (the Popes' Palace is here), the Gorge de Verdon (like the Grand Canyon of Provence), Marseille and the Calanques. If you have any questions or want to share about your trip to Provence, please leave a comment :-). And if you are going to Provence any time soon, bon voyage!!


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