Provence VacationGalavante Confidential - Intoxicating Provence
If beauty had a scent, it would be the lavender of PROVENCE. You’ll see – and smell – it everywhere, from the rolling hills of purple that define the French countryside to jars of lavender confiture at L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue, the area’s celebrated open-air market. Provence is a region to experience with all five senses, and our galavante through this fairytale corner of France takes you from olive groves to medieval castles, with plenty of wine and fromage along the way.
From the Paris airport or city center hop on the high-speed TGV, direction Avignon. Once belonging to the Papacy, Avignon’s main attraction is the grand Papal Palace and surrounding square. Before exploring this medieval town, drop your Bric’s roller bag and refresh yourself at the Le Prieuré. This Relais & Châteaux boutique hotel, housed in a 14th-century priory across from the Rhône River, is filled with a perfumed priest’s garden and wisteria-draped trellises. Although a small property, the hotel also has a pool and Michelin-starred restaurant. The chef at Le Restaurant updates his menu four times a week, piling his shopping basket with fresh produce like Gariguette strawberries from Beaucaire and pigeons from Nîme. For a spectacular end to your day, dine al fresco and top off the meal with local cheeses.
For a true escape, check into Hotel Crillon le Brave, 25 miles northeast of Avignon. This beautiful 32-room property sits atop a tiny hill village surrounded by vineyards and olive groves.
When in Avignon, don’t miss the Restaurant Christian Etienne for lunch or dinner. The past and present merge in this magical restaurant, which has historical frescoes and a breezy summer terrace. Every year Christian Etienne, master chef of Provence, invents a new menu dedicated to sumptuously ripe tomatoes. Also sumptuous is the nearby La Mirande, a hotel gastronomique that serves lunch, high tea and dinner made with market-fresh ingredients. On Tuesdays, the kitchen staff opens its communal table and prepares a meal before your eyes on an old wood-burning stove. You can also arrange a cooking lesson: The instructors, who are all chefs at neighboring restaurants, guide you through different Provençal culinary themes. Afterwards, taste your own homemade melon gazpacho flavored with green olive oil and basil sorbet, fried langoustine and other delectables. Classes can also be arranged for children.
Before winding through shades of green to the next stop on your Provençal tour, visit the legendary Saint Bénezet bridge – known popularly as the pont d’Avignon from the children’s song – which half-spans the Rhône River. This bridge to nowhere has crumbled over the years since its construction in the 12th century.
The best way to take in the fragrant air between Provence’s towns is in your own convertible. Pack your bags and drive leisurely to the mountain town of Gordes to experience breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. Jetsetting can be hard work, so spend some time relaxing on the terrace of the luxury hotel La Bastide de Gordes & Spa, where you can stay for the night.
Another sacred attraction hidden in the valley north of Gordes is the austerely beautiful Abbey of Notre-Dame de Sénanque. Especially picturesque are the lavender fields, which surround the Abbey and perfume the air. Stop at the Boires & Spa Hotel for classic meal à la provençal.
When day breaks, drive to the marché in L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The bustling street market is lined with stalls overflowing with fresh walnuts and olives, brightly colored produce, and crusty baguettes, while fromagiers in aprons slice hunks from giant wheels of cheese. During the summer, the market is open daily, and the rest of the year, stalls are set up on Thursday and Sunday mornings. You can easily fill up on samples of cheese, charcuterie, fruits and bread as you stroll through the aisles. Stop at one of the cafés near the market for a glass of local rosé wine.
If it’s the weekend, end your afternoon surveying antiques in the flea market near the train station. L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue is known as the antiques capital of
France, and you’ll find many antique dealers in town.
En route to Les Baux-de-Provence, you’ll breeze past sunny farms and tree-lined country roads. The village of Les Baux holds a spectacular position in the Alpilles mountains, on a rocky outcrop crowned with a ruined castle. Drive through the gates of the hotel Ousteau de Beaumanière, in the Vallée de l’Enfer, which is fringed by the chalky Alpilles hills. The Beaumanière blends the valley’s rustic charm with a refined savoir-faire. Stylish rooms are housed in three locations: The main house, L’Ousteau; Le Manoir; and La Guigou. After watching the sun set behind the historic city, dine on the terrace where you can enjoy classic dishes like salt-encrusted sea bass, bouillabaisse and confit vegetables with foie gras. If the Ousteau is booked, try its nearby sister hotel, La Cabro D’Or, set in a country house with five acres for leisurely walks and a large swimming pool, tennis and spa.
The following morning, wind your way up the historical escarpment of Les Baux and its famous citadel ruin. The drive reveals Provence’s bounty of wild thyme, lavender and olive groves, all of which line the road. Stroll through the old town and then relax at one of the terrace restaurants along the main road. Au Portes Mages, near the gates of the town, serves simple salads and local Provençal fare.
Just 25 minutes to the southwest lies Arles, a town with a long history including many Roman and Romanesque monuments. Vincent Van Gogh also made Arles his home for a period, producing over 300 paintings and drawings during his time here. Tour the Roman arenas in the town center, and then stop for lunch at Cuisine de Comptoir. Enjoy a bottle of rosé with your tartine, a classic French open-faced sandwich, and many other local specialties piled high on France’s acclaimed Polâine bread.
From Arles, you’re just 30 minutes from the Mediterranean coast and the Camargue, wetlands famous for buffalo, flamingos and white horses. The historical town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is in the heart of the Camargue – a lovely place to end your trip, surrounded by the sea, the sun and just a hint of lavender in the air