Bonjour! Tex and I recently had the opportunity to drive down to Southern France and explore Provence for a whole week. And what a feast for the senses it was—from the colorful Provencal markets to the fragrant fields of lavender to the salty splash of the sea. So tie a napkin around your neck, pull your chair up to the table, and I’ll serve up the details.
Note: For each list, the items are ordered chronologically.
Five memorable moments:
- Driving and walking through the lavender fields ~ The first night, as we arrived in the area near the Valensole Plateau, we rolled the car windows all the way down and just let the aroma of lavender waft through the car. So much better than essential oils! We met up with our friends to catch the sunrise over a harvest-ready field of purple. Finally, we were able to find one of the main fields, where we quickly discovered an abundance of bees. Somehow we made the trek to the stone barn in the center of the field without anyone getting stung. I think we have Tex to thank, since he kept reminding us to keep our arms down by our sides in order to not attract the bees with our body odor. Haha!
- Breakfasting on the terrace of our Airbnb in Puimoisson ~ This was possibly our favorite Airbnb to have ever stayed in… Tex and I decided we liked it so much for two reasons: it felt like we were staying at our grandparents’, and the view off the plateau was stunning. We even spotted a hot air balloon taking off early that morning. As a bonus, our host provided some excellent tips about the area and a lovely breakfast of fresh breads and jam, along with freshly-squeezed orange juice and hot tea!
- Kayaking in the Mediterranean and swimming in the Calanque d’En Vau ~ We reserved a two-seater kayak in Cassis (near Marseilles) ahead of time and showed up in the late afternoon ready to row. This was at the top of my to-do list before we made the trip, and it remains in my mind as the most fun we had, which is saying something. The waves were neither too fierce nor too calm (note that this is coming from a novice kayaker!). After a little over an hour, we arrived at the Calanque d’En Vau, a finger of turquoise sea trapped between two towering cliffs. We parked the kayak on the beach, munched on our snacks, and waded into the cool, clear water. There were no waves here, which made the swimming ever-so-enjoyable. I learned on this trip that I am an expert doggy-paddler… hmm.
- Feasting on our market goodies at the campsite ~ For our last two nights in Provence, we pitched our tent at a campsite, which ended out being in somebody’s backyard. Honestly, though, it was great. We gathered up all our goodies from that day’s market and sat down for a refreshing picnic. Juicy white peaches, cantaloupe, heirloom tomatoes, fresh baguette, three big pats of chevre cheese, and—my personal favorite—eggplant and garlic chutney. Each bit so pure by itself but also very tempting in combination.
- “Swimming” in the freezing cold river at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse ~ One day, we found ourselves with a free afternoon and bodies that needed a rest from the heat. After a little research, we settled down in a shady nook along the Sorgue River. We donned our swimsuits and prepared to feel the chill… But it was a chill we were ill-prepared for! I will say, I handled it better than Tex did. 🙂 He was already talking about hypothermia after two minutes of being waist-deep. Needless to say, we didn’t do a lot of swimming there, but we certainly did cool off and never complained about the heat again! Maybe this sounds like a terrible experience, but it was actually so funny and such a dreamy spot (outside of the water) that we think of it quite fondly.
Four favorite towns:
- Moustiers-Sainte-Marie ~ This town is nestled at the foot of a craggy, rocky mountain. It has everything an adorable town needs: a waterfall coming into the town center, painted china shops, plenty of stops for French cuisine, and a chapel built into the side of the mountain above. We were hungry when we arrived and sat down on a restaurant’s terrace that overlooked the waterfall. We ordered Filet mignon, thinking we were about to try the real deal; when it arrived, we realized we had overlooked that it was pork! Not exactly what we had envisioned, but still good. Later in the afternoon, when we had hiked up to the mountainside chapel, we witnessed a medevac helicopter perform a risky maneuver over the adjacent courtyard. It was the closest I’ve come to feeling like I was in the middle of a tornado. Tex was braver than I and stood outside the church building videoing it for the entire duration!
- Avignon ~ On our “flexible” day, we decided to drive up to Avignon and tour the Palais des Papes. In the 1300’s, the papal seat was actually there instead of in the Rome. This was news to us. We loved hearing all the history and seeing the functionality of the rooms in the Palais. Compared to the Vatican, the Palais des Papes offers a more raw look at the Pope’s everyday life and the important papal affairs. Most striking was the Indulgence Window, which overlooked the main courtyard. Here, the Pope would stand and offer forgiveness and indulgences to the crowds gathered below. After our tour, we ventured through the old city a bit, admired the medieval walls, and stuffed ourselves with some delicious pizza (who would think that cheese-less anchovy pizza could be so tasty?!)
- Bonnieux ~ The views from the hillside town of Bonnieux were breathtaking and made me realize why Provence is beloved by so many. We made a pit-stop here as we drove to our campsite, but it would have been a lovely place to stay for a few nights. It was less crowded than Gordes (I can only imagine some of these tiny towns in a normal summer without COVID), and more authentic. We made the short trek up to the church for more views and some shade.
- Roussillon ~ Every part of this town is tinted by the natural pigment found in the soil beneath and around it—ochre. With its reddish orange houses and streets, Roussillon stands out uniquely against the other towns of Provence. Tex and I took off on a morning stroll down the “Ochre Trail,” which showcases the many shades—rust, deep red, brick, burnt orange—of the small surrounding canyons. Then we snacked on some ridiculously good nutella beignets and made our way through the winding russet streets.
Bonus towns (that aren’t mentioned in my other lists): Valensole, Ménerbes, Gordes and the Abbaye de Sénanque…
Three wonderful markets:
- Saint-Rémy-de-Provence market (Wednesday) ~ Saint-Rémy was our first experience of a Provencal market, and it flooded our senses. We did a lot of bumping elbows and baskets with other market-goers. We sniffed our way through stalls of herbs, spices, garlic, and wide bubbling pans of paella. We listened to the sounds of accordian music and eyeballed stacks of colorful soaps and stands curtained by hanging tablecloths. We were in recon mode here, so we bought only a single cantaloupe.
- Aix-en-Provence market (Thursday) ~ There are four different markets scattered about the town which make up the market day in Aix (pronounced “Ex”): the food market, the textile market, the flower market, and the antique market. We really took advantage of the free samples going on at the food market… In our defense, the chutney guy told us to please stay in front of his stand and to keep tasting so that other people would want to come by. And I’m pretty sure every time we stopped in front of this one cheese stand they offered us another sample of either cured sausage or aged cheese; it happened at least three times. We also tried lavender honey, juicy heirloom tomatoes, and another seller’s hazelnut salami.
We enjoyed strolling down the long stretch of textile market, admiring the bright, floral Provencal fabrics and the linen blouses. I carefully chose my treasure to take home—a gorgeous oil cloth fabric, light green with stripes of blue and white flowers, to turn into some sort of tablecloth.
- Apt market (Saturday) ~ What makes the market in Apt so unique and charming is its sprawling nature. We kept stumbling onto more branches of the market as we continued our walk through the narrow streets of the town center. Stalls of handmade baskets, artisan breads, Marseille soap, and assorted pestos and tapenades were everywhere we looked. There was even a stand or two devoted to selling herbs de Provence, my new favorite herb mix. Just before we got on the road for our long drive home, we stopped at a bakery and bought a massive nougat-flavored meringue. It was as big as my face and much sweeter.
Two worthwhile drives:
- Route des Crêtes at Verdon Gorge ~ Our Puimosson host recommended this scenic loop. “Route des Crêtes” translates to mean Road of Ridges/Crests. The drive took only a little more than an hour and offered some incredible views over Verdon Gorge and the surrounding mountains. There are some tight curves, steep drop-offs, and bicyclers involved, and at one point the road suddenly becomes one-way. As long as the driver is not prone to freaking out in these sorts of situations, you should have no trouble. Hence, Tex drove. The route has several pull-offs for picture-taking and admiring the landscape.
- North through Sault ~ This is the one area where we did not spend any time (except for driving through on our way home), but that I would recommend to anyone planning a visit to Provence. I was surprised to find that the lavender around Sault seemed to be even more abundant than the lavender on the Valensole Plateau. Based on my research, I think the lavender in this area is harvested slightly later than that in the regions farther south. So perhaps that could explain the copious amount of purple that we saw in late July. I squealed as we skirted around a vast valley—a patchwork of golden, lavender, and forest hues. The towns too struck me as charming, especially Sault and Montbrun-les-Bains.
The #1 pastry:
- Pain au chocolat ~ Tex and I have definitively settled on our favorite pastry. We’ve been in France twice in the past month (11 days total), and we have started almost every morning with a delightful little thing called pain au chocolat. Okay, it’s usually two or three of those delightful little things… I know I have talked about it on the blog before, but now I feel like I can talk about this pastry as a connoisseur. We’ve had pain au chocolat at gas stations, cafes, hotels, and bakeries. The best one yet was in a nameless bakery in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. If you want to find the most flaky, buttery, perfect-ratio-between-melty-chocolate-and-bread pastry, then go to 23 Rue Carnot in Saint-Rémy, walk into the little brown storefront painted with the words “Boulangerie Patisserie,” and buy some for both of us, please.
Bonus: An honorable mention of our travels is the city of Lyon and this eye-catching treat, called a Praluline. It is a heavy loaf of brioche studded with lots and lots of chocolate chips. We ate it for supper on our first night in Provence.
Y’all probably are thinking, “Man, this girl eats way too many carbs and too much chocolate.” I do. Especially when in France.