Posted by: Kristie | November 17, 2009

Provence Snapshot

Traveled Sept. 25–Oct. 10, 2009

Click on the photo to view all Provence photos

Our Observations/Info

  • The region of Provence is much larger than I originally realized when I started researching this portion of the trip. I had trouble figuring out a good home base, I even thought there would be a town called Provence. There is (Aix en Provence), but it wasn’t the quaint village I was envisioning. In actuality this region is quite large and diverse. It stretches from the coastal towns of Marseille and Nice to the hilltop villages in the Luberon Mountains in the north and over to the lesser known areas near the Alps in the east. On a map, it looks like a large wedge of quiche – how appropriate.
  • We stayed about 10 miles from the town of Banon located in the Haute Alps Region of Provence. The area was beautiful, surrounded by hills and mountains and laced with rows of lavender fields, but it was a little more remote than I expected. Most of the towns and sites we wanted to check out were roughly 1-2 hours away. It worked out okay because Brett needed time to recover and the place was so comfortable and peaceful, but probably not the best location for a first-time visitor to Provence. I would suggest staying in Avignon or Apt for the first week to see the main sights and then head to this area for another week to experience living like a local and enjoy more of an authentic Provencal experience.
  • Driving 20 miles in Provence will take you 40 minutes due to its twisty, curvy and narrow roads. But it’s all part of the experience and the landscape is beautiful and diverse, making the actual journey to places one of our favorite parts. On another note, Italians get a bad rap for their fast, tailgating, pass-around-blind-corners driving, but they were nothing compared to the French. Just let them pass and everyone is happy.
  • In the larger towns, people seemed to be more stereotypical snooty French. I hate to generalize, but it really surprised me, especially since I never experienced in Paris where I expected it.
  • Barely anyone spoke English, so brush up on your French or carry around a good phrase book.
  • This is one of the places I would recommend visiting during high tourist season simply for the lavender. Where we stayed there were so many lavender fields that it must be simply stunning (and smell heavenly) when in bloom. That being said, if you don’t get there in the summer, September is a wonderful time. There were no throngs of tourists and the weather was perfection.
  • Our two favorite restaurants had Dutch chefs – how strange!

How We Got Around

Our Mad Pimp Panda Fiat. FYI - this was plenty of car for the two of us, even with a 6'4 husband. Go small with your rental, its cheaper and much easier to navigate the narrow streets.

  • Flew from Munich to Marseille via London Gatwick (see Brett’s post on the joys of that trip). If I did it again, I would fly to Nice, even though the drive is longer. Marseille is frankly a bit of shit hole. The fact that someone stole my credit card doesn’t really help my opinion, but I also heard a lot of petty theft stories so I was constantly paranoid about someone taking our stuff. And it just seemed dirty and the people weren’t very friendly.
  • Rented a car in Marseille for two weeks through Europcar reserved via Auto Europe. Was not very impressed with Europcar’s customer service, but that might’ve just been the French attitude. Drove everywhere in Provence. Came out to be roughly $30/day including insurance. See my previous post on how I saved money on the rental car.

Where We Slept

Our little French cottage

L’ourdiossor via Vrbo.com
Contact: Lynne Cryster
€75/night
Highly, Highly Recommend
This little cottage was an absolute gem. I feel so lucky to have found it. Extremely spacious, comfortable and tastefully decorated, this became our little home for two weeks. The owners, Lynne (American) and Claude (French), succeeded at the perfect amount of interaction, they were there if we needed help, but left us to do our own thing. Ultimately, this was our favorite accommodation of the entire trip.

+/-

  • Wonderful hosts who welcomed us with a basket of wine, cheese and cookies; made numerous dinner reservations; drove me to the grocery store our first night; invited us over for evening drinks/snacks; helped with the details of getting our new credits cards – simply amazing.
  • Great amenities, stocked with toiletries, laundry detergent, basic cooking spices and tons of books/maps/magazines, lots of pillows on the bed (which is not a normal for Europe) washer AND dryer (although we mainly hung our clothes, weather permitting) recommendations for nearby restaurants and things to do.
  • Designed thoughtfully and superbly. This was not just a rental property, it was an extension of their own home and you could tell by all of the thoughtful details.

Where We NomNom’d

  • La Bergerie (Saumane) – small little restaurant in the village of Saumane. Friendly service, excellent value and quality food.

Brett's yummy dinner at La Bergerie

  • Le Jam (Forcalquier) – Specializing in Moroccan cuisine, this restaurant’s vegetable couscous still haunts me. It was topped with this amazing sauce that I will somehow figure out how to replicate.
  • La Pastorale (Cereste) – Incredible food, check out our previous post including photos.
  • Café Fleurs (L’Isle Sur La Sorgue) – Overpriced for Sunday lunch and a bit pretentious. See previous post for more info.
  • Le Bonaparte (Cassis) – Amazing little restaurant with awesome bouillabaisse. For photos and a more in-depth description check out the Cassis post.
  • La Table du Bonheur (Saint Saturnin lès Apt) – Run by a Dutch couple, Hans and Fieja, this isn’t a traditional restaurant, but a table d’hotes, which means the meal is served in their home. It was like being invited over for dinner by people and with people we didn’t know. The menu was a flat rate of €30 and included pre-dinner drinks and hor d’oeuvres, a five-course menu, wine and coffee. Incredible value and equally incredible food. Our fixed menu was salad with smoked duck, goose liver and citrus, amazingly delicious pumpkin soup with shrimp and hints of ginger, Scottish salmon with a sorrel sauce and green beans, a cheese plate with three different kinds of cheese and pickled onion, and a remarkable crunchy, chewy chocolate/almond torte. We decided not to take photos and just soak in the atmosphere. There were three other people dining with us and we all sat around a typical dining room table. Our three companions were German and included a grandmother, her grandson and her grandson’s girlfriend. The grandson and his girlfriend spoke English and we enjoyed chatting with them, which made the evening that much better. I imagine the people you are dining with could make or break the experience. But regardless, we highly recommend this place. It had the best atmosphere of anywhere in Provence and it was probably the most unique meal setting of our trip.

What We Did

  • Markets – One of the must-dos in Provence is to explore the myriad markets. Each town has their market day, which is not restricted to the weekend like many farmers markets in the U.S. And these are not your typical farmer’s market either (they knock the socks off the large Sunset Valley market in Austin) but a shopping Mecca where you can find everything from fresh olive tapenade to handmade linens to fragrant artisan soaps.

Selection of spices at the market

  • Memorable Towns – Our main sightseeing was simply visiting the various Provencal towns, from compact hilltop villages to the coastal communities. Check out our Google Map for all of the towns we visited. Below are the ones that stood out.

Banon – The main town closest to where we stayed, Banon is noted for their goat cheese and an impressive book store. It’s the perfect size with a great chacuterie, bakery, butcher shops and two small grocery stores for necessities. Our favorite ritual was picking up fresh croissants and sitting in the café drinking café au laits and people watching. There were virtually no tourists, which made us feel like locals – at least as much as we could without speaking the language.

View of the village from the top of Banon

Cassis – We chose this town for our coastal day trip and it was the perfect choice. Check out more details on our previous post.

Chateauneuf du Pape – This wine region features numerous wineries, vineyards and domains (off-site locations where you can taste a vintor’s wine). It’s a great one-stop shop to taste excellent French wine.

Forcalquier – Housing one of our favorite markets, Forcalquier  had featured cute shops and the aforementioned restaurant Le Jam.

L’Isle Sur La Sorgue – This was one of the larger towns we visited and the market was huge and packed with people. If you could stand the crowds, the market had some unique things, but the town definitely shined once the stalls were removed and you could stroll along the river.

Roussillon – This hilltop village is perched on top of a 30-mile stretch of ocre-bearing rock. The ochre is a brilliant burnt orange and used to make pigments and paints. The colors and formations reminded us a lot of Sedona, AZ, but the village is more quaint.

Colorful facades of Roussillon

  • Eat – We really hit our gastronomical stride in France and as a result, the waistbands began to get tighter, just like everyone expected. We ate tons of homemade dried sausage from the local chacuterie, baked-that-morning baguettes, frothy café au laits, gallons of Rosé and red wine, creamy local goat cheese, to-die-for chocolate éclairs and crispy/chewy croissants. It was pretty ridiculous but worth every single calorie.
  • Pont Du Gard – Check out our previous post on this amazing Roman aqueduct.
  • Musee de Salagon – This off-the-beaten-path historic site was recommended by Lynn for their numerous historic gardens. That was enough to sell Brett. Although not at their peak, the gardens were chock full of interesting, unique and heirloom plants. The site also houses a 12th century church, interesting exhibits and offers a handy audio guide that leads you through the entire site.

What We Bought

  • Postcards
  • Soap
  • Lavender sachets
  • Linen table runner
  • Wine
  • Provence cookbook

View all of our Provence posts for more details about our trip.

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