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Dominated by olive trees and rolling vineyards, interrupted by rocky outcrops and flanked by the Mediterranean Sea, Provence still retains an identity from ancient times that sets it apart. Shepherds still drive their flocks of sheep on the long trek from the valleys to the mountains and back again, following trails established by the Romans more than 3,000 years ago. Wild thyme, fennel, sarriette, sage, lavender, juniper and rosemary flavor the region’s dishes from bouillabaisse to wild boar, and olive oil, like the wine, is abundant. Local goat and sheep milk cheeses, along with figs and melons, figure large in the panoply of the food of Provence, which is an essential part of its culture and one of the reasons I return again and again. The places in Provence that mean the most to me are where landscape, food and history come seamlessly together.
Moustiers and Gorges du Verdon RegionThe Gorges du Verdon, the Grand Canyon of Europe located in the Regional Parc du Verdon, was carved over millennia by the Verdon River’s never-ceasing flow west from its source in the Alps. At its deepest, the canyon is almost 3,000 feet from its rim to the crystalline turquoise waters below. To drive from Moustiers to Castallane, along either rim, is to experience one of the most dramatic — and sometimes hair-raising — drives in France. The Gorge was relatively unknown to the outside world until a little over a century ago but, today, it is a major attraction for hiking, kayaking, rock climbing and parasailing.
In the 1970s, the river was dammed at several points, creating the Lac de Sainte Croix. The lake is surrounded by pine and oak forests, rust-red earth and jutting gray stones. At the entrance to the gorge, a long, wide beach borders the lake. Clients can rent a kayak, pedal boat or canoe to take them to secluded beaches and coves around the lake for picnicking and swimming, or up the deep gorge itself, into the heart of wild Provence.
Only a 10-minute drive from the gorge is the village of Moustier-Ste-Marie, widely known for its pottery. It is set at the base of two narrow cliffs with a 12th-century chapel nestled into the north cliff. At first, the village seems too cute to be real — with its cobblestone streets, tastefully restored buildings and crowds of pottery and souvenir shops. However, the pottery has a long and respectable tradition that dates to the early 18th century, when King Louis XIV ordered all the silver plates at Versailles to be melted to mint money to finance his wars. Obviously, he and his court needed something else for dinnerware, and the white-glazed, elaborately hand-painted faience was an ideal replacement. Today, careful shopping reveals exquisite hand-painted work, with both traditional and contemporary motifs. Especially noteworthy is the work at J.M.V. Fine and M. Fine ateliers.
Leaving the shops behind, a visit to the chapel on the hill is worth the walk. At the edge of the village, the deeply worn stone steps climb to reach Chapel Notre-Dame de Beauvoir, built on the ruins of a 5th-century monastery. The view across the village to the Lac St. Croix is stunning, but it is the sense of history that emanates from the chapel and its site that is even more compelling.
The Bastide de Moustiers is down the road from the village, and it is where super-star chef Alain Ducasse has created an inn with an elegantly rustic restaurant (one Michelin Star) with a vast potager garden. Sitting on the terrace, surrounded by the scent of lavender and herbs, sipping an aperitif and nibbling on radishes and sweet peppers from the garden, is like being in a dream of Provence.
Just across the valley from the Bastide looms the Plateau de Valensole, one of the most extensive lavender growing areas in Provence. The fields come into full bloom in July and in late afternoon the rows of bright purple blossoms are backlit by the canyons of the Gorges du Verdon. On a clear day, you can even see the peaks of the Alps.
Avignon and EnvironsAvignon is a city within a city. At its heart is the magnificent 14th-century papal palace with towers, spires, inner courtyards and seemingly endless rooms, looming over a cobbled square lined with boutiques, cafes and restaurants. A tour through the palace is a history lesson of the early Catholic church in France. The palace also includes extensive formal gardens that are ideal for a stroll. Off the square and down is the La Mirande Hotel, originally built as a cardinal’s residence during the early 1300s and now one of the most charming hotels and restaurants in the region. La Mirande is dedicated to the local cuisine and even offers cooking classes in its 19th-century kitchen.
A leisurely walk west from the city center will take you to the city ramparts and down to the Rhone River, where you can watch it rushing under the remaining four arches of the 12th-century Pont St. Benezet bridge.
To me, a visit to Avignon isn’t complete without a trip to its vast market hall, Les Halles d’Avignon, following the narrow streets named for the medieval trades — silk weavers, tanners and hat-makers. It’s a good place to ogle the amazing array of beautifully displayed food and buy some picnic fare.
Avignon is ideally situated for day trips. It is in the heart of the Southern Rhone wine region, of which Chateauneuf-du-Pape is the most famous appellation. For Roman ruins, I suggest first visiting the town of St. Remy, known for its connection to Van Gogh, its historic old center and the lovely sycamores bordering a main street filled with cafes, restaurants and boutiques. Suggest that clients have a coffee or glass of wine in town before making the short drive to the ruins of Glanum, which was a bustling city thousands of years ago. Some of the grandest Roman ruins in Europe are also nearby, in Arles and especially the Theatre Antique in Orange.
In the feudal stronghold of Les Baux, not far from Avignon, travelers can walk the paths of troubadours. In the valley of Les Baux, they will find some of the best olive oil in all Provence. If you see a sign for an olive oil mill, be sure to stop and taste. In yet another direction, with another temptation, is La Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, which is famous for its small canals and for its antique shops and Sunday markets, when dealers from all over France come to display their wares, from vintage ribbons to gilded 18th-century mirrors.
Nice and the BackcountryNice, built around the generous curve of the Baie des Anges and ringed by the Promenade des Anglais, offers visitors a little bit of everything, from great shopping to sunbathing and museums. While sitting on the promenade, reading or simply soaking up the sun, you can watch rollerbladers whizzing by, artists painting the seascape and the elderly and the young strolling in an endless parade. In the old city, in the pedestrian zone just behind the promenade, is a warren of narrow streets and plazas. Just a block away, there is an old-fashioned wine cave offering wine in bulk from huge barrels and a large local selection including Bellet, Nice’s own small appellation. Garden seed shops, art stores, museums, churches, galleries, bakeries, cheese shops and multitudes of restaurants and cafes are shoulder to shoulder in Vieux Nice, and every day there is a food and flower market at the Place Salaya. Early in the morning, near the market, you can still find stands that make and sell socca, chick pea crepes that, along with a glass of red wine, are a traditional snack for workers. I highly recommend it.
Nice, not surprisingly, is filled with hotels of all levels, from the modest to the luxurious. My favorites are the grand dames — the hotels along the promenade that date from the Belle Epoque — such as the Hotel Westminster and the landmark Hotel Le Negresco. These feature sweeping staircases, cozy bars, their own private beaches and views of the sun setting over the sea. At the beaches, you can rent a lounge chair with towels and umbrellas and settle in for the day. Each beach has a restaurant near it that is ideal for a simple lunch of Salade Nicoise or grilled fish, accompanied by a crisp white or rose wine. Also on the Promenade is the Palais de la Mediterranee, with its second-floor swimming pool and Michelin-starred restaurant. On the ground floor of the Palais, which was so completely rebuilt in recent years that it retained only its 19th-century facade, is the Casino where visitors can step up to the baccarat table.
But there is more to Nice than its shoreline. In Cimiez, high in the hills, are Roman ruins, the Musee Matisse, old churches and a monastery. Henri Matisse himself is buried in Cimiez, in the cemetery near the 16th-century Franciscan monastery.
The rural beauty of this part of France continues all the way to the Italian border, but that’s another story. As much as there is to see and do in Provence, part of its charm is a slower pace. This area is ideal for relaxing with another glass of wine before heading out to the next adventure that waits for you down a picturesque cobblestone street.
Biking Through Lavender field // © 2013 Shutterstock
The Gorges du Verdon is considered Europe’s Grand Canyon. // © 2013 Nejron Photo
Moustier-Sainte-Marie is a charming town near the gorge.// © 2013 slava17
Pont du Gard is an old Roman aqueduct near Nimes. // © 2013 Bertl123
A charming street in Nice // © 2013 Veniamin Kraskov
Avignon is especially beautiful at sunset // © 2013 Richard Susanto
Lavender is grown throughout Provence // © 2013 Thinkstock
Sunflowers grow at the asylum in St. Remy where Van Gogh stayed and painted // © 2013 mythofthenorth
Where to Stay: Base a stay in Nice at one end of Provence and Avignon at the other, with a few days in between to enjoy an auberge in the countryside. Both cities are centrally located and offer a wide range of good hotels, restaurants, services and car rentals.
How to Get There: Rental cars can be reserved at TGV train stations, airports and other city locations. (Note: TGV trains require reservations in addition to the ticket.) For both Nice and Avignon, clients should only rent a car for day trips, and try to walk or use public transportation otherwise. Driving from Nice to Avignon (or vice versa) through the countryside and small villages is one of the best ways to explore Provence.
Nice: Air France has multiple flights daily from Paris (about 1½ hours). TGV trains have multiple departures from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to Gare de Nice Ville (5 hours and 40 minutes).
Avignon: TGV trains have multiple departures from Gare de Lyon in Paris to Avignon (2 hours and 37 minutes). TGV trains also have multiple departures from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Avignon (3 hours and 11 minutes).