Guest post by Emily Matras
Since Peter Mayle’s book, A Year in Provence, hit the shelves 28 years ago, a visit to the South of France suddenly shot to the top of everyone’s bucket list. And when the book was turned into the Russell Crowe starring-film A Good Year, the crowds in this wine region grew thicker than the grape vines that dotted the countryside.
But even before Mayle and Crowe, Provence attracted its fair share of tourist attention. Casinos and clubs on the glittering Cote d’Azur have long caught the eye of high rollers, while the ochre-colored cliffs and hills of inland Provence proved to be a siren song to many painters in search of a muse.
Like the long line of tourists before me, I traveled to Provence this summer. My expectations were high.
And I’m here to tell you: it definitely lives up to the hype.
My sister and I spent two hot, dry weeks in Aix-en-Provence and a nearby Provencal region called the Luberon, full of hilltop towns and dramatic vistas.
Our first stop was Aix, a small city awash in pastels, about an hour from Marseille. A college town, Aix has long been considered the intellectual capital of the Provence region. Painter Paul Cezanne and plenty of novelists like Emile Zola and Ernest Hemingway spent significant time soaking up Aix’s invigorating atmosphere (Cezanne, in fact was born here, and you can still visit his atelier just outside of town).
Our favorite thing to do in Aix? Get lost — or at least try to. The city is so compact that it’s rather hard to wander too far off course. But exploring Aix’s intoxicating streets was just magical, as we strolled past pink and orange-hued mansions, emblem’s of Aix’s faded aristocracy. And don’t forget to count the fountains — there’s practically one around every corner. When the temperature climbed past 100 degrees, I’d dip my hand in a fountain and let the cool water run down my neck.
After Aix, we rented a car and climbed through the Luberon mountains on winding, narrow country roads — which is exactly what I thought a Provencal road trip would be like. Our destination? Bonnieux, in the heart of the Luberon. Surrounded by a thicket of olive trees, with a clear view to the castle that dominated the skyline of the neighboring village, our little cabin just outside Bonnieux would serve as our homey home base for the next week, as we drove to the other towns, villages, and hamlets that fanned out across the region.
For the next seven sun-drenched days, my sister and I flitted across the countryside, exploring vineyards, terraces of olive trees, towns full of linen, pottery, and honey shops, and long-abandoned castles.
But first: we went market shopping. Markets are a hallmark of Provence, and one of the main reasons we rented a cabin with a kitchen, instead of a hotel room, was so we could prepare our own feasts out of market finds. At the beginning of our weeklong stay in the Luberon, we drove to a village called Cadenet with a long list of produce needs. Cadenet isn’t exactly a tourist hotspot — “all the better,” we thought. My sister and I spent our morning stuffing ourselves on free samples of dry sausage, chewy nougat, olive tapenade, and plenty of cheese. Who cares if we were the only ones not speaking French? The cheerful vendors certainly didn’t. We schlepped home with melons, olives, pesto, cheese, ham, berries, and full, happy bellies.
Here’s what’s great about the Luberon: Practically every corner is magical. We skipped the most recommended village in our guidebook — Gordes, supposedly one of the most beautiful towns in all of France. And you know what? We didn’t miss it. We were too busy stopping in Bonnieux and Boux and Cucuron and Lacoste and Lourmarin and … well, there’s just too many to count.
One of the highlights, though, was the village of Oppede le Vieux. In fact, it’s barely a village — with just two restaurants and a smattering of galleries. Once abandoned thanks to the rocky nature of its cliffside location, Oppede Le Vieux has been somewhat brought back to life by artists and artisans who’ve made their homes here in the years since WWII. The walk up to the castle at the top took us past mountain views, cobblestone streets, and a small square filled with old men playing pétanque. We felt that we had been transported back to a sepia-toned time of pure beauty.
The other “take-your-breath-away” moment came from the village of Goult. For some reason, Goult seemed so much greener than the other villages we had visited — verdant vines twisted around lamp posts, flowers burst open in their garden pots, and miniature olive trees stood sentry beside doorways. Once we took a well-worn path just outside the village, though, we were met with the real thing … one side of Goult is surrounded by terrace upon terrace of olive trees. They weren’t quite ripe yet, so we simply enjoyed the view of the valley laid out for us below.
It’s hard to write up a true “highlight reel” of Provence, since every day brings new breathtaking discoveries. Plus, one of the joys of a Provencal vacation is learning to simply “be” again — sipping local rosé and snacking on cheese while lounging in our cabin’s sun-drenched garden. We made plenty of time for that.