When we travel, I like to plan the trip myself, avoid the REALLY touristy places and try to get a real feel for the places we journey to. That is one of the reasons I love renting an apartment or house if we are able to stay long enough, or finding a quaint B&B or agriturism spot. It's also one of the reasons, I avoided Provence for so long...I heard so much about it and assumed it must be very cliche and over-run with tourists. And maybe it is in July and August but the two times we visited, once in late March and once in the second half of June, it was marvelous! It is justifiably popular because it's a fantastic place. If I had my way, I'd go every year...rent a little place in or just outside of one of the many villages, throw the house open to guests, and have an open house for friends and family for a month, either May/early June or September.
What makes Provence so wonderful? The scenery is lovely: lavender fields, vineyards, olive groves, rolling hills in every directions. The towns are picturesque and charming; you drive fifteen minutes in any directions and you come to a lovely town, each with their own personality. The food is fantastic, the wine sublime, the people welcoming and the weather is lovely. Just as the heat would start to build at the end of June, the "mistral", the wind that originates in the Alps, would come through and cool things off. The outdoor markets that rotate through each town on various days are filled with wonderful foods: local cheese, meats, fruits and vegetables, nougat, spices, olive oil soaps, artists wares. Have I sold you yet? Plus it is very easy to get to, flying into Marseilles and renting a car, or taking the TGV (fast train) from Paris to Avignon and renting a car at the train station.
So let me share some information on the Luberon, the area of Provence where I’ve spent 3 weeks in 2 different trips and absolutely love. The first time we stayed in Maubec in late March and then the second time we were just outside Menerbes for two weeks in late June.
For our first trip (in 2009), we stayed in Maubec at a vineyard which had converted part of the large farmhouse into 4 cottages/apartments. It is called Domaine Faverot (http://www.cottages-faverot.com/gb/index.html) and we loved it. The cottage was perfect for us. It was my family of four, and there was one bedroom for the boys (who were 17 and 14 at the time) which had two twin beds, a bathroom of their own and my husband and I had our own room and bath. The kitchen was small, but the size you'd want on vacation in France (we ate breakfast in, with my husband running to Robion to get wonderful croissants) and be out for lunch and generally dinner, unless we picked up meats and cheeses for a snacking kind of dinner. When we arrived, Sally, the owner had a lovely assortment of treats for us, including a bottle of their own wine, which is very good. This was a wonderful base to see the Luberon; both Sally and Francois made us feel very welcome and were a wealth of information on what to see, where to eat, etc. Our days would follow a pattern of breakfast at home, heading out for touring mid morning and generally back in the late afternoon. Since we were there in March, we couldn't swim but they do have a lovely pool that would be great in the summer.
Even in March, the markets were open and we would go to a different one nearly every day, sometimes skipping breakfast at the cottage and grabbing a coffee and croissant in the town where the market took place. The schedule for the market days is as follows:
Monday: Cadenet, Cavaillon, Goult, Lauris
Tuesday: Cucuron, Gordes, Lacoste, La Tour d'Aigues, St Saturnin les Apt
Wednesday: Gargas, Merindol, Pertuis, St Martin de Castillon, Sault
Thursday: Ansouis, Caumont, Cereste, Robion, Roussillon
Friday: Lourmarin, Bonnieux
Saturday: Aix-en-Provence (Place des Precheurs), Apt, Cheval Blanc, Pertuis, Manosque, Oppede-le-vieux
Sunday: Coustellet, Isle sur la Sorgue, Maubec
My favorite markets were:
· Tuesday market in Gordes: Gordes is a very picturesque Luberon village where you park outside the main village and walk up the hill to access the market. Get there early and grab a croissant and cafe au lait while the vendors are setting up. They have a great combination of food and artists, linens, and spices.
· The Friday one in Lourmarin winds through much of the town. The ride over the mountain to Lourmarin is an adventure and the town has a different feel than Gordes but the market is larger and the restaurants in town are fun to relax in as you shop.
· On Sunday the Coustellet market is for serious foodies...Coustellet isn't a charming town but the market on Sunday is really the place to go for the best food. Also there is a large wine cooperative in Coustellet that is very fun to visit...you can fill a jug of wine for only a few euros and it is good!
· Also on Sunday the Isle sur la Sorgue market is great for antiques, bric a brac, souvenirs and non food items (though they did have their share of food as well). Again, I'd recommend arriving early and parking out of town a bit and walking in.
For our second trip, we stayed at a house just outside of Menerbes. This was wonderful as well. The house held the 13 of us comfortably. I can't remember which site I found the house on, as it was listed on several and once we contacted them we worked directly with the owner. The house can be found at: http://www.frenchconnections.co.uk/en/accommodation/property/151178
One of the things that we loved was being able to walk into the village. We found a "tabac" which is a small place that sells cigarettes and magazines, but also has a small bar serving beer, coffee and snacks. The highlight of the place was the view. If you walked through the front of the shop to the back, there was a balcony with a few tables overlooking the valley. We got in the habit of either coming in the morning for our cafe au lait, or stopping by in the afternoon before our happy hour at the house, to kick it off by having a beer out on the balcony. There were often locals or some travelers who spied the balcony as we did and made their selves at home. There were also some good restaurants in the village, and it was nice to not have to crowd into our cars and worry about drinking and driving for dinner.
We hired a cook, Giuseppina, when we were at the house in Menerbes and she was fabulous. For two of the dinners, she prepared them at her house and delivered them to us so that we merely had to heat them up. The 3rd dinner she and a friend prepared at our place and it was a feast! I highly recommend her: http://giuseppinamabilia.blogspot.com/
On both trips we visited various sites and villages that I will describe shortly. On the June trip, we also went kayaking from Fontaine de Vaucuse to Isle sur la Sorgue. That was a blast! It was gorgeous, winding our way down the river, and the kids really loved the experience as well. Of course, we did lose one child but only for a short while...he was the individualist of the group and took the wrong fork in the stream! It caused some short lived panic, but his dad found him pretty quickly and now we can laugh about it!
Towns and Sites we enjoyed:
· Tarascon: there is a great medieval castle that is great to go through. We visited this in March so there were no crowds. Our boys loved it!
· Les Baux: we went from Tarascon to Les Baux on the same day on our first trip and on the second just did Les Baux and some wine tasting. Les Baux is a medieval town high up on the limestone cliffs. It is a bit touristy but worth the visit. As you approach Les Baux there are places to stop for either wine tasting or olive oil tasting. Make sure you do!
· Pont du Gard: this is the Roman aqueduct and is an amazing site! The engineering that went into building this is incredible especially as you consider that it is still standing and completely intact.
· Chateauneuf des Papes: if you are a wine lover, this is a must see. A lovely town filled with wonderful wine tasting. There is a lovely restaurant at the very top of the town called Verger des Papes that we loved and visited on both trips. Besides the excellent food and incredible views it has the added benefit of being at the top of the village, so the walk up can help to sober you up! The best known wines in the Luberon, which is south of Chateauneuf, are primarily the dry French Roses. They are excellent drinking, especially in the summer.
· Avignon: Both times I went to Avignon, we spent the bulk of our time in the Palais des Popes which is fascinating, but the town itself looks wonderful and I need to get back there to explore in more detail. We ate both times in the plaza filled with cafes and an old fashioned carousel. There are artists selling lovely watercolors of Provence that we purchased in the plaza.
· Roussillion: a lovely village that sits perched on top of ochre quarries. The whole town is colored by the ochre..that rich, reddish-orange clay color that you associate with Provence. There are cute artisan shops in the town and a selection of good restaurants that make it a good day trip.
· Lacoste: The Marquis de Sade's castle sits atop this village, though it's never been open the two times I visited. The town itself is beautiful to wander through and it has incredible views.
· Arles: on the edge of Provence, Arles is a fairly large town that has a number of impressive ruins including a coliseum. We happened to hit it on market day and that was fabulous...the fish mongers were a sight to see and the food that was available to grab for lunch was delicious!
· Mont Ventoux: this is the tallest mountain between the Alpes and the Pyrenees. The ride up is winding and all the more impressive when you consider that the Tour de France includes this in the circuit. I can't imagine making the climb on a bike! It is worth a day trip especially on a clear day as the views are outstanding.
· Oppede les Vieux: we called this "old Oppede" as that is the literal translation. This is a nearly deserted town that is fully intact. It is perched precariously on the side of the mountain and was left by the inhabitants because it was difficulty to travel to the town and the surrounding farms. It is a great afternoon activity to wander through and make sure you make it to the top where there is a lovely church. The front of the village has artists' workshops that are worth the visit.
There are so many more towns to see, which is why I want to return (frequently!). Our two weeks here were one of the best vacations I've ever had (and I've had some great vacations!). You will need a car but the roads are well marked and not too narrow for the most part.
Le Bergerie in Maubec receives mixed reviews in TripAdvisor but we had a great meal here with our large crowd. We sat in the veranda and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g1076319-d2689545-Reviews-La_Bergerie-Maubec_Luberon_Vaucluse_Provence.html
La Maison Gouin in Coustellet is one of our favorites...we went on both of our trips. The food is excellent, and you get to go down to the wine cellar to pick your wine. During the day, the front of the restaurant is a wonderful take-away shop if you don't feel like going out or cooking your own dinner. http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g616128-d4266163-Reviews-La_Maison_Gouin-Coustellet_Luberon_Vaucluse_Provence.html
· Du Pain sur la Planche in Coustellet is a nice casual place with very good food and run by a charming family. http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g616128-d1845562-Reviews-Du_Pain_sur_la_Planche-Coustellet_Luberon_Vaucluse_Provence.html
La Veranda in Menerbes: we ate lunch here on both of our trips and loved it both times. Both times we ate outside and thoroughly enjoyed the food and service. http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g616121-d1501301-Reviews-Cafe_Veranda-Menerbes_Luberon_Vaucluse_Provence.html
Verger des Papes in Chateauneuf des Papes is the fabulous place I mentioned above. http://www.vergerdespapes.com/
There is also a wonderful boulangerie in Robion that has the best croissants, that I believe is the Boulangerie Des Oliviers at 723 av Aristide Briand, which is the D2, the main road through Robion.