BY Lisa Lindblad
May 12, 2018
Provence in the Spring and Fall are magical times. Before the tourists arrive in full force, it still moves at its own pace. I have been visiting Provence for years and am always charmed to see how little it changes. Why is this? Possibly, it is a reflection of the conservative nature of its people. But it is also due to the fact, so beloved are the villages and vistas of the south, that the government has carefully regulated development while allowing innovation and creativity to flourish. So enticing is the local way of life, however, that the visitor tends to fall willingly and seamlessly into its thrall. The day moves at a slower pace, meals last a little longer, they tend to be a little richer and are usually enjoyed with an extra glass of wine. Here is a sample of a week’s stay in the region.
Arrive Nice on a direct flight from the US. Eric, the concierge of Villa La Coste, will be at arrivals to meet you and drive you two hours to the lovely Chateau La Coste. The property was recently purchased by Paddy McKillen, an Irish businessman with a number of other classic hotels. Villa La Coste was built to exacting standards and detail, offering a limited number of gorgeous, exquisitely furnished rooms, that look out towards the landscapes of the Luberon. Settle in, lunch in one of three restaurants, and enjoy a therapy in the beautiful spa. After an aperitif – perhaps a glass of the iconic Chateau La Coste rose – dine in Francis Mallmann’s Provencal outpost.
Before moving on this morning, take a leisurely guided walk through wooded hilltops and valleys and alongside vineyards and olive groves to discover the extensive outdoor art installation which includes buildings and pieces by Tadao Ando, Jean Nouvel, Louise Bourgeous, Calder, Andy Goldsworthy and others.
Your destination today is Gordes, but don’t take the highway. Meander on back roads where you will encounter fields of poppies, vines young and green, almond trees and lavender for which the region is so famous. Stop in Lourmarin for a walk around the village and a look at its castle, and then lunch on the back terrace of l’Insolite, Place de la Fontaine. A glass of wine is not out of order even if you are self-driving; just relax and don’t rush. After lunch, continue on to Bonnieux, a lovely hilltop village, and then on to the villages of Lacoste and Oppede le Vieux with its Roman ruins. If you prefer to do a bit of shopping, head up to Apt from Bonnieux on D94 to see the faience for which it is justly known. Visit Atelier Savalli on 20 Rue Eugene Brunel.
Arrive late afternoon in Gordes, among the most beautiful of the Luberon’s hilltop villages, and check in to La Bastide de Gordes. The room I have chosen for you features a terrace with a gorgeous view over the valley. Dine on property at the Michelin starred restaurant, Peir of Pierre Gagniere, or the less formal La Citadelle
No need to rush today, but after a delicious breakfast on the hotel’s terrace overhanging the two pools and the valley below, ask Elio, the Bastide’s marvelous two-key concierge, to have the car brought around. Your destination this morning is L’Isle-sur-la- Sorgue, the location of France’s second most important antique market. The market is a 3-day affair with food joining the parade on Sunday. My favorite time to visit, if you are interested in trawling through the stalls, is Saturday, when there are less people and the goods have not yet been picked over. You can always head back tomorrow for the food market. Your route this morning is best navigated along the highway. Spend the morning and then, if you have had enough, head to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and visit the village and the Musee Petrarque in Chateau Vieux. The village was beloved by the 14th century poet and became a place of pilgrimage thereafter for all those who loved his poetry.
Return to Gordes and, if you are interested, visit Le Clos des Jeannons olive oil factory in the village.
You have one last day in this rich region of Provence and, if you are interested, you may wish to head up to the beautiful 12th century Cistercian Monastery of Senanque nestled in a valley just north of Gordes to attend Mass. If Mass is not of interest, do go in the afternoon and join a guided tour (45 minutes and in French). You can coincide your visit with Vespers at 6PM.
There is much else to see in the region: The ochre village of Roussillon; Venasque, with its lovely Eglise Notre Dame (one of the oldest structures in France); the rather chic village of Menerbes. If you have not yet been to an outdoor market – and there is a market every day in a different village – today head early in the morning to Coustellet for its Sunday market.
On the road again today, heading west to Les Alpilles, a region of Provence that looks, and is, utterly different from the valleys and hills of the Luberon and the Vaucluse. Les Alpilles’ dominating feature is the small range of mountains that rises abruptly from the valley and the flat alluvial plane, and the limestone tumble of rock and dry scrub and pine that cloak the slopes. The capital of Les Alpilles is Saint Remy, and you must spend time in this lovely city with its ring road and pedestrian heart. Full of shops selling Provencal products, perhaps the gem here is Joel Durand, the famous chocolatier who specializes in nuggets of goodness scented and flavored by the season’s herb or blossom or mineral – lavender, jasmine, sea salt among them.
Take time out from the shops and visit Saint-Paul Monastery where Van Gogh was admitted during his periods of illness and where he painted many of his most recognizable works. Outside of Saint Remy are the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Glanum, well worth a visit. Continue on towards Maussane, stopping at the limestone quarries of Les Baux to experience the current art exhibition, sound and light show, an impressive (and often crowded) experience. If the lines are long, save the visit for tomorrow early morning. Arrive at your hidewaway where you will spend the next couple of nights.
We have bikes at your disposal today and hope that you will feel like following our backroad biking route to explore the countryside. You might head to Paradou, the village made famous by Peter Mayle’s book, A Year in Provence, and lunch at the Bistro du Paradou, which he so loved.
This evening, dine at Chez Laurent in the charming village of Eygalieres. Make sure to go earlier than your reservation so that you can climb to the top of the village from where you have stunning views over the Alpilles.
Your guide will meet you this morning at your hotel and together you will go to Arles, the city made so famous by Van Gogh. Arles is the capital of the Camargue, yet another completely distinct region of Provence. There is much to do in Arles. You can follow the circuit of Van Gogh, visit the Musee de la Camargue, the ethnographic Museon Arlatan, the Roman amphitheater, and the thermal baths of Constantine among many other offerings.
If you get an early start today, you can have a late lunch (1:30 last reservation) at the Michelin starred restaurant on Route du Sambuc, La Chassagnette. Set amidst the rice fields that make this region so famous, La Chassagnette offers delicious food, much of which comes from its own organic gardens.
Today is departure day. Drive just under an hour to Marseille’s Marignane airport for your flight out.