Impressionist paintings with bold colors, sunlight, lavender fields, medieval towns clinging to the sides of mountains and crowned by crenelated castles – we had many images of Provence as we planned our trip. Traveling off-season, we found all that we expected, except of course the lavender isn’t in bloom. We did find sunny if brisk weather, absolutely no crowds, great food, and wonderful scenery.
We flew from Boston to Marseilles via Paris, and then took a 40-minute bus from the Marseilles airport to Aix en Provence. We wandered the curving streets of this university town and in the local market, after studying the six or seven types of seasonal mushrooms, twelve types of olives and displays of lavender soaps and sachets, bought the first of many goat cheese and bread picnic ingredients. That evening we met up with our friends Tony and Erika, and explored the North African area of town, where we had a wonderful Tunisian meal.
The next day we took off for 5 days of exploring small Provence towns from our B&B base in L’Isle sur la Sorgue. Our first stop on the way to Isle was in Arles, one of the largest cities in the area, with a wonderful Roman amphitheater and narrow streets that somehow accommodate cars and pedestrians. After exploring the amphitheater we went on to Les Baux, a charming hilltop medieval city with views over buttes and limestone cliffs. Though surrounded by parking lots that attest to how crowded Les Baux must be in the summer time, we found only a few souvenir shops open and noticed only a handful of other tourists. In fact, throughout Provence many of the homes have been purchased by foreigners and are unoccupied off-season, so the medieval streets have an unworldly sense of quiet as we wandered around.
After some interesting wrong turns trying to follow the “representational” map sent by our B & B hosts, we arrived at the charming B & B we’d chosen in St. Antoine, just outside of Isle Sur l’Sorgue. Our hosts warmly greeted us and we all had tea together, practicing our limited French and getting their hints about places to visit while in Provence.
Breakfasts at the B & B featured wonderful artisan breads from the local bakery, different each day. We convinced ourselves that each loaf, whether filled with olives, nuts, or seeds, was healthy and had no cholesterol.
We started the next day at the nearby open air market in Apt. Like the market at Aix, displays were brimming with the fresh fruits and vegetables that shape French cooking, as well as olives, cheeses and more handmade soaps and sachets. After picking up the requisite picnic ingredients (yep, more bread and cheese) we headed to Simiane-la-Rotonde. One of the most beautiful villages we visited, this town was even quieter than Les Baux – only one shop was open in the entire place. We wandered up and down the tiny streets, had lunch on the stairs of a shuttered maison, and marveled at how little the town seemed to have changed in 600 years. During the afternoon we explored small roads and towns around the Gorges de Oppedette, which are deep canyons which catch the light and shadows in limestone cliffs. That evening we returned to Apt, which was very quiet after the bustle of the morning market, for a drink and dinner – crepes in a 17th century renovated building.
The next day, Sunday, we headed into Isle Sur l’ Sorgue for its widely known antiques market. A huge variety of furniture and bric-a-brac, and of course the obligatory fruits, vegetables, artisan cheeses and olives, filled the sidewalks of half the town. Isle is built around a series of canals, which still have the waterwheels that once were part of an extensive mill system here. After wandering around (and once again picking up picnic goodies) we went on to Fontaine de Vaclus, a lovely town at the foot of the Sorgue river with lovely views up a hillside which was crowned by a ruined castle that looked like something out of a fairytale. We spent some time watching kayakers practice on the river, and then went on to visit Gordes, another beautiful hilltop town and the Abbey at Senanque. A highlight of the afternoon was Rousillon, where the houses are made of stone from the surrounding gold and ochre hills, bringing a warm glow when caught by the afternoon sun. It was the only town we saw that wasn’t made of the warm white/yellow limestone that is the basic building material of most of Provence.
Late in the day we arrived at Lacoste. This was one of the most ancient and picturesque towns that we visited. As the sun was setting, we made our way up the hill along cobblestone streets, going under gothic arches and peeking in the windows of some of the restored but uninhabited homes that we passed. At the top of the hill are the ruins of the former chateau of the Marquis de Sade (we should have suffered more going up the hill), which have now been converted by Pierre Cardin into an open-air theater. We saw only one person in the entire town – an American who appeared to be a caretaker for several of the residences.
The challenge of being in small towns off-season is that most restaurants are closed. Isle Sur l’Sorgue had few options, and the ones we tried weren’t brilliant. We felt vindicated in visiting patisseries as needed.
The following day we started at Carpenteras, hoping to see the 13th century synagogue. (In the 14th century the Roman Catholic church had a series of internal conflicts, and for a time established a papal residence in Avignon. The Popes of Avignon protected the Jews who were at that time being persecuted by the French, so Carpenteras, Avignon, Cavillon and Isle Sur l’Sorgue attracted Jewish refugees from throughout the region. ) Unfortunately, our guidebook had the opening hours wrong, and the synagogue was closed. Fortunately, a fabric store with beautiful Provencal fabric was open, so the trip was not wasted. We went on to Vaison-la-Romaine, site of the ruins of a roman settlement, and picked up a bottle of wine at Chatauneuf de Pape for the evening. After a stop in Uzes to visit the incredible chateau there, we ended the day at the wonderful Roman bridge, Pont de Garde. An engineering miracle, the huge bridge still stands, and we crossed it as the sun went down over the river.
On our final day in rural Provence, we headed for Cavillon – and once again, our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook had the opening hours wrong, and it was closed. We went on to Beaucaire, and explored its incredible 11th century castle, complete with crenellated towers, prison, and huge dining halls. We had a picnic at the Roman arch at St. Remy de Provence before heading into Avignon in the afternoon. The narrow streets of Avignon and many one-ways presented a formidable challenge, but our intrepid friends found the parking garage with only a few curses and extra gray hairs.
Avignon is a beautiful city full of beaux arts buildings, small museums in 16th century mansions, lovely shops, and the incredible Palais des Papes, the largest Gothic palace in Europe. We learned a lot about the papacy here – at the banquet to celebrate Clement VI’s coronation in 1342, the menu included 118 oxen, 1033 sheep, 1195 geese, 7428 chickens, 50,000 sweet tarts, and 95,000 loaves of bread. So much for vows of poverty – the folks that lived in this mansion had armies of personal servants and employees that helped them run the huge bureaucracy of the Church.
In Avignon, we also discovered the world’s best patisserie, with sinfully decadent chocolate pastries of many kinds. We felt quite virtuous for limiting ourselves to one a day for the two days we were in Avignon – plus one for the train trip to Paris, of course!
Paris is a truly delightful city. The strict zoning prohibits tall buildings, the wide avenues and excellent transit system makes the city feel more comfortable, accessible, and human-scale. The Parisians were friendly, the prices were … oh well, you can’t win on all fronts.
On our last visit, we stayed in the 5th arrondissement (The Latin Quarter/Left Bank). While we liked staying in a nice quiet neighborhood, getting anywhere required at least one Metro change, sometimes two. This time, we stayed in the Marais at Hotel Jeanne d’Arc, www.hoteljeannedarc.com. Not only was this hotel conveniently located, it also was comfortable, quiet, and near food markets and superb restaurants.
Since we had been to Paris just a few years ago, we were able to be selective in what we decided to see – instead of falling victim to trying to accomplish too much. We selected neighborhood walks in the Marais, Montmarte, and around La Rue Mouffetard. We visited the amazing impressionist collection at the Musee D’Orsay, as well as the Asian collection at the Guimet, (which was closed during our last trip), and the Carnavalet, which houses the history of Paris in a wonderful mansion, conveniently just around the corner from our hotel.
We very specifically decided to avoid getting sucked into the Louvre. We spent days there on our last visit, and while we could easily have spent more time there, we were wary of getting “museumed out.”
We also went to see the new Mitterrand library. It’s a tradition among French presidents to leave their mark on Paris – and the late Francois Mitterrand was no exception. This massive structure was the work of architect Dominique Perrault, and has been widely criticized by both Parisians and visitors alike. While we usually enjoy bold modern architecture, such as the Pompidou and MIT’s Stata Center, this complex exemplifies the worst aspects of urban architecture, making Boston’s City Hall Plaza seem like a warm, fuzzy environment. The complex consists of four inelegant monolithic towers at the corners of a square parcel. These towers are reached by trekking across an endless wind-swept featureless ‘deck’ At the center, between the towers, spaced too far apart, was an inaccessible sunken forest – invisible until one is almost upon it. One cannot escape the overall feeling that the architect intentionally created an environment that not human scale.
It was very refreshing to be in a place where everyone was as disdainful of George Bush as we are. Now we are home, and have to re-adjust to the reality of post-election America….