Road trips are meant to savored, with a variety of breathtaking stops along the way. We’ve partnered with world traveler Julia Dimon of Travel Junkie Julia as she shares her blissful drive through the countryside of Provence, France.
With some 80 countries under my belt, I have many top travel spots around the world, but one that’s closest to my heart is certainly Provence. A scenic region in the southeast, the classic French countryside of Provence boasts sleepy villages, Roman ruins, unparalleled wine tasting, spectacular dining and a rich history of inspiring artists like Cézanne, Picasso and Gauguin. From Cannes, the Mediterranean mecca for moviemakers, to the markets of Marseille, to Saint Rémy de Provence (where Van Gogh painted one of his most famous paintings, The Starry Night), there’s no shortage of celebrated places to visit.
Like any good tourist, I’d done my homework before my trip. I studied Van Gogh’s sunflowers, researched Chateauneuf du Pape wine tours and read “A Year in Provence,” Peter Mayle’s amusing tale of a bumbling expat fumbling his way through France. I’d planned to drive from the vineyards of Avignon to the lavender farms of Sault, from Tourrettes, a perched village overlooking the Alps and Gourdon, a town with sweeping vistas directly above the Loup River that served as a backdrop for Hitchcock’s 1955 “To Catch a Thief.”
While the “Super Tourist” in me wanted to see it all, I quickly realized that my cram-it-all-in-wham-bam itinerary was more suffocating than satisfying. Speeding through the South of France was akin to rushing through a 10-course Michelin-starred meal. True enjoyment, required a languid pace, giving oneself time to experience, relish and reflect. I vowed to give up on my carefully planed itinerary, let loose and embrace a “French Slow” lifestyle. Here are a few of the highlights:
Set against a backdrop of the Alpilles mountain range, the medieval town of Les Baux-de-Provence has a rich history dating back some eleven centuries.
Strolling though the maze-like cobblestone streets of this fortified city, visitors will find outstanding relics of medieval and Renaissance architecture. One key historic spot to visit is Château des Baux, a cliff top castle teetering on a limestone outcrop. Joining a guided tour of the site gives you a glimpse into medieval life, everything from the era’s social hierarchy to the weapons and defense structures. At Château des Baux, you can walk among crumbling towers, climb ruins, descend into dungeons and wield plastic swords found in the gift shop. Beyond the history lesson, this spot also guarantees sweeping panorama views over the vineyards and olive trees of the southern plains.
At every turn, the rocky vertical village of Les Baux-de-Provence oozes charm. Steps are lined with terracotta pots and bright red flowers; fragrant bouquets of freshly cut lavender decorate window sills; local nougat vendors sell their artisanal treats alfresco with smells of sweet apricot, salted caramel and Nutella wafting in the air.
Next spot on the tourist hit list was Carrières de Lumières. This unique multimedia art show in the old quarry projects images of famous Renaissance art onto walls and pillars carved out of the mountain. There’s nothing quite like seeing the master works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphaël towering high on slabs of rock.
Having worked up an appetite sightseeing, I ventured downhill, along the steep streets to L’Oustau de Baumanière, a 5-star luxury hotel located at the foot of the village of Les Baux-de-Provence. The goal? Lunch. Although what I ended up experiencing was more of a life-changing gastronomic experience.
Nestled in a valley among jagged rocks and Cypress trees as tall as Corinthian columns, L’Oustau de Baumanière is a hotel with some 30 suites, a spa and a two-Michelin star fine dining restaurant known for serving up some of the best food in the region. Family owned for the past 70 years, L’Oustau de Baumanière has seen some very famous guests over the years, from the likes of Queen Elizabeth, to Bono, Hugh Grant and Johnny Depp. But on this particular day, it was just little ‘ol me. Tummy grumbling on the hunt for tasty treats, I’d found myself at the historic Baumanière not knowing what to expect.
My menu favorites included: the Mediterranean red mullet with sundried tomato confit, fresh farmhouse goat cheese, fish jus scented with savory; the “Chair de ‘Dormeur,’ a King crab dish with raw beef, sheep farmhouse yogurt with caviar lemon and ginger; the classic “Millefeuille” dessert in the Baumanière tradition, done with light Tahitian vanilla cream, pistachio florentine and frozen sea salt caramel. Humbling.
My palate is not accustomed to the decadence of Michelin starred restaurants. Each bite had surprising flavors, complex combinations, welcoming aromas, zests and tangs that were a real treat for the taste buds. My senses were buzzing, awakened by ingredients so fresh they tasted as if they were recently plucked and traveled straight from dirt to table. Chef Jean-André Charial favors a classic style of cuisine, rooted in the local produce of Provence, with vegetables grown in his own organic garden.
For those foodies who dream of putting on the apron and joining the ranks of celebrity chefs, L’Oustau de Baumanière offers regular cooking classes that share the tricks of the trade. For wine lovers, there are also oenology classes, where guests can learn about the perfect wine pairing. Classes take place in a unique learning environment, their famed wine cellar (one of the largest private cellars in France, stocked with some sixty thousand bottles of wine and best vintages from the region). Bon appétit.
Next, a visit to the medieval walled city of Avignon on the south bank of the Rhone River.
My days were spent visiting the 14th century Gothic-style Palais des Papes, browsing bookshops along Rue des Teinturiers, sampling treats from the vendors at the covered food market Les Halles, drinking lattes at one of the many bustling cafe terraces.
Walking along the old winding streets within the protective walls, I kept an eye open for one of the many trompe-l’œil (an optical illusion art technique) frescoes that decorate building facades. For hardcore art lovers, Avignon has a wide selection of museums and galleries with renown collections, among them: The Angladon Museum showcasing world-famous artists including Cezanne, Picasso, and Vincent Van Gogh; The Calvet Museum, set in an 18th-century mansion specializing in French Baroque art; The Petit Palais, devoted to Italian painting and Avignon art from the Middle Ages and The Collection Lambert, a contemporary art museum.
After a full day of sightseeing, I found refuge at Le Prieuré a charming boutique hotel in Villeneuve-lez-Avignon. This former 14th-century priory turned luxury Relais & Chateaux property boasts some 25 rooms and 13 suites, a walled garden with fragrant wisteria and terraces overlooking a swimming pool. Their award-winning restaurant serves up mouthwatering cuisine with regional dishes such as duck foie gras with Gariguette strawberries and pot-roasted Costières wood pigeon with fresh sage. Le Prieuré is a lovely hotel choice for those travelers who are looking for refined, elegant service in casual garden setting.
A successful journey through Provence means embracing the “French Slow” lifestyle, leaving time to soak up the charm, culture and ubiquitous romance that wafts across the countryside.
Julia Dimon is an official Travelocity Gnational Gnomad. Gnational Gnomads is an exclusive group of high-profile travel and lifestyle experts who offer tips and inspiration on behalf of Travelocity. For more information on the Travelocity Gnomads visit travelocitygnomads.com.
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