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Will Hide is a London-based travel journalist whose work appears in the Times, as well as other UK newspapers including the Telegraph, the Mail on Sunday and the Guardian. He also writes for a number of magazines including British Airways High Life, and Travel & Leisure in the USA. Will is happiest by a pool or on the beach. There is more to see than lavender and fine wines in Provence - read on to get the experts view.
Will Hide: Getting the best out of Provence
You may not think you have much in common with Roman generals, 14th-century Popes, or even renowned post-impressionist painters, but you do. We all do. It’s the desire to escape, to live outside of the ordinary (in our case if only for two weeks a year), to recharge and discover. To savour new sights, tastes and smells. To find yourself in Provence. There are strong regional characteristics that define this area. The markets for example, where you can just wander for the theatricality of it all and observe, or stock up your villa with delicious herbs, fruit, cheese, meats, vegetables and honey. At L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on Sundays and Thursdays, for example, you can find everything from fresh melons to jewellery, antiques, sausages, pottery and soap, but arrive early to avoid parking hassles. Or try Wednesdays in pretty St Rémy de Provence, where you can sit in a café and listen to some street jazz after you’ve perused the stalls. The list goes on – Nyon, Orange, Lorgues, Aix, Apt, Bonnieux. Best to ask around near your villa.
Experience the French markets
To drive between such places you can set your GPS and whiz down the autoroute with the greatest of ease of course – anyone coming from Britain, like me, must find them a breeze on all but the busiest days, even taking into account the regular péage booths. As long as you have the time, though, consider taking the meandering back routes that link ancient hilltop villages and cut through fields of lavender before dropping down to natural wonders such as the Verdon Gorge, 25km long and up to 700m deep, near Castellane and Moustieres-Sainte-Marie. And then of course, if you want to really talk about theatricality, there are the restaurants. In Provence, fine dining is never merely about the food – it’s about pride too, from the owner, the chefs, the waiters and sommeliers. A fine example is at the three-Michelin starred La Vague d’Or at the Résidence de la Pinède in St Tropez – if it’s a balmy summer evening try to get a table on the terrace to enjoy the view over the gulf as well as dishes such as turbot in Camargue sea salt flavoured with lemon grass and seaweed or a lobster and guinea fowl stew. “Every dish is an ode to Provence and the Mediterranean” enthuses the guide, and it would be extremely difficult to disagree. In Biot, I enjoyed the one-starred Terraillers (www.lesterraillers.com), which has a lovely setting and various tasting menu options including their “flavours of the moment” where you can dine on roasted and fried calamari with a mixed broccoli salad and lamb with crispy red peppers and coconut purée.
And in Vence the two Michelin-starred Le St Martin (www.chateau-st-martin.com) receives high praise for its simple yet stylish blending of regional flavours. But everyone has their own preferred spots and the best thing to do is to ask around because then you might discover a simple, blackboard-menu, family-run café in a mountain village or tucked back from the beach that may become your new favourite. If you’re more of an urban explorer then definitely spend a few days meandering around Avignon, a town of 100,000 people protected by 800-year-old ramparts that surround leafy squares linked by cobbled streets. For three weeks in July it is bursting at the seams thanks to its world-famous festival so if one of the planet’s greatest performing arts gatherings is your thing, plan to be here then, but if you’re crowd-averse, then arrive earlier or later in the season. You can book tickets online for the impressive Palais des Papes, the world’s largest gothic palace. It was built when Pope Clement V upped sticks and left Rome for Avignon in 1309 heralding 70-odd years of Papal reign from France. On Mondays from April to October there are guided tours in English that bring its history alive, although self-guided tours are available at other times.
The Palais des Papes
You may just want to wander the streets, though, getting lost among cafes and shops with no particular aim until you come to the river Rhône and medieval Pont St Bénézet, or as it’s sung by decades of English school children learning French “sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse…..” A half-hour drive north will bring you to the vineyards of Châteauneuf du Pape, the perfect spot to stop off for a picnic and pop into a winery or two – the Office de Tourisme in the Place du Portail can help you plan a route. If you’re feeling energetic hike up the hill for a great view over the Rhône Valley and imagine how the scene must have looked when the Pope’s summer residence was here. (It was dismantled for stone after the French Revolution).
And then just fifteen minutes further to Orange, see the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre in France, built at the time of Christ, where 10,000 spectators once bayed for the blood of the unfortunates in the ring before them. It is only one of three from the Roman empire built around the same time that are still standing in their entirety. In July plan to spend a warm evening here at the chorégies d’Orange opera festival – it’s an absolutely magical setting in which to listen to Verdi.
You shouldn’t miss Aix-en-Provence, especially its old town and the shady trees along Cours Mirabeau. If any southern city conjures up what this region is all about, with its boulevards, fountains and cafes that attracted the likes of Cézanne and Zola, then this is it. In fact if you want to see the Aix of Paul Cézanne, there’s a circuit, marked by bronze plaques and you can pick up the free English-language booklet that accompanies it at the tourist office.
If you have time also take in lovely Arles, important since Roman days for its strategic position. It’s famous for its amphitheatres (yes, plural), that date back to the first century AD, as well as being where Vincent Van Gogh arrived in 1888 to paint furiously before entering an asylum just outside St Rémy de Provence the following year. And then, if it’s your kind of thing, there is the course Camarguaise, the local take on bull fighting where local amateurs don white trousers and shirts and try to snatch rosettes and ribbons from bulls’ horns, more often than not having to leap over barriers to escape the irate beasts.
The things that have drawn people to Provence have not changed through the millennia – the sweet smell of lavender, the shade of an olive grove, the fading light of a warm August evening, a field of bright sunflowers nor a glass or two of local wine. All are waiting to be explored just footsteps from your villa.