A Week in Provence, France “Off the Beat and Track along the Luberon”
I had traveled to France many times but only in the north, west and middle parts of the country (i.e. Paris, Champagne, Bordeaux, Dieppe, Limoges, Beaune, etc.). I never ventured to the south, although it was always on my “wish list”. As much as I wanted to visit Provence, based on pictures, its history, and having tasted the wines from the region, I was not prepared for its beauty. I was joining some Swiss friends on a bit of a golf junket…I say “bit of” because I was really there for the sights, food and wine along with a strong desire to soak in the history.
My first stop, prior to joining the Swiss boys, was a quick tour of the famous destination of Avignon. The most fascinating part of Avignon’s history was the fact that the Pope made this town the new home for the Papal Court in the 14th century. Seven French popes succeeded each other in Avignon as the enormous papal fortress was built. The town was also encircled by extensive ramparts. The Court became one of the most splendid residences in all of Europe. The name of the famous wine, Chateauneuf du Pope, is one of the remnants of this period in history. By the 15th century the papacy returned to its regular home, Rome. I highly recommend reading about this interesting interlude for the Catholic Church. It is full of intrigue and controversy. At one point there were three pretenders of the throne of pope…Luther labeled this time in Avignon as the “Babylonian captivity of the Church.” Just one more incident that led to the Reformation and the protestant movement in Christianity.
A traditional itinerary of Provence would not only include Avignon, but most people would also visit Arles, Nimes, and, of course, Marseilles (just the mention of Marseille starts me dreaming of a fine bouillabaisse!). We took a different course, and stayed near the famed limestone hills of Luberon which rise up to a peak of 1125 meters at the Mourre Negre. Driving through and around this mountain chain is very picturesque with its limestone cliffs… sometimes hanging over the winding roads. One fascinating aspect of the Luberon region is the dramatic difference in the vegetation on its north versus south side. On the north are some of the prettiest small villages I’ve ever seen. The flowers of spring were just starting to bloom. While on the warmer south side, bathed by the Durance river, everything was further advanced. All kinds of wild flowers, especially poppies, lined the roads and covered the fields. It was as if you’d magically touched upon the shores of the Mediterranean… at least, it felt that way.
Our guide, the indefatigable Jean-Pierre Kunz, had us headquartered in the tiny little town of Saignon. It seemed the buildings almost clung to the cliffs, with some structures built right into the limestone. The cliffs are 35 meters high and had helped protect the village from plunder during the times of barbarian invasions. There were olive trees and many stone walls built without grout (which have been standing for centuries). Our lodging was a charming little inn called Le Rimayon. The hosts, Fanny and Thomas, were very friendly and helpful. Breakfasts were a real treat… featuring fresh croissants, good breads and jams, salami, prosciutto, orange juice, local cheeses and café au lait. Each day we were sent off in fine form, anxious to see what adventures we could muster.
On our first day we headed towards the small village of Ansouis – this was the beginning of my being unprepared for the beauty of Provence. There is something about narrow cobble stone streets, sturdy stone buildings, flowers and quirky architecture that moves me. There is a sense of history and permanence that we North Americans never get to experience in our homeland (except, perhaps, Quebec City). We simply strolled around, stopped at a small café for coffee and took in the sites.
Our first golf course, and also my favourite, was the Port Royal. It was in a newish development and too typical - a design that you see in all golf communities. The layout presented a fairly challenging course. I liked it for its water features (one day I scared a black swan sitting on its eggs… she dared me to come close!) and the fact that it was designed by one of the most charismatic professionals of all time, the late, and great, Seve Ballasteros. After playing we visited the town of L’Isle sur la Sorgue. Again, the beauty of its river and narrow streets gave me a sense of awe. Unfortunately, this pretty town is well-known, and deservedly so, and it attracts a lot of tourists. Still it’s worth a visit. That night we dined in the Bistro La France in Apt – a very casual restaurant, with lots of odd décor, that served fine food at reasonable prices. I went for a white asparagus entrée and sweetbreads as my main course. The service was also attentive and quite fine.
The next day, we headed off to the town of Cucuron to check out its farmers market (held every Tuesday). On our way we stopped at a lovely little church to take some pictures. The market is located in the town square and it’s arranged around a beautiful pond which was constructed in 1403 – it is surrounded by hundred-year-old plane trees. These trees also line many roads in the region. Legend has it that Napoleon had them planted so that his soldiers could march in shade… if true, it shows that famous leader not only had vision but also a capacity to think about the little details. If the story is true, it’s a rather interesting insight into the man himself. Back to the market… it has a terrific assortment of flowers, pottery, soaps, essential oils, and of course, meats, fish, olive oils, pastries, rabbit, cheeses, etc. I had to buy the fragrant lavender soap and essential oil. Provence is covered with lavender fields, giving me enough reason to visit again in mid-June when they all are in bloom. One member of our group says that you can smell the flowers if you travel in a convertible car. What a great image!
That evening we dined in Saignon at the restaurant Le Comptoir de Balthazar. It is a charming little eatery which is greatly enhanced by owners, Sylvie and Michel. After our hearty, and delicious meal he treated us to a fragrant marc from the Distillerie Janot called “Garlaban”. We all loved it… and thanks to Michel, a good night sleep followed shortly afterward.
The next day we played the Saint Victoir Golf course… not, a bad track but it was overshadowed by Mont St. Victoire in the distance. It is said that this mountain inspired Cezzane to start experimenting with a cubist painting style. The geometric features of the stone cliffs inspired him to create a fresh and very modern interpretation of nature. Having seen the mountain up close, I buy into the story.
After golf we headed into the rather large town of Aix-en-Provence. On the way into the historic centre of the town we passed many suburb-like areas with modern condo’s and industrial areas… and faced lots of traffic. Luckily a light rain eventually stopped as we toured the central historic areas. Aix-en-Provence is the home to a university which changed the composition of the café crowds. It was a real pleasure to see bars full of students across a cobble street from a café full of boomers. I strolled along the Cours Mirabeau, named after the famous Frenchman, Honore Gabriel Riqueti, Compte de Mirabeau. He had a scandal laden career and despite being a nobleman he was a leader in the early stages of the French Revolution. He was an inspiring orator and had the reputation as “the voice of the people.” He took a moderate position, favouring a constitutional monarch (a la Britain), during the tumultuous days of the revolution. His legacy is very mixed but his name lives on in Aix-en-Provence. At the end of the Cours Mirabeau is a lovely fountain called Rotonde Fountain. It’s perfectly round and forms the centre of a busy intersection. Build in the mid-12th century, it features three statues representing Agriculture, Fine Arts and Justice.
As the rain returned we took shelter in our cars and headed for a lovely town of Lourmarin. During our trip we landed in the middle of a car rally of some sort. We ended up following an hilarious-looking older couple wearing leather helmets driving a vintage Bentley. When we arrived in Lourmarin we parked by a group of men playing boules – a great French past time. I left the game to take a photo of the impressive Chateau de Lourmarin. It was built in medieval times and includes an elegant Renaissance wing built later in the 16th century. The chateau is the home to the art and furniture collection of Robert Laurent-Vibert, who saved the chateau from destruction in 1920. I also noticed some posters advertising concerts in the chateau featuring Jazz, Classical and Rock! For fans of popular non-fiction pseudo travel writing, the author of the wildly successful book, “A Year in Provence”, British expatriate Peter Mayle, lives in this town.
I followed my Swiss friends into the older parts of Lourmarin sightseeing and, finally, sitting on the patio of the restaurant “Le Recreation”. We drank copious amounts of rose and I ate the saddle of lamb…OMG, it was amazing! After dinner we treated ourselves to their in-house sorbet selection. Again, delicious.
The following day we headed to the western side of the Luberon. After some poorly played shots on the course we visited La Cavale winery. This modern “boutique” building not only sold wines from their own vineyards but also featured wines from other parts of France, Spain and Portugal. There was also a nice selection of foods and local juices. The winery was designed by JP Wilmotte and took seven years to complete – it is an imposing, linear and clean architectural masterpiece. We toured the facility and then sat down to a tasting of their flagship wines. I loved their reserve wine made from older Grenache and Syrah vines. I bought the 2014 for my trip back to Canada.
The wine tasting was just a prelude to a much-anticipated dinner in Cucuron at La Petite Maison. This is a one-star Michelin rated establishment owned by chef Eric Sapet. I arrived early to meet the chef and was given a tour of the kitchen, very simple (and clean!), and the upstairs private room. Eric did majority of the serving and went out of his way to ensure we felt welcome. I would describe the cooking as “rural sophisticated”. Every course was beautifully presented and tasty. I liked the lack of fussiness you often get in Michelin starred restaurants. Eric’s style is honest and straightforward… he allows the ingredients to shine, which, as simple as that sounds, is a rare talent.
On my final day I decided to take a rest and simply explore the alleys, alcoves and gardens in Saignon. Despite its rather small size it didn’t stop me from getting lost a time or two. I had a nice lunch at the Au Petit Couchon then headed back to Le Rimayon and talked to Fanny before retiring to my room for a nap. At 5 p.m. our group gathered for a little aperitif that included local goat cheese and tapenade accompanied by a floral white wine from a new winery, Clos du Tilleul. The wine was called L’elegance d’Emile, great name, and it was made from Roussanne and Vermentino grapes. I enjoyed the full fruit flavours backed by refreshing acidity. My next visit to the Luberon will definitely include a visit to this new winery, and its owners Lea and Mathieu, in the picturesque town of Bonnieux.
For our final dinner we returned to Lourmarin and ate at Numero 9 restaurant. Our clever guide Monsieur Kunz had done some reconnaissance and found out the chef had trained with Eric at Le Petite Maison in Cucuron. Therefore, our expectations were rather high. I met chef Laurent and sous chef Pat prior to the meal and confirmed they had indeed worked with Eric. Once more we were not disappointed! Some of us pre-ordered the soufflé (i.e. before dinner began, to allow for its careful, and timely, preparation) – the fluffy dessert was served with a raspberry coulis and was a great way to end our culinary adventures in the Luberon. Sante.
BTW: I will be returning to Le Rimayon and our hosts Fanny and Thomas as soon as I can arrange some time away from Guelph… I’m sold!
Bob with hostess Fanny.
Le Rimanyon (Saignon) - firstname.lastname@example.org
- 06 09 67 41 33
Pont Royal Club - houseinpontroyal-provence.com
Le Comptoir de Balthazar – 33 490046355
Bistro de France – 04 90 74 22 01
Chatgeau de Lourmarin – email@example.com
Le Petite Maison de Cucuron - la petitemaisondecucuron.com
- 33 490682199
Numero 9 – numero9-lourmarin.com
La Cavale Winery – domaine - lacavale.com
Clos du Tlleul – firstname.lastname@example.org