Provence travel guide: What to eat and drink, where to stay when you're in the south of France
Better down South
"It's not lavender season. Why are you going to Provence?"
Was what most people refuted when they knew I was going to head down south of France in the last days of May. The time when the air is cool and crisp; braced with gutsy winds and when the sun is at its best — read: scorching. It is also, more importantly, not the time for lavenders to spring in full bloom like they would in a pretty postcard or an Instagram shot flooded with likes — so I was told, repeatedly.
But with all certainty, there can never be a bad time to visit the south of France. In fact, avoiding lavender season in July also means you're evading the prying hoard of tourists, which is peak season in Europe. Also, if you do happen to hit up Provence, don't do it just for the purple fever — it's hard to really nail down ripe dates when the flowers are at their best (because #climatechange). Head down south just because well, Provence is beautiful as it is — think a slower rhythm in the countryside, drinking yourself silly with exquisite wines, piling your plate with fresh greens and produce, and intoxicating views that wouldn't warrant a life-threatening climb at all. The region borders Italy as well as the Mediterranean sea so that pretty much explains its all-consuming beauty, while steeped in a tapestry of provoking history that you can easily digest without spending the whole day holed up in a museum.
While there are options for public transportation, the most effective way is to get yourself a nifty car or if you can't trust yourself with navigation — a driver to come with as good company. You'll save time and also gain flexibility to make a stop whenever you feel like smelling the roses. Literally.
PITSTOP #1: MANOSQUE
Loading up at L'Occitane en Provence
You don't have to stay a night at Manosque, especially if you only have a few precious days to spare in Provence. But naturally, the home of beauty brand L'Occitane is worthy of a visit — if you're personally a fan of the French beauty house. Tours of the factory where the entire production happens are easily available. Here's where the magic happens: You'll catch the factorial work in action, as well as gaining a deeper understanding of the hygiene and safety measures the brand takes in each and every one of their products. Of course, pick up a few hand creams and body scrubs for the long journey ahead.
PITSTOP #2: FORCALQUIER
Stay: Hotel Spa Le Couvent Des Minimies
Trailing the L'Coccitane wagon, check yourself at this indulgent haven married with the French beauty spa. Its misty past of being an ex-convent will explain its remarkable, cavern-like structure, decked with heterogenous rooms that are different in size and colour palette. A dreamboat no matter which room you end up taking. Starting from the moddest part of the hotel — the lobby — plied with pastel hues of pink, green, lavender as well as the haphazard wood shards. While your eyes might be lured by the modernistic finishings, another side of beauty awaits outside — given that the property is surrounded by a family of Alpes de Haute Provence mountains. Vantage views can be admired from the hotel's outdoor pool or your breakfast table.
Hike up to the citadel of Forcaquier
The town of Forcaquier is charming, idyllic and small enough to feel like everyone knows everyone's name. It's also where Artemisia Museum lies — a storied property of perfume, aromatics as well as medicinal plants. Herbalists are respected for their craft here while the museum implores the local biodiversity, lavender and alcohol distilleries and makers of perfumes and cosmetics. After filling up on the know-hows and whos-who in a short gander in the UNESCO site, hike up to the citadel of Forcaquier. We conquered a few steep strides uphill and were rewarded with the panoramic surroundings of endless hills in the region (marked in green). There's also a small (but closed) Notre Dame-de-Provence chapel which was built in the 19th century. Once you're back down, don't forget to track down a cute gelato shop that serves excellent grapefruit sorbet.
PITSTOP #3: LUBERON
Stay: Hotel Les Bories & Spa
Syncing with the laid-back elegance of the region, Les Bories is an eight-hectare estate lavished with olive trees, oaks, lavender; basically a sweet spot to sleep within Mother Nature's finest. Another luxurious amenities include an indoor and heated outdoor pool, as well as a house spa centered on natural elixirs and oils. Not forgetting, dinner at their gastronomic restaurant crowned with a Michelin star.
Eat: Domaine des Peyre
A swanky vineyard where you can also stay for the night at an 18th century farmhouse — the estate has been gussied with rooms replete with antique art and contemporary furniture. But forget visions of creaky (bordering creepy) old infrastructure, the whole space here is a mecca for displaying installations and sculptures from local artists in the region. Needless to say, wines are in abundance here — starting from red varieties, stemmed from the main Rhône Valley grape, as well as delicious rosés and fresh whites embodying a strong body. The food served here is wholesome and fresh, eschewing the heavy connotation of a typical French course meal decked with rich cream and more cream. Refreshing salads piled with greens as well as olive muffins started the meal on a pleasant note, while chilled green pea soup made its case of reverting the prior misconceptions we had about the humble seed. Since it was strawberry season, naturally we ended the meal with a comforting medley of strawberries and fresh cream.
Furnish your knowledge of lavender
If your heart's still longing or deeply invested in lavenders, a visit to the Lavender Museum will soften the blow if you didn't come at the right time. Here's where you'll learn more about the purple flower, including its origins and how to differentiate a real lavender and lavandin — the latter is more commonly used for perfumery and commercial production, given that the growth of real lavender only yields at a certain period of time of the year.
Drive a vintage 2CV up to Oppede Le Vieux
While you're in Luberon, rent a vintage 2CV (the French version of the wistful Volkswagen Beetle). Of course, manueurving the historical vehicle might come with its own set of challenges, but if you're confident enough to take the wheel as well as overcoming the nuts and bolts, make the drive around the massif. First stop? Oppede Le Vieux will be a good one to start. It might be a tiny commune but within, the "hike" up cobbled stones proves to be a pleasant-enough low-endurance trek, leading up to breathtaking views. The village owes its elevated surface to tumultuous warfare back in the day, and it's safe to say the winding roads up cements its own charm to the idyllic residential neihgbourhood.
Work your way up to Gordes
Fortunately, its famous title as one of the most beautiful villages in France didn't overstate the impression of marveling at Gordes in the flesh. Essentially, a hilltop village stacked with friendly pathways. The views here are scenic at the minimum, and taking your time here will pay off. We got to learn the way of life in the past including the habits of drawing water down from the stream at the bottom. And as our legs grew weary, we took mini breaks on strategically located benches, which warranted a picturesque backdrop for that quick IG update.
You don't have to be religious to enjoy a visit at Sénanque Abbey. Grounded on Cisterian architecture, the building welcomes visitors while a handful of Cisterian monks still inhabit in a secluded area. A walk through a day in a life of the monks (with the help of a very informative guide) as we saw past living quarters, old chapels where hymms are sung, the heavenly cloister as well as a room where the monks would gather to stay warm near the fireplace come wintertime. It's imaginative as it is fascinating; coupled with serenity that comes with being present in the sénanque.
PITSTOP #3: AVIGNON
Stay: Hotel D'Europe
Centered in the old historial part of Avignon, Hotel D'Europe is famously known for hosting big names like Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Eleanor Roosevelt as well as a couple of royals. It is also one of the oldest hotels in France, which explains old elevators accompanied with a door that you have to manually pry open and room keys that are heavier than your purse. Rooms retain an old English flair to it complete with an ornate windowsill overlooking the town of Avignon.
Eat: Cuisine Centr'halles
You haven't tasted Provence until you've stepped into one of its local markets. Les Halles d'Avignon is one of them — an instant enigmatic energy pulses through just by strolling past the many stalls and vendors. Here's where you'll find some of the top produce of olives, cheeses, meats, exotic meats as well as little bistros housed within the market. Cuisine Centr'halles is one of them, as helmed by chef Jonathan Chiri. His "restaurant" might be humble but the grub here is one of fine dining establishment, just repackaged in a hearty and homely way. Apart of serving up excellent seafood gumbo (inspired by his American heritage), asparagus flan and a foie gras pate (we couldn't stop picking at), chef Jonathan also does market tours where you'll get the sample and meet some of the delicious highlights of the bustling hub.
The world's largest medieval gothic palace, Palais des Papes, is an attraction that one must shelf time in a day in Avignon. Granted, the place has had its share of horrific massacres but it's also a holy place where many popes had their reign. With the help of technology implemented, visitors can now hold up a tablet during their tour to get a glimpse into what the existing room looked like back in the 13th century. This includes cloisters, papal bedrooms, past kitchens and private chapels. Taking a walk down memory lane just got infinitely more engaging.
PITSTOP #4: SAINT REMY
Monastery St. Paul de Mausole
A day-trip to Saint Remy can be accomplished — while the town is one of the smallest ones to conquer — the stop here is important. Mainly because of Vincent Van Gogh and the time he spent here while rehabilitating in an asylum, which is still open till this day. The tortured artist resided in Saint Remy at Monastery St. Paul de Mausole for a year, and he finished a total of 153 paintings in that time. In the monastery, you'll find his iconic works depicting the sights and scenery of Provence. While the space might be bordering on dark tourism with tours of how people dealt with mental illnesses back in the 18th century, it's heartening to see where the artist found continued inspiration in Saint Remy despite his circumstances.
PITSTOP #5: MARSEILLE
Alas you're in the big (bad) city of Provence. Marseille is bustling, as a city should be, but it's also a port. Which makes it intriguing to explore. Our view from Sofitel Marseille had us instantly hooked; where we gazed out a sea of sandy sloped buildings and edifices followed by the wide sea of boats docked by the port. It's a vision to behold, and with the sun trickling in on our breakfast table, we finally understood why Marseille could out-win negative press about it being the dirty, grimer cousin of cities like Cannes or St. Tropez. The large tub in our room was also a major plus, alongside Hermès bathroom amenities.
Eat: Madie les Galinettes
We appreciate a well-thought out menu, scribbled with tongue-in-cheek illustrations. No offence taken even if the cartoons can appear a little gory — especially since the food here speaks for itself. Fresh catches, exceptional entrees featuring daring plates like sheep's testicles. Honest opinion: They could have easily passed off as one of the best meatballs we've eaten lately.
Take a boat out
So you've conquered the shopping and ate enough gelato to combust, it's time to sail out — with the plethora of boat tours that you can easily find at the central bay. Park the day out to enjoy a tour of Cassis, with panoramic views of Cassis Bay as well as Europe's highest cliff, Cape Canaille. If you're hard-pressed for time, short visits to Frioul Islands are also equally stunning for a change of scenery.