It’s been eight months since we were in Provence, and I can still conjure up the magical scent of the air – a heady combination of lavender, sage, thyme and olive trees. Despite my fear of encountering hordes of tourists, we were able to get off the beaten path – amazingly still possible in this seductive corner of the world, even at peak time. We loved it so much that PapaHatch are heading back this summer (2017) while the boys are at summer camp.
We sampled three “home bases” in Provence, each quite different from the other. The first, Les Baux-de-Provence had captivated me at age 14 when I went there briefly with my host-family (during my year in Carcassonne). We then headed to the coast – with the rest of France – but had chosen Cassis for its proximity to natural beauty, smaller size, and lower-key vibe, compared to glitzier neighbors farther along the Riviera. For our final stop before heading back to Switzerland for our last week of goodbyes and packing up, we chose a “Mas” (a farmhouse) that has been – like many in the region – converted to a bed and breakfast.
Not all that sorry to leave Bourgogne behind, on our hot drive down, we searched in vain for swimming options near our first destination, so we decided to stop en route for a swim in the Gardon river that flows under the amazing 1st century aqueduct that we’d visited back in April, the Pont du Gard. What a fabulous decision! The perfect combination of fun in a historic and scenic setting. If you go, you have to drive to and park on the southern side of the river – the opposite side from where the visitor’s center is.
It turns out that I am a total sucker for arid, picturesque mountain villages (see Albarracín, Spain). Les Baux-de-Provence fits the bill. Beige tile-roofed dwellings built into a rocky outcropping and topped by castle ruins, it teems with day-trippers (for good reason) but falls almost completely silent in the evenings, as there are very few lodging options in the old part of the village. We stayed in lovely Le Prince Noir in a room with a terrace. I loved sitting there in the warm wind, sipping some local rosé and watching the activity below me. This bed and breakfast is literally built into the rock, just below the castle grounds. Speaking of the Château des Baux-de-Provence, it was really fun to visit! While PapaHatch took Fritz on a hike one morning, Ernst and I went up to the castle (once again, VERY worth it to arrive early for tickets!). It great 360 views of the “paysage” and has fun reenactments to boot – witty staff in period costume demonstrated a real full-size catapult, and we tried our hand at cross-bow shooting and watched a talented sculptor in action. Very well done.
That afternoon – quite hot again – the Hatch males returned to swim by the Pont du Gard. I stayed behind and caught up with writing and reading and ventured out to a quirky but worthwhile “immersive” light show, the Carrières de Lumières, in a cave down the street, this time featuring Marc Chagall. I enjoyed it, and it was a nice escape from the heat.
By that time, all of us were looking forward to some beach time. Skirting Marseille, we finally reached Cassis, which abuts the Calanques National Park (one of only seven in mainland France). An old fishing village, Cassis has managed to retain charm and friendliness, while many other Côte d’Azur towns haven’t. Not that easy to reach without a car, windy roads and minimal parking make it harder to reach. We stayed at the Hôtel de la Place Le Mahogany, a mid-range but hip hotel with a fabulous view and proximity to a small beach. While the beach itself got pretty crowded, we always found a spot, and the almost-all-French crowd was very congenial (and sometimes topless). The hotel was about a 15 minute walk to the center of town where the restaurants were – we ate well and enjoyed the friendly vibe.
The only ways into the actual national park’s beaches is by boat, on foot (an arduous hike) or to make a reservation at one of the few restaurants within the park boundaries – only then are you allowed to drive in down a very steep and narrow road. After seeing some friends’ pictures of Le Lunch, I got my heart set on eating there. The setting is stunning! The food was good too (NB: it’s cash only and advance reservations are crucial if you’re arriving by car). We hung out at the Sormiou Calanque beach, which was a nice change from our in-town beach, but it was far more crowded despite the difficulties of getting there.
Having fallen in love with Cassis, we reluctantly headed inland, making our way through the Luberon region on our way to our destination in the Alpes de Haute Provence. The Luberon is the famed setting of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and many a Provence bus tour. I insisted we drive through at least a couple of the villages I’d heard about in my “most beautiful villages in Provence” research… but the traffic and dodging big buses were a big turnoff, so we didn’t stop. Happily, the crowds thinned out dramatically as we approached the Simiane-la-Rotonde area, where Domaine La Buisse is. This part of Provence is at a slightly higher elevation, so even though we were well past peak lavender season, it was still being cultivated around here. The smell was unbelievable – just intoxicating.
This bed and breakfast was wonderful. With a pool, game room, tennis court, pétanque (like bocce), soccer, basketball… and I’m probably forgetting what else… it’s perfect for families. Two friendly Belgian families had rented out the apartment units and return every year for two weeks. Over a delicious breakfast prepared by our host, Anne, we had a really nice conversation with a delightful French family – one of the fun parts about this kind of accommodation. We did manage to pull ourselves away from the grounds to explore a village or two nearby and found a lively market and wonderful restaurants. Nothing was over-crowded, yet we found a great mix of local life and other travelers.
As you can tell, we just loved the Provence part of our trip – a wonderful way to end an incredible month of travel. After the at-times breakneck pace and too much driving, we were able to return to Fribourg with happy smiles on our faces. We have since taken to using lavender-scented soaps and lotions to transport us back… and I’ve been enjoying planning our (adult) return this summer (we will be going back to Cassis and then exploring a new-to-us area of Provence called the Var). Good thing we had been able to relax, as we had a lot to do during our final week of living in Switzerland before heading back to the U.S.!