Provence, just saying the word makes me relax a bit and dream of “the good life”. Countless movies, glasses of rosé wine, and lavender products have probably contributed to that. And the area did not disappoint (though as noted before we missed the lavender fields by a couple of months… one reason among many to return). We were based for a week in the Luberon, perhaps the heart of, and certainly the most well known part of Provence. This is where the movie A Good Year was set and the region about which Peter Mayle wrote.
How to sum up a week there? Every day could be a full blog post, though every day was so full time slipped away for writing here. So here is an overview by recurring themes. Three come to mind: village markets, hill towns, and of course, treasures.
Nearly every town has a market day and we managed to visit at least three – Lourmarin, Apt, and L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. They all feature fabulous food, artisanal products, clothing and more. The one in Lourmarin seemed most geared to tourists (it’s a fantastically beautiful town with an old castle, so it is a top destination in the Luberon). The one in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue had everything other towns have, plus numerous antique stalls as the town is filled with amazing antique stores. The one in Apt was the most “real.” Luckily for us we arrived on a Thursday night in Apt, and with its market day on Saturday, we were able to ‘shop like locals’ to provision our apartment.
Quick aside – this is our apartment in Apt.
I was confused while looking for places, not sure why there were so many apartments, abbreviation “apt” in this one region. Finally figured out there’s a town named Apt. Aha. Decided that although it is not the most charming town in the Luberuon, it looked nice enough and that being based in a slightly larger town/very small city could work well. Plus the place seemed perfect, La Madone. An independent apartment, but within a larger house with local hosts. So we could make meals, have a bit of space, but not be fully on our own to navigate the ins and outs of a rental. Plus every morning the owner Natalie comes to the door and hangs a linen bag filled with chocolate croissant, butter croissant and half baguette. Absolutely spoiled.
Back to the market. All but one photo come from Apt. Special note about the paté from Maison Border. Simply delicious products, all made by Olivier, the grandson of the founder. The four tins we bought served us well for several dinners in the weeks to come. One photo from L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue of what… oysters of course. The vendor clearly thought I was crazy, but he shucked half a dozen oysters from near Marseille, and the kind vegetable vendor next door threw over a lemon (bought some of the best plums I’ve ever tasted from him after).
Beyond its fame as an epicenter of the ‘good life’, the Luberon is famous for its hill towns. This region (as with so many around the world) was subject to regular warfare. I’m not an expert in the many wars that swept across what is now France, but throughout the centuries, those in power built castles and populations settled in walled towns. In the Luberon, hills abound and many of these towns were built upon hilltops. In the last centuries many fell into ruin. Today the Luberon features these towns in all states, from nearly full restoration to still in decay. We visited numerous little towns: Gordes, Rousillon, Ménerbes, Bonnieux, St-Saturin-les-Apt, Lacoste, Oppede-le-Vieux, Goult. Many of these are registered in the association of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”. Never tired of them. Beautiful stones, plants, houses, settings, cafés and on and on. Again, the pictures speak loudest.
Some highlights. Locals all directed us to the town of Goult, and they were not wrong. We visited this next to last and it was the most beautiful of them all. If we return to Provence, we’ll rent a place there. From Goult we did a couple hour hike, getting ourselves a bit lost here and there, but always surrounded by beautiful countryside: ancient ruins, streams, terraced vineyards. One thing with hiking in France, though they terrace vineyards, they don’t seem at all interested in switchbacks. It’s straight up and straight down these hills.
Lacoste was home to a castle owned by the Marquis de Sade. It had rained hard the night before we visited. Still overcast and misty, the town had an eerie feel to it, and on one particularly steep slope Jeff slipped and cut his hand. What should normally have been a little scrape was in fact a pretty deep gouge and took a while to heal, even though we cleaned it and did everything as you should. I’m convinced it was the Marquis continuing his evil ways.
In Bonnieux we managed to land at the ‘locals’ pizzeria. Had a great conversation with two Brits who live there and witnessed an American woman come close to breakdown. Seemed to be a group of father and wife and their son or daughter and his or her husband or wife. All very well dressed, in an expensive car. Upon leaving, the mother asked when the store that advertised sales of “spiritiuex” (hard alcohol) opened (meaning after lunch, everything closes for lunch). The owner said “jamais” (meaning never, because it like so many other places was closed for the season). At this the woman broke down and asked with great exasperation where she could please find a bottle of vodka. Sometimes travel really takes it out of you…
Gordes was simply stunning.
Traveling with the expressed purpose of “finding beautiful things made by interesting people” provided full license to explore the many treasures on display in the Luberon. Sure, there is plenty of kitsch and the typical “Provencal” busy fabrics (sorry to those who love them, just not my style). There are also some beautiful and interesting crafts and creations.
Linen. No pictures of his booth, but found a vendor, Les Voiles de Lin, at the Lourmarin market with exquisite linen by the yard, plus some beautiful scarves. I could not resist one in a loose weave made with natural dyes (below I’m wearing it at a café). We also found some elegant (and heavy) table linens at the Apt market. Clever name of “Lin et L’Autre”“Lin et L’Autre” (play on the saying “one and another”). This woman and her partner hand make these classic pieces with contrasting borders.
Pottery. Unfortunately this vendor, Dany of Terre et Soleil, was adamantly opposed to people photographing her wares. I would have bought plenty if we weren’t traveling so much longer. As it is I broke down and bought a coffee mug, the only one with a photo. Her other pieces included bowls of all sizes in a variety of deep and vibrant colors and patterns, plus beautiful jugs and plates and on and on. She was at nearly every market we visited.
Miscellaneous. One stall, Ecolochic Concept, again at all markets, had products made from the type of tabs found on soda cans. All hand-knit together into belts, purses, even halter-tops. Lots of beautiful leather bracelets. Deeply lustrous olivewood bowls, boards, spoons, etc.
Scarves. So hard to restrain myself. I did buy the natural linen one. I was very tempted by these raw silk scarves from Madagascar (the owner of this stall works with a cooperative there that hand looms them).
From what we heard, there’s been a revival of olive oil production in France. Several small towns showed off their local presses, and this store featured olive oils in three states: young green olives, slightly more mature olives, and matured black olives. You could taste many varieties of all three and really get a good sense of the variety of flavors, all made by “small” producers.
Tea. Amongst the antique stores in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue I found a light and bright tea store, Florel en Provence. Apparently the company has been making teas since 1989 and just opened this flagship store less than a year ago, with a colorful array of organic teas crafted in Provence. The herbal teas are made primarily from plants grown in the south of France.
And one final note… Hospitality
One of the finest things to experience – true hospitality. We were incredibly fortunate to be taken in for an otherwise wet and miserable night by a creative and very interesting couple. It goes like this, through Facebook and a shared love of animals and the protection of their wellbeing, my sister knows an Irish woman who has a home in Provence. When my sister learned we were traveling to France, she sent her a note to say we’d be there and to see if she had any suggestions to help us best experience the region. So on a windy, rainy day, this lovely Irish woman met us in a parking lot and drove us to her stunning “typical” Provencal stone home. A fire was raging in the fireplace and it stayed that way all night. What started out to be a glass of wine and some light snacks turned into a dinner party that lasted until 2 in the morning (with an (accepted) offer to stay the night). Said evening consisted of: Countless bottles of local wines; a long list of what not to miss in the region; delicious salmon; great Irish cheeses (yes we ate Irish cheese in France); wonderful music, including Keith Richards latest album; intellectual and stimulating discussions of art, current events, cultural differences; the lowdown on the ups and downs of living in France; all punctuated by the coming and going of two adorable black Scotties. Note the shaky image is not the result of wine, it’s that somehow the camera was stuck on shutter speed 200… Finally, our hostess finally helped me to find the unique local body products I’d been searching for. Turns out the grocery stores carry a line called Le Petit Olivier. Maybe it’s in the US and I haven’t seen it. But rather than search the little boutiques for my natural local brand, it appears I should have been in the big grocery stores. Fantastic array of products including more than soap… Bought some super cream without spending a fortune. Hoping actually I will find this back home in the supermarket, even if it means it’s been ‘discovered’ already…