Greece, United States, or perhaps England, my beloved England? Then for a while I considered the idea of Norway, until I saw for the umpteenth time the movie A Good Year, by Ridley Scott with Russell Crowe – very good and very appropriate for the role – that led me definitely to the scents of Provence. In theory, lavender was my goal, but in mid-August there wasn’t any single trace of fragrant and soft coloured fields. You would think: what a disappointment… and instead this holiday was a chance to discover a wonderland, with a strong agricultural vocation, which has left more than one indelible mark on my travel book. Obviously there have been visits to the most famous places of this region, as the impressive Avignon, noble and elegant, or perched villages like Gordes with the nearby Senanque Abbey, but what really fascinated me most was the Luberon and the area around Aix en Provence, along with the area to the north of Orange.
One of the marvels of the trip were home windows and doors, whether they belonged to nobles cities like Avignon, or Spanish soul cities as Arles or Saintes Maries de la Mer or small villages from Luberon and Camargue: crazy colors next to climbing plants, carved wood, glasses reflecting blue sky and glimpses of life that can hint at another life beyond the shutters, the flower pots and the starched curtains. I confess that is one of my vices, but it is stronger than me, I can’t help, curiosity and imagination lead me to spy and sometimes pay more attention to what happens inside the windows than outside on the street!
The city we have visited with more attention is Aix en Provence, as we were accompanied by a special guide, Sophie, a couchsurfer born and raised in Aix but currently living in Paris with her large family. Aix, of Roman origins, was founded as Aquae Sexta, a city built around the termae (spa), as its name says. It has a medieval center and a newer part dated back to the eighteenth century, recognizable by the straight streets and large buildings overlooking Mirabeu Course, with secret gardens behind their noble façades. In a few hours, she showed us the remarkable places of her city, telling us stories about towers and gates made by wrought iron, characteristic element of the whole Provence, or religious buildings converted into shops, after the sale of Church properties during the Revolution time (amazing Sephora inside a old monastery!).
Her more valuable suggestion has been: if you want to know Aix, you have to look into doorways and peek, you will find staircase painted with bright colors and beautiful gardens. Go figure if I could miss such an advice!
Unforgettable the farmer market of Aix en Provence, held every morning in Place Richelmi, overflowing with the wonderful local produce. Try the little drops of gold, Mirabelle plums, sweet strawberries and melons, a fruit very typical of the area I found, fragrant and sweet as honey.
Talking about melons… the typical sweet of this city are Calission d’Aix, small biscuits similar to marzipan – or Tuscan Ricciarelli – cut on a wafer and covered with a white, smooth and immaculate frosting. They are quite expensive (8 € for a small 200 g bag of calissions), but you’d better focus on quality and buy the best, like those made by Bremond, in Rue d’Italie 16. But why talking about melons? Because the traditional recipe calls for almonds, sugar and candied melon as basic ingredients. At first I thought they were too sweet, but once tasted you find that the flavors are balanced perfectly, and a 200 grams bag can be kept for a short time!
From Aix we visited the Luberon, an area with high wine vocation, which closely resembles the Chianti. The detail that most struck me was the great spread of local producers stalls along the road that invited to purchase freshly picked fruit and vegetables – often organic. Bonnieux – the town where A Good year was filmed – has the charm of the old time town, the one where you know everybody and everybody knows you: just out of the town you meet Chateau La Canorgue, the very winery of the movie! In front of Bonnieux you can visit Lacoste, with Marquis De Sade’s castle ruins, overlooking gloomy on the valley. Also worth visiting are Cucuron, Cadenet and Lourmarin, my favorite town in this area, nice looking and enchanted, full of restaurants for all tastes.
Starting point for these excursions was a charming and jewel style B&B, La Maison du Pape. Situated in a tiny village, Saint-Estève Janson, very quiet and peaceful, this B&B proved to be a very good choice. An aperitif at the pool, a fresh, cozy and welcoming room, a breakfast with homemade jams and owners so kind to give advices and suggestions have made this stay one of the highlights of the holiday!
Here are some useful addresses:
Librairie Goulard (it looks like a small library from the tiny entry, but inside it winds for corridors and rooms! Large sections of cookbooks and children literature, amazing!)
37 Cours Mirabeau, 7 & 9 rue Papassaudi 13100 Aix-en-Provence
La Maison du Papé Bed & Breakfast – Marielle et Philippe Canavese
Rue Grande 13610 Saint-Estève Janson
La Louche à Beurre Restaurant (terrific crêpes, high quality ingredients)
Avenue du Rayol 84160 Lourmarin
Le Bistrot de Lourmarin Restaurant (awsome dishes, both traditional and innovative, excellent choice and excellent quality – price ratio)
Avenue Philippe de Girard, 24 84160 Lourmarin
L’Ardoise Ristorante (good crêpes, good fish dishes)
Place du Tambour d’Arcole, 2 84160 Cadenet
… this was the first part of my holidays, stay tuned for the second part!