BY: TERRY WARD
Early on in British author Peter Mayle’s beloved 1989 travel memoir, “A Year in Provence,” an evocative tale of life in the south of France, there’s a moment of simple clarity for the author.
It’s shortly after Mayle and his wife have made the move from England. He’s marveling at the weather during a New Year’s lunch at a restaurant in the village of Lacoste.
“It was hard to associate the sunshine and dense blue sky outside with the first of January,” Mayle writes, “but, as everyone kept telling us, it was quite normal. After all, we were in Provence.”
The truth, of course, is that what passes for the every day and normal in Provence—markets overflowing with fresh produce like the famed one on Wednesdays in St. Remy de Provence, fields redolent with sun-warmed lavender and the kind of ethereal light that’s inspired countless artists over time—is far from quotidian for most of us.
Places like Provence are precisely the reason we pack our bags and leave home to see the world.
With the busy port city of Marseilles as its capital, Provence is a large region in the south of France that spreads across roughly 12,000 square miles, stretching from the Rhône Alps to the Mediterranean Sea, Within it, there’s everything from vineyards and famed World Heritage sites in well-trodden tourist towns like Arles and Avignon to lesser known villages and valleys to explore.
Like Mayle’s tome, a book on Provence and all there is to experience here would fill page after page. Read on for a condensed take on some unique experiences to slow down and make time for, when in Provence.
1. Dig into Bouillabaisse in Marseilles
Home to a diverse population of more than one million people, Marseilles is a fascinating port of entry into all there is to discover in Provence.
After strolling the narrow streets of the Old Quarter and basking in Mediterranean views on high at the hilltop Romanesque-Byzantine Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica, it may be time to refuel with Marseille’s iconic dish.
Head to Chez Fonfon, for a steaming bowl of bouillabaisse, a savory, seafood soup brimming with scorpion fish, conger eel, tomato, saffron and the famous Provençal sauce called rouille made from garlic and olive oil. Fishing boats pull up right out front of the restaurant, located just outside the Vieux Port (Old Port), to offload their catch, so you know it’s flopping fresh. There are even sealed jars of bouillabaisse you can buy to bring home.
2. Lavender Fields Forever at the Sénanque Abbey
Provence’s iconic lavender fields are at peak purpleness from mid-June through August. You’ll find the bulk of them north of Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles and to the east of Avignon. For a fabulous architectural backdrop and ideal photography subject with those flowering purple views, head to the 12th century Sénanque Abbey, near the medieval town of Gordes. Monks still live on site here, planting and harvesting the lavender that you can purchase in soap, oil and other forms at the onsite gift shop.
3. An art-filled vineyard visit at Chateau La Coste
About ten miles north of Aix-en-Provence, in the village of Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade, the vineyards and winery of the 600-acre Chateau La Coste boast striking design elements by French architect Jean Nouvel that contrast with the property’s 18th century mansion.
Stroll the sculpture garden to see works by Frank Ghery, Alexander Calder and others. Then settle in at a table in the gorgeous gardens, surrounded by views of the Mont Ventoux and the Luberon Massif, to sip the estate’s certified organic wines. The sparkling La Bulle rosé feels like Provence in a glass.
4. See pottery in the making in Aubagne
With gurgling fountains and tidy squares, the village of Aubagne, between Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles, is the place to see ceramicists spinning the region’s famous clay garden pottery at Poterie Ravel, in business here since 1837. The art of ceramics in the region has roots that go back to 600 BC, the times of Greek settlement. And while a garden vase might be too heavy to lug home, you can shop for a much smaller souvenir from the town called a santon—delicate clay figurines displayed in nativity scenes and the like during the holiday season.
5. Wander Les Baux de Provence
About 25 miles south of Avignon, Les Baux de Provence is a fascinating medieval village open to pedestrian traffic only that crowns one of the region’s low-slung Alpilles mountains. Browse the town’s many shops and find a cute cafe to sit down for lunch. Then, be sure to visit the Carrières de Lumières, where ever-changing multimedia shows set to music are projected on towering limestone walls within the cool depths of a former quarry.
Endless wonder awaits on a Mediterranean voyage with Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Sail into the romance of Provence, and discover ancient worlds in Greece, or uncover cultural springs of wonder and beauty on the Amalfi Coast.