IN MY WORLD of daydreams, owning a second home in the South of France is a forever fantasy. Not the southern France of shimmering beaches, bling boutiques and chic villas along the Riviera, but inland, in Provence with the perfect beauty of the land, the friendly people, and a gentle, simpler pace. Renting a little pied-à-terre in which we can live like locals for two weeks was the realistic alternative my husband and I planned and eagerly anticipated.
We’ve chosen early spring – before summer’s heat brings hordes of tourists, inevitable lineups and standing-room-only events. True, the lavender is not in bloom, but the cherry blossoms and cascading wisteria are spectacular, the temperature is mild, and the countryside basks in golden sunshine.
Our new “home” – originally a 17th-century barn, is now one superbly restored wing of a farm complex, warmed with walls of honey-coloured stone, inside and out. Inviting and comfortably furnished, it lacks nothing in the way of modern appliances. We unpack and feel immediately at home.
In this rural area near Bagnolssur-Cèze, we are surrounded by nature, yet within a walk to a boulangerie for a breakfast croissant. Day trips take us to historic landmarks and the A-list towns of Aix, Arles and Avignon. Along the way, there are narrow roads to navigate, small towns to investigate, old men playing boules to watch and village markets to browse.
We discover there is no better way to rub elbows with the locals or to see, smell and taste Provence than strolling around a village market. By 8 a.m. on market day, sleepy little town squares have morphed into vibrant bazaars. Fruit and vegetable stands tantalize with lush, sun-kissed produce. Brilliant bouquets of flowers spill out onto the walkways, and bunches of lavender are everywhere. The scents from immense jars of spices, oven-fresh baguettes and just caught fish fill the air. We nibble on sausages, taste the olives, and sample cheeses, soft and hard, before deciding what to take home for dinner. We spend time chatting with the grey-haired pony-tailed vendor, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, who insists I absolutely can’t go home without one of his straw market baskets. Absolutement! I didn’t.
We discover a marvelously pleasant way to shop for wine. Throughout some of the most beautiful country you’ll ever see, more than 400 winemakers welcome visitors to their cellars for personalized wine tastings. Whether you stop at a modest farmstead or an old-world chateau at the end of a tree-lined drive, there is a je ne sais quoi that makes tasting wine in the cave of its birth more memorable than the same bottle sampled in a neighbourhood eatery far from its roots. The best place in the world to get to know rosé (the wine of Provence) is Tavel, the quaint historic village northwest of Avignon. Making pink wines in this, France’s only exclusive rosé appellation, has been a specialty for centuries.
The author's "home" in Provence. Photo credit: Anna Hobbs
We stop at Domaine Lafond Roc-Epine, having heard that Pascal Lafond (a second-generation winemaker) and his son Jean-Baptiste produce one of the best Tavels on the market today. As he opens a bottle of his latest vintage, I ask Jean-Baptiste what makes the rosé from Tavel so special. “It’s because rosé is what we do,” he says in his delightfully accented English. We are won over by his friendliness and the father-and-son passion for their terroir and the way in which they make their wine. We taste summer in a glass and agree that rosé will be our tipple of choice while we’re in Provence. Et bien sur, we leave with several bottles.
Of all the historic landmarks we visit, Le Pont du Gard is a favourite. Apart from being around for nearly 2,000 years and in remarkably good condition, at 157 feet high, it is the world’s tallest aqueduct-bridge. It spans the Gard River. When Rome controlled the region, the Romans were responsible for some mighty impressive engineering feats, but ‘impressive’ doesn’t begin to do this structure justice. Soaring over the canyon, the World Heritage Site attracts a million and a half visitors every year.
Le Pont du Gard
Lured by the old childhood song ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon’, we take a day to visit the old walled city of Avignon. I was looking forward to a dancing-on-the-bridge photo op, until I see what remains of the bridge. Today, it dramatically ends halfway across the river – the famous Rhône. And dancing on it sets you back five euro. Thankfully there is much more to discover here, and there is something for everybody. We stroll the warren of cobbled streets and alleys, shopping for bunches of lavender and colourful Provençal fabrics.
We spend another day in Avignon, checking out the monumental 14th-century Papal Palace that still imposes its Gothic authority. Across the square, the Petit Palais houses an outstanding collection of Italian art, including Botticelli’s Virgin and Child. At the Michelin-starred La Mirande (a perfect place to relax and enjoy wonderful wines and consistently delicious food), we splurge on a leisurely two-hour lunch. Then sipping rosé in the late-afternoon sun along the Cours Mirabeau, the city’s broad, elegant avenue that’s lined with plane trees and dotted with fountains, we have front-row seats to life in Provence.
Wine tasting at Domaine Lafond Roc-Epine. Photo credit: Anna Hobbs
“If you go to Les Baux-de-Provence, arrive early,” we have been told. “The rest of the world will be showing up shortly.” Good advice. On this outing, we climb narrow, steep cobblestone streets from a medieval village to the castle that seems to perch precariously atop a rocky cliff. It’s worth the climb — the view is a panorama of mountains and rocky ridges punctuated by lush olive groves and ancient buildings.
Living the dream, time slows. We forget what day it is. We are seduced by the azure sky and the particular provençal light, enchanted by the picturesque countryside, captivated by the people we meet and savouring deliciously simple, market-fresh meals whether we eat out or cook at home. There’s a gentleness and authenticity to life here that will bring us back again — and again.
IF YOU GO For more information always speak to your travel advisor. Visit Tourism Provence at www.provencequickguide.co.uk. For flights, Air Canada and Air France have direct flights from Toronto to Paris, with connections to Nice. Great rental properties can be found at www.homeaway.com or www.vrbo.com. Be sure to look at this lineup of local markets: www.provenceguide.com/marches/offres-18-1html
Written by Anna Hobbs for Cruise & Travel Lifestyles (Summer 2019). Main photo: Les Baux-de-Provence. Photo credit: Linda Crawley