Provence. I heart you.

It was sad to have mum head home to Calgary on Monday as we had such a phenomenal month in France together. Here are the stories of our week in Provence!!

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Some vineyards near Modene and a view of the top of Mont Ventoux

It was a 45 minute drive from Avignon to our villa in Modene, and we couldn’t quite believe it as we walked in to the yard to meet our hosts Phillipe and Sylvie. (They are absolutely wonderful and if you want to stay in a spectacular bed and breakfast (or ‘chambre d’hôte’/’gîte’) , check out their website: http://www.villa-noria.com)

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The view out the window from the indoor dining room.

We walked past a gorgeous yard and large outdoor dining table and up the stairs to our adjoining rooms. The first had a king size four-poster bed, the second two single beds on wrought iron frames.

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imageThen there was our bathroom with a large claw-foot bath tub, dual sinks and beautiful shower. White fluffy towels and three white terry cloth robes were ready for us. After carefully waiting for Phillipe to turn his back to us so we could silently jump up and down in glee, he brought us back outside to see the yard and pool. Oh, the pool.

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When we went to Tuscany as a family ten years ago, I thought we had stayed in the crème de la crème of bed and breakfasts. I never thought we’d find a place even close, but here we did.

Our dining room table

Our dining room table, and their dog Hurley.

Our host is also a renowned chef in the area, and cooks dinner every second night if guests want a gourmet dinner at home. We of course were looking forward to his cooking and were not disappointed. Just like on the cruise ship, not only was quality at the highest level but the presentation was beautiful.

Chilled Eggplant soup with a poached egg and sesame crisp

Chilled Eggplant soup with a poached egg and sesame crisp

Broiled cod with crispy polenta, zucchini tartar and roasted tomatoes

Broiled cod with crispy polenta, zucchini tartar and roasted red peppers.

Cheese plate of local chèvre with various herbs and seasonings

Cheese plate of local chèvre with various herbs and seasonings

Chocolate crème brûlée with rhubarb

Chocolate crème brûlée with rhubarb

Our first breakfast was another good sign of how the week would go. Sitting under a giant tree with morning sun shining through the leaves, several options of loose leaf tea or coffee, and with an overflowing basket of fruit (including peaches and figs they had picked that morning!!), freshly baked bread, croissants, homemade yoghurt, and waffles with fresh preserves, we were in heaven.

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On our first day we wanted to check out a local market, and then meet up with friends from home.
We drove to Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue to the Sunday market and found it to be the best one we have been to by far! It was fairly busy, and the weather was beautiful. There were dozens and dozens of stands with everything from fresh produce, vibrant pottery, artisan baking and sausage, souvenirs, to lavender, honey, soap, and table linens. We bought some fruit (and we thought that Parisian fruit was delicious!), some nougat, some cheese, and the best almonds we have tasted in our lives by leaps and bounds. Oh, France, you’ve done it again. 🙂

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We were then off to Carombe to meet our friends Maggie and Terry who were on a 4-month trip across Europe! These adventurous folks arrived to meet us on a motorcycle, and after great hugs and drinks in the shade to celebrate, we decided to do dinner in Le Barroux, a town just north of Carombe with one of the few castles in the Provence area. (Of course, in between we went back to the villa for a swim in the pool and a little sun.)

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Looking at routes.

Looking at routes.

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With the view of the valley and a delicious dinner, we shared stories of our travels and with the sun setting we said goodnight.

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On Monday we wanted to explore, and using a cyclists’ map of the Carpentras area that my mum’s friend Hope had lent us, we showed Phillipe our plan for the day- head towards the hillside city of Gordes via Venasque and Rousillon. He generously went over the map with my mum, writing a list of towns that we should drive through or stop into on post-it notes so we would see the best spots.

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The view from Venasque

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A gorgeous old door and handle

A gorgeous old door and handle

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We stopped in Venasque first and wandered up beautiful tiny streets in the quiet town and discovered a wonderful artist and his small main-floor gallery. His paintings were oil on canvas using only a pallet knife, and showed the town and other hilltop towns with the fields below, and church steeples punctuating the simple but beautiful skylines, all using tones of blue, purple, red, and yellow . They were fabulous paintings, and we talked with him a bit (my mum, of course, charming him right away). He told us that he had a painting teacher tell him that “grass is not just green, trees are not just green, they are any colour you can imagine they could be” and he said that gave him a true freedom to his paintings, so none of the hills or fields were green- they were gold or purple. We loved them. If he had prints I would have bought one right then, but unfortunately he only had canvases and they were a bit out of my price range.

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We then went to Rousillon and right from the start noticed the red clay of the hill as we parked the car. As we walked up towards the town it was clear very quickly why this is called “The Red City”, with red and orange walls of buildings and red exposed earth on the hillside a gorgeous juxtaposition to the surrounding forests and fields.

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The view was fantastic here and on our way to finding a place for lunch, we came upon another gallery that housed several artists’ pieces that we all could easily see purchasing if we didn’t have to ship it over an ocean in order to keep it. There was a collection of charming statues of young girls doing a variety of things, from looking up with arms reaching into the sky, to crouching down looking at a frog, to dancing- and they all had such simple honesty and joy to them you couldn’t help but smile. Then there were the paintings we loved best that were very urban scenes, with tall skyscrapers and taxis and crosswalks, and they had movement and energy without being too detailed.

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We arrived in Gordes and couldn’t believe the buildings clinging to the side of such a steep hill. It was a winding road to get there, and European roads are the least generous when it comes to two way travel. For once I was not the driver- my mum and sister shared this responsibility, and I must say I think my motion-sickness is getting worse as I get older as even in the front seat all the quick twists and turns and deeking around oncoming traffic made me a little green along the way.

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Winding streets with the bumpiest, roughest cobblestone yet, we wandered in and out of boutiques, jewelry stores and galleries, and found yet another exhibition I enjoyed. Pieces made from found wood and incorporated with metal, fabric, and stone, animals and people were set in whimsical sculptures that I wanted to take home as well.

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We then headed home via the Abbé Senanque in the bottom of a valley with lavender fields. It was so relaxing you just felt your blood pressure drop as you stepped out of the car. We watched them gather the lavender bunches in one field before stepping into the sanctuary of the Abbé for a few minutes. It was a modest church with no decoration or sculpture, and it was very peaceful.

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A great way to finish our exploration before heading home for our second dinner. More photos of dinner, of course.

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Crispy tartin with olive tapenade, diced tomatoes, basil and fresh chèvre.

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Grilled organic chicken nested on steamed green beans with a tower of lightly grilled zucchini containing both toasted and soft spelt “risotto”.

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Warmed Camembert sprinkled with dried thyme.

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Cheese yogurt ice cream atop grilled figs from the garden, dressed with a red wine reduction on top of a sable cookie.

We designated Tuesday and Friday as ‘pool days’, and promised ourselves we would take it easy on those days, and only leave the villa to go to a market or get dinner. It was perfect weather for lounging by a pool, and the saltwater of the pool made it actually possible for me to enjoy the water without goggles as I find that chlorine pools make it difficult to open my eyes underwater. It was glorious.

Lunchtime picnic

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We met several other villa guests through the week from all over- some from elsewhere in France, one couple from Switzerland, one couple from USA and one couple from Berlin. There was almost always company at the pool, and at 4pm every day Phillipe would bring homemade iced tea to the poolside. Have I mentioned it’s heaven there? 🙂

On Wednesday we wanted a lighter travel day on a central route around our area through Bleauvac, Malemort, Methamis and St Didier, where we heard that they make best nougat in France. These towns had small main streets, charming buildings, churches, and many doors and shutters we wanted to capture in photos. In St Didier, we picked up nougat and a few other sweet snacks, and delicious stone oven pizza in Malemort were highlights to the exploration.

The blue paint colour that we've decided needs to be more prevalent in Calgary....

The blue paint colour that we’ve decided needs to be more prevalent in Calgary….

Where we stopped and had lunch- amazing pizza!

Where we stopped and had lunch- amazing pizza!

We loved the colourful shutters and doors throughout Provence, so as you can see we kept taking photos of them…

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 Yes, this giant brick of dessert can be yours for only $45.00.

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On Thursday we headed towards Sault, because it is known as the the heart of Lavender country. Phillipe was eager to recommend that on the way to Sault we take the road through Bedoin and up to the top of Mont Ventoux- the largest mountain in the area that we could see the white limestone peak and weather station/communication tower from everywhere in the area. We took his suggestion and went through Bedoin, a small but interesting looking town we decided we would revisit later. There were a lot of cyclists on the road and it was part way up the winding (have I mentioned: narrow?!) road of Mt Ventoux we decided we must be in the middle of a huge bicycle race or ride because there were dozens and dozens of cyclists making their way to the top as well. Try driving a manual car on a tiny road that twists and turns up a mountain with sheer drops on one side and cyclists veering in and out in front of you as well as oncoming traffic coming down…. We were going to need the relaxing lavender fields at the end of this!!

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This was partway up when we had a bit more space. And where it was flat. Actually, this photo does not give any real representation of our journey up the mountain. Except that there is proof of both cyclists and cars…. So in that case, you may want to disregard this photo. 😉

The hiking trail up. Dry and windy, but what a view at the top!

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Mont Ventoux had hundreds of people at the top (don’t drive here- it’s insane) between tourists, their families and friends, hikers and tourists, the top was busy!! The view is phenomenal and on a clear day (slightly clearer than when we went up) you can see the highest point of the Alps. We were happy to get down to the bottom again and to quieter roads to continue our journey. Oh yeah, and the extremely large number of cyclists? That’s just a normal day on the mountain; Mont Ventoux is the second most visited mountain by cyclists in Europe. And it’s not for the beginner cyclists either- with a height of almost 2000m, the climb to the top of the mountain from the town of Bedoin is 1612m.

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We were happiest when we reached the bottom of the valley and headed for lavender fields. The fields of purple flowers and stunning blue skies were divine as we entered the area around Sault and we had to stop and take photos.

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We wandered around the few shops in the quaint town of Sault, and of course picked up some more nougat we found there. Our insider’s tip: it was hands down the best we’ve ever had in our lives- so if you like nougat- this is the place to come- watch out St Didier! 🙂

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Antique shop finds

Antique shop finds

The drive back was on a larger highway (a small highway by Canada’s standards), with one stop before we really got on our way- in Moniuex, a gorgeous little town on the very edge of a mountain rock face with stunning views of the lavender fields below. We also came upon a restaurant that we would have absolutely gone to dinner at if we had passed through any closer to dinner time (and not 4pm).

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Friday we decided a little trip back to Bedoin was in order, and we found lots of charming little shops to peruse, and a lunch of delicious fresh-made pasta and homemade sauce to die for. We saw a sign pointing off the Main Street for a gallery so of course we couldn’t say no. Well, boy did we drool over the artwork in that space!! If we lived in the area it’s likely we would have walked away with several sculptures, and if we had more money we would have bought over a dozen pieces. It was a marvellous mix of styles and artists, in the mostly ‘modern’ genre of art. After much discussion with the gallery owner and mooning over various pieces, we left the store with three mementos of Paris in the form of paintings. My sister bought one and mum bought two, and they were both buzzing with happiness at their purchases all the way home. (As I am currently without any real walls, I did not buy any art there but will live vicariously through my family and see their art often.)

We then enjoyed a lazy pool afternoon with lots of swimming, some sunbathing, and a bit of journaling and blog writing, as well as checking out the garden where most of our fresh fruit and veggies (and herbs) came from for our meals at the house.

Their tiny peach tree. With six peaches almost ready to pick.

Their tiny peach tree. With six peaches almost ready to pick.

Their fig tree. We got the last of the first harvest, and they would then harvest again at the end of September. Amazing.

Their fig tree. We got the last of the first harvest, and they would then harvest again at the end of September. Amazing.

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My gorgeous mom!

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Provence melon! Yum!

One last gourmet meal….

Saffron gnocchi and shrimp salad.

Saffron gnocchi and shrimp salad with walnuts.

Pork tenderloin with honey and onion sauce, fried onions and garden carrots.

Pork tenderloin with honey and onion sauce, fried onions and garden carrots.

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Poached white peach with almond biscotti and crème anglaise.

The lounge area by the pool

The lounge area by the pool.

Goodnight, pool.

Goodnight, pool.

We packed, went to bed too late, and were able to sit by the pool for an hour after our last breakfast before heading on the road to get back to the busy and bustling city of Paris. So long, Provence! See you again soon. 🙂

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