The friendly, beautiful towns of Provence
Some places are more than a destination. Provence, nestled in the southeastern corner of France, immerses visitors in a placid, captivating lifestyle.
Although the nearby Cote d’Azur and French Riviera have many advocates, visitors may encounter traffic and crowded, blanket-to-blanket beaches.
By contrast, in the tiny towns and even smaller villages of Provence, a Maryland-sized enclave, tourists are few and far between.
Last fall, my wife Fyllis and I decided to stay in the “real” Provence. We rented a beautifully renovated century-old farmhouse in the village of Pernes-les-Fontaines, a fortified Medieval town surrounded by remnants of stone ramparts.
With our cozy home base, we ventured out each day to explore the nearby history-rich villages, with their stone buildings along narrow, winding cobblestone streets and compact tree-shaded squares lined by sidewalk cafés.
There were no waits at restaurants, no lines at attractions and few other English-speakers.
Most beautiful villages
During ancient times, many settlements were perched on the peaks of towering hills for defensive purposes. Today, they’re collectively called hill towns, and each has its own unique appeal.
Travelers reach them by way of twisty one-lane roads, hoping not to meet another vehicle heading in the opposite direction. It’s wise to park just outside a village and enter on foot.
A French association has accomplished a task that would seem impossible. Among all of the magnificent places throughout the country, it designated 164 as “Plus Beaux Villages de France” (Most Beautiful Villages in France). After my stay in Provence, I’d say that many more could be added to the list.
Seventeen of the honored enclaves are in Provence, including the village of Gordes. With a population of about 1,600, Gordes has been the site of a settlement since Neolithic times.
It overlooks surrounding valleys from its strategic location on the peak of a towering rock, making it one of the most photogenic settings in all of France. The site is topped by an imposing castle originally built in the 11th century and remodeled during the Renaissance.
Menerbes, another “Most Beautiful” town, was brought to the world’s attention by British-born author Peter Mayle’s popular book My Year in Provence, published in 1991.
Despite centuries of wars and turmoil, Menerbes remains miraculously intact and preserved. Most of its restaurants and shops are grouped at the bottom of the mountain; a tranquil town square awaits at the top.
The setting is very different in Roussillon, located near once-active ochre mines. Many of its 300-year-old houses are painted shades of red, pink and orange that echo the colors of the surrounding rock cliffs. I found it challenging to stop taking pictures of this Technicolor scene.
Echoes of the past
Phoenicians who arrived in France in 600 B.C. were followed by Greeks, then Romans. While they held sway, from about 100 B.C.E. until the disintegration of their empire five centuries later, this swath of fertile land became one of Rome’s wealthiest provinces. During the Middle Ages, it was invaded by successive waves of marauders (hence the need for fortifications).
Evidence of this past exists in every village. In Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, remains of the Greek city of Glanum are located near a Roman triumphal arch and funerary monument. The two-tiered Roman amphitheater in Arles dates from the first century B.C.E.
Some of these well-preserved Roman antiquities continue to function in various ways. The arena in Arles hosts bull fights, concerts and other events, while plays and musical productions take place in Roman theaters in Orange and Vaison-la-Romaine.
I could continue through the almost A-to-Z list of inviting, historic hill towns, but perhaps what makes a visit to this corner of France most memorable is its food, wine and people.
Local fare, local friends
Much of France’s well-deserved reputation for fabulous food and wonderful wine is based upon what is grown, made and prepared in Provence. It didn’t take long for Fyllis and me to appreciate each mouthful and sip.
The vegetables on our plates, often seasoned with ubiquitous garlic and local olive oil, grew in fields close by, as had fresh-from-the-farm fruit. Regional specialty sweets like nougat, artisanal chocolate and candied fruits tempt the palate and challenge your next step on a scale.
Restaurant food portions are large, and then some. After we ordered a steak to share at an outdoor café, the waitperson suggested, only partly in jest, that we move to a larger table which could accommodate the oversized slab of delicious meat.
Wine has been made in this region for at least 2,600 years, first by the Greeks and then the Romans. Provence is known predominately for rose wine, which accounts for about half of the local production. Some oenophiles also praise its spicy, full-flavored reds.
Even beyond the historic paths of the past, and abundant flavors of food and wine, we found the people of Provence to be perhaps its most endearing treasure. Topping the list is their genuine friendliness.
When we struggled with our elementary school French, they used their elementary school English to help. When we encountered a car problem, an off-duty policeman came to our rescue. If we looked lost while walking, a local passerby invariably offered assistance.
The genuine friendliness and welcoming attitude of the Provençales, as inhabitants are known, might be reason enough to visit this inviting corner of France. Given the many other enticements, it’s no wonder that the destination is high on many a travel bucket list.
If you go
To get to Provence, fly into Nice or Marseilles. Round-trip flights on British Airways start at $800, but it’s possible to find a $600 round-trip ticket during the winter off-season.
We chose to rent through Untours, a company with which we have traveled the past. Its motto and goal: “Live like the locals.”
Untours provided us with a wealth of pre-trip information, accommodations, a rental car and first-day briefing from the on-site company representative. Rates begin at $959 per person per week, and depend on your chosen accommodation.
Untours covers 13 European countries and also offers canal, river and small ship sea cruises. For more information, call 1-888-868-6871 or visit untours.com.
When it comes to eating and sampling outstanding wines of Provence, it’s hard to go wrong. Even the most modest restaurants serve memorable meals.
Case in point: At the L’Esqanquet de Font in Les Pernes (247 Quai de Verdun; 86-04-29-45), a meat-and-cheese charcuterie ($15) and roast duck with sides ($27) are enough for two people.
We stretched our budget by enjoying some meals at “home.” Pick up pastries, cheese and meat in a village and live like a local.
For more information about Provence, visit provence-alpes-cotedazur.com/en.