A long weekend in PROVENCE

June

We had wanted to come to Provence for years, and weren't disappointed. From world famous vineyards, to fragrant lavender fields, and tiny hilltop towns, it offers the very best in French country living.

Duration: 3 Days

Our trip was only three days, but felt like a week off in the best way. We spent languid afternoons sipping rosé by the pool, took long walks through vineyards and castle ruins, and strolled through charming hill towns. Of course we could have stayed longer  (and were searching real estate listings for a fixer upper châteaux by the end), but Provence is amazingly ‘doable’ as a long weekend from London. A mere 1.5 hour flight into Marseille, and we were out of the airport and into our rental car in no time for the 1 hour drive up to Ménerbes. We spent a few days in the Luberon region near Ménerbes, and one night in the tiny village of Baron outside Uzès. In between, we stopped in small hill towns, saw the famous Pont du Gard (one of the highest, and best preserved Roman aqueducts in the world), saw a bit of Arles, and planned our next return to Provence. 

  • Sight Seeing 90% 90%
  • Food 100% 100%
  • Ease of Transportation 85% 85%
  • Activities 90% 90%

We flew BA from Heathrow to Marseille after work Thursday night, arriving just after 11pm. We’ve had issues with late night rental cars before, but the Interrent in Marseilles was excellent.  We were in and out in no time, with zero hassle or upsell shenanigans, which makes all the difference when you arrive late, tired, and ready for a glass of Luberon red. (We booked a deal through Expedia for €150 Thursday night to Sunday night in high season). You must rent a car to get all around the little villages. If you arrive into Avignon or Arles on the TGV from Paris, I would advise renting a car upon arrival. Hands down, the highlight of the trip was all the time spent exploring tiny places we hadn’t heard of, not spending time in the larger, more famous landmark cities. Sure, Van Gogh is famous for the time he spent living in Arles, but you’ll get a better sense of him when you drive through endless sunflower fields, or come upon the looming shadows of Cypress trees at night, not in clogged, traffic-filled streets lined with kebab stands. Arles and Avignon merit more time than we had to spend, but I would prioritize the villages and countryside over these city stops, and stay in some of the smaller towns.

Hilltop Towns: You can’t go wrong visiting small towns in Provence, but here are a few that we particularly enjoyed.

Ménerbes is a stunningly situated small town in the heart of the Luberon, with major artistic credentials. We strolled around the narrow lanes and stumbled upon the museum and former home of the American artists Jane Eakin.  Admission is free, and there are three floors filled with her beautiful, sun-drenched paintings. The highlight for us was her top floor studio with easels and paints arranged next to a window looking out at the fields below. We also stumbled upon the former home of Dora Maar, (celebrated artist, poet, and former muse of Picasso) which is now an artists residence. They host monthly salon talks which we just missed. [Sidenote: the Pompidou in Paris is currently hosting the largest retrospective dedicated to Dora Maar that’s ever been shown. We are dying to go see the exhibition.]  When we visited, there was some local concert going on in the square outside the town hall, which filled with children and families watching various musical performances. We sat outside at the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon over a platter of cheese and charcuterie, and ordered a glass of wine from the local vitner who was pouring tastings that day. The views from their outdoor terrace are some of the best in town.  Our friends dined at Bistrot 5 the night before we arrived, and said the food was fantastic. The outdoor seating with live music accompaniment is lovely as well. One final note on Ménerbes: I later learned the town became famous after British author Peter Mayle settled here and wrote A Year in Provence, I now must read this book).

Bonnieux is just down the road from Ménerbes, but has a different feel with it’s narrow, ascending pedestrian streets leading up to the Vielle Eglise, old ceder trees, and panoramic views of the valley all around. There are views of the Vaucluse mountains, and the villages of Gordes, and Roussillon, and a few little boulangeries and shops down on Victor Hugo. (We had exceptional almond croissants from boulangerie that doesn’t appear on Google Maps, but is on Victor Hugo almost at the pharmacy). We also stopped in to the boutique Aubergine, where we chatted with the hilarious and extremely entertaining South African owner (I just can’t remember her name!) about all things style and travel. She was extremely entertaining and had amazing insights on living in a Provençale village as an outsider, nostalgia for London’s Portobello road, contrasting womens’ attitudes about the sun in Marrakesh with that of French women, and views on why Portugal is where it’s at. We would here just to chat with her, even if she didn’t have a fantastic edit of colorful European brands that wouldn’t be out of place in a major metropolitan city.

Pont du Gard as we made our way from Bonnieux, around Avignon, and over to the other side of the Rhône to our hotel outside Uzès, we stopped to see one of Provence’s most famous architecture sites. This stunning aqueduct is a feat of engineering, and classical beauty, and it’s hard to believe it dates back to the 1st century Romans who occupied the area. The Gardon river flowing underneath is beautiful, and was filled with kayakers, and the screeches of sun worshippers and cliff divers when we went. If you’re in the area, this is well worth a quick stop. Another tip: if you pass roadside cherry and apricot stands around here, STOP AND BUY SOME. The apricots in particular are a revelation compared to their dry, American cousins.

Uzès is stunningly beautiful, and retains vestiges of its rich Ducal past.  The Fenestrelle Tower is visible, like a not-so-leaning tower of Pisa, from all around the town, and the impressive Duchy D’Uzès boasts a shimmering coat of arms on the rooftop. (We didn’t have a chance to tour the Duchy, which is in use as a summer home of the current Duke, but its dungeon-turned-wine cellar and collection of royal family portraits dating back hundreds of years seem worth visiting with more time). Uzès has one of the more famous markets in the area (and Provençale markets are all incredible), so be sure to try to make the Saturday market in the Place aux Herbes, one of the most charming squares, in one of the most charming towns in Provence. We had a late afternoon snack at Les Terroirs, overlooking the square which hit the spot. Note: this is one of the few restaurants in the area with continuous service (most close between around 2:30-pm and dinner at 7pm, it was 4pm and we were famished and hard up to find something). The open faced grilled tartine with mushrooms was divine, as were the poached eggs in cream sauce, and the small dish of spiced lentils. We washed it all down with local rosé, naturally. La Glacerie next door is one of the better gelatos we’ve had in recent memory anywhere in Europe, with a larger than average selection of flavors. (We used to think you couldn’t get a bad gelato, but recently that view has changed with a few bad experiences, so we want to highlight particularly noteworthy examples). Bec à Vin is another restaurant on the square that came highly recommended, particularly for dinner, and Ma Cantine a few minutes walk away popped up on a few lists for French home cooking that is unpretentious and delicious.

Stay: We were spoiled because friends had rented a house in Provence for the week with an open invite, so we spent two days in the lap of luxury near the hilltop town of Ménerbes. If you can get a group of friends or family together, and book well in advance (we’re talking nine months in some cases), then a big villa can be a luxurious and economical option (assuming you split the cost with a full house). The beautifully restored, traditional Provençale house we stayed in had a gorgeous pool with unobstructed views of the Luberon, included daily cleaning, and had a variety of concierge level amenities available as add ons. One of the highlights was the dinner for twenty cooked by two local women who arrived early in the afternoon to prepare three courses that included scooped melons with prosciutto, fresh baked vegetable tartes, leg of lamb, tarte au citron, and host of other dishes. They filled the kitchen with the smell of cooking all day, served, cleaned, and left no trace of the feast that we ate under twinkling stars outside. It’s rare that we travel or stay with a large group, so this villa rental was a special experience though of course not a typical holiday for us. We would recommend Only Provence if this option does make sense for you.

The other place we stayed, and loved, was La Maison D’Ulysse just outside Uzès. We found this on our go-to hotel recommendation site: Mr. and Mrs. Smith for when we want to have a special boutique hotel experience. The hotel is absolutely beautiful, the old stone building has been immaculately restored, rooms are spacious and comfortable (with luxurious sheets and Bamford bath products), and the swimming pool with its wildflower landscaping is a dream. The best part perhaps, is the dinner every night cooked only for hotel guests in the open air courtyard, and prepared by the visiting chef of the season. The quality is high, but the service is absolutely unpretentious and accommodating. Co-owner Gauthier created a series of local walks with maps and directions, and we spent a beautiful morning working off our croissants on a three hour loop of the local wineries, and ruins of a local Duke’s castle. We absolutely loved our stay here, and would return on a future vist (as many of their guests do).

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