Arguably the most irresistible region in France, Provence ranges from the snow-capped mountains of the southern Alps to the gently sloping vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and boasts Europe's greatest canyon, the Gorges du Verdon. Fortified towns guard its ancient borders; countless villages perched on hilltops, and great cities like Arles, Aix and Avignon are full of cultural glories. The sensual inducements of Provence include sunshine, food, wine, and the heady perfumes of the Mediterranean vegetation. Small wonder it has for so long attracted the rich and famous, artistic and reclusive and ever-growing throngs of summer visitors.
Located in the Vaucluse, Hotel Crillon le Brave is the perfect stone built hilltop hideaway where you can enjoy all of the simple pleasures of Provence. The stylish design of this 36-room boutique hotel creates an air of relaxation, tranquility and casual luxury.
There is no shortage of things to do - you can borrow bikes and cruise through the nearby rolling vineyards, olive groves and peaceful villages. Spend a day by the outdoor heated pool with wonderful views of "the Giant of Provence", Mont Ventoux. Relax with a massage in the charming stone walled spa - they use all natural Provencal products. Or spend a few days exploring the nearby wine regions.
Packing tip - allow plenty of suitcase space for wine - Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Châteauneuf-du-Pape and other Rhône varieties abound!
Set at the foothills of the Alps, La Bastide de Moustiers is Alain Ducasse's romantic hillside hideaway. Ducasse has done his utmost to enable each guest to feel right at home. Along with its obligatory wow-factor restaurant, this upscale country inn showcases local craftsmanship from the sheets to the teacups. Stroll from the terrace to the swimming pool and through the 4 hectares of gardens. The surrounding area is equally spectacular - lavender fields, a dramatic gorge (Gorges du Verdon), limestone cliffs and the beautiful medieval village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie are sure to impress.
Set away from the famously pretty village of Tourtour, Domaine de la Baume is a divinely restored 18th-century guesthouse located between the Gorges du Verdon and the French Riviera. Once home to famed French Expressionist painter Bernard Buffet, this magnificent property boasts 99 acres of formal gardens, olive groves, woodlands and spectacular views over the sun drenched Var region. A waterfall, pool and garden paths lead on past fig trees, a horse paddock and a chapel.
The 15-room Domaine de la Baume is truly a work of art in Provence. Behind the ochre facade, each room is decorated with a theatrical eye and clever antique finds. Walls are covered with Toile de Jouy fabrics from Braquenie, floors are trompe-l'oeil and hexagon-tiled; and warm Provencal colours are painted inside and out: soft ochre, dusky pink, sky blue and pale orange.
Le Verger des Papes, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
After a morning of touring and tasting the great wines and wineries of Châteauneuf-du-Pape there is no better place to break for lunch than the long established Le Verger des Papes. It has a terrace that affords breathtaking views over the vineyards, valley and the Rhône river. Provencal cuisine, fine produce and local wines dominate the menu. Be sure to order the dish of the day and any of the local wines, trust me, you will not be disappointed - fresh, great quality and tastes wonderful. After lunch be sure to take a stroll around the ruined medieval castle that sits at the top of the village as it is right there!
Le Mas des Vignes, Bedoin
It's hard to imagine a more pleasant experience than dining at this marvelous restaurant. The large terrace is the perfect place to sip rosé champagne and watch the sunset over the Dentelles de Montmirail mountain range and the Provence countryside. The menu is simple and all the dishes are shockingly delightful. Definitely worth the trip for a special evening with a partner or friends. Best to make a reservation, also credit cards are not accepted so bring cash!
La Bastide de Moustiers (Alain Ducasse), Moustiers-Sainte-Marie
If you are lucky enough to get to La Bastide de Moustiers on a bright sunny day as we did, I can assure you that few experiences in life will be as pleasant as this. Set in a stunning location in the Provencal countryside, the restaurant delivered all that could be expected from a Michelin starred establishment.
The food is simply perfect - Alain Ducasse's name should suffice, as he is a celebrated chef with restaurants in select locations around the world. The menu changes every day, following the rhythm of the seasons and depending on what is ready to be gathered from the Bastide's garden. The atmosphere is relaxed with warm friendly staff and polished service. I could not think of a better way to while away the hours on a warm spring evening in Provence.
Grass, the perfume capital of the world, is located only 15 km away from Cannes, with its yachts, beaches and shopping. The French perfume industry began here in the 16th century and has been blossoming ever since. This beautiful little town proved ideal for the perfume trade due its sunshine and micro climate that facilitates the growth of the most delicate flowers. The principal parfumeries of Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard all offer guided visits that show the history of each house as well as the process of making perfume.
The old town is large, old and extremely interesting. Tiny streets wind forever between the 17th and 18th century buildings, up and down ancient steps, passing through arched tunnels and sometimes opening up into large squares.
Wine tasting and touring is one activity that cannot be missed on any trip to Provence. Historically known for light, drinkable rosé, they now also make some exciting red wines, with many young vignerons moving towards organic production. We visited several wineries and regions from the Rhône valley, Luberon and Bandol to Gigondas, Vaquerays and Beaumes de Venise.
We had two stand out tastings that are definitely worth a mention. The first was in Châteauneuf-du-Pape at the lovely Domaine du Banneret. Beautiful age worthy traditional wines from a tiny family run production. They grow 13 grape varieties over 3 hectares of vineyard which are spread out over 7 different parcels of land. They produce roughly 9,600 bottles per year (~ 800 cases), use the traditional method and put all their own labels on by hand! We were lucky enough to sample several sumptuous vintages from barrel and Madame Vidal was the perfect host.
Our second most amazing tasting was in AOC Ventoux at a beautiful little winery called Domaine du Tix. We sipped, swirled and chatted away the afternoon with proprietors Philippe Danel, who worked in textiles, and his wife Marie Pirsch, who worked in haute couture.
‘We had a lovely Paris apartment where we only saw each other once a week,’ Philippe recalls. So in 2001 they decided to retire, move to Provence and create a wine estate.
"Although I was a good taster I knew nothing about wine", said our charismatic and passionate proprietor.
The couple do the majority of the work themselves, and after 15 years of infinite effort, Domaine du Tix is a rising star in the Ventoux. The estates cool clay soils and north facing slopes produce a clean crisp Viognier, a light and fruity rosé and three delicious red blends (Bramefan, Garrigue and Dona Maria) made from Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault.
Avignon, Cité des Papes (City of Popes)
Avignon is ancient, full of history, life, youth, art, music and activity and it's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You could wander the narrow streets inside the fortified walls for days without ever tiring of them. Be sure not to miss the Place de l'Horloge, a long square in front of the Hotel de Ville, with terrace cafes and the 'Belle Époque' carrousel!
In the 14th century, Avignon was the seat of the papacy, as such, a wander through the Palais des Papes should be on everyone's to do list. One of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe, the palace is an austere-looking fortress that dominates the city, the surrounding ramparts and the remains of the Pont d'Avignon, a 12th-century bridge over the Rhône river.
No matter what day of the week it is you can usually find a village that is hosting a market. We went to several during our trip to Provence but my favourite was the Sunday market at L'Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue. Located in the idyllic Luberon, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue's Sunday market is one of the largest outdoor markets in Provence. It consists of a food market, flea market and antique market rolled into one, so you can by everything from olives to fine art.
The town of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue stretches across the Sorgue river earning it the nickname 'Venice of Provence' - and makes a very lovely backdrop to this large market with its shady trees, babbling river, historic waterwheels and flower filled riverside cafes and restaurants. The town is famous for being a big hub for antique dealers and is the second largest antique center in France (after Paris)!
Abbey de Sénanque
Located just outside the beautiful village of Gordes, the Abbey de Sénanque is a beautiful and still working 12th century abbey tucked away in an isolated valley in the Vaucluse. Stretching out from the abbey is a valley of lavender fields, which are in full flower and fragrance during the summer months of July and August. We visited the abbey in May and as such it was still a bit earlier for the flowers. The Cistercian monks who live at Sénanque tend to the beautiful lavender fields and honey bees for their livelihood.
Out of all the beautifully charming Provencal villages I visited during my holiday Moustiers-Sainte-Marie was one of my favourites. The village is considered one of the "most beautiful villages of France" and enjoys a gorgeous setting surrounded by the Gorges du Verdon, Lac de Sainte-Croix and the heady lavender fields of the Plateau de Valensole.
Moustiers has been at the center of the pottery trade for centuries and the village is packed full of shops selling the admittedly beautiful faïence ceramics - renowned for their fine decoration. Be sure to visit Atelier Soleil, they are one of the oldest ceramic studios in Moustiers (and my personal favourite) and offer an extensive range of forms and patterns from traditional to contemporary.
There are plenty of beautiful terrace cafes to relax on as well as a fair number of very good restaurants. There is a river stream that divides the town into two halves with a narrow rocky canyon. The sound of the river and the running fountains all over the village, give the town a slight Alpine feel.
A walk up to the Notre-Dame de Beauvoir chapel is an absolute must, it's perched high in a notch above the village and will give you fantastic views - from the terracotta-tiled roofs of the village to the expanse of the Maire valley, the far hills and the Lac de Sainte-Croix. The chapel is incredibly old and dates back to the time of Charlemagne in the 8th century, it was restored in the 12th and 16th centuries.
High above the town, a gold painted star hangs on a 225m long forged iron chain suspended between two cliffs. Its origin, according to legend, lies in the 10th century and was done as a promise by Sir Blacas, a knight who returned from a long captivity during the crusades. A hiking trail runs up the mountain to where the chain is anchored into the cliff and locals say that if you touch the chain it will bring you good luck.