Sep 3, 2008
Even people who have never been to Provence, France probably have a pretty good idea about what it looks like; images of the lovely region in Southeast France are everywhere at home. Nashville has a chain of bakeries with the Provence moniker, and of course there’s the fancy soap and lotion store that you can find in almost every shopping mall (and, as it turns out, in countless upscale shopping areas around the world) called L’Occitane en Provence. Whether they’re selling bread or bubble bath, the stores conjure up images of fields of lavender, stone houses with colorful shutters and a world painted in yellows, blues and purples.
After spending a few days in Provence itself, we can say with conviction that, if you make a trip there and that’s what you’re expecting to see, you probably won’t be disappointed. (Just make sure you go in late spring or early summer, before the lavender is harvested. We got there too late and saw only the fields where the purple stuff once grew.) An old Provence motto advises people to move “slowly in the morning and not too fast in the afternoon.” Whoever said that would be proud of us; we certainly took it to heart while we were there.
We spent most of our time in Provence meandering through small villages in hopes of getting a taste of the “real Provence.” In Carpentras, we browsed through the morning market, sampling local cheese and sausage and stocking up on lavender-scented soaps. In tiny Oppede le Vieux, we hiked back to ancient ruins and had a long lunch at what looked to be the only cafe in town. In Menerbes, we wandered along cobblestone streets and happened upon a magical little garden that allowed us a stunning view of the area’s rolling hills. In Gordes, we stopped to see the Senanque Abbey, home of monks who live in simplicity and silence and earn their keep by growing lavender and tending honeybees. And in Chateauneuf du-Pape, we sampled some of the wines that have made the town famous the world over. Delicious.
We also spent a lazy afternoon in Avignon, which from 1309 to 1377 was the seat of a papacy that had temporarily relocated from Rome. Seven popes in all reigned from Avignon’s extraordinary Palace of the Popes, an imposing fortress made of interconnecting towers that looks out over the hustle and bustle of the town below. And the town itself is unendingly charming, full of museums, boutiques, sidewalk cafes and even a carousel to entertain the masses of tourists who wander its streets.
We fell so in love with Provence while we were there that I wouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves wandering into the bakeries and shops at home that have adopted its name, hoping for another little taste of the places we enjoyed so much.