Provence is a large and diverse region, but when Americans come to visit it for the first time, we generally take them to the perfectly propped world of Peter Mayle: the Luberon, in the Vaucluse department.
Who wouldn’t love it? A landscape silver with olive trees, spiked with deep green cypress, highlighted with fragrant lavender. A wind-whipped land of dry gray stone and sandy soil. The perched villages are dense with charm and polished to perfection, their roses and boxwoods clipped and ready, preening for the adoring tourists.
The area is rich with history and flush with money from the American and European expats and a generous sprinkling of celebrities lucky enough to create their private retreats here. The restaurants are gourmet, the shops are chic. And yet, as I toured villages like Menerbes, Bonnieux, Lacoste, and Oppède-le-Vieux with two girlfriends this week, we found that even in June, the villages were lazy and not overly crowded, and the spirit of French joie de vivre was alive and well in the languid (i.e. hot) air. While many of the towns are renovated to within an inch of their historic lives, they still retain their faded beauty. Provence is over-developed in some places, but here, the rural flavor prevails. We quickly surrendered to its charms.
If you too are going to Provence for the first time, the above list of perched villages is a good one, and you might add Gordes and Roussillon. Or veer just a bit off the well-worn path to Venasque, home to one of our favorite restaurants of the week, Les Remparts, with its stunning view over the valley. Visit the town of Goult as well, and walk the winding road past the château to the top of the village, where an old windmill is a delightful surprise. Goult is small but chock full of good restaurants and cafés. To discover the grittier side of Provence, you'll need to venture furthur afield.
When we go to Provence, I always have the same thought when we arrive: Hmm, why didn’t we move HERE! (there are many reasons, actually, but that’s a post for another day). But after a couple of days, I’m always eager to get back to the more rustic Burgundy. Our little corner is lovely, lush and green, ancient and authentic, and a tourist destination for those who want to dig a bit deeper into La France profonde. Provence is heavenly—but Burgundy is home.
Photo: Back in Burgundy, that's me in the center, with my Charleston traveling buddies, Darlene and Sandi.
More posts on Provence in the coming weeks: "A Dangerous Town in Provence”, and “Pourquoi pas? Buy Yourself an Entire Provençal Village”.
In the Comments: Not to be missed is Rachel's recipe for Sour Cherry Cobbler with vanilla ice cream. Rachel cooks at the blog, And Then Make Soup. Jetagain is making clafouti in Wisconsin, and Natalia shares a simple way to make cherry compote. As to the simple life, Jan of Speaking of France is basically feeding the birds with her cherries, and Chris of Pen at the Ready eats them the very best way: under the tree, colander in lap.