When: 6-10 June 2017
Who: Liane, Mark, Jerome and I
Once we landed in Marseille, it hit me straight away: the strong sun that burns your skin even though it’s only 8 in the morning, the pleasant heat that embraces your whole body and this familiar, sweet scent of the air that brings back all the good memories of previous summer holidays… It was official. We had made it to Provence! I knew that another amazing trip was about to start and that for the next 4 days I wouldn’t be able to wipe the smile off my face.
Situated only 30 min away from the airport in Marseille, Aix-en-Provence seemed to be the most convenient spot to meet up for brunch with our holiday companions, Liane and Mark. The city welcomed us with an elegant, southern French atmosphere. We could feel it while strolling down the narrow streets paved with stones and lined with tall, sandy coloured residential buildings, protected by shutters from the merciless sun. It was in the vibrant sounds of the accordion played somewhere in the distance by a street musician, and in the éclairs wonderfully presented in the bakeries’ windows. But the most palpable feeling, was found in the city’s famous cours Mirabeau, lined with cafes where people were sipping chilled wine while listening to the soothing babble of the moss-covered fountains. We sat by the table in the Brasserie Le Grillon to join the crowd in their lazy morning ritual.
While enjoying our brunch, we were mulling over the most entertaining itinerary for the rest of the day. After all, the stop in Aix was only a prelude to all the other places that we (I?) wanted to visit in Provence and our time in the city was inexorably coming to an end. The decision was made to head to Orange. The home of the best preserved Roman theatre in Europe, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage site. Exciting! One hour later we found ourselves in front of the impossible to miss, 103 m long and 37 m high stone wall – the hallmark of the theatre. The condition of the structure was so good, and the size of it so intimidating, that it didn’t initially occur to me what this place had gone through over the centuries. And it had gone through a lot! Built in the 1st century AD under the reign of Emperor Augustus the theatre served as a centre of culture and entertainment. That was until the 4th century when Christianity became the main religion and forbid ‘immoral’ spectacles. Surely pantomimes and poetry readings were the devil’s amusements… Closed to the public, the theatre had been abandoned, and gradually stripped of its best features. Over the following centuries it was used as a defensive post, a refuge, and even as a prison. Eventually the theatre even became encumbered by houses that were built within its walls. I could hardly believe that after such a turbulent history I was still able to walk around, touch the walls, and admire these impressive remnants of the Roman Empire. And not only that. Apart from being open to visitors hungry for history, the theatre continues its ancient role as a cultural venue. Can you imagine listening to music here, surrounded by the 2000 year old walls?
After a culturally stimulating afternoon in Orange, we needed something to keep our holiday nicely balanced. Wine tasting seemed like the only reasonable counterweight. There are plenty of wineries in Provence but we specifically wanted to go to Chateauneuf-du-Pape – a region famous for the production of red wine. Well, that’s to say, famous to wine enthusiasts – wine not being the most popular alcohol beverage in Poland! The variety apparently known by everyone is classified as Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC (Appellation d’origine controlee) and can be produced from thirteen different varieties of grape, but the blend must be predominantly composed of Grenache. Knowing a little bit of the theory about a wine, its origin and composition, is definitely a good thing but let’s be honest, at the end of the day, what matters is whether you enjoy the wine. In the centre of the village, in a place called Maison des Vins, we were to decide for ourselves. Sampling one wine after another, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about with Chateauneuf-du-Pape. I know, I’m not a wine connoisseur, but I was pretty sure that descriptions like: ‘has a strange aftertaste’, ‘soapy’, ‘with a bitter finish’ didn’t refer to the best wine I have ever sampled. Maybe my palate hasn’t matured enough to appreciate the widely recognized quality of wines from this region. Therefore, my take home message from this tasting was to drink more wine and train my palate more…
With new experiences, and few bottles of wine, we headed off to Apt. This little town is situated in the middle of the Luberon Nature Park, close to many local attractions. The location of the town, although very convenient, was of secondary importance when we decided to stay there. What really stole our hearts, was the very French villa that we found on Airbnb – Chambre dans le Luberon (CALADE).Upon our arrival it turned out that the pictures in no way reflected how beautiful and romantic this place was. Marie, our host, showed us around. Blue shutters, beautifully presented against the backdrop of the main house, caught my attention. They just couldn’t look any more French and I immediately felt like one of the characters from “A Good Year” starring Marion Cotillard. Interestingly, the movie was filmed throughout the Luberon area! I know now where my impression of Provence came from. We sat in a little patio area that was sheltered from the sun, and offered the perfect spot to relax with a glass of wine. I stopped for a second to admire the colourful, flowery garden that was in front of us. From there, the afternoon rays were flickering on the surface of the water in the pool. I couldn’t wait to jump in. Were we in paradise? I went to our room where the smell of lavender reminded me again that we were ‘only’ in Provence.
A great day like this deserved an epic finish. Les P’tits Lilou, a tiny restaurant off the Place de la Bouquerie stepped up to the plate. A splash of rosé began an evening full of typical French meaty specialities: charcuterie board, beef tartare and steaks. All washed down with a diverse selection of wines, and eventually topped off with Cognac, crème caramel, crème brûlée and other variations of these delicious desserts. It took us a little while to regain the waiter’s trust after having not ordered anything to eat within the first 5 minutes of taking the table. But once the trust was regained, he was the best waiter ever. “Don’t mess with a French waiter” was my second, and last, take home message that day.
Apt Saturday Market
The early bird catches the… Saturday market in Apt! Of course, not without having breakfast first. Another day in Provence had started, and while sipping freshly brewed coffee, I had to decide which one of 6 home-made jams I should try first and whether to combine it with a croissant, white or brown bread or maybe just simply go for a pain au-chocolate. Yes, these are the decisions that you need to make on holiday. I looked at the landscape that stretched in front of me and decided to go for cheese and ham first.
Quite possibly I was able to spend my entire morning munching on everything that was on the table, but the market wouldn’t wait for us, as it only opened until 12:30 pm. Why did we have to hurry? Because we wanted to see a market that was considered one of the top 10 markets in France and the biggest of Luberon’s weekly markets having been going for about 900 years. Ambling amongst the colourful stalls offering food, herbs, table cloths and many other local products, we completely lost our sense of direction. There was no end to the narrow streets filled with traders willingly giving away free samples of their products and inviting you to their stalls. Saturday market in Apt is a wonderland to food lovers and God only knows what happens to the individuals that decide to go there on an empty stomach. It was tough enough for me to stop myself from buying everything I set my eyes on.
La Cave Sylla
One of the most important objectives during our Provencal getaway was, of course, wine tasting. Last year during our wine tour (you can read about it here), we stopped in La Chablisienne, where we had a chance to sample a variety of wines supplied by different producers from the Chablis region. This year, the Cave Sylla in Apt, offered us similar experience. With some hundred winemakers grouped together, selling their products under the brand ‘Les Vins de Sylla’, this cave was a jackpot. White, rosé, red – the colours in our glasses were changing from pale straw, through pink to deep purple while we were trying to assess the aromas and differentiate all the flavours that the wines were leaving on our taste buds. The number of wines that we tried was mountainous. Actually, and it’s not my intention to look a gift horse in the mouth, after sampling the 15th wine I started to fear that we would never finish that tasting. On my 19th glass I had to stop. Given that I’m not a wine drinker, I still think I did pretty well. La Cave Sylla is definitely worth a recommendation!
Between a great morning spent in the famous Apt market and even better afternoon in La Cave Sylla, we managed to tick off my bucket list a place, that I was waiting to see for almost 4 years. Long awaited Notre-Dame de Senanque abbey was finally at my fingertips! But hey, I’m not going to tell you everything at one go! More about this, and other Pearls of Provence, in my next post!