Road Trip: Back Roads of Provence, France
Discover the arts, foods, crafts, and vistas that make this one of Europe's most inspiring regions.
If you drive slowly through the village of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on a weekday afternoon, things are so quiet you may hear the Provençal version of the proverbial pin drop: the cork popping off a wine bottle in one of the town's drowsy bistros. Come on a weekend, though, and you'll find parking so tight you may have to leave your own rental car on a country road and hike back into town.
Weekends are when the town's market and antique shops are open (in addition to the artisanal shops, also open on weekdays, that sell regional fabrics, ceramics, and foods, as well as chunky blocks of purple soap that distill the perfume of area lavender fields). And L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue isn't alone. Just about every village in Provence boasts its own workshops and boutiques dedicated to the local specialty, so a leisurely four-day drive through southern France offers the ultimate souvenir crawl. You can stop and start anywhere along the route. While you'll be taking in all the classic craft towns, don't call the circuit a shopping trip. You'll also be sampling a quintessential slice of Provence, as the two-lane rural back roads wind past olive groves, cherry orchards, vineyards, and the stony medieval hilltop towns. Even better, you'll be discovering one of the epicenters of authentic European artistry, and you'll be supporting an exuberant cultural legacy that still defines Provence.
Begin in Avignon
Start the Provençal version of a grand tour in Avignon. If you grab the two-and-a-half hour TGV express train from Paris's Gare de Lyon station (reserve your seat in advance) you'll be in Provence by noon. Once there, rent a car (try Europcar at the rail station). In town, order the prix fixe lunch (if you're lucky it will include the signature terrine of duck foie gras) on the terrace of the venerable Christian Etienne restaurant (10 rue de Mons, www.christian-etienne.fr) and then walk next door to the Popes' Palace where the Roman popes temporarily decamped in the 14th century. The Palace, stripped down to its austere bones during the French Revolution, is now a maze of elegantly unadorned chapels and banqueting halls. But it breaks loose with a very earthy surprise in the basement, where you'll find something you don't usually expect from a religious landmark: a wine cellar and sommelier. "Every spring all the best wine producers of the surrounding Côtes du Rhônes villages send us samples from their vineyards, " says sommelier Eric Sigmann, "and a panel of 30 experts chooses the best wines of the year. This year 350 samples were sent into us and we selected 63 of the most amazing wines to sell, at the producers' own prices."
Les Délices du Luberon
That kind of purist regard for Provençal artisanship is visible a few blocks away at Les Délices du Luberon (20 Place du Change; www.delices-du-luberon.fr/boutique_us/liste_rayons.cfm?code_lg=lg_us), along one of Avignon's crammed shopping streets, where jars of regional olives, olive oil, and tapenades include manager Magali Caire's favorite "tapenade noire a la Provencal" (a blend of black olives, anchovies, and garlic that pretty much squeezes the essence of the local table into one small jar).
From Avignon head 16 miles (25 kilometers) southeast on the N7 (then switching to the D907, the D900, and the D938) to L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue for another lesson in regional taste but come the day before the hectic Sunday market. Saturday is when Michel Biehn opens the doors of his Virginia creeper-covered townhouse cum shop, La Maison Biehn (7, avenue des 4 Otages), and lets you unfurl the region's best-edited collection of brightly colored Provençal textiles. "They're hand-blocked printed cotton called ‘les Indiennes' because they came from India through the port of Marseille, as early as the 16th century," says Biehn, the kind of passionate collector who has written books on the subject. "Suddenly even poor fishwives could dress in colors that used to be reserved for royalty. What a joy." Biehn stocks antique wedding quilts printed with garlands of flowers in the trademark Provençal colors—the purple of lavender, yellow of sunflowers, and gray-green of olive leaves—that made the area a muse for artists like Van Gogh, Matisse, and Cezanne. If the 18th-century originals are too pricey (and a good quality Venetian yellow quilt can easily run 2,000 euros) Biehn also continues the tradition by commissioning newly printed les Indiennes fabrics, pillows, shirts, and boutis—a quilted, three layer bedspread—splashed with the red poppies and yellow hibiscus that bloom near his window.
Continue heading east another 18 miles (28 kilometers) (take the D901 to the D900, then turn left on D149) to the hill town of Roussillon, a rose-colored beauty spot framed by red-ocher cliffs. Then prepare for the most dramatic drive, a 65-mile (104-kilometer) version of a carnival ride (follow the D900 through Apt, then switch to the N100, right on D907, right to D4, left on D82, and the remaining way on the D952) that leads you along narrow, corkscrew mountain roads, past the valleys and bluffs of the Alpes de Haute-Provence region, until you reach Moustiers-Ste-Marie. The village perches so precariously on its cliffside that it looks ready to tumble and splinter, though that's fitting; in a town known for its fragile craft—the vividly colored, glazed ceramic called faïence—everything seems breakable. How did the effete art form, a court-favorite at 18th-century Versailles, become synonymous with a rustic mountain village? "We had to work harder to produce the shiniest glaze because Moustiers was so small and remote," says Isabelle Bondil, who sells faithful faïence reproductions, thrown by her brother Philippe in his village workshop, at her family-owned Bondil a Moustiers shop (Place de l'Eglise). There are the traditional flowers, birds, and mythological scenes, painted on plates, vases, and urns, along with the Oriental figures favored by Marie Antoinette.
More contemporary, candy-colored faïence plates also land on the terrace tables of La Bastide de Moustiers (Chemin de Quinson, www.bastide-moustiers.com), a gourmet inn opened by global top chef Alain Ducasse. The rustic getaway settles on its own perch just below Moustiers and shows off another regional craft: the updated Provençal cuisine that chef Wilfrid Hocquet produces, working with the tomatoes—actually 42 varieties of them—that grow in the Bastide's own garden, along with the ripe local larder of eggplants, lamb, berries, goat cheeses, and seafood (if roasted langoustines pop up on the menu, order them).
La Bastide de Moustiers
The Bastide itself, a stone country house framed by olive groves, guarantees a hushed night's sleep before you head back west, 22 miles (35 kilometers) south of Avignon, to Les Baux-de-Provence (the 97-mile/156-kilometer route—the most direct—follows D952 west to E712, then E80 to N569, D113, D5, D17, and D27). Just outside Les Baux you will pass the Moulin Castelas (Le Mas de l'Olivier; www.castelas.com/GB/indexGB.html) olive grove, where you can pick up tins of the silky Castelas olive oil before you reach the town parking lot.
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Another vertical village, Les Baux-de-Provence, climbs up to the ville morte (the dead town), a former village from whose spectral fortress ruins the medieval lords of Baux once dominated more than 80 Provençal towns and cultivated a chivalric society famous for its troubadours and courtly etiquette. But not everything is embalmed here. Just below the ville morte is the newer (by Provencal standards) but still medieval, and fully alive, Les Baux, where you can fortify yourself with a lunch in the garden courtyard of Café des Baux (Rue Trencat). Don't stop there though, before your 22-mile (35-kilometer) drive back north to Avignon (taking the D27 to the D78F, the D17, the D33A, the D33, the D32, the D570N, and finally the N570). The best Les Baux landmark may be the Santons D'Arts (Rue de L'Orme) where the Peyron-Campagna family, including mother Jacqueline and son Fabrice, produce another local specialty. Santons, the terra-cotta, hand-painted miniature figurines that depict regional society, are made everywhere in Provence, and the studio's highlight is its clay women—a whole matriarchy of fishwives and dairy maids that will look oddly familiar after your long drive. That's because the cheese-makers, lavender vendors, and spinners echo the world of artisans you've just visited, as well as something more. They are also Jacqueline and Fabrice's unwitting self-portrait, the mirror of devoted craftspeople determined to keep passing on their own singular gift.
Spring, summer, and fall are all delightful times to visit Provence. For general information, see www.francetourism.com/practicalinfo/regionssoutheasternprovence.htm and www.provenceweb.fr/e/villages.htm. For driving maps, see www.viamichelin.com. See www.meteofrance.com for local weather conditions. The full 224-mile (360-kilometer) loop described above begins in Avignon, heads east through the villages of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Roussillon, and Moustiers-Ste-Marie, then circles back west through Les Baux-de-Provence to Avignon again.
—Text by Raphael Kadushin, adapted from National Geographic Traveler