Just Back: Provence

Barbara A. Noe oversees the creation of National Geographic’s travel books—and every now and again has the opportunity to write them. She recently returned from a trip to Provence and the French Riviera on assignment to update Nat Geo Travel’s guidebook to the region.

Here are some of the high points of her trip, in her own words:

Memorable moment: The Camargue is storied for its white horses with long flowing tails. I had the opportunity to ride one with veritable gardians (Provençal cowboys) through the romantic manade (ranch) landscape. I’m not a big equestrian, and Caravel, my horse, knew it and took every opportunity to clamber off the trail into the marsh to munch on grass. At one point we entered a bullpen with a long row of horned black bulls eying me curiously. Thankfully, Caravel didn’t throw me to the ground, though I know he was pondering the thought. We clomped through sucking mud, finally finding ourselves at the edge of Étang de Vaccarés, and I was treated to one of the most glorious scenes I’ve ever seen: the metallic-sparkling water, egrets flitting about. Absolutely breathtaking.

Authentic souvenir: Everyone buys the lavender goods—sachets, oil, and the like. And they should. But fleur de sel, or flower of salt, is a highly prized souvenir from the Camargue region. Williams-Sonoma back in the U.S. sells it for upwards of $15 a jar. You can get it at Monoprix’s food section for about a third of the price.

Stand-out culinary experience: I stayed at the Bastide de Voulonne in Cabrières d’Avignon in the Luberon, and decided to have dinner there that evening (only overnight guests have the privilege). Boy, did I luck out. For 38 euros, I was treated to a four-course meal created from the pick of the day’s farm markets. After an apéritif of local sparkling rosé, we started with beef terrine, followed by the freshest cod I’ve ever tasted served over a bed of spinach and topped with not one but two sauces: pesto and cod bisque, all made from scratch. This was followed by three varieties of regional goat cheese accompanied with lavender honey and crème brûlée for dessert. Turns out the inn’s chef trained with Alain Ducasse in Monaco, but decided it was important to stay close to home with his growing family. What a find!

Best place ever: Café de France, in the hilltop village of Lacoste, is a terrace restaurant overlooking the Luberon’s patchwork of fields and pocket woods, with the hilltop town of Bonnieux rising in medieval glory in the distance. I’ve been to this café several times and have always loved it, but this time my husband joined me for an absolutely delicious déjeuner of salad made from the freshest local ingredients and a glass of rosé (naturally). I could sit there and stare at the landscape forever.

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