Jon and I, along with Anthony and Sara, rented a house for a week in the heart of the Rhone wine country, in a town called Cairanne (pop. 865, no joke). The house sat in the middle of a working vineyard (Domaine de l’Ameillaud) and had a pretty exterior and a modern and comfy interior. I’d highly recommend renting this place.
I landed at Marseilles airport after a lovely red-eye from Boston to Paris and then another flight from Paris to Marseilles. It was a sunny and 75-degree day outside, and Jon was at the airport to pick me up. A sight for sore eyes!
We drove along the coast for a little while and then turned north to Cairanne. On the way, we stopped at Orange, which had a market day that day, a Thursday. We picked up a snazzy Provencal-patterned tablecloth for just 15 euros, and we stocked up on fresh produce to cook up that night.
The outdoor markets in Provence are *not* overrated. They’re so colorful and picturesque that you’re tempted to think they’re set up just for tourists, but then you see all the fresh produce and useful everyday items being sold (peelers, colanders, sponges, etc. – things of minimal use for most tourists), and it’s clear that locals must still shop at these markets.
The house in Cairanne was beautiful. With views of Rhone vineyards and of mountains in the distance, it was definitely the getaway I had pictured and looked forward to. And did I mention the swimming pool?
After hanging out at the house a little while so I could nap and recover from my cross-Atlantic flight, Jon and I visited another pretty town called Vaison la Romaine, about 20 minutes away by car. We walked around the “Puyman” Roman ruins, which weren’t too much to see. Still, even though they weren’t nearly as interesting as the ones in Arles, it was cool that this dinky town had a few on offer. Could you imagine some random town in New Jersey offering Roman ruins for tour? All we had growing up in NJ was Jockey Hollow, which is cool, but no Roman ruins.
We had a better time walking around the town’s winding, shady, cobbled Medieval streets lined with homes covered in bright flowering vines.
We stopped for an ice cream, Orangina and crepe sucre at Halte Gourmande (rue des fours, Cite Medievale, 84110 Vaison), which had pretty outdoor seats and umbrellas shielding us from the warm, late afternoon sun. There was much well-being as I enjoyed my Orangina (shake it!).
The next day, a Friday, our handy market calendar told us that we’d find market day in Carpentras, so that’s where we headed in our trusty Renault rental. The town was just 20 km away from Cairanne, so we reached the town in just 25 minutes, but it took another 15 minutes to find parking. I can’t imagine what a madhouse it is in the height of summertime. We ended up having to park with half our wheels up on a curb – just imitating the French drivers.
Anyway, there was a lot of produce, herbs, textiles and soaps for sale (along with the usual low-quality kitchen gadgets). Being a tourist, I’m drawn to the tablecloths, the problem being there are only so many tablecloths you need, and only so many your friends want as gifts.
One guy was selling a cheap-and-cheerful table cloth for 20 euros, but the competitive bidder in me wanted to bargain it down to 15 euros, and Jon had only 50-euro bills (stupid ATMs). I thought it would look bad if we handed the guy a 50-euro bill after bargaining things down to 15, even if it is still a fair price. Lesson learned – when going to market, bring small bills.
So we didn’t buy much besides a few noix (I’m addicted to unshelled walnuts from Grenoble ever since visiting our friends Jeff and Bridgette in Lyon) and produce-type goodies for lunch.
We drove to Beaume de Venise thinking we would find someplace yummy to eat lunch (after all, it’s famous for its dessert wines), but everything looked closed except some big, touristy-looking café that seemed to have anything and everything on its menu. So we passed on Beaume and drove back through Aubagne to reach a “Shopi” brand supermarket, whose big gimmick is “ouvert le lundi!” (Translation: Open on Mondays!) Bragging about the fact that you’re actually open on Mondays is so French.
For such a big chain supermarket, it was surprisingly lacking in choices. For example, there were no red onions, and when we searched for balsamic vinegar with which to make salad dressing, we had very few choices – mostly giant bottles of generic brand dressings. So we skipped the dressing and picked up a good jar of mustard instead. People must buy these fancy things at the markets?
Back at the house in Cairanne, we made ourselves quite the lunch. Well, correction, Jon did the cooking while I hung laundry outside on an actual clothesline in the bright sunshine. I could have been on a Tide commercial – in the warm Provencal sunshine, even hanging your laundry is a treat.
We spent the rest of the afternoon reading, snacking and slurping down cold drinks (more Orangina, anyone?) at the Café de la Place, which is one of two cafes on the one tiny square in Cairanne. Still, even tiny little Cairanne has a government-sponsored Tourist Information office in the town square.
We left our prime café table around 8 p.m. to drive to Seguret, about 9 km away, to find Bastide Bleu, a mid-range restaurant recommended by the owners of the Cairanne house. But when we reached Seguret (after a gorgeous drive through vineyards lit up by a setting sun), we couldn’t find the restaurant.
Seguret, however, is a really gorgeous town – perched high up on a hill and full of cobbled, winding streets. It reminded me of Eze, except a lot less jetset, in a good way. You imagined some band of religious heretics holing up in Seguret and defending themselves against crusaders for years in a desperate fight to the last. Well, OK, maybe that’s just me. Or anyone who has just read Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth. [No, not *that* Kate Moss.]
We ended up sitting down at an elegant place called Le Mesclun (rue des Poternes, 84110 Seguret, 04.90.46.93.43). We were drawn by the menu offerings and also by the beautiful garden dining area, which was lit by candles and lanterns. It was the perfect place to watch the sun set. The place was also full of French speakers, which was a treat and a reassuring sign.
I ordered from a 37-euro prix fixe menu that included a starter of langoustines and white asparagus; a delicious cut of lamb (baron d’agneau); a palate cleanser of orange marmalade-y stuff topped with whipped cream accompanied by a chaser of orange vodka and cassis); and ending with a really yummy and visually-fantastic trio of chocolate mousse (with bits of cherry?), a still-piping-hot mini chocolate soufflé, and an intense kiwi sorbet. All three desserts were served in pretty, creative-looking china and topped with a delicate, crunchy lace of burned sugar.
Jon’s 32 euro prix fixe menu included a so-so taboule; a delicious guinea fowl served in a cassoulet (braised); and a tarte tatin that included some really ripe, juicy fruits besides apple. We shared a half bottle of the local gigondas, a bottle of water, and Jon had a coffee. Even his coffee was a big “to do” (see above photo). Our total for all this excellent food was 101 euros. Amazing. This meal was money well spent.
On the map we used, the Luberon was labelled a big national park area, but it’s not a park in the way we understand it in the U.S. First, there are a whole lot of inhabited towns (villages, is a better word) in the Luberon. The part we drove around in for half a day was pretty hilly and green. Maybe we didn’t go far enough into the Luberon, but from what I could tell, while the Luberon was really picturesque, it seemed no prettier than the area we’d just left behind around Cairanne.
We started off by heading west to Cavaillon on the western border of the Luberon. As we headed east along the N7 through scenic mountain towns like Oppede le Vieux, I realized the beauty of the area is in the medieval, crumbling tan-colored towns set against the green Luberon mountains.
We headed only as far east as Menerbes, which is the small town Peter Mayle made so famous that it should probably be renamed after him. Mayleville actually could sound French, don’t you think? I, in a very original manner, kept wondering which scenic villa was his. [Peter Mayle has apparently moved away because of all the annoying people like us who look for his villa in Menerbes.]
Jon and I ate lunch picnicking on the steps of a local museum dedicated to a painter/photographer who lived in Menerbes. Every French couple that walked by wished us “bon appetit,” whereas the one or two Brit or American couples who came by hardly answered Jon’s very hearty “bonjour.”
We had quite the feast – more of the fresh cherries from Cairanne, walnuts, saucisson, fresh bread, cheeses, leftover rotisserie chicken, spicy Dijon mustard.We walked to the top of Menerbes in the intense late afternoon sun. You could feel the sleepy siesta time everywhere. Nobody but the occasional tourist was in the streets. The ruins at the top of the town were private property, and the 12th century church looked desolate in the dry sun. You could feel how this part of France has a lot more in common with Chianti than it does with Paris.
We got back in our car and headed out to St. Remy de Provence, driving along a stretch of beautiful road that was covered on both sides by arches of trees (see photo at left). It reminded me of Oak Alley, but with some other type of tree (plane trees?).
In St. Remy, we stayed at the Mas de Figues (translated unpoetically by yours truly: the fig farmhouse), Chemin Vieux d’Arles, which was about 5 km down a series of winding lanes and paths (les chemins). I thought it was kind of ridiculous that we had to wait in the car for a very fussy gate (code: 1717A, for anyone who wants to know), but whatever. All about the drama of the gate opening, maybe.
The farmhouse is very pretty on the outside, surrounded by beautifully-landscaped gardens of lavender and rhododendrons. There are horses moseying around and a big swimming pool in the back. But despite all this, I wouldn’t recommend staying here – our room kind of smelled. It’s unclear why. Everything looked clean, which made it even more disturbing that our room rather stank. Good thing we stayed only one night.
St. Remy’s claim to fame is that Nostradamus was born here and Vincent Van Gogh painted while stuck in the asylum in town. For me, the appeal of St. Remy is that it’s really small, walkable and has a high number of fancy stores despite its small size and slow-going feeling. There’s a giant Occitane store, which was probably a big deal before Occitane showed up at the Paramus mall (not that I have a problem with the Paramus mall), an even bigger “O & co.” store (how nice to have all your olive oil products in one roof, though same deal as Occitane as far as dilution of specialness thanks to mall diaspora phenomenon) and even a Villebrequin (what man doesn’t need $160 floral nylon swimming trunks?).
Jon and I watched a wedding party and guests arrive at the square in front of the town hall at the bottom of the city center. Then after the wedding party disappeared into the town hall for party time, the square morphed into an odd celebration of German-French relations. The speeches were interminable, but Jon and I had scored a cushy park bench, so we were just reading and dozing off during the speeches and enjoying the local color.
There were folks dressed up in “traditional” Provencal outfits and playing some old-sounding instruments. One guy in particular was way too into the performance, hopping around on his feet and twirling his instrument in all directions, but we figured he probably never gets to bust out with that thing. So he clearly made the most of it.
We ate dinner at 9 p.m. at L’Olivade restaurant on rue de Chateau, mostly because the outdoor seating area looked so comfy and inviting. Our meal was alright – not particularly good. We sat next to a French couple that chain smoked their way through dinner, which didn’t make things better. My chevre chaud could have been more tangy, instead of just blandly warm and creamy, and my duck was drowning in an overpowering “honey sauce.” Jon’s duck confit was slightly better, and both of us had potatoes gratinee that had been under a heat lamp. Ah well, we’re just dumb tourists. Next time we’re in St. Remy, we’ll do some research on where to eat.
The highlight of our stay in St. Remy was definitely the dancing in the street we encountered after leaving dinner. For reasons unclear to us, there was a three-person band at a big intersection near the bottom of town. YMCA sung in French was never so fun. And hearing “zat’s zee way ah lak it” (aka That’s the Way I Like It) was classic.
For such a small town, Arles has a lot going on. I always like to check out the postcards sold by tourist shops to get a feel for what a town has to offer, and in Arles, there are tons of photos of cool-looking Roman ruins, museums and all things related to Van Gogh, who painted Café Terrace at Night and L’Arlesienne while living in Arles.
For 13.50 euros a person, you can buy a combo ticket that lets you see all the Roman ruins in Arles (of which there are a surprisingly high number) and pretty spots like the Cloitre St. Trophime (Cloister of St. Trophimus). I was surprised that the cloister looked exactly the same as it did 7 years ago when I last visited it. But why shouldn’t it, really – I mean, it’s been the same for hundreds of years, so what’s 7 years going to change?
Another Arles highlight I enjoy is the Roman arena. It’s nowhere near as huge as the one in Rome, but (1) it’s been restored and is in working condition; and (2) it reminds you that Rome meant business when it controlled the continent. I like to think about the effort involved in making sure every far-flung outpost of the empire would be stamped with Roman institutions like an arena (not to mention a theatre and thermal baths, the ruins of which you can also see in Arles).~~~