This so-called spring, which felt more like November, my daughter snagged $400 round-trip tickets to Paris. I had recently paid as much to visit family in Florida so, I reasoned, we could hardly not go. Shivering at home, we decided to head to Provence, in the sunny south of France.
Before kids, my husband and I had visited the south, renting a car that took us to Arles for Van Gogh; Avignon for that bridge; Pont du Gard for the Roman aqueduct; the Camargue for the wild horses; Chateauneuf-du-Pape for the wine; and Aix for some city sights.
This time, Megan and I decided to keep it simple as time was limited and we were traveling by train. After a night in Paris, we took the train to Aix, about a four-hour trip. Though drizzly in Paris, in Provence the sun shone brightly the entire week we were there. It’s a cliche worth repeating: There’s something about the light in Provence. Forever, the area has drawn artists and easels — we saw many — and when we were there in mid-June, darkness didn’t fall till after 10 p.m.
Provence is a feast for the senses. The colors seem brighter, from the intensely blue sky to the sun-drenched olive orchards, lavender fields, and vineyards. Then there’s the air, perfumed with lavender, herbs, and truffles, not to mention the boulangeries and fromageries, selling the freshest breads and pastries and the stinkiest, and tastiest, cheeses. Julia Child’s cottage is here in Grasse and is available for rent (for about $700 a night).
We stayed at an Airbnb apartment in the heart of old town Aix, a fifth-floor walkup. The rooftop patio, where we could look out over the city — and down on our neighbors — was about $120 a night.
Aix is where Cezanne was born and buried, and his footprints are everywhere. A self-guided tour starts at the huge fountain on the Rotonde, or rotary. The Cours Mirabeau is the main drag, lined with plane trees, cafes, and fountains. At 53 Cours Mirabeau, the Cafe de Deux Garcons was Cezanne’s favorite bar, where the waiters apparently still pride themselves on being rude — how very French.
Cezanne’s father had a hat shop next door, but it’s now a narrow space that leads to a great bistro, La Fromagerie du Passage, where we had a rich risotto and a killer Croque Monsieur. After that, we were too fat and full to climb the hill just north of old town to visit Cezanne’s studio, which has been kept just as he left it when he died in 1906.
But I felt somewhat redeemed the next day when I ordered a “Salade Cezanne” for lunch, lots of greens with prosciutto and a warm goat cheese tarte. There are wonderful markets throughout Provence, and we bought some of the lavender sachets, soaps, and herbes de Provence. The area is also known for its beautiful cotton tablecloths and napkins with floral prints.
One day, we booked a half-day trip to the Luberon for about $70 each. The Luberon is the mountain range and its medieval villages popularized by Peter Mayle’s memoir, “A Year in Provence,” and he and his wife still live there. Two other people — an American woman and her French husband — joined us in a van driven by our guide, who specialized in driving too fast and following too closely on curvy country roads that were once Roman paths.
About an hour later, we arrived at the hill village of Bonnieux, often called the most beautiful in France. Overlooking a green valley and its vineyards, the town is anchored by a 12th-century Romanesque church tower. Its 1,000 residents live in centuries-old stone cottages on narrow, cobblestone streets. Our guide told us that the 300-year-old cedar trees were imported from Syria at the time of Napoleon.
In Lourmarin, we learned that Camus lived here until he was killed in a car accident at age 46 in 1960. His gravestone at the local cemetery has just his name and dates on it. In Ansouis, a 10th-century fortress town, we stopped at Chateau Val Joanis for a wine-tasting at the family-owned vineyard. Grateful our driver didn’t drink.
Provence isn’t all light and lavender. France has long struggled with its Vichy past, preferring to ignore it rather than address it. And Provence lay at the heart of what was known as the unoccupied “Free Zone,” a puppet state of Nazi Germany.
Starting in 1939, Camp des Milles, a former brick factory, served as an internment camp for Germans and Austrian ex-pats, including Max Ernst and other artists and intellectuals who fled Hitler and took refuge in France. In 1942, the site became a deportation camp for Jews and “other undesirables,” and was the only one in France to deport its inmates, to Auschwitz.
In 2012, the camp, self-described as “a cog in the Nazi death machine,” was turned into a memorial site and museum. Megan and I took a bus from Aix, 15 minutes to the village of Les Milles. We were the only ones at the cavernous site, which still has art scribbled on its walls, including a heart with, “La Liberte, La Vie, La Paix” inside. Liberty, Life, Peace.
The story is told through video testimony from detainees, details of those deported, and films about Nazism and Vichy France and a reflection on how it all happened. But it also shines light on the Resistance, including a camp guard who helped several families escape, hiding some in his home.
The museum bookstore sells “The Devil in France: My Encounter With Him in the Summer of 1940,” by internee Lion Feuchtwanger, at the time a literary giant who left Germany when Hitler came to power and had been a devotee of French values. The site is a timely reminder of the horrors of fascism.
On another day, Megan and I hiked in the park of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the subject of many Cezanne works. It was a record 95 degrees that day, so we decided not to summit but rather follow a two-hour trail around a lake. But the trails were poorly marked and we took a few wrong turns.
We were out of water and soaked with sweat when we stumbled out of the park and into Le Relais Cezanne, a bar and restaurant once favored by the artist. We drank tons of water, and a glass of wine.
Burgundy and Bordeaux are world-famous for their wines, but Provence has its own, smaller reputation for wines, especially rosé. Megan and I decided to spend our last few days in Bandol, a charming town on the Mediterranean known for its beach and vineyards.
Getting to Bandol took less than an hour by train from Aix, including a changeover in Marseilles. The beach was a five-minute walk from our Hotel Provencal, run by a father and son who could not have been more helpful. The water was refreshing, but not yet warm. It’s the Cote D’Azur without the crowds, and we did not run into any other Americans.
One day, we took a 15-minute cab ride to Chateau Pibarnon, a vineyard recommended by friends back home. We brought some croissants to eat among the garden’s cypress, palm, and pine trees. Then it was time to taste. The young woman who poured told us the terroir was good for wine, because the sea and humidity moderate the land in the summer and protect it in the winter.
When our time was up, we hated to leave Provence, but at least we had one more night in Paris, a pretty good consolation prize indeed.
Bella English can be reached at email@example.com.