Tuesday, July 31, 2012


The Valensole Plateau is filled with rolling fields of lavender that seem to go on for ages. The smell is incredible, the color is so vibrant, and perhaps it's the aromatherapy, perhaps it's just the way of life, but everything feels so relaxed. That is certainly one thing I think the French have a knack for - enjoying life and taking time to appreciate the seemingly small everyday details.
Since it wouldn't be a proper mid-July without markets and festivals, there was also a lavender festival in Valensole.

We watched a man distill lavender oil on the town square, they gave free bundles of lavender to visitors, and lavender was used in a variety of foods available for purchase from chocolates and ice cream all the way to pâté. There was even a parade and group of people dressed in lavender, which is a sight you don't often see. They clearly take it seriously and it made me wonder where they are able to find so many uniquely colored accessories.

My favorite purchase was some edible lavender oil, which can be used in cooking (or making ice cream).
Before our trip I wasn't aware there is also something called lavandin, which is a cheaper species, but we were schooled in all of it. All of the fields have a steady hum of insects.

As we drove through the fields we stopped to take photos (thanks to our gorilla pod and remote)... kind of like nature meets photo booth.

Both of these also came in hand later in the evening, because we stayed in Allemagne-en-Provence and there were galaxies visible above with the naked eye. So many stars! There were things moving high up there and it made me feel very tiny. I don't really have great lenses for night photography, but with my trigger release I could at least capture some of it.

The home we stayed at was gorgeous - complete with a beautiful pool. It was a bit chilly when we arrived, so we just dipped our feet in. It was the perfect setting to make me think about cashing in city life for a fleeting moment.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Bonnieux + Cucuron

If you've ever seen the movie "A Good Year" you'll recognize some of the beauty of Provence. Outside Bonnieux is the home where it was filmed, which is a functioning winery, however they certainly used some good camera angles or different vineyards to make it look much more sprawling. It was a Sunday, so it wasn't open for tastings and visits, but I'm sure it is gorgeous.
The square of Cucuron is also featured in the movie. We stopped through both villages - Bonnieux for a walk through their steep streets and to visit their flea market and Cucuron for a lovely lunch.

Grab a bottle of rosé, some goat cheese drizzled with honey and thyme, and a great baguette to watch the movie and be transported to the beautiful area. Provence is one of the most picturesque and relaxing places I think we've ever been. Just wait until you see more of those lavender fields! 

Sunday, July 29, 2012


Aix is home to the biggest Bastille day celebration in the area, so we drove down to see how people celebrate. It's nice to visit a place during local holidays, especially when there's a patriotic twist.
It was a rather warm evening, as proven by this adorable French bulldog who was cooling off in the fountain. Random fact of the day: did you know they have to be born through a caesarean section?
We wandered the streets and enjoyed the ambiance. I was happy to visit area landmarks: the Place des Quatre Dauphins and Cours Mirabeau. Along the way there were picturesque movie theaters and people enjoying a quiet evening with friends and family.

Once again we were charmed by the city and the food. We stopped for an early geriatric timed dinner and stumbled upon La Tomate Vert, which proved to be an excellent choice. Even though it was fully booked for the evening sometimes it pays to eat like old people.

We both opted for the menu, which is a 3 course prix fixe. Stefan ordered a steak that came with the very best French fries I've ever had in my life.

 My favorite dish of the evening were tomatoes filled with shrimp. While at the restaurant we picked up the Carnet Gourmand. It profiles other restaurants with similar standards and I'm looking forward to putting it to use again. They also have an app, if you're on the way to France and would like a copy.

We drove back to Apt just in time to catch the fireworks, because in the morning we had several stops to Bonnieux, Cucuron, and Valensole to finally see some serious lavender fields.

[Side note: there's a really incredible app called iFontMaker, which allows you to make your own font with your handwriting, like I did here. Hands down one of my favorites.] 

Saturday, July 28, 2012


One place not to miss in Provence is Roussillon and Le Sentier des Ocres for some striking natural beauty. There's evidently a rather violent legend explaining why the earth is colored with vibrant reds... it entails love, a blood bath, and now we can all appreciate the beauty of the iron hydroxide 110 million years later.
The contrast between the orange and red tones and the green trees and foliage is beautiful. I'd be curious how much it changes during the Autumn and Winter months.
Roussillon is another of "Les plus Beaux Villages de France" and it's as if the entire city has been splashed with terracotta paint. If you visit, make sure you stop at the ice cream shop right near the entrance and try the lavender ice cream - it's fantastic!
The vibrate colors are incredible and stained everything from the feet of several children who were running through to canvases of tourists who could purchase the pigments at nearby shops.

Friday, July 27, 2012


As luck would have it there was a Saturday flea market in nearby Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, which took up the entire city.
While strolling through the streets I debated on getting several of the large classroom maps - one even had Munich on it, but with no specific place to put them I decided to leave them behind.

I would have also wanted to take the adorable Bernese Mountain pup back home, but he already had a family. We're really looking forward to the day when we can get a dog and we have a short list of names, but the frontrunner is Isar (the river that flows through Munich). 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Villages of Provence

Along one of our afternoon drives we visited Gordes, which is a popular city due to its picturesque cliffside terraces and homes.
While it is a charming city, it is better viewed from one of the nearby view points to get the full effect.
Impressive, right? 
Not far away and down another very steep hill is the Abbaye de Sénanque, which is one of the most photographed lavender fields. We seemed to have arrived at the perfect time - between tour busses and when the light was shining in just such a way that it appeared to be glowing.
As we walked through the field we noticed the subtle hum that is the background noise of the insects hard at work. I also read to be cautious of snakes hiding at the base of the lavender plants, however we didn't see any during our visits to several fields.
We concluded our day with one of the most spectacular meals at a working goat and pig farm. It was a communal style dinner with about 20 guests.

I was anxious to see how this would work out, because I had called for reservations several weeks prior. I stumbled through my broken French only to discover the man on the other end spoke Italian, as he uttered "Mama Mia!" and promptly handed the phone to someone else. Struggling to get through the it without hysterically laughing at how ridiculous a phone call without a common language is, I said, "Treize" and then "Tredici - Tray-dee-chee!" as Stefan looked on. We hoped for the best and considered asking our native speaking friends to make reservations next time.
It was all worth it in the end, because hidden down a dusty dirt road is this adorable little place. We were fortunate that one of our fellow dinner mates was a German woman who speaks nearly every language under the sun so she was able to give us some history on the place. It just so happened she was a writer for a French men's fashion magazine years before and had done a piece about the farm. She fell in love with Provence and later moved to the area.

Evidently the owner came from Southern Italy with next to no money and stumbled upon this place, which was in ruins. At that time the French government was heavily subsidizing farmers, so he was able to purchase it for 1 franc, provided he would raise animals. She claimed he was a real ladies man and that the quality of both the home and food changed depending on the woman in his life.
The whole thing was very much a family affair, complete with a couple of little boys pulling up a seat to enjoy their dinner alongside guests. Stefan also had a dinner companion in the form of a cat who sat carefully perched next to him on the bench, which I found comical given how well he and cats usually get along.
The meal consisted of endless sangria, red wine, bread, paprika peppers, ham, pork, potatoes, three types of goat cheese, and tiramisu for 30€. The goat cheese was absolutely incredible and I ate way more goat cheese than I care to admit, however I still dream about it to this day.
As the night went on, and the red wine was flowing, people were getting more talkative. The former magazine editor was curious about us and assumed I was the German and Stefan was from the US.

One of the farmer's grandsons was showing me two lizards he had caught in a small package and chasing kittens around until a couple of foxes arrived in hopes of rounding up some table scraps. The German woman was fearful the foxes would take a kitten, so she and her partner ended up taking one home.
We arrived back to the village with some pre-Bastille day festivities going on just around the corner, so we joined the fun with some music, Pernod, and red wine. Apt comes alive with their Saturday market, so we were able to go to sleep and have it waiting at our doorstep the next morning. 

It was one of those incredible days that only solidified my love for the area that much more.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Lourmarin Friday Market

The markets in Provence are legendary... lots of food, items produced in the region, many beautiful things to photograph, and some incredible smells (except for those sausages, which smelled like wet dog).
I saved many lists of market days around the Luberon region and set out to match up things we could get to without too much effort. Time and again people recommend not to miss Lourmarin's famed Friday market. It was on our way to the former convent we were staying at in Apt, so we headed out early in the morning and it was very much worth it.
Lourmarin itself is a super charming tiny little village that is exactly what I envisioned Provence to be before our visit... a tree lined street leading the way to narrow cobble walkways. The market didn't disappoint. It had clothing, ceramics, and enormous array of foods. The foods were so colorful, fragrant, and fresh... just like food should be. There were musicians completing the ambiance and it felt like a scene from a movie.
Another thing I appreciated, in addition to the subtle wafts of lavender through the air, were the cicadas. We have cicadas during warm summer months in Ohio, but I haven't been to many other places which have the distinct chirping sound that reminds me of home.

If you're in the area I would agree with the others that say - don't miss it and go hungry! 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Provence certainly lives up to its reputation. There was so much we wanted to see and do, so I tried to schedule things to make sure we'd have enough time and in particular so we could see those endless rolling fields of lavender. We even managed to go to a lavender festival and see it being harvested.

The entire area is so full of color and is a bit of sensory overload with the smell of lavender, cicada's chirping, warm summer sun, cacti, goat cheese with honey and thyme, rosé, and some of the clearest nights I can recall with twinkling stars above. It's all pretty magical.

I've made a little map, which marks the cities we visited. Also, here are a few links I found helpful, if you're planning a trip yourself.
Shopping in Aix
Provence Markets by day of week
Lourmarin Market (Friday)
The Louberon
Lavender routes map

Monday, July 23, 2012

Marseille + Mama Shelter

After driving from Saint-Tropez we had dinner reservations at a quaint little place, called the Nautic Bar, a friend of ours from France recommended (merci, Jerome!). He told us it was a hidden gem that's directly at the calanques or river creeks, which are tucked away in the rocky ridges. They have crystal clear waters and so much nature surrounding them, so it's hard to believe the second largest city of France is so close.
In order to access these calanques it is essential to have reservations at one of the restaurants down below. It is a very long, dusty, and rocky drive down the mountain side, but the views are excellent. It's also a great place to go for a swim. The food left us a bit underwhelmed, but it was an experience and definitely off the beaten path.

Next time we go I'd like to visit Cassis, which we unfortunately ran out of time for. All of the wait time getting to and from Saint-Tropez made that impossible.
Marseille was a stop over point for us, so we didn't do too much exploring of the city itself. Though we'd definitely like to make it back sometime soon. I like that it's a cultural melting pot of a city with a lot of diversity. Everyone I talk to is underwhelmed when they mention it, but that piques my curiosity even more. Sometimes I really like gritty cities and find them intriguing. There's so much bubbling beneath the surface.
The perfect place to stay is hands down Mama Shelter - Marseille. I've had friends recommend the one in Paris, but we've always liked to stay more central (it's out in the 20th). Now I can whole heartedly see why they recommended it. The one in Marseille just opened earlier this year and it is downright sexy. It has a hip and trendy vibe with playful friendliness and the attention to detail is impeccable.
I may or may not have scared Stefan by wearing the superman mask as he came up to our room from parking the car.
It's the type of hotel that's a destination in its own right with free new release movies and an awesome breakfast. It's the kind of place I'd go specifically for the hotel -it's that good.
We didn't have a lot of time on Friday morning, because I wanted to get up to the market in Lourmarin. I read time and time again that the market in Lourmarin is the crown jewel of Provençal markets, so that's where we headed late in the morning.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Cannes + Saint-Tropez

From Nice we drove along the coast stopping in Cannes and Saint-Tropez.
Cannes has the allure of being known for it's famed movie festival, however it was a bit of a disappointment. My friend Julie, who is French, told me it's France's Florida - where all of the old people go.  Perhaps if we were out on a yacht or wanted to "see and be seen" it would have been different, but it was our least favorite stop during the trip.

The cars shipped over from Kuwait in front of the Carlton were a sight and the black lamborghini was beautiful even to someone like myself who's not really into cars. Maybe they were his and hers.
The beach was built up and it seemed to lack character. Even though we were only there for one afternoon it doesn't top my list of places to revisit.
On the way to Saint-Tropez we spotted a field of camels and passed some road side bamboo. Those were certainly unexpected.
Saint-Tropez was a different story. It was clear as soon as we arrived why it was/is such an inspiration for artists like Paul Signac, Matisse, and David Hockney. It is very charming, except for the traffic in and out. Since it's on its own little peninsula the only way to avoid the traffic is by helicopter or yacht. The city's charm left us enamored nonetheless. There were some definite characters at the port lounging on their yachts. Most of them were in their late teens or early 20's and absolutely loved the attention.
The pastel hues decorate the façades with lots of sea foam green and peach. It had characteristics that reminded me of Essaouira, Morocco. Quiet narrow streets and alleyways with water splashing at the edges of buildings.

We picked up some Ladurée macarons (the lemon basil was the best of the mix) and stopped for an afternoon treat while watching a group of older men play pétanque.
One shop we visited was Le Caveau de la Porcelaine Blanche, which has whiteware in a myriad of shapes, sizes, and forms. I loved it. [There are a couple more shops I've found in this area that also have a huge array of porcelaine blanche / whiteware: Antibes + Avignon.]

Next stop: Marseille... for one night.