Provence. Provence. Such a deliciously magical, evocative name. Particularly when a French person says it. A place which has held a consistently high ranking in my mental travel wish-list (I really should that write down) and one glorified by novels, films, paintings (Van Gogh), and body products (L’Occitane). Not to mention your store-cupboard friend ‘Herbes de Provence’, or the exquisite olive oil you received as a Christmas corporate gift. Whether you have visited or not, 'Provence' is already captivating some part of our consciousness. Travel agents must love it; you imagine it sells itself. A famously picturesque region and intense sensory experience. Why wouldn’t you want to go?
Well, for a girl who starts feeling anxious the moment crowds and buildings disappear and fields and wildlife come into view, it might seem a bewildering choice. I certainly don’t dislike the countryside (I went to university in Devon, after all); it just doesn’t quite ‘fit’ me and I don’t quite ‘fit’ it. We have a mutual understanding. Rural readers presumably experience similar feelings when they find themselves deep in the metropolis. I can certainly empathise when I hear stories of traffic-jams from one edge of London to the other, or frustration towards the crowds on Oxford Street. We all have preferences and live where we want to live; we are very lucky to have the choice. I pondered this fascinating relationship between city and country, while enjoying my first pain-au-chocolat on our terrace at the Oustau de Baumanière.
Amusingly, A.A. Gill’s words appeared on the page of my book before me: “I’m such a complete city boy. Always lived around traffic lights and been able to walk to the cinema. The benefits of cities seem to so greatly outweigh the grotty, unmade nature of the country, that it never ceases to amaze me why humans want to stay there overnight.” Extreme? Yes. Made me laugh? Yes. But how did I feel after a few days away from the traffic lights and cinemas, captive to one of the most stunning rural regions, discovering what it has to offer?
While opponents to A.A. Gill may find all countryside beautiful, Provence is high on my list of pretty pastoral places. Little did I know that somewhere so quiet and free from the many diversions that I’m used to, could be so appealing. I soon became mesmerized by the rugged mountains, luscious vegetation and the irresistibly self-indulgent slow-pace and calmness which are all-embracing. My favourite parts? The plane tree-lined streets and film-set/fairytale-like cobbled pavements displaying the handful of shops known to all French GCSE students: Boulangerie, Pharmacie, Boucherie... And, of course, the novelty of simply sitting back and taking it all in.
The air ripples with the heat and echoes with buzzing Cicadas. The winding, skinny cliff-edge roads seem made for James Bond movies or Top Gear escapades. Swimming pools are ice-cold and the smell of Camembert escapes through kitchen windows. You imagine locals have always lived here and always will. A true time-out, where relaxation, reflection and regeneration are all on the menu.
There's a variety of Provencal accommodation on offer, from camping to super-stylish hotels...
If you fancy a treat, I would highly recommend the
Oustau de Baumanière. A stunning hotel comprised of a main house and manor, it's tucked into the hills and olive gardens and close to the walled steps leading to the heart of Les Baux de Provence. A beautiful gated entrance to our terrace, led also to our room, stylishly decorated with minimalist white walls and modern interiors; quite a contrast to the farmhouse feel outside. Those typically French shutters which I lust after in Paris were adorning every window, as were climbing plants and striking rays of light. A very special place. If you visit...
1. Take a stroll up the walled steps to town;
4. Treat yourself to a massage at the Oustau's fabulously elegant spa (ski-chalet meets white-washed Santorini hotel);
5. Drive down to Fontvielle to sip Stella Artois in the charming central square, surrounded by town hall, bistros and trailer