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Friday Fishwrap: Random Jottings at Week's End
A Week In Provence

By Charles Olken

What could be better than a week in Provence, that gorgeous garden spot of France? How about two weeks in Provence? Okay, so it was only twelve days but who’s counting? Dare I say it out loud? After regular trips to Paris over the last thirty years, Mrs. Olken and I have decided that the French countryside is a lot more inviting. And the most inviting location in that countryside is Provence, the area in the southern Rhône region whose wines are lusty, whose countryside is rich and rustic, whose cuisine is world class but not nearly so fussy at that found in Paris and whose sheer joy at living has attracted people for years upon years. We are not the first and we will not be the last to be drawn in by the beauty of Provence, but it is our favorite destination now and we are headed back this summer.

You see, the greatness of Provence is not measured in world-renowned cathedrals or in museums so grand that you don’t know whether to chase Picasso or Gauguin or to hang out at the Louvre with its antiquities and unrivalled Renaissance masterpieces or the Musee D’Orsay with its unrivalled collection of Impressionist art or the Pompidou Centre with its unmatched collections of modern art. The greatness of Provence is measured in what it does for your soul, how it makes you feel at one with the world, how its wines are so inviting to drink, its lavender fields so luxuriant that you want to stop at every one and take another picture, its artist colonies so comfortable and rewarding, its mountains and valleys straight out of an photographer’s lense, its little villages of Gigondas and Beaumes de Venise and Chateauneuf du Pape and Vaison-La Romaine so much more fun to navigate than Boulevard Saint-Michel or the Champs Elysees (no matter how beautiful it is at first glance).

With Provence looming again for us next summer, and the lessons of past trips still in our minds, it is perhaps time to share with you some of our secrets. If they are not new to you, they might nevertheless help frame a future trip of your own. And they apply to almost any wine country destination if you choose to go, as we now do, for holiday as well as winetrekking. You can do the same kind of planning for Tuscany, for the Veneto, for Burgundy.

For us, the starting point, after deciding when to go, of course, is finding a place to stay. And by that, we don’t mean a hotel but an apartment or house to call our own. Provence is simply loaded with short-term rental properties. Do an Internet search and you will find yourself overloaded with choices. Prices will range from not much more than $100 per night for a clean, neighborhood, self-catering apartment to several hundred for houses with pools, yards and wonderful views. The magnificent places can be found for less than the cost of a modest Left Bank hotel in Paris. We always make plans to visit a few wineries and there are two approaches to this. We sometimes make appointments, such as our recent visit to Vieux Telegraphe in Chateauneuf du Pape, but we also will drop in on places that offer tastings or discover wines in a local bistro and go in search of the producer. The results can be wonderful or exasperating when doing that, which is why we always have a couple of appointments arranged in advance.

One event that left us practically speechless was the Sunday market at Isle de la Sorgue. This Venice-like, water-involved place is a quiet antiquing center during the week but comes alive with hundreds and hundreds of stalls on the weekend with everything from a half-dozen flavors of hot chicken wings to be eaten on the spot to crafts of all kinds to antiques by the row. If outdoor markets are your thing, Isle de la Sorgue’s Sunday get-together is the granddaddy of the genre. Later in the week, while searching for a potter whose crafts we knew but whose location was “somewhere in the hills”, we came across a different kind of market. This was no “fancy, let’s invite the tourists in event”. This was a real market in the center of Nyon and the range of foods there, all meant to take home, rivaled almost anything you could find in, Les Halles, the giant and rightfully famous markethall of Lyon—more kinds of olives and varieties of tapenades than we have ever seen anywhere, dried salamis of every shape, size and seasoning, dried spices, and, yes, the same hot chicken wings wagon that provided our mid-day snack at Isle de la Sorgue.

We avoided most of the cities last time, but it is time to get into Avignon, in part because it turns out that our potter friend also has a shop there, and this time we will stay a bit further south, on the other side of Mont Ventoux, somewhere towards Aix-en-Provence. Our needs are simple. A nice, quiet house with a deck or backyard, a grill of some sort so we can pick up local produce and cook outdoors—summers in Provence need to be taken out of doors, a good boulangerie and a café for sitting around when we are not sitting around in our home away from home. And all of these things are available in virtually any town larger than a couple of hundred people. On our last trip, we even found a temporary summer restaurant run out of the local community center by a couple of enterprising culinary students.

Provence is magical. Like all places, it requires you to do some homework to find the right place to stay and to figure out what side trips you are going to take. You can spend your time immersed in wine, because every village has its own products, some with names you will recognize, others that you may read about in books, and some whose wines are just everyday stuff made young and intended to wash dinner down without the ceremony that accompanies the fancy names. Or you can do as we do and mix up the wining with the wandering.


by Terry Rooney
Posted on:12/7/2010 10:46:33 PM

Charlie, my wife and I went to Provence in the fall of 2009 and were also blown away at Isle de la Sorgue.

Next time you go look for a place near St. Remy du Provence. Our favorite village, and totally captivating.





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