Natural Peaceful Provence

By | Category: Travel destinations

Fast trains to slow havens.

The lingering smell of lavender in my bags means I’ve been to Provence again.  Apart from all the green and carbon reduction benefits it’s a real stress buster to sit back and travel on the TGV, via  Eurostar to the  South of France.  After 6 hours or so all the cares of London diminish.  No worry about staying awake on whilst hammering down the Autoroute.  Just sleep easy.  Forget check in excess baggage charges, Icelandic ash and all that.  www.raileurope.co.uk

The lovely Luberon

We transferred straight from Avignon to the Luberon and started with what racehorse trainers call a “pipe opener”: a brisk bicycle ride. The Luberon lies to the east of Avignon and Aix en Provence and most of the Region is bordered by two autoroutes the A7 to the West and A51 to the East, so the area is autoroute and trunk road free.  Most of the large Natural Regional Park is in this area.   Fully protected, the Park supports (translated from the French) “all forms of non-motorised   touring”.   This includes fishing, riding and golf but walking and above all cycling seem to predominate.  Velo Loisirs en Luberon has a 236 Km marked loop www.veloLoisirsluberon.com  within the 1500 km of marked trails in the whole of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure.

Gentle travel over peaceful Provence

Gentle travel over peaceful Provence

A less strenuous option to hiking and all that pedalling is to take a balloon trip. A gentle way to travel, champagne glass in hand, with spectacular views in the early morning mist of the woods and Durance River and, at the right time of year, vast fields of lavender in bloom. www.franceballoons.com

Meanwhile, firmly on the ground, we went to the Mérindol bird-watching observatory by the Durance.   Fabrice, our guide, lined up his telescope for us to see, among others:  crested grebes, raptors, three different types of heron, mallards and fresh water turtles sunning themselves on logs. We heard a nightingale and Fabrice whistled back.  Out of sight, somewhere in the Park is a pair of the 7 remaining Golden Eagles in France.  All around was busy with butterflies, bees and dragonflies. Details at:  www.cavaillon-luberon.com

Durance river from Meridol observatory

Durance river from Meridol observatory

Forcalquier an ideal base.

This was my first visit to the Luberon.  Next time I’ll definitely stay in or near Forcalquier . The visitors’ literature for Forcalquier has about 35 “things to see”. With origins from 800 BC it was at it’s peak in the 12th Century. There many fine Romanesque buildings and it lies beneath a citadel, from which there are magnificent views of the town and the surrounding plains as far as the Alps.

Carillon above Forcalquier

Carillon above Forcalquier

There is a Roman influence in Provence and Forcalquier is a good example. It’s on two great routes: the Via Domitian 118 BC and the later pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela, both from Rome to Spain.

The Roman thread prevails as the (bicycle) véloroutes have many Roman bridges. When we got off the TGV, our bike ride was along the Calavon véloroute over the Roman Pont Julien in Bonnieux.  There’s a fee booklet about Caesar in Provence from the local tourist offices.

12th Cent. St. Michel fountain Forcalquier

12th Cent. St. Michel fountain Forcalquier

Generations of artists have loved the light in Provence and rave about the natural colours including the ochre cliffs at Rousillon.  The traditional manufacturing process of ochre has been restored at  Conservatoire des Ocres et Pigments Appliques.  The Conservatoire also has sought- after courses and workshops in many applications  of  ochre and other natural  pigments for decoration.   There’s an extensive display of applications including distemper, patinas and lime putty.   

Food and Wine

Dinner on our first night started with Brandade de Morue, the unique taste of cooked dried cod pounded with tepid whole milk, olive oil and garlic – described by Elizabeth David “as a triumph of Provençal Cooking”.  To taste many other classics the members of Bistro de Pays are well worth knowing about. With menus from € 8 to € 25 they are all small local country places that tend to be cafés and the local mini-convenience store. www.bistrodepays.com  It’s good to have menus with cheese included (artisanal, naturally!).   In June the cherry trees are dripping with fruit so clafoutis de cerise was on the menus.   Two particularly good bistros are Le Café des Poulivets and Bistro 9. www.le9-forcalquier.fr

The vineyard at Château La Canorgue pioneered organic production in the Luberon over 30 years ago. Another first is that it’s now run by the youngest woman wine maker, 21 year old Nathalie Margan.  Production remains strictly organic with no nitrites, chemical fertilisers or pesticides used.   The wines have won many awards including two recent Golds from Guide Hachette.   Another thread from the area continues;  the grapes pass through a ‘ Roman’ gravity feed system and much of the water (you’ve guessed it) is from Roman springs !  

Nathalie, the youngest lady vintner

Nathalie, the youngest lady vintner


Acorns to einkorn.  A dream comes true.

 Acorns to what ?  Einkorn is the English word for pétit épeautre which means literally little spelt, a form of wheat cultivated 9,000 years ago and, more recently, a staple of the Roman garrisons.  At their farm, Saveurs de Truques, Thierry and Veronique Baurrain’s dream came true as they now produce pétit épeautre, which is gluten free and has never been genetically modified.    Thierry gave up a successful local government career to farm at Saveurs de Truques, which also produces olive oil and chickpeas.

A dream comes true Thierry & Veronique

A dream comes true Thierry & Veronique

And the acorns ?  They’re part of a plan to cultivate truffles, the world’s the most expensive kitchen ingredient by weight. Thierry has planted groups of oak trees.   After 8 years or so there may be truffles below – signs to the human eye are a particular burnt soil appearance under the trees – but only the trained  nose of a dog can find them. Visitors are welcome by appointment and the tour is usually a rocky old ride in the trailer behind Thierry’s quad bike.  www.saveursdestruques.com

Lavender and Garden Science

La Rotonde at Simiane

La Rotonde at Simiane

 The restored castle keep at Simiane-la-Rotonde, also 12th Century, has an impressive Romanesque rotunda with 10 alcoves – best photographed on one’s back.  In the same complex is the Laboratoire Sainte Victoire which is associated with  the largest  lavender and lavendine Cooperative  in France.  The Laboratoire has an excellent gift shop and historical and technical displays of all the processes of lavender and its many benefits beyond fragrance.  www.laboratoiresaintevictoire.com

Le Prieure de Salagon is a well maintained 12th Century Abbey and a paradise for technically minded gardeners.  Worth a visit for fragrance, ambience and nice spots to sit down. But as it’s described as the “Ethnological Botanical Centre of Haute Provence” one can get too much ethnological information if you take the full tour.

Two places to stay

Le Mas des Gres,  Lagnes is popular and usually fully booked – no wonder. As well asdelightful grounds and rooms it has a suberb kitchen and Thierry the chef owner also gives cookery lessons.  Just outside Forcalquier is La Fare 1789 Mas and no guesses for when the original manor house was built.  Opened this year, the house has been beautifully  converted by Laurent and Ketty Baussan.  www.masdesgres.com

A quiet corner at La Fare

A quiet corner at La Fare

Both have places abundant leafy shade, pools of course and are ideal for  rest and  de-stress  and for a complete break with  time to read a few books. Or even write one.  A bonus at La Fare is the goody bag of La Clarée organic beauty products which is Laurent’s other business – and it just so happens that Laurent’s father founded L’Occitane the multi-million pound skin care brand.

La Fare Ketty relaxes after serving breakfast

La Fare Ketty relaxes after serving breakfast

www.lafare1789.com

Finally, just forget the car  

To keep your break completely stress-free, forget driving. In recent years, France has really taken to the bike.  As well as many excellent and detailed routes, of every sort of grade, “Velo” availability is abundant and many local firms will collect and deliver bikes anywhere one wants.   Transfers from Avignon or Aix to Forcalquier or Apt or thereabouts cost less than 6 days’ car hire with the extras.  Local minibus tours are available.  I recommend Provence Rêverie   www.provencereverie.com who supplied us with a suberb picnic that ended with the regional Peach Liqueur, Rinquinquin.   So not having to drive means one can have several Rinquinquin’s or something similar. 

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