Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 17, 2009

Scenery, scents, food make Provence pleasure

By Deborah Yao
Associated Press

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The region's Italian influence is seen at the Palais des Papes, or Palace of the Popes, in Avignon, the seat of popes in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Photos by DEBORAH YAO | Associated Press

spacer spacer
Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A serendipitous turn through the ancient streets of Gordes, a hilltop town in the Luberon Valley, yields a spectacular view.

spacer spacer
Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The French practice the art of nonchalance at an outdoor cafe in Aix-en-Provence, the hometown of Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne.

spacer spacer


PROVENCE: Tourism information at www.tinyurl.com/dxzj85.

HIGHLIGHTS: Papal palace in Avignon; bullfights in Arles; Cezanne studio in Aix-en-Provence; Wednesday morning market in Saint-Remy de Provence; Abbaye Notre-Dame de Senanque in Gordes; ruins and views in Les Baux, with nearby Cathedrale d’Images; Pont du Gard, ancient Roman aqueduct.

CHEZ ISABELLE: Bed and breakfast in Monieux, www.chez-isabelle.fr/. Rates: $60 or $65 (45 or 50 euros)

spacer spacer

MONIEUX, France — On a road trip through the south of France last summer, I hoped to find the place I'd come to love from reading Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence" and his other books. But I worried that the Provence of my dreams might be over-commercialized and overrun by tourists.

Happily, I did find what I was looking for, but not always where I expected it. Yes, I went to the popular tourist jaunts — an amphitheater built by the Romans, a farmers market, Paul Cezanne's studio in Aix-en-Provence, and Arles, where Vincent van Gogh painted. But what made Provence so enchanting for me was a triple sensory experience for the eyes, nose and palate — the scenery, scents and food — along with a detour off the beaten path to Monieux, a small town surrounded by lavender fields.

Provence is known for beautiful landscapes of cypress and olive trees amid verdant fields, with medieval towns perched seemingly precariously on hills. Lavender scents the air. And fruits, vegetables and olive oil are so fresh you're convinced farmers picked or produced them that day. The Cavaillon melon, which looks like a softball-sized cantaloupe and costs around $3 each (2 euros), is the most luscious melon I have ever tasted.

I felt like I'd found Mayle's Provence in the hill town of Monieux, about 40 miles east of Avignon. The minute you wake up, you smell the subtle fragrance of lavender. Houses with window shutters in cheerful pastel colors dot the town while kids on bikes greet even strangers with a friendly "bonjour" as they ride by.

My friend and I stayed at a bed and breakfast called Chez Isabelle, run by Isabelle de Monies de Sagazan. A former real estate agent from Brittany, she moved to Monieux 10 years ago to pursue the country life. She has two big bedrooms to rent out for under $70 per night.

Breakfast is on the patio, with a small view that overlooks lavender fields. She served six pots of homemade jams — my favorite was cherry mint — as well as breads, a homemade peach pie, cereal, juice and espresso. Watch out for the cake-loving dog named Voyou, or Hooligan, lest he swipe your pastry while you're not looking.

We drove our tiny Peugeot to Sault, four miles east of Monieux and the center of lavender production in the area. I brought my GPS, which has a map for most of Europe. I set it to find routes with the shortest distance, which bypassed freeways for more picturesque country roads. The GPS made our trip much more pleasant, since we avoided the stress of getting lost in a foreign country and it could find the nearest gas station in a jiffy.

Sault overlooks a valley of lavender fields so be sure to go during blooming season in July and August. Don't miss the panoramic view from the village center. A cafe sits next to the view, where you can try lavender ice cream. On a Tuesday afternoon there, a group of men were playing petanque, a French pastime where players compete to throw metal balls toward a target ball called cochonnet.

Provence is France and yet not purely French. Italian influences abound from the Roman amphitheater in Arles, the town where Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear, to the Papal palace in Avignon, the seat of popes in the 14th and 15th centuries. Gelato, tiramisu and pasta are offered side-by-side with escargot, steak and frites and the regional Cotes du Rhone wines.

Even the olive oil was so fragrant that we couldn't stop sopping it up with our bread.