Hear about travel to Provence, France as the Amateur Traveler talks to Wendy Jaeger from blisstravels.com about her adopted home in the south of France.
Wendy says of Provence, “It’s stunning. It’s probably the most beautiful place in the world. It’s got absolutely everything. It’s got spectacular food, and world-class wine. Every major Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painter in western Europe either visited, painted, lived, or died there. So it has a remarkable art history to it. It’s got a long history. It is the home of at least three Roman roads, including the oldest one in all of France. It has unbelievable scenery, lavender fields, poppy fields, perched villages. ‘Why wouldn’t you go?’, is the question.”
We start in the heart of Provence in the Luberon where painters like Van Gogh and Cezanne endeavored to capture its beauty and legendary light. This is an area of vineyards, orchards, lavender fields, and hilltop villages.
Wendy tells us about the very Provencal style of Camargue bullfighting, where the bull is not at risk, but the locals are. She tells of some of her favorites of the towns, like the beautiful Saint-Rémy-de-Provence or L’Isle Sur la Sorgue.
We talk about the rich history of the area, which can be seen in Glanum (Roman ruins at St. Rémy), the historic center of Avignon, the Pont Julien, Pont du Gard (Roman Aqueduct), and the Village des Bories with their beehive-shaped stone huts.
She tells us where to find some of the best markets, including both antiques at Du Grenier markets (literally “from the attic”) or weekly produce markets with juicy peaches, fresh strawberries, cheese, lavender, and more.
Art lovers can find museums like the Chagall and Matisse museums in Nice or, better yet, artist walks that show you where different artists painted some of their most famous landscapes.
And of course, we talk about food, because after all, this is France.
With special thanks to photographer Anthony Bianciella whose photos grace this episode.
Roman Roads in France (map)
The Luberon (the heart of Provence)
Historic Centre of Avignon (UNESCO)
Chagall Museum – Nice, France
Matisse Museum – Nice, France
The Course Camarguaise (Camargue bullfighting)
Van Gogh in St. Rémy
Glanum (Roman ruins at St. Rémy)
Place de la Concorde
Gordes (perched village)
Village des Bories
“Melon en Fêtes” in Cavaillon
L’Isle sur la Sorgue
Coast of Provence, Le Four des Maures
Olive Trees (Van Gogh series)
Pont du Gard (Roman Aqueduct)
Le Grand Aioli
Chez Camille in Ramatuelle (near Saint-Tropez)
Chez Camille in Ramatuelle (near Saint-Tropez) reviews
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Chris: Amateur Traveler Episode 510. Today in the Amateur Traveler, we talk about Roman ruins and lavender fields, Impressionist painters and weekly markets, as we go to Provence in France.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen. Just back from Cambodia with something of you, my body arrived on Monday, my brain sometime later in the week. We’ll be talking about that in an upcoming episode of Amateur Traveler. But first, let’s talk about Provence. I’d like to welcome to the show, Wendy Jaeger, founder, and owner of Bliss Travels, who’s come to talk to us about Provence, France. Wendy, welcome to the show.
Wendy: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Chris: You pitched me Provence and not that it was a hard pitch because Provence is someplace that is on my list of places to go. But for people who haven’t already fallen in love with the idea of going to Provence. Where is Provence, first of all? And why should someone go?
Wendy: That’s an interesting question because nobody actually agrees entirely on what is to find this Provence. And if you talk to the French in a place like the Luberon or Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, they’ll tell you that that’s the heart of Provence. And 50 miles to the south, or to the west, or to the east isn’t really included. So there are arguments about that that exist today. But in general, it’s a section of southern France along the Mediterranean coast between Italy and the Languedoc region.
So if you think of a line separating Italy and France just south of The Alps heading down towards the Mediterranean. And you have about 200-mile radius that could fairly be called Provence. And include several departments and additional sub-regions, the Vaucluse, the Var, the Alpes-Maritimes, the Bouches du Rhone. These are all sort of departments that are in that area. So it’s a much more complicated question than you thought it was.
Chris: It is. Excellent. And why should someone go to Provence?
Wendy: It’s stunning. It’s probably the most beautiful place in the world. It’s got absolutely everything. It has spectacular food, world-class wines, every major Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painter in Western Europe either visited, painted, lived, or died there. So it has a remarkable art history to it. It’s had civilization for more than 100,000 years, so it’s got a spectacular and a long history. It is the home of at least three Roman roads including the oldest one in all of France.
Leading from Italy and to Spain, or Spain into Italy depending on which direction you’re heading. And all three of those roads, well they begin and end in different parts of Spain and Italy, run right through the center of Provence and the area that I like to call home, and that I focus my attention on. It has unbelievable scenery, lavender fields, poppy fields, perched villages. “Why wouldn’t you go?” I guess is the question.
Chris: And you mentioned the area that you call home?
Wendy: I have been a Francophile for many years and I’ve been traveling over there since I was a child. And I came up with this idea to start a business and started traveling around France. And when I found myself in Provence, in the Luberon which is pretty much dead center of what everybody talks about when they talk about Provence, I just realized that that is it. It is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. And so I think I refer to it as my spiritual home.
Chris: Okay, excellent. And what kind of itinerary would you recommend for somebody going to Provence?
Wendy: I think you need a little bit of everything.
Chris: That sounds good, okay.
Wendy: I think that when people typically travel there, naturally drawn to the more famous sites which tend to be located in the larger…urban is a bit of a stretch for many in these areas, but in the larger towns, small cities. And well there is some value to that certainly. There are some UNESCO World Heritage sites in Avignon, and Nice is the home of the Chagall Museum, and the Matisse Museum, and a number of other cultural treasures. I really think that you need to get off of the beaten path and experience what’s available in the countryside.
So when I say a little bit of everything, you need to see a village. You need to experience something to do with the arts. You need to experience the Provencal markets which are spectacular and the best in all of France. You need to see the brocante markets which are the antique markets. You need to hike and see the Roman ruins, and the ruins from the Celts and Ligurians, thousands and thousands of years of history that’s visible and not behind Plexiglas or necessarily in a museum, it’s very accessible.
There are cultural treasures there. Not many people, there are bull fights and bull games there that go on all summer in the smaller towns and villages. And you need to eat there and drink there.
Chris: And I say with the bull fights, not the same as the Spanish bull fights that people are probably thinking of?
Wendy: No, not at all. It’s really exciting and interesting lesser known activity in Provence. What happens is you have these cowboys in the Camargue area of Provence, which is just along the Mediterranean south of Saint-Rémy and Arles, and in a little area that’s called Les Alpes, which means The Alps, and it’s right along the coast. And it’s an area of Provence that doesn’t look like what people typically think of when they think of Provence, and rolling hills, and lavender fields, and vines. It’s a little more arid. And the Camargue is a wetlands.
And it’s known for its wildlife. So these cowboys who raise these horses, raise these bulls, come in to these small towns and usually they’re for two, three, four days. And they do a whole range of activities. They do something called the encierro, which is where the bulls literally run through the streets on a set route. So the cowboys aren’t around them, the bulls are running wild through the streets. And they do barricade the streets a bit.
But if you go there for the first time, you’re going to be a bit nervous. They’re running through sometimes they try to go through the barricades. And then you see the French who are used to seeing this 12 times a summer, all of their lives. And you’ll see a waitress walking by, serving beer at a café three feet from the bull without even noticing him. The young man will jump over the barricades and try to grab the bull’s tail. That’s sort of a rite of passage for some of them. And then they have parades. And then they have the bull fights. And they’re not really fights, they’re game. And the bulls are brought into the arena and they have little tassels, tags, and things on their horns.
Chris: Well I was thinking it was rings. Okay, got it. Tassels.
Wendy: They do have rings and some of them have tassels. There’s a variety of things that are put on these bulls. And the fighters are not really fighters. It’s really interesting. They’re almost like dancers. They come out, they’re in all white. They run over and the game is to use the small hook and get the tassel, or the ring, or the other item off of the bull’s horns, and then to escape without getting gored. And there is no exit to the arena, so there’s the wall around the arena, much like a skating arena in the US.
Like an ice-skating ring where you have like a five foot, four foot wall that surrounds it. There are no steps and they literally like threw went up and dive over the edge to escape. And then they jump back in for the next round. So the bulls aren’t harmed in the game.
Chris: Right. Occasionally the bull fighters, bull dancers, I don’t know what you call them, are harmed. But hopefully not.
Wendy: Yes they are. Sometimes they are gored and sometimes the bulls escape the arena and get out into…not the arena but the central area, and get out into maybe audiences. And they’re certainly annoyed by the process. That is for sure. And then they have another activity called the abrivado and that’s where the cowboys really show off their skill. And they herd the bulls through the streets surrounded by these horses. And if you just sort of look at it very briefly, you think, “Okay, what’s the big deal?”
But when you look a little more closely at the activity, you have these riders riding within inches of these bulls, managing to keep them corralled on a busy street with lots of noise. It really requires a lot of skill. So if you go into a town in summer in the festival season, you need to be in a town. It won’t be held in a village. And then it’ll need to be a town that’s not a perched village, you’ll have to have a ring road around it as most of the villages that aren’t built on mountain sides or otherwise fortified have. That’s where you’ll find these activities. Obviously the bulls can’t run through these perched villages.
Chris: Excellent. Well as long as we started there, shall we head from west to east across Provence? Starting with, say Arles and Avignon and that area and then head to the rest of the eastern portion of Provence?
Wendy: Yes, actually, sure. The first thing you would probably do is you would take the TGV train, the high speed line in from Paris into Avignon, TGV. That’s really the only main station in the area. You would go to a place like Saint-Rémy or maybe during the bull festival and you would…or one of the festivals in which the bulls come up and you would be able to experience the encierro, the abrivado, the games.
Saint-Rémy is great town for other reasons. As you probably know Vincent Van Gogh was in turn there in a mental institution, and that’s where he created more than 150 of his paintings. So you would visit Saint-Rémy area. You could visit the arena at Arles and the Roman Ruins. The most beautiful ruins in Saint-Rémy in Glanum that are the best preserved, I believe in the entire country. And they’re from, I think about the 4th, 5th Century BC.
This was sort of the beginning of Saint-Rémy although it wasn’t named that at that time. And then those ruins or that town was built upon in the 2nd Century BC, and again in the 1st Century AD. And this is right in the center of one of the roadways. So that’s where you have all of this culture and development at that time.
Chris: So with those ruins have been Gaelic at that time? Or was this one of those many different areas founded by the Greeks? Or who was there at that time?
Wendy: Well gosh. First, you have the Celts and the Ligurians there. Then you had the Greeks there. And that was about 600, 800 BC. Then you had the Romans. So society there was first Greek, and then Roman, and these ruins are primarily from the Roman era. And that’s what’s left standing. You have some great Roman ruins that’s left. What’s so interesting and this is true in a lot of Western Europe and it’s particularly true in Provence, is these things are integral to the towns and the villages that you visit.
And you can walk to them, you can touch them, you can lay a picnic blanket down and stare at the sky, and stare at the ruins, and have lunch. It’s not something that has been collected, and put behind glass, and there’s a park ranger there, and you’ve got to buy a ticket. It’s sort of part of the village life of these places. And it’s very integrated as opposed to just a tourist attraction.
Chris: Well in my recollection as for instance in Arles, they’re still using the amphitheaters. Is that correct?
Wendy: Yes. And Arles was slightly different in that you do buy tickets to see a number of these things and to be admitted to a number of these things. But when you get into the smaller towns, Arles is a pretty nice size city for this area, Saint-Rémy is a nice size town. But when you get into these smaller areas, they’re really not segregated and treated as admission-type tourist attractions.
For example, you wanted to move a bit into the Provencal part of Provence. You would go into the Luberon. And there’s the Pont Julien, which is a Roman Bridge that was part of this Roman way between Italy and Spain. And it was built about 5 BC and it’s been restored and changed over the years. But you can walk on the Pont Julien, today. You could ride your bike over it. This past year alone, on I had a day off. I went down there with a picnic blanket and my dog, and food, and wine. And sat under the bridge and had a picnic.
So there’s no Plexiglas and there’s no admission. And I think that’s really a cool feature. You find that all over France, you even find that in Paris. The Obélisque for example, and the Place de la Concorde in Paris is the original Obélisque. It’s more than 2,000 years old. There’s nothing around it. What’s really cool is you can follow a Roman history and have a week where you do that sort of a thing. And visit Arles and Saint-Rémy. Visit sites on the Roman road. Visit the Pont Julien. Visit Apt which is in my mind, probably the coolest market town in the region and has the best market I’ve seen in France.
Chris: And you mentioned a couple different types of markets like the antique market. But this would be mostly like a farmer’s market?
Wendy: This is what you would call a typical Provencal market but it’s a large one. So the Provencal markets, they’re a weekly event that occur in a village or a town. Apt is the biggest town in the area so it has the biggest market. And Apt is a real town. It’s not a town of wealthy second homes.
Wendy: Well Saint-Rémy for example is a very affluent town. It’s an incredible town. It’s got Van Gogh, it’s got some of the best Roman ruins around, it’s got a great market. It was a home to Nostradamus. It has a lot to recommend and it has a lot of charm.
Chris: I should have predicted you were going to say Nostradamus.
Wendy: Yes, you should have predicted. That’s right. In fact I think he wrote about the show.
Chris: Did he? Actually, well, I did not realize that, well…
Wendy: It’s in a slight code and you really have to pull the meaning out. But Apt is a real town in that you see real homes, residents. You really feel like you’re in Provence and part of something that’s not just a touristic endeavor. And the market is enormous and it snakes through all of the streets. And like most towns and villages in Provence, the center of the town is the historic center. So it’ll have the oldest buildings. It will have tiny pedestrian ways that are really fit for cars, and so they’re usually blocked off.
And markets like towns, have neighborhoods. So when you go into a large market, you will know that, “Oh, the best produce is the first 150 yards of this market. That’s where all of the top produce people are.” And if you make a right turn at the first square and you go up…and I’m actually giving you the directions, and you go up to your right, on your left is the best goat cheese purveyor in the market. And if you go to the very, very back of the market, you’ll see there’s a lot of artisan products.
So a typical Provencal market will have artisan goods, whether that’s table clothes, or handbags, or those sorts of things. It will have things that are imported from other countries and expensive chachkies, and bags, and clothes. Remember these people tour at a different market every day, these vendors. And so you might live in a town where you can’t buy jeans, or cover up, or whatever, and you may get your clothes that way unless you’re going to drive to a major city. It will have food.
It will have other artisan products that are regional and seasonal like, maybe cut-lavender, or lavender soap, or it’ll have prepared foods. But those will always be artisanal. It’ll have your cheese people, it’ll have meat, seafood. It’s a market with a lot of breaths to it in terms of the things that you can purchase, and they’ll sell wines etc. And each vendor has a set spot. And each spot is in a particular sort of neighborhood if you will.
And so when I go to the market in Apt, because I’ve been going for many years now, I know I need to hit the first part of this street for my produce. Then I’m going to make a right. I’m going to go there for the goat cheeses. Then I’m going to skip the next two blocks because I’m really probably not going to buy soaps and olive oils for myself at this point. But my clients will like that. Or if I have guests there, they’ll like that. And then, I’m going to head two blocks over where there’s a great wine shop but also one of the best bakers. So it’s great if you live or spend time in there, you get to know where each vendor is.
Just like you know in your local grocery store that aisle two has the produce that you want. And aisle seven carries your brand of soup or whatever. So too in these live markets. But here’s a great trip for your travelers. Your travelers are likely to visit a particular market once, maybe twice if they’re going to stay in an area for more than a week, and that’s it. So how are they going to know where to shop, and how to find the really good goat cheese? Or as opposed to the stuff that’s maybe not local, or that’s there more for the tourists? Well, you look at who’s in line.
Chris: Sure, okay. So you look for the locals?
Wendy: You look for a long line. Certainly with produce you can see a level of quality. But if it’s a product you’re not that familiar with, or something new that you want to try, or it’s a product that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a visual inspection, perhaps olives, or something, or discs of goat cheese, or something. You look for a long line at that vendor and you look for locals. What language are the people in line speaking? When the vendor greets the person in line, does it appear they know each other?
If you see that, you’re probably in a great line and you’re about to find something that’s really high quality. The other trick, and this will work all over France, not just Provence. But by French law, they have to give you the category of the food item if it’s a fresh food item, like produce. Let’s say cherries, let’s say you’re there in June. The cherries are incredible in Provence in June, and almost the size of golf balls, literally. Incredible. And they can go from this bright red color to an almost black color.
So let’s say you don’t know a whole lot about it and it’s your first time there. And you want to buy some cherries because you’ve heard about that. So you get in line, the vendor looks good. There’s a long line of people. They’re all speaking French. They seem to know each other. Great. Look at the little sign that they put in to the fruit, where it gives you the price. If it says, cerises, cherries and it’ll say category one, two, three. Well category one, that’s the highest quality and size.
And then by law, they have to tell you where the cherries are from. Or the strawberries, or the artichokes, or whatever it is. So for example let’s take strawberries. Strawberries, the town of Carpentras is famous for its strawberries. So if you go to a market and you see fraises, strawberries and it says, Carpentras. It’s from a great place. It’s from a town. And category one, you’re going to get a high level product from a town that’s known for producing a high level product.
So you’re sort of getting the best of the best if you will. If however the ticket…this is a little trick that you see often in the Paris markets. Says just Provence or France. That they are like gaming you a little bit, because they don’t want to tell you exactly where they got it. And if it comes from a good place or it’s local, they want to tell you. So always look for a town name, a village name. And always look for that category one, possibly category two. And that’s a great way to find the best produce in the area.
Chris: Excellent. I want to move us a little away from the market here because we are not going to nearly cover everything that you know about Provence in the time that we have. But where would we go next?
Wendy: Well you must see the countryside in Luberon. So you’ve now been in Apt, you need to see the perched villages. You need to see the structures there. Everybody talks about Gordes which is a very famous perched village. And at the base of the village is the very famous Abbaye de Sénanque, which is the one where if you’ve seen any picture, any time in your life of an abbey in Provence with the lavender field in front it, that’s the one. So world-famous. I think the town is nice.
I think it’s a bit too touristic for my taste. But the abbey is spectacular, very much worth seeing, still inhabited by monks. And there are areas where they are silent. And that’s got a remarkable sort of vibe to it. But the other thing you can see there and all around as you drive around Provence are these little bories, and it’s B-O-R-I-E-S. And they are these little stone structures that look like giant beehives. And they’re really cool.
Chris: Now are these Celtic? Because they sound very much like the ones I saw in Ireland.
Wendy: Well, some of them could be. Not all of them are. They have found structures and many bories villages. One is at the base of Gordes and another one is on the plateau on the other side of the Luberon. And some of those date back significantly a 1,000 years, 1,500 years. Some of them they haven’t been able to find…they haven’t fully dated yet. But many of them were built in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s too as sort of one-roomed structures. The villages are interesting because you can actually walk through them and see the place where they ate.
This was the place for the sheep and inclement weather. This was the place where…and so you get a picture of what life was like. Those tend to be significantly older. The newer ones, 15th, 16th, 17th Century are sort of one-roomed structures. They are all done in stone and there’s no cement.
Chris: No mortar.
Wendy: Yeah, no mortar. So it’s really kind of cool and they’re dotting the countryside there. So you want to take a drive and see the countryside. Depending on when you’re there, in May, for the poppies. The poppy fields are spectacular. Or June or July for lavender which of course is spectacular. Or that very special in-between time in about mid-June where you have the tail end of the poppies and the beginning of the lavender. And you really get to see both.
You would want to attend the festival, whether that’s a village festival, a fête village, or a festival on a topic. And in France, that’s typically food. So it’s the melon festival, the cheese festival, the snail festival, the celebrate pork today festival. There’s always something. But the festivals are great. You’ll see another market, they’ll have a lot of artisan and themed products based on…you could set a tender lavender festival for example. So they’ll have a lot of products that are lavender-based. The lieu music, there may be games and activities for kids. That’s a wonderful thing to do.
Chris: Is there a good resource for how to find a festival, schedules?
Wendy: There are online schedules. It can be hard to find in advance because this is the countryside in France and sometimes these schedules are decided in five or six months in advance. And sometimes you don’t get anything until the last minute. That’s sort of life there. But googling sort of…if you know the topic of your festival, you might do it a little bit better. There’s a famous festival the Fête du Melon in Cavaillon. Have you heard of the Cavaillon melon?
Chris: I have not.
Wendy: Best melon in the world by far. And so they have the melon festival every year. And it depends on what’s going on in the region and with the economy as to how spectacular or sort of little that festival is. But it’s all about food products and they’ll have activities, and parades, and fireworks, and that sort of a thing, if it’s a really on year. We started to talk about the brocante market, the antiques market. You could go to L’Isle sur la Sorgue, which literally means Island in the Sorgue River.
It has the largest antiques market in all of France, outside of Paris. And they also have the largest flea markets. So on the weekends, the streets are lined with all sorts of flea market finds, from somebody selling grandmother’s old fish forks and knives, and plates to crystal. If that’s something that interests you, there are some tremendous finds there.
Chris: It sounded like you’re saying that they’re not actually using the flea market term for that market. Because you didn’t say market aux puces for instance, flea market. You used a different term.
Wendy: Right, brocante. Another term that you’ll see in France is called vide grenier, which literally means empty the attic.
Chris: I love that. That’s the perfect term for it actually.
Wendy: So those will pop up and you’ll see signs in the small towns, vide grenier, Dimanche and the date or something, next Sunday. And they’ll take over a town square or a parking lot of a church or something and it’ll be a flea market type thing. So it’s just another term for the same sort of thing. And that’s the term that is most frequently used, brocante or vide grenier, if it’s smaller like local thing. You could go down to the Mediterranean. Between Marseille and Cassis are these amazing inlets called the Calanques and they’re stunning.
The water is unbelievable. You can see the fish 20, 30 feet down. You can see the pebbles on the bottom. The scenery is incredible and very stark with these huge cliffs. And in fact, there’s a tie-in with American history there. The limestone was mined from these inlets for the Statue of Liberty. For the base of the statuary.
Chris: For the bases statuary. Interesting.
Wendy: So we have a lot of connections between France and the US of course. But there are Provencal connections as well. You can’t miss out on Impressionist art as well, and Post-Impressionism when you’re in France. I’m not an art expert. I really enjoy that era of painting but I don’t claim to be an art expert. But I learned a tremendous amount just by taking a train into the south of France. Everybody has had an experience where they’ve seen a Monet, or a Van Gogh, or perhaps Henri-Edmond Cross, or any of these artists of that era.
And they think that’s spectacular, and so beautiful, and the colors are amazing. And everybody talks about the light. But you really can’t fully appreciate it until you go there and see it. And what struck me when I first came down to Provence, and I’m riding the TGV and you’re looking out the window. It’s like watching a slideshow of every painting you ever saw in a mat or the door say. Go by, “Oh wait, that’s that sunflower field, and that’s that…and it looks like what…”
Cezanne lived in the south of France as well. Chagall was in the south of France. Picasso lived there for a while. And so when you get to see these scenes, you see what these painters were painting. For example when you see the pointillist paintings of Cross and he paints the ocean, and you see this remarkable change of color, that’s what it actually looks like. That’s what the ocean looks like. And that’s what was so educational to me. I thought, “Wow, how creative that they could come up with a vision of this that looks like that.” But that’s what it looks like.
They’re clearly artistic geniuses but you see that every night at sunset. And it looks like little dots in pointillist. The colors really look like that. The night sky in Provence is that deep, deep, deep blue that Van Gogh painted, it’s not black. One thing that you can do, many places in Provence, so it doesn’t matter where you are, you can fit this into the geography of your trip. Whether it’s Saint-Rémy, or Cassis, or Le Lavandou, there are painters’ walks. And they reproduce the painting in front of you that or just had. It’s spectacular.
So when you’re in Le Lavandou and you see a picture of Henri-Edmond Cross’ painting of the ocean there, you are looking at it. And you can see exactly how he saw that. When you see in Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh’s painting of the Olive Trees, you can see that field. Now, when it comes to things like olive trees, that changes over time and you don’t have an exact view. But the ocean and the coastline, you have the exact view. And so you can take these walks anywhere that these famous painters painted. And you can see the reproduction of what they were looking at. And I think you learn so much and really develop an amazing appreciation for their art in this area.
Chris: We’re going to have to start wrapping this up. And you’ve mentioned a couple of things that we haven’t gone into some detail. You say walks. You also mentioned hikes earlier. Were there particular places you would recommend we get out of the car as we’re driving around the countryside and go for a hike?
Wendy: There are three sorts of walks or hikes I would recommend. One is the artist walk that we were just talking about. Another is anywhere in this center of Provence area in the Luberon. You will see as you drive down the roads, little signposts. They look like street signs but they’re very small. They’re maybe two inches by five inches and they’re bright yellow. And they’ll have a name and a kilometer amount on them.
So for example if you wanted to take a walk from Goult to see the windmill, you would see this little sign and it would have the name of the windmill and it would say, “.5 Kilometers.” And there are pathways. But they’re not always widely marked pathways. Again, it’s like this concept of being able to walk on the Roman Bridge. It’s not a pathway with garbage cans in every 100 feet, and a railing, and an admission ticket. Sometimes it’s a rugged path that you sort of have to figure out do I go left or right? But at each major intersection, and major is a relative term there, you’ll see the direction. We want to walk to the next town.
And this is a big French hobby, to wake up in one village, walk to the next town and have lunch on one of these pathways. So you’re not walking along the roadway. The other thing that is really cool is along the coastline itself, there is a pathway. You can walk the entire coast. The pathway breaks up at a beach because you can walk along the sand there. But along the rocks, you will see that there is curved out a one and a half, two foot maximum-wide, maybe two and half feet walkway.
And you can walk from town to town along the Mediterranean Sea like that. Some areas have it are very easy and some areas need repair and can be a little bit difficult. And you wouldn’t recommend doing that late at night, because it’s not lit. But the entire Mediterranean coast has that through France.
Chris: Excellent. You also mentioned UNESCO World Heritage sites. You did mention that the whole center of Avignon, UNESCO Heritage site. We mentioned the coliseum at Arles, and I think we mentioned one other one but I can’t think which one it was. Any other sites like that that you would say whether they’re UNESCO or not that are a must-see in this area?
Wendy: I would say the Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct, even more than Avignon. I would say that that is most definitely worth visiting. I would say there are a number of…well every town has a church. But the majority of the building of the churches in this area, was done in the year 1000 or 1100. And many of them were done with stones used from Roman buildings. So the base of the church dates back to 400, 500, 600 AD. And so I think it’s really cool to go into some of the lesser known churches rather than perhaps the Pope’s Church in Avignon.
Another site I would say to see, it’s not UNESCO but it’s worth seeing, it’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the ruins of that church. Avignon and then Châteauneuf-du-Pape, that area, that was the center of the papacy in the 1300s. And so the churches that developed in the countryside around there, here’s a cute fun fact, those churches, the statues at the top of them, don’t in fact face Rome to give honor to Rome. They face Avignon.
Chris: Sure, okay.
Wendy: I don’t know if this is true. In Roman churches but in the Provencal churches you had the protestant and the catholic wars. And all the animosity and the killings that went on for hundreds of years there. So in the back of the churches often times, there is a private entrance. So if you had wanted to be baptized and join the catholic faith, but didn’t want your family killed and your house burnt down, you would come in secretly in the back, be baptized and leave secretly. And so there are a couple of churches that I am able to visit there, where you can see that as well.
And you just have to know those things are there because again, not everything takes an admission ticket and has a guide or a park ranger. And if you get a sense of those things and you learn about the possibility of those things, you will be able to find them in some of these churches and places that you go.
Chris: Excellent. I should say to the audience. If you work with Wendy, she’d also be glad to point out to you specific hotels and specific restaurants. But we’re not going to ask her to do it on the show because that is her livelihood. But I know you love food, because otherwise, you wouldn’t travel in France. But are there dishes that we should try while we’re in Provence?
Wendy: Absolutely. There are a few really iconic dishes that you have to try. One is called aioli. And Americans are probably familiar with the term because the sauce is very popular these days. But an aioli was a peasant dish.
Chris: Garlic-based mayonnaise.
Wendy: Yes. Garlic-based mayonnaise. It depends who you talk to as to whether it’s a mayonnaise or an olive oil and is mash garlic-based. But the majority of it is a garlic-based mayonnaise. It is served with steamed vegetables. Always carrots, always green beans. Sometimes things like cauliflower. Always has steamed potato, hard-boiled egg, and then steamed cod. And what this was is basically if you were a peasant, you got sort of what was left over and you had to give it some flavor.
So the dish is named after the sauce, the aioli. And it’s traditional. And almost any restaurant in the south of France in summer on a Friday, will have an aioli. It’s sort of like a fish on Friday thing here. And you should look for a restaurant that is very local, not touristy. It’s not an expensive dish and shouldn’t be. It might also have sea snails in it.
Chris: Okay. Well and snails were also a peasant dish. Many of the French foods that we know so well were the foods that they were stretching the budget a little bit.
Wendy: Yeah. Another peasant dish that’s now very expensive and unique item is bouillabaisse. Bouillabaisse was originally fishermen…whatever was left that they couldn’t sell and the bones, they would make a stock out of it, they throw the fish in and then had rouille which is pepper-based, basically it’s pepper and garlic form of aioli. Then you would put that in for flavor and you would eat it with croutons. And now, it’s such a gourmet dish.
And there was even a charter, the specific places, it’s the la vraie Bouillabaisse, the real Bouillabaisse. There were certain fish that must be in it. Some of those fish are only found in the Mediterranean. So I would say there’s a restaurant that I absolutely love for that, Chez Camille. The woman is named Camille, but it’s pronounced “Kah-mee.” And it’s outside of Saint-Tropez and it’s on a private little beach. And they make an incredible Bouillabaisse. But that’s the meal of the day and you can’t even leave. You’ll just have to sit on the beach afterwards. You’re too full to move. So that is something I highly recommend. There’s another dish that’s very popular in the Luberon called Papeton d’aubergine. It’s an eggplant formed in the shape of what was the Pope’s hat. So that’s Papeton.
Chris: I got the aubergine, I’d miss the Pope’s hat part of that, okay.
Wendy: And so that’s how I got its name. And it’s usually served with some form of a tomato sauce, either over it or under it on the plate. And it’s essentially like, a casserole is not the right term for it, but it’s a puréed eggplant dish that has some egg and maybe a bit of parmesan cheese in it that is baked. And it’s formed like a pate would be formed. And it’s delicious. And then the produce is absolutely star in Provence.
I’ll tell you a story. Many years ago when I was first going to Provence, before I started my business, I went to a market and it was great when they started with the euro. And that was a street market and I saw literally a crate of peaches. And unbelievably rude, sometimes I speak before I think, the price was €1. And I looked at him and then said, “So what’s wrong with them?” It just came out of my mouth and I felt awful. And he looked at me and he smiled at me, and he took a peach and he bit it. And the juice dripped down to his chin and then onto his shirt. And I said, “Sold.” I took the crate, he just said they were excellent, and they won’t even make it four days in our house.
So the peaches are remarkable, the melons are remarkable, the figs, the produce is incredible in Provence. I always say I teach French cuisine from time to time, and when I was starting my business I did that for a while as a way of developing my reputation. And I always say, “I have two sets of recipes for the same dish.” One that I would use here in the United States and one I will use there because of the different quality of the produce, different water content, different sugar content, different flavor. And I always say to people, “Your job is to make it a star. Don’t mess with it too much.” And your job here is to work a little magic so that you get that flavor out of it. And there really is a difference with the foods.
Chris: Wendy, I know we can talk for hours more. We probably completely diverged from the outline that you prepared for me. But before we get to our last four questions, do you have anything that we really should cover before we leave Provence?
Wendy: You need to know that you will need to drive. You cannot get anywhere on public transportation that’s really worth seeing other than a few larger towns. So you will need to drive.
Chris: But driving in France is not something people should dread or anything like that. It’s not difficult, once you get outside of Paris that is.
Wendy: It’s not difficult but it’s done differently than in the United States in many ways. First of all, you cannot rely on street names to get anywhere. You have to rely on village names and head towards the next town to find your way.
Chris: There’s actually portions of US that work exactly the same.
Wendy: I haven’t driven in any of them. I can only speak to the French. Any trip should include at least one hill village in the Luberon. Any trip should include something to do with art and you should not miss the Mediterranean. Look for restaurants where the menu is not translated into English. And go with the appropriate meal time. If it’s empty, skip it, if it’s full or you’re seeing a lot of locals, that’s the place you want to eat.
Chris: And you say the appropriate meal time. That’s actually seems like something else that we should know?
Wendy: Yes. Dinner in Provence is typically between 8:00 and 9:00. That’s when people sit down. That’s the most popular time period. And lunch is about 1:00 p.m. And take it slow. Try to go at the pace and to the places that the locals go. And that’s where you’re going to have a really authentic and interesting experience. The other thing that’s super important to know about restaurants that’s very different in the US is the prefix or the special of the day really is the special. That’s really what you should be ordering. It’s not like the blue plate meat special in the US where you’re thinking, “The chef didn’t serve this last night. So he ground up the steak and he’s made another dish with it.” It’s the exact opposite.
Chris: Right. It’s what fresh, what’s seasonal.
Wendy: It’s also great price, it’s seasonal. And it’ll be usually two or three courses. And you need to know that those courses will be smaller than ordering a la carte. So don’t say to yourself, “I can’t eat three courses. I’ll get a main course and a dessert from the a la carte menu.” These courses will be sized proportionately so the meal is a reasonable and comfortable amount for you.
Chris: So could you say again what they should be looking for in the menu, for the special of the day.
Wendy: They should be looking for something that says, prefix menu will be a blackboard perhaps. It’ll say déjeuner and that’ll be the lunch. And it might be a handwritten addition to the menu. Those will be the fresh items. They should look for menus that aren’t translated into English. And they should look for where locals are eating.
Chris: Excellent. Last four questions. You’re standing in the prettiest spot in all of Provence. Where are you standing and what are you looking at?
Wendy: I’m standing at the top of Luberon Hill Village, looking down at stunning architecture at about 5:00 p.m. when the light is such that the buildings almost take on a yellowy-orangey cast to the stone. And below me are lavender fields and vineyards, maybe some poppies. I’m seeing a grove of cherry trees and it’s late June evening, late afternoon evening.
Chris: Excellent. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Provence.”
Wendy: The traffic. I was buying some meat from a butcher. Actually it’s the butcher that was mentioned in Peter Mills’ book. And I asked him because there isn’t much refrigeration everywhere you go there. If you would hold the meat and we could come back and get it. And he said, “Sure.” And we drove down this tiny one-way street later to pick up the meat, and he came out. And he wanted to chat. And a line of cars went behind us. And nobody honked. This was totally appropriate.
And this is quintessential Provencal attitude about life. These people are talking, they’re having a quality experience, we’ll wait. Now, if you drive too slow in the fast lane, they’ll honk at you immediately. But that’s not about quality of life, that’s about them getting somewhere. This was about quality of life and he sat and chatted with us. And eventually we pulled over because he invited us in and took us in and taught us how to make his ratatouille. So we went into the back, into his own personal kitchen and we ended up spending a couple of more hours there. That’s only in Provence.
Chris: Excellent. Finish this thought. “You really know you’re in Provence when…” what?
Wendy: When even a quick lunch takes two and a half hours.
Chris: Excellent. And if you had to summarize Provence in just three words, what three words would you use?
Wendy: Bliss, stunning, delicious.
Chris: Excellent. Now one of the reasons that I had you start actually I should tell people from west to east is we’ve actually done another show about Antibes, and Cannes, and Nice. And so I was a little less worried because I thought we would not get all the way across. But there’s a lot that we haven’t covered in Provence. But if they want to get a hold of you and learn more from you because they want to have you help plan their trip or go on a trip with you, tell us just a little more about your business.
Wendy: Well my business is named Bliss Travels. And I named it Bliss because of the feeling I got when I first found this area and found myself there. And it still describes how I feel about the area.
Chris: That came across by the way.
Wendy: I’m in love with the area. We do custom culinary and wine vacations and events in France. We’re specialists in France. So we’re all over Burgundy, Bordeaux, Provence, Paris, etc. And in parts of Italy and Spain, primarily those areas that then touch upon France, the Ligurian coast and Tuscany and Italy, the Catalonian coast in Barcelona, or the Basque region along St. Sebastian and Spain. And what we do are exclusive access and insider type events.
We’ve tried to provide trips that take people into the heart of wherever it is they’re going and provide them with authentic experiences that are either a, very hard to find on their own or completely inaccessible on their own because they wouldn’t be events that are open to the public. Or they wouldn’t be places that are tour sites. Of course we include things that are important to see and worth seeing. A tour site is not a tour site for no reason. But our goal is to create a custom, very small group experience that lets people really get immersed in a culture of food, wine and do things that they wouldn’t otherwise ever be able to do.
Chris: Excellent. And then some of the people who have been watching the photos of this show, as they’ve been listening to you, and if all went well…of course I’m talking about the future which is now the past, by the time you’re listening to this. They’ve been seeing particular photos from one photographer that you recommended. Could you tell a little bit about where our photos have come from?
Wendy: Yes. I have worked with Anthony Bianciella for many years and he’s actually come on in number of our trips. And sometimes especially in the regions of just Provence we’ll do trips that have the photography theme. So that along with the culture, the foods, and the wine, people spend time learning how to photograph this. He’s fabulous, does a real low key approach but he’s very knowledgeable. And so these are photographs that he as the owner of Anthony Bianciella Photography and Zoom Image Works have created for Bliss Travels. And they are of the various things that I’m talking about. The Luberon region, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and just sort of what’s there. And food, culture, wine, perched villages. His ability to capture the beauty of this area is really remarkable.
Chris: Excellent. And I’ll have a link in the show notes to his work, for those of you who have not been looking at the enhanced version with the photographs. Wendy, thank you so much for coming on the Amateur Travel, and sharing with us your obvious love for Provence.
Wendy: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed myself.
Chris: I got a piece of feedback a while back on the show. I don’t think I’ve shared it yet on the air.
This is from Danielle who said, “I just wanted to express my appreciation. I listen to your podcast almost religiously. And I have learnt so much about the world. My bucket list has grown exponentially. I am getting married in July and searched and searched for great honeymoon locals. But nothing was clicking. Then I decided to turn to your archives. When I listened to your episode on Vanuatu, I was immediately sold! Now we have the perfect combination of beach, beauty and adventure at Mount Yasur. We can’t wait. Thank you.”
Well Danielle, congratulations, first of all. Best wishes on your marriage and on your honeymoon. And so glad we could help.
With that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler, more information about the Cambodia trip coming up. If you have questions send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com. Or better yet, leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler. You could follow us on Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram as @chris2x. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.