–When the Good Lord begins to doubt the world, he remembers that he created Provence. – attributed to Frederic Mistral
This morning we awoke to a bit of a surprise…gray skies in the-always-sunny-Provence! But fortunately, it was not raining, and the Concierge at our hotel insisted that these sort of gray mornings pass quickly once the sun burns through.
We had our first breakfast here at the Hotel Benvengudo,… they put out a very nice spread. Lots of freshly made bread, pastries, really good yogurt, fresh fruit, jams, hams, cheese, eggs, etc. We had a quick bite and then we were off to explore some of the villages of Provence.
Obviously, as the driver, I can’t take photos or videos of our drive through the region, by my co-pilot and Navigatrix Josette took some videos of our interesting drives through the twists and turns of Provence.
Before our first stop, I’ll give a little background on the villages of Provence. The majority of the towns we visited today have a similar back story as to why they are all perched on hilltops. Protection! Protection from constant invasions. Many of these villages origins date back to Roman times and much of what physically remains today can be traced to Medieval times, and for many, their history includes being bombed and invaded by the Nazis in World War II. They have had to endure centuries of hardship, yet to modern day tourists, they present a sense of timeless beauty and ease.
But be warned…there are new invaders on the horizon that attack these villages on a daily basis…arriving on massive buses, packed with foreign armies wielding cameras, iPhones, Fitbits, and fanny packs stuffed with Euros and credit cards ready to buy any and everything for sale! Yes, as one of these invaders, I can say that in the high season, the tiny streets of these little towns are literally packed with people. But somehow, if you take the right turn down a tiny alley or walk down a steep, craggy set of stairs, you can find yourself alone and admire the unique beauty of these villages of Provence.
Gordes makes many lists as one of the “the prettiest” hill towns in France, and because of this, travel guides also warn that it is one of the most touristy and crowded of the villages to visit. We visited in early July, at the height of the tourist season, and indeed it was crowded, but no more than any of the other villages we visited. So my advice is to go early or go late (it stays light until nearly 10PM…so plenty of time to get back down the twisting roads before dark). We had our rental car, and we literally had to drive through the narrow streets of the village and dodge tourists walking in said streets in order to find parking. Many of the parking lots were already full by 10AM, but at the top of the village there was a large lot that had plenty of parking and was only a 2 minute (down hill) walk right into the center of everything. I don’t recall for sure, but I think the parking was no more than 5 Euros. As with most of the parking lots in Provence, you take your ticket to a ticket machine prior to leaving and pay with a credit card or coins–you need the ticket in order to get out of the lot!
The village is quite lovely, and is characterized by its structures being built of a light grey stone. The typical blue shutters and lush, green vines clinging to the stone seem to be everywhere you look. The fortified castle is in the middle of town, and serves as a Tourists Info office and an art museum. We skipped the museum and decided to walk around town.
From Gordes, there are gorgeous views of the Luberon Valley below.
The main street through Gordes is lined with shops and restaurants, and this is where you find the bulk of the tourists. If the throngs of people annoy you, or if you are trying to get that great photo without the masses messing it up, you need only walk down the steep stone paths and you will often find yourself alone and surrounded by endless photo opportunities.
Gordes also provides pull off spots on the road so that you can get a perfect shot of the entire village perched on the hillside. We were able to pull in, find a parking spot, get a few pictures and then get back on the road again with relative ease. As a warning, we did see cars pulled off on the side of the road in “unofficial” pull off spots, and they were quickly ticketed by the police.
Do not adjust your screen. This town is located in one of the world’s largest ochre deposits and is surrounded by and built upon red cliffs and ochre quarries. The majority of the buildings in the town have an ochre wash and the contrast of the red ochre against the bright blue skies and surrounding lush greens of Provence make this a unique place.
Much like our previous stop, Roussillon was quite crowded with tourists, and as in Gordes, there are several parking areas at the base of the town. We had to ride around the parking lot a few times before finding a spot, but once we did, it was a quick walk into town. The main street is lined with several good restaurants and lots of shops selling lavender, pottery, Provencal fabric, and other souvenirs. I’m still on the fence about its authenticity, but we did buy a table cloth and some napkins in really rich colors. Regardless of whether it was made in France, or not, whenever we use them, we will think of our time in Provence, and I suppose that is all that matters.
More so than Gordes, the back streets of Roussillon seemed very residential and it felt less like a tourists-only village, and a bit more like a lived-in sort of place. There were definitely locals out and about.
It was lunch time, and there were several places to choose from, but you always have to be careful in super touristy places. You usually get average food with well above average prices, and we hate to be suckers. I used my Trip Advisor app to look up restaurants and found several good reviews for Le P’tit Gourmand, and as tiny as the village is, we had a heck of a time finding it. Be warned that if you use Google maps to direct you in these tiny towns (or in the twisting narrow streets of a medieval district in a city) it is often hard for the app to figure out exactly where you are. Regardless, we eventually found the restaurant and had to wait about 10 minutes for a table. The meal was nothing super special, but it was everything was fresh and very tasty and it definitely didn’t feel like a tourist trap.
Ubiquitous Travel Tip that is Actually Quite True…when in France, when engaging with a waiter, store clerk, taxi driver, ticket counter salesperson….start out with a smile and a “bonjour” or a “bonsoir” (whichever is appropriate). Even if your French is the worst…or those are the only two words you know….use them! It will make all the difference. You will see this on every travel show and read it almost every travel guide…and it seems like an over-used tip, but it is 100% true.
The waitress at Le P’tit Gourmand either didn’t speak much English, or she simply preferred not to (after all, she’s French…and we’re in France). We said our “bonjour” and asked for a table for 3 (in French)…and she kindly showed us to a place we could sit in the shade while we waited for our table, and then showed us to our table when it became available. When we ordered, we started in butchered French and then she began to speak a little English. This is something that will happen over and over in France…just make a slight effort to speak the language of the country and often, they will meet you half way.
Rare Opinionated Aside: While we were eating lunch, a group of about 6 American tourists walked-up and asked for a table (in English–and without the bonjour I mentioned above). The waitress looked around and pointed to a table and told them in French that it would be a little bit of a wait…they all looked at each other, huffed and walked away. One of the women in the group very sourly and loudly said “Well, I don’t want to eat here anyway! She was just plain rude! She didn’t even speak English!” I was mortified for all American tourists. By this woman’s standards, when a foreign tourist comes to the US and walks into an Olive Garden in Memphis, Tennessee (for example) the waiters and waitresses should speak whatever language that tourist speaks. Whether it be French, Spanish, German or Chinese? Pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? As tourists, especially as American tourists, we have to be respectful of where we are and never assume that everyone in the world speaks English, especially in places where English is not the official language. That is my little aside that you can agree or disagree with.
One architectural thing that we noticed in almost all of the towns we visited and in all of the towns we passed through were the open bell towers and steeples. They were all open and sort of the metal frame of what would typically be enclosed. We later learned that because of the notorious Mistral winds that blow through Provence half the year, the steeples and bell towers must be open to avoid being toppled over!
Roussillon was a lovely little town and very unique in it’s characteristic red/ruddy look. I would definitely recommend a stop here. We got back in the car and punched in the next stop in our GPS.
Which brings me to my next topic…Provencal roads and GPS. Not always 100% accurate or easy. I suggest having a good, detailed map as a back up. Our itinerary for the day had to be adjusted a few times as our usually dependable GPS (a British female voice who we named Maggie) failed to inform us of several key exits in a few traffic circles, so we lost a bit of time having to turn around and/or take redirected routes that were much longer. I was a bit bummed, but we decided to drive through, rather than get out and walk through the towns of Bonnieux and Lacoste which face one another on opposing hill sides. As I was driving, I couldn’t take pictures, which is unfortunate…because these two were considerably much less touristy towns and seemed to be more “authentic” Provencal village towns.
There were so many more towns that we had originally wanted to visit when planning our trip, but there is only so much time in the day, and we wanted to have time to swim in the pool and cool off before our dinner at 7:30. I should also mention that lunch in France can very easily and quite often be a 90 minute affair. If you intend to eat lunch in one of these Provencal villages (or actually anywhere in France) by the time you get a table, order the food, receive your food, eat it, get the check, etc… well over an hour will have passed. And the Jones Trio happen to be annoyingly world-class FAST eaters. Even with our laser devouration (not a real word) of a meal, you still have to do it all at the pace of a French restaurant. So always take that into account in planning out the day (we typically forgot this and ran out of time and had to cross places off the list).
We made it back to Hotel Benvengudo and enjoyed another delicious dinner on the terrace. The menu for the evening consisted of a perfectly cooked egg (baked in the oven for 45 minutes) with an herb foam, roasted chicken and foie gras, and dessert was a lavender scented cake with a berry sorbet. All really beautifully presented and everything had a unique flavor.
Tomorrow we will visit another hill town in the morning and then head west to the Roman city of Arles.