This is part of a series I’m writing about a recent trip to France that was in preparation for a workshop I’m co-leading Sept 23-Oct 4 of 2020. You can start the series here Who Wants To Go to France With Me? , if you are thus inclined, to learn more about what we will be doing.
Les Baux, St. Rèmy de Provence, and Le Vallon de Gayet. The first two are towns, the last is an inn and restaurant situated among olive groves and lavender fields. But all three have been favorites of mine to visit ever since I lived nearby in 1998 and 1999 while working for the US Air Force as an interpreter. Yes, I do have a lot of favorites. It could probably be said that the entire country of France is my favorite (there a few notable exceptions, of course- France does have some decidedly unappealing parts) but if anyone wishes to label me “francophile,” I will accept it without protest. It’s true.
I love France.
And lucky me, I got to be there yet again this past September. But let me tell you about these places! And why I adore them so! And maybe you’ll understand why I’m so passionate about this part of the world, and maybe you’ll join me in singing the praises of the lesser known parts of France.
I’ll begin with Les Baux. It’s probably the best known of these off-the-beaten-path places, and for good reason. As a village perché, it is in my opinion rivaled only by Gordes, which is gorgeous in more of a people-actually-live-there sort of way. People don’t really live at Les Baux. (Well, okay, 22 people do, but you get the point). There are multiple layers to the history of Les Baux, which is often true of French towns. Its strategic position and high, flat plateau can explain its history in a nutshell- of COURSE it was the perfect place to live to be safe from invading hordes of whatever sort- and that history got started with the Celts and then the Romans. However, it really got going during the Middle Ages when the princes of Les Baux took over- princes who claimed to be descended from none other than one of the three wise men who sought out the Christ at his birth; indeed, the star that guided them to newborn Jesus is still part of the city’s flag. The princes and their descendants pretty much ran the show till the 12th century, and then in the 1400s Les Baux was absorbed into France itself. At this point, Louis XI destroyed the chateau that had been constructed atop the rocky plateau, fearing it could become a center for unrest. He wasn’t wrong- it actually did become a center for unrest, as a gathering place for Huguenot Protestants (remember that geography bit- the high plateau?) which caused Cardinal Richelieu himself to destroy the chateau, which had been partly rebuilt, yet again in the 1600s. By the 1800s, it was a ghost town; people had perhaps become tired of rebuilding only to be destroyed repeatedly, and who can blame them? However, in 1821, its fortunes began to change as aluminum bauxite was discovered in the nearby rock, and aluminum mining began, bringing life and wealth once again to the area, until well into the 20th century. The quarries haven’t been active for a long time at this point, but you can visit them now in the form of Les Carrières de Lumières, which is one of the most brilliant ways of reusing a former industrial site that I’ve ever seen: Oversized images are projected onto the blank white walls of these enormous, perfectly geometrically cut caverns,, and the effect is breathtaking.
Modern day Les Baux could be seen as a bit of a tourist trap if you don’t look closely. Yes, it can be ridiculously crowded in the summer months (do NOT go in the summer, if you can help it!) but it isn’t a tourist trap, not really. Sometimes places draw a lot of people because there is a lot worth seeing, and Les Baux is one of those. After all, how many places have museums of medieval instruments of war such as catapults and trebuchets? Or St. Vincent’s church, a “troglodyte” building from the 12th century, meaning that it’s partly carved right into the rock of the mountain itself? And also, there’s the view from the top of the plateau itself of the surrounding Alpilles as well as the valley, with its contrasting patchwork of lavender fields, vineyards, and olive groves. The view alone, for me, makes it worth the climb to the top.
Once you’re ready to come down from the heights and narrow streets of Les Baux, the town of St. Rèmy de Provence is only a few kilometers away. However, despite its proximity, it could not be more different of a place. While nobody really lives at Les Baux anymore, St. Rèmy is in fact exactly where people want to live. It’s not really much of a tourist destination at all, and yet, it is so, so worth checking out. It’s the site of an ancient Roman town called Glanum, which you can walk around and explore. It’s so extraordinary that my brain can barely wrap around what I’m seeing when I’m there, which is a beautiful city from the 2nd century BC carved out of the local stone. My brain has a much easier time comprehending St. Paul de Mausole, where Van Gogh checked himself in after some wee troubles that he was having. In this beautiful, serene place, you can see what Van Gogh saw, what he painted. I love Van Gogh’s work, as well as the story of this troubled genius, so for me it is a touching experience, to say the least. There is much more to see and do in St. Rèmy, though I confess to never having done it, partly because at least one of them, the Hotel de Sade, wasn’t open back when I was living there. It looks, however, like a fascinating place, beginning with the name alone. Yes, it apparently does indeed have connections the infamous Marquis.
Twenty years ago, when I was living in Provence, St. Rèmy de Provence was my go-to for an excellent meal alone, when I needed to put a little space between myself and my (nearly entirely male) coworkers. My experience in September would tell me that this is still the place to go for a memorable meal. My first night in France, exhausted from jet lag and the long drive from Nice, I stumbled across this little place: Saveurs de Provence. Stumbled is the correct word here- my main goal for the evening was to find a place to eat that wasn’t too far from where I parked the car, as I was so tired that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make it back to the car if it was too far of a walk. My strength returned as I tucked into a dish of chicken thighs simmered with lemons, olives, and saffron, that was served with a gorgeously crusty pain de campagne, along with an absolutely perfect glass of red wine from a nearby winery called Mas de la Dame. I finished off my meal with a tiny little chocolate cake topped with, among other things, fresh figs. Honestly, after that dinner, I could have just headed back to the US, I was so happy and satisfied.
However, I’m glad that I didn’t, because many more treats were in store for me in this little corner of France in September. While I’m rhapsodizing about the excellent meals which can be discovered in Provence, I have to mention the next of my favorites: Le Vallon de Gayet. Le Vallon de Gayet is an inn with a restaurant, but before you go thinking that this is just any old hotel with a mediocre restaurant, like hotel restaurants so often are here in the US, let me set the record straight. This little inn is anything but just a hotel. Beginning with the delightful family who’ve owned it for who knows how long (but a while- it’s definitely multigenerational) and moving on to its location, nestled into Les Alpilles and surrounded by olive groves that produce the spicy and delicious local olive oil, it is indeed a special place. And the restaurant is even more special than anything else. There is amazing food to be had here!
Alas, I’ve never actually stayed in the inn. Back when I was working in Provence, this inn was reserved for the U-2 pilots, not for the lowly interpreters like me, and then recently when I was visiting, the hotel was full, so my dream of staying in such a setting has as of yet gone unfulfilled. However, the pilots sure did seem to like having interpreters join them for dinner, for whatever reason, so I’ve eaten here many, many times. And I did so again in September after a little arm-twisting on my part of the two ladies I was traveling with. I’m pretty sure they were glad I pushed. The meal, the ambience, and the charm of the proprietor and his staff did not disappoint. In fact, after our dinner, the owner himself insisted that we stay for a digestif in the lovely old bar (one of the few things that looks exactly like it did 20 years ago) because he has such fond memories of the days when the USAF was a regular part of his life and his business. It was great fun to talk about the people we both knew from those days, and goodness, the French know how to do a digestif right.
While it’s true that it can often be disappointing to go back to places where you have wonderful memories, I don’t think that’s possible in this area of France. Life there goes on in the way that it’s gone on for generations, centuries even, and there’s a sort of comfort in knowing that, for me. That when I can be in la Provence profonde, it will still smell of lavender and rosemary, that the mistral will still be blowing, and that there are people in this world who still know how to truly savor every drop of life. And that they run vineyards and restaurants and galleries so that the rest of us can savor it, too.