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"Cinq femmes et moi." Travels in the South of France

#1
By Doug Phillips from Canada, Summer 2009
June 2-20, 2009. Four days in Paris, followed by two weeks based in Ansouis, a small village in the eastern part of the Luberon.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

Introduction and Planning

My wife and I have been to the Luberon on two separate occasions - September 2005 (TR 798 Footloose in Paris and Provence) and September 2007 (TR1417: Return to the Luberon) - for a total of three weeks and three days. In February 2008 we began planning another trip to the same area - but with a big difference. This time there would be six travelers, including four female friends of my wife. We had a couple of dinner meetings early on and discussed various aspects of our proposed adventure - including location, costs, transportation, activities. None of our companions had ever been to Provence while only one had ever been to the continent of Europe - a summer in Paris many years ago.

My initial quest, more than a year in advance of our trip, was to locate a suitable rental in the Luberon. On our previous visits we had stayed mainly in the same rural gîte between Menerbes and Lacoste, with three days in a hotel in Saignon at the end of one of our trips. Neither option was suitable or even available this time. I looked into properties in or near Bonnieux, Lacoste, Oppede-le-Vieux, Roussillon - communicating both directly with owners or agents - but none were satisfactory for the composition of our group.

Fortunately, I came upon Chez Westfield, first at VRBO and then on Slow Travel, where there were two positive reviews posted. As I was reading one of the reviews, I realized that I know the reviewer and furthermore I have been to her beautiful home in North Carolina. If Chez Westfield was good enough for Linda, it would certainly suit us. After a couple of emails I was able to book the home for the first two weeks in June 2009 - more than a year in advance. All my correspondence and communications with the owner, Barbara Westfield, over the next year was positive and helpful.

Both in Paris, even more so in the Luberon, our group attracted some attention because of our composition. After a few days in the south, I began to comment on this.

"Cinq femmes et moi," I would observe in a restaurant, store, market, winery, bakery, café. It always drew a response - from the stereotypical shake of the wrist and an "Oo la la", to a pair of thumbs up or even a commiserating hand on my shoulder from the men to a much more subdued reaction from females - a raised eyebrow or quiet comment. I had a lot of fun with it. And people remembered us if we ever returned.

On our arrival in Ansouis I was able to blog - both about our daily activities and to make comments or observations about life in our area of the south of France. A great deal of the daily narrative that follows has been adapted from the blog. So if what you are reading seems familiar, you are probably right.

I hope you enjoy the story of our adventure in June 2009. We had a great time.

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Cinq femmes
 
#2
June 2-5 - Four days in Paris

Our Air Transat flight went smoothly - arrived at CDG Terminal 3 around 11:00am; cleared Customs, picked up our baggage, walked over to the RER station, took the train into Paris, changing at Chatelet, getting off two stops over at St. Paul walked a short distance along Rue de Rivoli before turning down a side street, arriving at Hotel St. Louis Marais shortly after 1:00pm.

"Bonjour Ahmed!" The same friendly manager from our previous visit was on duty - nice guy. We spent two nights at this hotel in September 2007 - sharing a room with our two sons on our way back from Italy. My initial reason for choosing this hotel two years ago was economic. I was looking for a room that would accommodate the four of us - to avoid the expense of a second room. I located a very few options and emailed inquiries. Ahmed at St Louis Marais was the first to reply - and so that's where we ended up. Small hotel in a good location - just off rue de Rivoli near Ile St. Louis - with reasonable rates and helpful staff. There are likely other hotels that represent similar value, but we are satisfied with our choice for the second time.

In Paris we got around on the batobus (a big hit) and Metro, used a Museum Pass to visit the Musée d'Orsay, Louvre, Saint Chapelle, Arc de Triomphe and the Picasso Museum. The five women went out to Versailles, while I spent time on my own in Paris. The Conciergerie was closed and we ran out of time to visit other museum attractions. The first morning, I took our group to the Trocadero Metro stop and enjoyed their reaction when they came around the corner and got their first view of the Eiffel Tower.

Funniest line so far - We were on the second level of the Eiffel Tower enjoying the views of Paris. I pointed in the direction of the Trocadero and commented that was where we were earlier. One member, who shall remain nameless, said, "But where's the Eiffel Tower?"

Dinner at Le Florimond was a big hit with the group; Chez Nenesse on our first evening in Paris was also quite popular; La Fountaine Gourmand on our last evening was OK; but Le Bistrot du 7ieme near La Tour Maubourg Metro stop, highly recommended by an acquaintance before we left Canada, was a big disappointment.

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A favourite activity in Paris
 
#3
June 6 - Arrival in Ansouis

Took the TGV from CDG to Avignon, arriving at 11:45am. I hurried over to the Europcar office and arrived first in line - recommend the practice. The lineup has taken an hour or more in the past. I'd booked our vehicle several months previously using AutoEurope - an easy call. I'm driving a Ford Galaxy seven-passenger mini-van - a tight squeeze for the six of us with our luggage - not much storage space at the back. We each have one piece of luggage and an open bag as our carry-on on the plane - pack light in a group. Oh yes, and a manual transmission. Our Google maps directions to Ansouis were a bit confusing, but fortunately I was familiar with the area and made it to the house, avoiding the A7 completely, by 1:30pm.

NICE HOUSE!! Chez Westfield is in the the centre of Ansouis - a few steps from the boulangerie, the tabac the Bar des Sports and a small Vival mini-mart. The house is huge - with a very well-equipped kitchen, large living/dining area on the ground floor and a second living room on the second level complete with a computer, five bedrooms, three levels, very popular terrace off the third level, a garage and lots of high quality reading material distributed in various places throughout the house, including a shelf of cookbooks in the kitchen. The three bedrooms on the second floor (premier étage) each have an en suite bathroom. The two bedrooms on the top floor share separate facilities. There is an additional powder room on the ground floor. We are not able to use the garage. The doors open inward - suitable for a much smaller vehicle than our mini-van. We park a few seconds away in the square opposite the Mairie, or occasionally on the street partway down the hill.

Ansouis is a perched village at the eastern end of the Luberon about 25 minutes from Aix and only a short drive to the attractive villages of Lourmarin and Cucuron. The nearest larger town is Pertuis. Around 3:00pm we drove over to the HyperU (known locally as HyperTensionU) supermarket in Pertuis, after making a shopping list - very busy spot, but then again it was Saturday afternoon. Dinner was pork chops and salad from HyperU with bread and dessert from the bakery a few seconds from our kitchen door. I told "Laurice" (sp?) at the bakery that we would be there every day. "Moi aussi," she replied.

Oh yes, we also had some wine.

We plan to be out and about the region every day, returning to our house for dinner - with maybe four or five restaurant meals in the evening. Sunday is market day in Ansouis - as it is in Coustellet and L'Isle sur la Sorgue. I have prepared an itinerary for the first week - see how it goes.

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Chez Westfield exterior. The double doors lead into a large dining/living room area.
 
#4
June 7 - To Market, To Market

Breakfast on the patio with espresso, drip coffee, yogurt, cereal and six croissants from the boulangerie next door - and a warm greeting from Ladys (corrected spelling from yesterday)

Off to Coustellet, a bit after 9:00am - through Lourmarin, up to and away from Bonnieux - arriving shortly after 10:00am - to buy supplies for this evening's dinner and beyond. I like the market at Coustellet a lot - fresh market food, most of it directly from the producer. Purchases included two poulets fermier, cerises, a variety of saucissons, fresh veggies and potatoes, and a personal favourite - tapenade - both verte and noire. I also purchased a straw bag - my third in the same number of visits from the same seller - nice guy. I am still using the first one I purchased back in 2005, but I figure you can never have too many good shopping bags. Am I right or am I right? Would someone please explain to BW? I have been cut off. I know the same vendor is over at Nyons later in the week - don't think we'll make it there - might have to make another purchase next Sunday in Coustellet - then give it to one of my "lady friends" to smuggle home to Canada - figure I can sneak it into the house when BW is out.

At 11:30am over to the well-known Sunday market at L'Isle sur la Sorge. Some experts say it's a must to arrive early to get parking. But how early is that? We arrived around noon and had a five-minute walk to the market - no problem. Prices at L'Isle sur la Sorge are noticeably higher than at Coustellet - my take is about 50% - but I don't know the economics of the two markets. Bought some picodons - small rounds of goat cheese.

Backtracked from L'Isle sur la Sorge, ending up at Lacoste and a very refreshing pause at Bar de l'Europe, with great views over the valley to Bonnieux and a walk up the village to the remains of the chateau of the Marquis de Sade.

Home to chez Westfield - aka chez Barbara - in Ansouis by 4:00pm, to much acclaim from all concerned. Dinner included fresh asparagus soup, salad, chicken, and a variety of cheeses - accompanied by an adequate supply of wine.

Life is good.

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Rotisserie chez GEGE at the Coustellet market.
 
#5
June 8 - If it's Monday, it Must Mean Wine

"Bonjour, Ladys" at the boulangerie next door at 8:00am. The boulangerie is open from 7:00am to 12:30pm, then again from 4-7pm. In the morning there is a steady stream of customers - appears to be the best time of day for business. I bought our daily loaf along with breakfast croissants, because by mid-afternoon there is little left to choose from. Notice I did not say I bought our daily baguette in the previous sentence - because I usually don't buy the stick of bread above that label at the bakery. Instead I opt for un restaurant - a broader, more substantial piece of bread.

Mondays are pretty quiet in the Luberon - most stores are closed unless there is a market in the village/town. BUT the wineries are open - so my plan was to do a wine tour of about four or five properties - I hadn't quite figured out how to combine the tastings with driving. I know there are containers to spit out the wine - but get serious. Who's going to NOT swallow an enjoyable mouthful of wine? Fortunately, we only made it to two wineries - tasting didn't become an issue.

Our two most proximate Luberon villages of some repute are Lourmarin and Cucuron. We have driven through, by and around Lourmarin several times in our first couple of days - will stop in shortly, but not today. Instead I started our day by paying a brief visit to the sleepy village of Cucuron - with its distinctive étang (pond) that featured in A Good Year. Cucuron has always appeared to be a very quiet village, with not much to recommend it, but today as we walked around the village and up the hill to the church, I noticed a few artisan shops and at least two apparently good restaurants - one of which I hope to visit during the rest of our stay here.

Ansouis has one very good restaurant - La Closerie - only about a minute walk from our door. It enjoys an very good reputation and is reputed to be a favourite of Peter Mayle. We haven't decided whether or not to go there - opinion seems to favour the non side at present.

A longer stay in Cucuron that anticipated. We got talking to a gentleman sitting outside his home a short walk down from the church. He told us a great story - which we were able to translate, with some pauses for clarification, as he went along - involving a plague that took over 900 lives many centuries ago, a community prayer and pledge to honour somebody if the plague would abate, and now a yearly ritual in which about a long tree trunk is carried up the hill by many men each year and mounted in front of the church. I'm not a big fan of churches - once you've seen one, you have seen a lot of churches - but at least the church in Cucuron comes with a good story - and a tree trunk stuck in the ground out front - not something you see every day.

Off to Chateau Val Joanis, arriving after 11:00am. Val Joanis is by far the largest wine operation in our part of the south of France - the drive from the road into the retail side of the business takes a few minutes past fields of grape vines. Val Joanis is the only wine from this region that I have seen for sale in Ontario - and only at the Vintages store on Rideau Street in Ottawa. While the wines at Chateau Val Joanis were only OK - the reds are a bit harsh for our taste and likely need some aging - we ended up buying a few bottles of different white wines, some mustard and a 50cl bottle of olive oil. A main attraction of the property are the extensive and beautiful gardens behind the retail cave. We have been here once previously, in September when the gardens were past their prime. This time we are here a bit before the peak - but still quite impressive. Worth a visit.

We're "dining in" again this evening - only need some salad vegetables. On leaving Chateau Val Joanis we head over to Cadenet, hoping to catch the end of the weekly Monday market. Too late - we arrived as the last of the vendors were packing up their trucks - but we saw a small store on a nearby street with boxes of fruit & vegetables out front. A minor exchange - buying some lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, and a bit of cheese - made very enjoyable by the friendly helpful manner of the owner - who appeared delighted to help us and explain the virtues of his products and prices. Such encounters happen all the time. There must be some unpleasant people in the south of France, but we've never met them.

Over to Bonnieux, always a busy spot - but much less so today. And I've noticed the traffic on the roads is quite light, in comparison to our other visits to the Luberon. In one pottery and jewelry store, the owner explained that the effects of the recession have had quite an impact on tourism in general and his business in particular. After a couple of hours in Bonnieux, we drove down to Le Pont Julien, a still-standing triple-span bridge from Roman times. There were at least two class visits when we were there and we we treated to a wonderful site - about 70-80 young students bicycling across the bridge.

Le Pont Julien

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vceiQRuCcQ

As we drove back in the direction of Bonnieux, we stopped at Chateau La Canorgue, the main setting for A Good Year. By chance, we had first visited the winery when the movie was being made back in September 2005 - and today was our second visit since then. The movie has obviously been very good for Chateau La Canorgue. While we were the sole visitors on arrival, at least four other cars pulled into the parking lot when we were there, Souvenirs of the film are on the wall and tables and even in the wine available - one is called "Le Coin Perdu" - but the wines of Chateau La Canorgue enjoyed a good reputation in the the region before the film, and they continue to produce good products. A visit to Chateau La Canorgue is restricted to the retail cave where of course sampling is encouraged, but there is a sign reminding visitors that visits to the chateau are not permitted. I suppose I wouldn't want strangers tromping through my house either.

After 4:00pm when we left Chateau La Canorgue - back to chez Barbara by 5:00 - wine and cheese on the upstairs terrace and dinner at 7:30.

A good day.

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Walking down a street in Bonnieux
 
#6
June 9 - Off to Aix

Rain in the night, a cloudy sky in the morning. AND much more noise on a daily basis than we are used to, living in a rural area in Eastern Ontario surrounded by a dairy farm, with a sheep barn as our closest neighbour. The traffic noise starts around 6:00am and the church bells chime in at 7:00 - almost like Paris, but I suppose I shouldn't comment - after all we're in the south of France.

We have decided to go to Aix today. We like Aix a lot, especially on a market day - Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. We followed the back route recommended by Bob & Sue Winn in Provence Byways. Buy it - the booklet is worth the price for this tip alone.

Arrived shortly after 10:00am - I had talked my companions into a seafood dinner with purchases from the Aix market - parked at Parking Picasso on the top level and made our way through the market squares to the Cours Mirabeau - bought some Michelin maps for next year's trip to either Corsica or the Dordogne. Maps that seemed so out of reach and expensive at home are at arm's length and inexpensive here in the south of France. We strolled along this most beautiful street, stopping at the Librairie de Provence bookstore, where we met up with an ex-pat Canadian from Vancouver who has relocated to a small village near Mont Sainte Victoire. She and her husband and son have been here for a year - love the life, despite the bureaucracy, and recommended an English-language bookstore - the Book in Bar, just off the Cours Mirabeau - great place! We paid a short visit - excellent selection of titles, helpful staff, a lounge to sit and read a paper while having a café.

Lunch at Le Grillion on Cours Mirabeau - very busy compared to most other places on Cours Mirabeau, since they offer a light lunch - a salad and a beer, for example - compared to the formule offerings at many other restaurants. Even the venerable Les Deux Garçons had many empty tables at lunch.

My plan was to make our way back to the market area and make some seafood purchases that we had agreed upon on the way down. BUT I had thought the market closed at 2:00pm - wrong again. It closes at 1:00pm. We arrived back in the market just as the last trucks were pulling away and the municipal workers were hosing down the squares. Lesson learned - make your purchases early at the markets.

Back to Ansouis and over to the HyperU at Pertuis to buy meat and veggies for supper.

"Bonjour Ladys" at the boulangerie next door at 4:30pm, where I bought dessert - une tarte amandine - a big hit later with my female companions.

On Skype to make reservations over in Lourmarin tomorrow for dinner and to talk to my brother up in Chateauneuf de Mazenc. Rain at 6:30 - dinner at 7:00pm.

And, oh yes, some wine.

An early evening.

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Lunch at Le Grillon on Cours Mirabeau
 
#7
June 10 - Etang de la Bonde, Gordes, Abbaye de Senanque, Roussillon

Off before 9:00am with the intention of visiting Gordes and Roussillon, two of the most popular villages perché in the Luberon. But first a short drive over to Etang de la Bonde, a large pond or small lake (take your pick) - very quiet at this time of day, but worth a visit later in our stay if we decide not to travel very far afield. A drive through a few unfamiliar villages over to Cucuron and then on to Gordes via Bonnieux. The most impressive aspect of Gordes is its dramatic setting as you approach the village - the commercial area is dominated by tourist shops and some artist and craft boutiques. Parking in Gordes was plentiful and we only saw one tour group near the end of our visit.

While we have been to Gordes several times, we have never visited the nearby Abbaye de Senanque, so I turned right on leaving the village and drove along a narrow road with dramatic views down into the valley until we reached the abbey. I thought it was good for a quick visit, then hop back in the van and move on. Instead we were there for almost two hours, listening to the church bells pealing and even sitting in on a mass and being greeted by the Cistercian monks whose home we were visiting. A highlight of our trip so far.

Then off on some back roads in the direction of Roussillon. Shortly after driving through the village of Murs, and past groves of cherry trees loaded with fruit we pulled of the road and examined a well-preserved shepherd's hut, a borie.

On to Roussillon with its ochre quarries, many shops and excellent photo opportunities. We paused for a drink before most of us toured the dramatic remains of the ochre industry, following which we walked to the top of the village, past the church where there was a funeral service in progress. We visited a few stores on our way through the town, the most memorable of which was the studio of Françoise Valenti. The artist was behind the counter wrapping a painting for shipment and greeted two of our group who entered the studio very warmly. She was extremely pleasant, even when it was obvious she wasn't going to make a sale of one of her original excellent works of art. When we made a purchase of a couple of prints she graciously offered to sign each one individually. I walked out of the store leaving behind a book I had been reading. When I realized it was missing, I returned to her store - but it was empty and there was no sign of my book. Where else had I been?, I thought, as I turned a corner, then heard "Monsieur, Monsieur". It was Françoise with my book. She had hurried to the nearest parking lot trying to return my book. A very nice lady, as well as an excellent artist. If you visit Roussillon, drop into her store - but be sure to go Monday to Friday. Her store is closed on weekends when she paints in the region en plein air.

Back in Ansouis by 5:30pm - a long and enjoyable day when nothing much had been planned - highlighted by a few unexpected sights and sounds and a short visit with an artist that will remain a fond memory of Roussillon.

Over to Lourmarin and our 8:00pm dinner reservations a L'Oustalet restaurant. While our meal was OK, the setting outside under a plane tree, our waitress, the large party of locals at a long table behind us and the three hours we spent there made it a very pleasant evening.

Up early tomorrow - off to the Drôme.

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Françoise Valenti, Roussillon
 
#8
June 11 - Into the Drôme and Back - Riders, Riders Everywhere

Away before 8:00am to visit my brother and sister-in-law at Chateauneuf de Mazenc in Drôme Provence. I always like to visit with my brother and besides I left four bottles of wine at his yearly rental, when I spent two weeks there last June (TR 1532: A Traveller in the Drôme). Over to Cavallion and a diesel fill-up at the Auchan supermarket (gas stations at supermarkets tend to have the best prices), then onto the A7 up to Bollène and over to Vinsorbes passing by vast fields of grape vines. We are in the Côtes du Rhône wine region. At Vinsorbes we stopped for coffee before proceeding along a wonderful lavender route, first recommended by Linda Jones, and over to Valréas; then on to Grignan and a visit to the highlights of the town including the chateau. Over to Chateauneuf de Mazenc by 12:30 and a lunch prepared by my Ron and Mary Jane. In addition to the eight of us, Ulrike, the owner of Ron's rental and a friend to both, joined us for a wonderful meal of lamb, carrots, potatoes, salad, three kinds of rosé wine and a dessert. While my brother got most of the credit, I strongly suspect that my sister-in-law had a lot to do with the success of our lunch.

Following a too-brief visit we made our way back, stopping at nearby Le Poet Laval for a shopping fix, then proceeding through the familiar towns of Dieulefit, Nyons and Vaison-la-Romaine before taking a wrong turn going through Carpentras. Carpentras is a community in need of several roundabouts. A back street course correction brought us on the right road to Cavaillon and back to Ansouis shortly after 7:00pm. A long day.

It is quite common see cyclists, both locals and tourists - indeed cycling holidays are an obviously significant part of the tourism industry here in Provence. They may be traveling singly, in pairs - usually husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend and often speaking Dutch - or most commonly in small groups - many are kitted out in spandex and on expensive bikes. However, today was exceptional. In addition to the usual groups we encountered two additional classes of riders.

We saw several large - 50-80 at a time - groups of schoolchildren out for what was obviously a long ride - a support vehicle at the rear of the train advising traffic of the group ahead, several adults riding with the group and another support vehicle along the route. The kids were having a great time. I suspect it was some end-of-year activity, a reward for the long 8-to-5 days in classes.

In the area in and around Carpentras we saw what looked to be at least two professional racing teams out in force. I'm not sure if there was any organized activity going on, although we did pass by a large cluster of people waiting expectantly on a street in downtown Carpentras, or if they were just out practicing for next month's Tour de France. The penultimate day of the tour starts in Montelimar and ends atop Mt. Ventoux, so perhaps Carpentras is on the route. I definitely recognized a team car for the tour team of euskaltel-euskadi. It passed us twice (also got turned around on the streets in Carpentras) and they were in a hurry.

I estimate that we saw well in excess of 500 cyclists today.

I skimmed over an article in the paper today that a multi-stage bike tour is currently underway for a select group of prisoners. Giving prison inmates a fast bike and then setting them off on the winding roads of the French countryside? Only in France.

Cycling is at least as much a part of the national consciousness in France as hockey is in Canada. I suspect it is even more important. Whereas hockey is mainly a spectator sport for almost all of us over a very young age, cycling appears to be a much more participatory activity here in France. Good for them.

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On the terrace at La Petite Maison, Chateauneuf de Mazenc
 
#9
June 12 - A Quiet Day in Ansouis

We have had busy days since arriving in Paris 10 days ago - and yesterday's drive back meant for an early night. We have dinner reservations over in Bonnieux this evening, the temperature is hot, the skies cloudless and the breezes non-existent. Some of us went for an early morning walk down the hill and outside the village to get a good vantage point for some photos of the village. We spend most the morning near chez Barbara, a few steps across the street at the Bar des Sports, or on a short walk up the hill to the base of the chateau. Shortly before noon we visit the boulangerie - "Bonjour Ladys" - and the small Vival store a few steps away - a recent addition to the village - and make some purchases to complete our lunch of bread, tapenade, cheese and fruit.

After a quiet afternoon marked by another walk around the village and a chat with an elderly villageur who has lived in Hamilton Ontario and fought in the Vietnam War when he lived in the U.S. He was quite proud of the health care he receives in France. There is a hospital in Pertuis and three more in Aix, where he recently received a knee replacement.

At 5:30 we headed out for the evening. Our dinner reservations are not until 8:00pm, but I wanted to show our friends a special site. We drove almost to Bonnieux, then turned right and drove along the top of a ridge over to Saignon, where we walked up to the top of the Rocher de Bellevue and its spectacular 360 degree views of the surrounding area, including Apt spread out over the valley below. Before leaving Saignon we stopped for an apéritif at a table near the the picturesque fountain in front of L'Auberge du Presbytere.

Back over to Bonnieux for our dinner reservations at L'Arôme - a favourite restaurant of my wife. We all enjoyed an very good meal in a beautiful setting with friendly and attentive service. Our evening stretched over three hours and it was after 11:30pm when we arrived back at Ansouis.

A quiet day and a pleasant evening. Another excellent day in the south of France.

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Ansouis villageur, veteran of the Vietnam War, formerly of Hamilton, Ontario
 
#10
June 13 - Saint Paul-de-Mausole and Les Baux

Another hot day. Off before 9:00am, over to Cavaillon, across the Durance River, along the marvelous plane-tree shaded roads to St. Remy - I always feel like I'm on the set of French movie on this drive over to St. Remy - and beyond.

I hadn't told our companions much about today's excursion until I pulled off to the right at the Roman monuments outside Glanum (parking €2). When we were here four years ago, we admired the Roman arch and mausoleum and were about to enter the main site across the road - but it was closing.

"How was it?" I asked a guy making his way out of the Roman archaeological site.

"Not bad," he replied, "really, just a bunch of stones. But that place was pretty interesting," indicating a cluster of buildings on the left, with an entrance about a hundred yards away. With no additional information, we entered the world of Vincent Van Gogh and the hospital where he lived for a year shortly before his suicide in July 1890. I have never forgotten that experience, and tried to re-create it for our friends.

"Does anybody have any idea where we're going?" I asked.

"Looks like a hospital." somebody said.

"Why are we going here?"

"Does it have anything to do with Van Gogh? There are copies of some of his paintings in front of this grove of olives. Hey, the grove looks like his painting!"

I like visiting Saint Paul-de-Mausole. I have likely never had an original artistic impulse in my life, but I think I can better understand and appreciate the talent and torment that enveloped the short life of Vincent Van Gogh by seeing his hospital room and walking around the grounds where he spent a major portion of his productive life.

We passed on Glanum. Maybe it's of interest to some, but not to us.

Off to Les Baux, and a couple of hours walking around the ruins of a medieval stronghold in a dramatic setting on top of the rock outcropping. We encountered our first large crowds of our time in the south of France. Another hit with the group. Les Baux has few permanent residents but there are a lot of shops, catering to the visiting tourists.

I used to be a history teacher. A favourite topic was the French Revolution in the Modern European course. Leading up to the Revolution, representatives came from all over France in the spring of 1789 for the meeting of the Estates General at Versailles bearing lists of grievances (cahiers des doléances), encompassing a variety of complaints. A common one concerned the destruction caused by the pigeons or doves of the local nobility. I had a hard time envisaging how a few birds could cause much damage. The dovecote at Les Baux (see photo) could accommodate up to 2000 birds. Oh.

As we were handing back our audio guides, one of the group asked about getting une pression - some French words are easy to learn for some reason. I suggested we drive over to Maussane-les-Alpilles, a few kilometers down the road and enjoy a relaxing glass of draft beer on a square under a canopy of plane trees. The young woman collecting the audio guides signified her approval. "Une bonne idée!" And off we went.

Back home in the late afternoon, after stopping at the Auchan supermarket in Cavaillon, our local supermarket on our previous visits to the Luberon, for "Happy Hour(s)" and an excellent meal prepared by one of our own.

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The dovecote at Les Baux
 
#11
June 14 - Coustellet, L'Abbaye de St Hilaire, L'Abbaye de Silvacane, Buoux

The most pleasant part of recent days in the Luberon are the early mornings. Cloudless skies, light breezes, quiet village and deserted streets. A beautiful start to our last Sunday - but one which promises another hot day.

Some of the group wanted to re-visit Coustellet - but I was also interested in seeing what the Sunday market in Ansouis had to offer. Not much as it turned out - just getting set up as we drove by at 8:30am. Arrived on Coustellet shortly after 9:00am before the heat of the day kicked in and parking was plentiful.

Another excellent experience at the Coustellet market before heading over to Lacoste and a relaxing café and "cinq Monacos" at the Bar de Europe, followed by a visit to L'Abbaye de St. Hilaire, very close to our previous gîte rental. We drove past the entrance at least a couple of times a day, but never went in. Now we are staying about half an hour away and we decide on a visit. Go figure.

Abbaye de St. Hilaire is unique in some ways. The approach, down a narrow unpaved lane is a bit of an adventure; the abbey is smaller than others in the area; and it it privately owned. A family from Rennes has undertaken the task of restoration. Pleasant gardens, quiet surroundings, nice views and a different experience from the other religious structures in the area.

Following the Abbaye de St. Hilaire we drove over to and around Menerbes - very quiet with few signs of activity - and then headed over to L'Abbaye de Silvacane - another Cistercian Abbey just across the Durance from Cadenet (parking €2, entrance 6€50 - OUCH! - only some of us paid to enter) before arriving back in Ansouis by 2:00pm.

Off again by 3:00pm - attracted by a large number of cars to stop at Lourmarin - nothing special seemed to be going on. The attractive village is just a magnet on a Sunday afternoon with all the restaurants and stores open for business. Over to Buoux, to see why a lot of people like it. Beats me - "scenic", aka treacherous, drive and not much there. I think it's a popular area with hikers and rock climbers and the recommended local restaurant was full (complete with a pair of horses tied up out back), and apparently we passed on the best site in the area, the Fort de Buoux - so perhaps others will find it more interesting. But for the rest of our trip, Buoux became a reference point - as in, "Well, at least it's not as bad as the road to Buoux."

Another evening in - and a trip to the Med. planned for tomorrow.

We have begun to talk about going home.

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In the garden at Abbaye de St. Hilaire
 
#12
June 15 - Cassis, Sunflowers and Camels in the South of France

Still no bread or croissants in the boulangerie. I think there is a mechanical problem - hope it gets fixed soon. We fall into new patterns quite easily - and an early morning walk almost next door for some warm croissants is most enjoyable.

Originally we had intended to drive down to Cassis a few days ago, but our plans got pushed back to today - and we are beginning to run out of time. Off before 8:30am over to Pertuis and down by Aix, arriving at Cassis around 10:00am. After parking on the street we walked down to the quayside, paused for a drink, walked around the pretty seaside town and took a tour of the calanques at 11:30am. This was our second time on the boat tour of the rugged coast around Cassis - another enjoyable experience and this time we saw several rock climbers. The tour was followed by another pause and some shopping.

Cassis - leaving the harbour

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aiXsP_8rC4

On our way back we missed the turn north at Aix - no problem for me, as the drive down was in the morning rush hour and was a bit stressful. We turned off at Salon de Provence and made our way back towards Rognes and the bridge over the Durance at Cadenet. In the area around Lambesc we came upon a remarkable sight - fields and fields of sunflowers just before their peak - almost worth a return visit to catch them in all their glory.

On a couple of previous occasions my companions have reported seeing two camels in a large field just before Villelaure on the way back to Ansouis. I was a bit skeptical until today - saw them in all their glory.

Happy Hour started with Monacos - beer, lemonade and grenadine at the Bar des Sports opposite - the bar features new tables and orange chairs, a colour matched by the shirt of the owner. JJ lives a few steps (take five big steps - that's about how far away he is from work) across the street. He opens at 7:00am, closes at 8:00pm and he is there every day, seven days a week, all but two days a year. He closes New Year's Day and a half a day at Christmas. He wears flip flops, smokes a lot and likes to sit on a bench in front of his house, where he can survey his domain - some tables would be out of his line of sight if he stayed in the bar.

The word "bar" should not suggest a dark interior space with service restricted to alcoholic drinks. The life of the Bar des Sports, at least in the warm months, occurs mainly outside at a number of multi-coloured tables and orange chairs. The Bar des Sports offers a light fixed lunch during the week and a barbecue lunch on weekends.

JJ serves café to a small group of regulars almost as soon as he opens, café crême to a varying number of our group before 8:00am, and likely a drink of some sort to many locals and most visitors to Ansouis throughout the day. In the late afternoon JJ is often engaged in a conversation with a table of the same group of people - appear to be friends - but he sits apart, ready for business.

For the past few days, most of us have dropped in for a Monaco (pronounced "Moonaco" - with the emphasis on the "a" - as in in Menachem Begin) - the unofficial start of Happy Hour chez Barbara.

He was fairly reserved at first, but we have noticed a more relaxed and friendly interaction the longer we have been here - likely has something to do with how much we frequent his bar. Fair enough. He's running a business, not part of the local colour for our entertainment. JJ and the Bar des Sports have added to our enjoyable time in Ansouis. We're glad he's here.

Dinner over in Cucuron at Restaurant de l'Horloge - a memorable evening and the best dining experience of the trip.

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Restaurant de l'Holodge, Cucuron. Chef Pascal (2nd from left) & Patricia (far right)
 
#13
June 16 - La Tour d'Aigues, Gordes, Lioux, Apt, Chateau Turcan

We are a few miles from the town of La Tour d'Aigues, a community with a most interesting history, dominated by the partially-restored ruins of a château. Tuesday is market day in La Tour d'Aigues. I recall reading about it in Markets of Provence by Ruthanne and Dixon Long - so off we went. What a pleasant surprise!

It is by far the most authentic French market we have visited in our four trips in the south of France. It is a reasonable size, spread out over a square adjacent to the château. It is a local market. One of my companions identified some of the differences between this market and the other ones we have visited.

1. We were the only Anglophones at the market. We stuck out like the proverbial sore thumbs.

2. Almost everybody else was better dressed than we were.

3. There was a lot of social interaction.

4. Most people had a small cart for their purchases.

5. Non-food offerings are not very interesting for tourists.

Plus, it is in a unique setting. If you are in the area of La Tour d'Aigues on a Tuesday, GO THERE!

We dropped off our purchases of paella, cabillaud, tapenade, veggies in Ansouis before heading over to Gordes for one of our party buy something seen on our previous visit. I didn't realize that Tuesday was also market day in Gordes - a striking contrast to our earlier experience in La Tour d'Aigues. If our morning market was a quintessential French market, the one in Gordes was a tourist one. Almost nobody at Gordes, except the vendors, spoke French; the items on offer came from a wider area, e.g. nougat from Montelimar, and there was a lot of art and memorabilia aimed at the "away" market. Plus, we had to pay €3 to search around for a place to park, whereas at the morning market we parked almost alone on a grassy square gratis. Unless you have a pressing reason to visit Gordes on a Tuesday, don't.

A few days ago we saw the large rock wall - falaise as we passed by Murs. At the base of the falaise was the village of Lioux. We thought it would be a nice to stop for a drink after the bustle of Gordes - so off we went ... Pause for those of you who have been to Lioux to have a good chuckle ... We arrived in Lioux and discovered that there is no visible commercial activity - nothing going on, much less a place to pause for a drink.

The falaise at Lioux

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVVvOyISZt4

So, we continued on to Apt, where we spent a couple of hours before heading back in the direction of Ansouis with a pause at Chateau Turcan, the wine of choice and universal acclaim last evening at Restaurant de l'Horloge in Cucuron. We are heartened by the proximity of the cave. If we run out before Saturday, it's only a few minutes away.

Dinner from the market in La Tour d'Aigues and 2004 vin rouge from Chateau Turcan. Wonderful.

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Tuesday is market day at La Tour d'Aigues, the most unique market we visited
 
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#14
June 17 - Pont du Gard, Avignon, Chateauneuf du Pape

Away by 8:00am, arrived at Pont du Gard before 10 to an almost empty parking lot. We had a very good time climbing to the top level of the Roman aqueduct, even though the channel was blocked by by a gate, an added feature in the past 30 years according to a British gentleman I met beside the gate. "There were no steps, just scrub land all along the hillside and the channel was caked with lime. Footing was a bit tricky, but the experience was well worth it. None of these barriers to protect us from ourselves."

There was a large group of schoolchildren canoeing down the Gardon River - having a great time. Every day we meet groups of schoolchildren out on excursions. The more physical and demanding the activity, the better they like it.

Canoeing on the Gardon

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOJusaGAaTo

Over to Avignon, arriving by shortly after noon. Easy parking outside the walls and a short walk into the centre ville, La Place de l'Horloge. Most of the group opted for a walk "sur le pont", while a couple of returning visitors were content with a more sedate activity. The Palais des Papes beckoned but the empty structure did not tempt any of the group, attracted by the more lively activities on the streets of the city, teeming with young people.

Off to the Chateauneuf du Pape wine region to the north of the city. We stopped, sampled and made purchases at Domaine Saint Siffrein and Mas de Boislauzon, two of the many wineries that extend along both D68 and D72. We notice that our reception and interaction is not nearly as personable as in other areas. Perhaps the slightly elevated reputation of the wine is reflected of the demeanor of the owners, both of whom greeted us. Still, an enjoyable experience - and very good, if likely a bit overpriced, wine.

Home via the A7, avoiding Carpentras (WHEW!), gas fill-up at HyperU in Pertuis (the longer I am here, the more "HyperTensionU" makes sense), a pause for "amuse bouches" and some wine from Chateau Val Joanis and Chateau La Canorgue, before an excellent dinner of cabillaud (cod) from the market in La Tour d'Aigues, haricots vert, patates, salad and a dessert from Le Fournil in Apt. All excellent.

Mont Ventoux is on tap for tomorrow.

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At the Pont du Gard
 
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#15
June 18 - Sault, Mont Ventoux, Buis les Baronnies, Vaison la Romaine

Off by 8:00am - great time to start a day that became very hot. I am usually the last one ready to head out for the day. With five women, what are the chances of that? Over to Apt and up to Sault where we stopped for a café. The trip over to Sault awarded spectacular views, but also included narrow twisting turns and bridge passages high above deep valleys.

I am sure some wondered if this was a prelude to come when I said that I thought they would enjoy a trip to the top of Mont Ventoux. My wife and I drove to the top on our first visit to Provence back in 2005 - but we didn't see much. A mistral was imminent, and we could only see a few feet in front of us.

After visiting the tourist office in Sault, picking up a map and being assured that we were within 30 minutes of the top of Mt. Ventoux, off we went. Most of the drive up the south side is in a forested area with only the last few kilometers on the exposed top of "Old Baldy." While we had told our companions about the number of cyclists we would encounter, even we were impressed with their numbers. We passed many, many cyclists - some labouring, some climbing easily, some in tandem, some in groups and many alone - all impressive individual efforts. We parked at the top and were humbled by the dozens of cyclists who were celebrating their ascent. There must have been close to 100 while we were there - and almost all were middle-aged or beyond. We were all impressed by the achievement of those who ascended the summit under their own power. The views are spectacular. Mt. Ventoux dominates the horizon of a large part of the Vaucluse.

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JkUwTVPmfw

We descended on the north side - almost alone. We met only a few cyclists and even fewer cars. The south ascent, which is an HC (above category) climb in the mountain stages of the Tour de France is by far the more popular.

Over to Buis les baronnies, a picturesque village and a very enjoyable lunch featuring a galette. The village was quiet when we were there, as most of the businesses were closed for a two or three hour lunch break. A bit out of the way, but an enjoyable visit to a highly-recommended community.

Then on to Vaison-la-Romaine, a visit to the Roman bridge and street scape, some shopping before heading back to Ansouis via Carpentras (yes, we took a wrong turn again) and Cavaillon, stopping for some ripe melons de Cavaillon and abricots at a roadside stand.

Dinner chez Barbara - starting to finish off our food purchases, getting ready for our departure.

Tomorrow is our last full day in our house in Ansouis. Our 6:16am Saturday morning TGV booking from the station in Avignon suggests a quiet day close to home, packing & getting ready for our departure. The owner of our property has been in contact a few times - nice touch that - and has encouraged us to visit the nearby Friday market in Lourmarin. OK Barb, we're going, we're going.

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Liz, Carol, Diane, Donna
 
#16
June 19 - Last Day - Lourmarin, Helianthos and un Bon Cadeau

Hey, remember when I mentioned the fields of sunflowers over near Lambesc? Well, I should have just waited a couple of days and raved about the sunflowers between Ansouis and Lourmarin. We came upon them today on the way to the Friday market in Lourmarin - several large fields just starting to bloom - should be a breathtaking site over the summer until they are harvested. Got a few pics, but nothing to do them justice.

Arrived at Lourmarin before 9:00am - early enough to get a good parking spot. Very popular and very good market - recommend to anybody staying in the area. Thanks for insisting we go there, Barb. We didn't need much in the way of food, since we're leaving early tomorrow morning, but we spent a couple of hours making a few purchases and stopping for a drink in the attractive and winding central area of the village. It was very hot again.

Back to Ansouis and a light lunch at the Bar des Sports, one last wine run over to Chateau Turcan and a quiet afternoon packing and resting for our long day tomorrow.

A couple of days ago, our traveling companions presented my wife and I with un bon cadeau, a gift certificate at La Closerie, a highly regarded restaurant a very short walk partway down the hill from chez Westfield. We enjoyed a very pleasant evening, dining on the patio looking over the valley and selecting from the à la carte side of the menu - an unusual and most enjoyable experience.

Helianthos? Oh, that's Sunflowers in French.

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Helianthos near Ansouis
 
#17
June 20 - Home Again

Away from Ansouis early Saturday morning to give us plenty of time to make the 6:16am TGV at Avignon to CDG. (Note for future reference. The Avignon Gare TGV doesn't open until 5:30am. No need to arrive earlier - no access to even the rental car lot before then).

First class tickets back to Paris - price was better then 2nd class when I booked online - followed directions on how to book online in French and printed our train tickets before we left. No need to deal with the kiosks or ticket office at CDG, thanks again to my ST mates. Our group split up at CDG. One was flying back to Montreal on Air France while the rest of us were on Air Transat. Flight home (7 1/2 hours) was OK - Customs, baggage pickup, where we met up briefly with the sixth member of our group, shuttle transfer to the Park 'N Fly lot, 2 1/2 hour car ride back home on 20 ouest, Highway 401, turn right at Brockville and north on Hwy 29 - arriving home by 7:30pm.

Pool looks OK; garden needs some care but in pretty good shape; grass needs cutting, but what else is new at this time of year?

There were no snags on our way home - and indeed there were no snags anywhere during our 18 days in France. We all got along very well together, had a great rental, everybody up and ready to go early each day, great times in Ansouis and everywhere we went, good times in the evenings whether we were out or chez Barbara, no bumps or dents in the mini-van. The last was a bit of a personal concern of mine before we left. I had not driven as large a vehicle in our previous visits. But I had five other sets of eyes to guide me into tight parking spots and the Ford had sensors that beeped when getting too close to a solid obstruction. Great feature.

Diane, one of our group, observed that, "We brought the sun with us wherever we went." Yes, we did.

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At Chateau Turcan
 
#18
Summary / Top 10 list / Recommendations

SUMMARY

We certainly enjoyed the company of our four friends. Not only did it make for much more interesting and varied conversations and activities than when there were just the two of us, but it also gave us the opportunity of seeing what was becoming familiar from novel perspectives. This was the first visit to the Luberon for our four traveling companions. What did they like best?

Top 10 Locales/Day Trips/Sites

1. Chez Westfield/Ansouis - Our rental greatly exceeded their expectations. And daily life in a small village suited us very well. From the boulangerie, to the tabac, to the Vival store, and (likely especially) to the Bar des Sports - the solutions to most of our needs were only a few steps away.

2. Coustellet market - Hands down their favourite.

3. Landscape scenery - Fields of poppies that looked like a Cezanne painting in the Musée d'Orsay, rows of lavender, cherry and apricot trees heavy with fruit, large expanses of yellow broom, sunflowers just starting to bloom, the fields of grape vines everywhere we looked. And of course the perched villages, secluded valleys and changes in elevation wherever we went. It's great just to be here.

4. Abbaye de Senanque

5. Cassis

6. Mont Ventoux

6. Saint Paul-de-Mausole and Les Baux

8. Pont du Gard

9. Restaurant de l'Horloge, Cucuron - A perfect evening

10. Winery visits - Especially Chateau Turcan, our "local" winery.

We didn't do any physical activities such such as hiking, biking or boating. Some of the group had talked about going for long walks before we arrived, but, except in the early morning, it was quite hot most of our days in the Luberon. Besides, we did a lot of walking each day, a lot of it up or down a hill. And we all enjoyed getting out and about in the van each day. Every day was a unique experience. Our companions were all impressed by the people we met, the routines of daily life, and the ease of getting around - especially the roundabouts.

I had thought that they might want a return trip to Aix or might want to visit other larger communities such as Arles or Nîmes, where they could also see the vestiges of the Roman Empire, but they preferred spending time in the smaller communities and places of interest in the countryside. Fine by me. That's the part of Provence that we also like best.

RECOMMENDATIONS

A few additional personal comments.

A. Markets

Our favourite markets on this trip, ones that we would recommend.

1. Lourmarin - Friday

2. Coustellet - Sunday

3. La Tour d'Aigues - Tuesday

The Friday market in Lourmarin was a very pleasant surprise and only about 10 minutes from chez Westfield. Highly recommended if you are staying in the area. We know there is a very good Saturday market in Apt and Aix is a good choice on any of the three market days. Parking makes the Tuesday market in Gordes a bit of a challenge. We much preferred La Tour d'Aigues on a Tuesday.

B. Restaurants

Our favourite restaurants on this trip, ones that we would also recommend.

1. Restaurant de l'Horloge, Cucuron. Our new favourite restaurant in the Luberon.

2. La Closerie, Ansouis. We'll be ordering from the prix fixe menu on any future visit, unless we are the beneficiaries of another bon cadeau.

3. La Galette Provençale, Buis les baronnies - for a light lunch, if you are in the area.

We will likely not return to L'Arôme in Bonnieux or L'Oustalet in Lourmarin on future visits. While L'Arôme was a personal favourite (three dinners in 10 days in 2007), we were mildly disappointed this time. Perhaps our expectations were too high. Likewise with L'Oustalet. We had read some good reviews and had intended to go there on a previous visit. Both were OK, but we would rather try somewhere new than return to either restaurant. One place I had intended to visit for lunch, but never got to is Auberge de la Clue in Plaisans. This comes highly recommended by Linda Jones. All of her recommendations have been right on. Next time.

C. Communications

Finally, we brought a cell phone, but we never used it. Our rental had SKYPE available on the computer. The six of us used Skype often, both to phone home or make calls around the south of France. In the future, availability of Skype will be a positive check mark in deciding on a rental.

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