Provence and Occitanie—A Report on the Tour
Tuesday of last week, 29 of us from the Living & Investing in France Tour boarded a luxury coach with our driver, Emily, who was the same driver on last year’s tour. She’s a French woman with pizazz, dressed to the nines, and did a formidable job of maneuvering the tiny Provençal roads. We applauded her over and over again.
Our first stop was Château La Coste near Aix-en-Provence. This is not to be confused with the village of Lacoste, nor the château that is in the village, which happens to be one of the three residences of the Marquis de Sade, currently owned by Pierre Cardin. The Château La Coste is a winery, a center for contemporary art, a luxury hotel and it includes several restaurants. Along a path that takes you through the vineyards are monumental works of art by various well-known artists. A music pavilion on the grounds designed by Frank Gehry regularly hosts artists and musical concerts. It’s a Must-See for anyone exploring Provence. We chose to visit it and have lunch there before doing anything else.
It was the perfect start of the tour. The works of art are fabulous, but lunch there is just as impressive. Their Tarte a l’Onion served at their open-air café is to be reckoned with, and the wines are superb. Allow for at least a half-day if not a full day of enjoying the beautiful grounds, wonderful art and yummy lunch…but no matter what, don’t miss this if you’re in the area.
Avignon was our destination for two nights, staying at the Hôtel de l’Horloge, which couldn’t have been more perfect. The hotel is charming and located so dead center that the entire town is at your feet. Most of the group took a tour of the Palais des Papes in the afternoon, while others just relaxed at a nearby café.
Dinner for the entire group was at a very unusual restaurant…the Carré du Palais, situated in what once was the Banque de France building on the Place du Palais des Papes. It is a gourmet home for AOC wines, with its cellar of 10,000 bottles in the former vault of the ancient bank. Our meal was exceptional as were the wines! Again, not a bad start for the first day.
Early the next morning we boarded the bus to head first to the Pont du Gard, a true masterpiece of ancient architecture. The aqueduct is one of the most beautiful Roman constructions in the region built halfway through the 1st-century AD. It is the principal construction of a 50-kilometer-long aqueduct that supplied the city of Nîmes with water, the city formerly known as Nemausus. Built as a three-level aqueduct standing 50 meters high, it allowed water to flow across the Gardon river. We had the very special treat of being able to access the very upper part of the aqueduct to which one must have a key! It’s narrow and long and in most parts not very high, sending some of us ducking as we passed through. This was a very special treat and the views from the top are sensational.
Uzès was our next stop…on market day. Uzès was the first duchy of France, and is full of charm and rich in ancient heritage. A blend of Medieval, Renaissance and classical styles, the Duchy of Uzès—or Ducal Castle—is one of the flagship sites of the city. We didn’t have time for a visit because there was only about an hour of perusing the market, then on schedule we lunched at Midi à l’Ombre, a charming spot steps from the Hôtel de Ville, in their garden in the shade of a majestic hackberry tree, in the heart of a bucolic and flowery setting. It couldn’t have been nicer or more delicious.
In Uzès, the group had the opportunity of visiting one available property and learning about others in the vicinity with Ella Dyer and Jennifer Parrette. We would have visited more if they had been available, but there is so little on the market that it simply wasn’t possible.
We didn’t stop there that day—we went on by motor coach so that the group could take a Van Gogh-themed tour of the city of Arles. Many artists have lived and worked in this area because of the southern light, including Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Jacques Réattu, and Peter Brown. Vincent van Gogh lived in Arles from 1888 to 1889, and produced over 300 paintings and drawings during his time there. The city has a history of importance and many of the monuments of Arles were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1981 for their testimony to the history of the region.
While the group was on the tour, I connected with a past client of ours, Karen Storlien, who purchased a second home in Arles and has spent all of the warmer months there, loving every minute. She and I taped an episode of House Hunters International years ago—“Living a Teenage Dream in Paris, France”—Season 61, Episode 5. She explained that Arles is heaven in the summertime, but rather desolate during colder times of the year. She’s a photographer getting lots of commissioned jobs, and living there doesn’t hurt considering the Rencontres de la Photographie d’Arles, an annual summer photography festival, founded in 1970 by the Arles photographer Lucien Clergue, the writer Michel Tournier and the historian Jean-Maurice Rouquette. With a program composed mainly of new productions, the Rencontres d’Arles has acquired an international scope. In 2019, for its 50th edition, 145,000 visitors came to the festival for more than 1,400,000 exhibition visits.
Thursday started off at the “Carrières de Lumières” in the heart of the Alpilles. This extraordinary multimedia show is unique in the world. Spectators are totally immersed in the images projected onto all the surfaces of the limestone rock of an enormous quarry. The ground is completely covered, too, and becomes a vast carpet of images. This season’s show is two parts: Venise (Venice) and Klein (Yves Klein). One hour of immersion was almost a religious experience! Do not miss this, if you’re in the “neighborhood.”
The “neighborhood” includes the Luberon and one of its most beautiful villages is Roussillon in the land of ochres. It all goes back to the sea which once covered the area. When the sea dried up several million years ago, it poured rain slowly transforming the accumulated layers of limestone into ochre-bearing sands. Ochre was first used as a natural paint in the painted caves that prehistoric man embellished. It was later rediscovered at the time of the French Revolution, and was sold throughout the world for over a century. The town is filled with shops offering this natural pigment in many forms. And it was here that we enjoyed a fabulous lunch on the terrace of Le Piquebaure, overlooking the beautiful valley below.
On the way to Aix-en-Provence for three nights there, we took a special route through some of the Luberon hilltop villages, including Bonnieux. Then we checked into our hotel for the next three nights—the Hôtel De France, right in the heart of the city. We stayed in this hotel last year—steps from the Fontaine de la Rotonde from which the Cours Mirabeau starts. The location couldn’t be better and the hotel is delightful.
Aix-en-Provence is a university town, the birthplace of the painter Paul Cézanne, not far from Mont Sainte-Victoire, a limestone mountain overlooking the city and its surrounding landscape. The vibrancy of the city is the result of the large population of students—about 35,000 of the 143,000 inhabitants. I rank it high as a great place to live in France, because of its proximity to the Marseille international airport (30-minute drive) and Paris via the TGV (about 3 hours).
Friday morning we went to the village of Lourmarin for the market there—one of the best in the region. The produce and local products are top-notch, and the atmosphere is delightful. Listed as “one of the most beautiful villages in France,” Lourmarin is nestled in the middle of vineyards, olive groves and almond trees. It’s a very animated village in the summer due to its numerous café terraces, restaurants and boutiques. The château, located in fabulous surroundings facing the village of Lourmarin, was the very first Renaissance castle built in Provence. It hosts young artists in residence during the summer, and concerts, conferences, and exhibitions throughout the year. This is one of my favorite villages in the area, for its beauty and ease of access…not to mention the great market. We all left there with bags in our hands of goodies we had purchased.
A scrumptious lunch was served to us on the terrace at the Domaine de Fontenille in Lauris, overlooking the beautiful gardens and lawns, followed by a wine-tasting and tour of the vineyards (that Patty sometimes calls “wine plants!”). We simply didn’t want to leave! Over lunch, my table of tour attendees remarked about how much fun we were having, how wonderful the food was, how everyone got along so well with no complaints, how the timing for everything worked out so well, and how glad they were that they had come. Then, they all exclaimed that the wine tasting was the best they had ever experienced…having walked among the “wine plants” and tasted the grapes, as well as nine different wines! The group left there very, very happy, to say the least!
I had to leave the group just after our time at the winery, one day early in order to get to Epernay in Champagne on Saturday morning to tape my 51st episode of House Hunters International…for which I was very sad. We’d all become such good friends, having such a wonderful time together that I didn’t want to leave and abort the good times. But, duty calls. I went to the station to catch a train to Paris and they went on to complete their tour.
Their last day included a house tour of properties in Aix-en-Provence and a fabulous lunch and a visit to the Hôtel de Caumont Museum located in the Mazarin neighborhood, the southern and aristocratic part of Aix-en-Provence. Demonstrating Parisian influences, the Hôtel de Caumont is a mansion built “between courtyard and garden,” an architectural design that appeared in Paris in the 16th century.
I arrived late in Paris, did laundry, repacked for the taping and then woke very early to catch a train to Epernay. Four hours sleep was all I got, but I write this from Epernay, the center of the champagne industry in the region of Champagne. You’ll hear all about it later this week when the taping is “in the can” and I can officially “talk” about it!
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
Adrian at Domaine de Fontenille
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