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A Tour of Provence: from Nice to Ansouis to Aix to Venasque and Back to Nice

The summer simply flies by too quickly for my taste. Just one week ago we were wallowing in the satisfaction of the previous week on the sands of Corsica. Last week I soaked up sun, surf and soapy water in the Riviera town of Nice and now I’m in the arms of lavender-laden Provence. There is nothing quite like spending the summer in France, but in France Profonde, not France Metropole, where all the urbanites are vacationing and shedding their tough city skins. We fit right in among them.

It took too many years to discover the pleasures of a European summer; holding on to my American work ethic while everyone else was out playing. How stupid was that? During the month of August Paris became a ghost town, accomplishing anything became impossible. The heat without air conditioning became unbearable and the cold and gray threat of the coming fall was depressing. Why did I put up with that for so long?

The past two summers spent in Nice with regular trips to the beach have been an indication of what it’s like to be “retired.” Sometimes retirement sounds like a really good idea to have the life so many of my friends and clients have…but, then I remember who I am and how the path naturally takes me from one project to another. My friends of a similar age all discuss retirement – either when they will take it or how they are enjoying it now that they are. No one says they don’t enjoy their new-found lifestyle, especially in France.

Over barbecue spare ribs and cole slaw in Ansouis (a Provence Luberon village) on Saturday night with my good friend, Barb Westfield, and a host of friends from Provence, Paris, Nice and beyond, we all unanimously agreed that there’s nothing quite like the French habit of taking five weeks a year and having a REAL vacation. The French have the right idea to live life to its fullest and get paid while doing it, even if taxes are higher for the privilege of it.

France is set up to support the retirement community with a big thick safety net. And retirement in France doesn’t mean boredom – something we Americans might imagine once we stop working and have “nothing” to do. These retirees are busy bees pursuing hobbies they never had time for (painting, photography, writing, etc.) and are exploring France, Europe and the rest of the world traveling easily and inexpensively from such a central location. They exude enthusiasm, are tan, rosy and glowing with their contentment.

I came to Ansouis by car with other friends (retired, but working at new-found interests) who also attend the annual rib dinner Chez Westfield, stopping at an idyllic restaurant for lunch along the way – Chez Thomé – in the town of  Le Tholonet, a village in the Bouches-du-Rhône department not far from Aix-en-Provence. On the tree and parasol-covered rocky-floored patio next to the old house-turned-restaurant, we had a scrumptious light lunch among other summer “séjourists” (what I like to call them) having just as much of a relaxing time as us. The trek to Ansouis after that took us through the tree-lined roads of Provence of which dreams are made.

We have Napoleon to thank for the tree-lined French roads which enabled his soldiers to march in the shade. Many of us immediately think of these roads when we think of “La France Profonde,” but there’s a campaign to remove them since they claim so many lives (one in eight road deaths) for reduced visibility and greater injuries when crashed into. France’s League Against Violence is at the helm of the attack, and at least wants to reduce the speed limit (from 90 km/h to 80 km/h) on the most dangerous stretches of road. Dangerous or not, removing them would be heresy as far as I’m concerned! (The Local has a really good recent article about this.)

Saturday night, Barb made her usual outstanding “sous-vide” ribs. She then char-grilled the already-cooked pork ribs on the grill with American barbecue sauce. Served along side where cole slaw, corn bread made in the shape of “Madeleines,” grilled artichoke hearts, watermelon slices and mini-pastries from the local “patissier” for a scrumptious buffet on her beautiful terrace in the warm night air. After pigging out (or should I say “porking out?”) on the home-cooked vittles, we played a raunchy game of Cards Against Humanity® and laughed until we cried and doubled over with hysteria.

I wasn’t ready to leave Provence after just one night. My daughter had toured the region with a friend earlier this month, sending me blow-by-blow photos of the beautiful places they had visited making me insanely green with envy. I needed a fix before it was too late and the summer would be over, so a friend with two homes in the Vaucluse town of Venasque invited me to come see her and her abodes there. Venasque is one of France’s most beautiful “perched” villages, the kind that were abandoned and left to ruin in the 20th-century, then brought back to life in the last half of this century by admirers such as my American friends.

To easily get from Point A to Point C, Barb kindly drove me Sunday morning to Point B, where we could meet my Venasque friend in Aix-en-Provence for a lunch on the Cours Mirabeau at Les Deux Garçons, a historic brasserie at No. 53. Locals call it “Les Deux G,” because of the multiple owners and patrons during it’s long history involving men with names that start with the letter “G.” The building was once called the Auberge du Cheval Blanc, owned by M. Gros. He sold it to M. Gantès who built the mansion known as the Hôtel de Gantès in 1660. In the 18th-century, M. Guion bought the building and created “Le “Grand Cercle” reserved for nobility and the upper middle class. After 1789, the lease passed to M. Guérin, who made the “Café Julien.” Finally, in 1840, two waiters of the café, messieurs Guidoni and Guerini, bought it and gave it its current name. In the 20th-century, following in the tradition, two other waiters played a vital role in the reputation of the brasserie for the reception of artists such as Cézanne, Picasso, Cocteau, Delon, Poulenc and the protagonists of the opera festival of the city.

This is where we had a light lunch before saying “so-long” to Barb and heading off to the Caumont Centre d’Art for the current exhibition – Nicolas de Staël en Provence in the Hôtel de Caumont. The mansion, located in the Mazarin neighborhood and aristocratic part of Aix-en-Provence, was built “between courtyard and garden” to distinguish itself from Parisian style. The de Staël exhibition was superb, but the Hôtel de Caumont even more spectacular. After touring the rooms and the beautiful works of the artist, we had an iced coffee in the stunning Café Caumont, on the ground floor which immerses you in the spirit of the 18th-century of Provence. It all was a perfect taste of Aix before heading north to Venasque.

Today is when we will fully discover the wonders of the ancient village of Venasque, along with other nearby villages and Mont Ventoux before I get dropped off in Carpentras tomorrow, from which I’ll train back to Nice. On Wednesday, I’ll report on the discoveries made in this part of Provence.

Meanwhile, Earful Tower podcaster Oliver Gee and his new bride, Lina Nordin, are about to take off on a two-week heart-shaped tour of France for the honeymoon of a life time. They will jump onto their little red scooter and head for the hills, the plains and the back roads of France to discover France Profonde.

He asks of all of us, “What should I see and who should I meet? Where would you go if you could go anywhere in France?”

They are heading north first and traveling in a counterclockwise direction hoping to see much of the country. On a beer budget, they need to keep their costs down and are seeking recommendations for places to visit and invitations from willing hosts to accommodate them. He’ll be blogging along the way, so if you own a B&B or hotel and wish to get a little deserved publicity, this is your chance…or if you’re just kind-hearted and open to an adventure, and would like to meet Oliver and Lina (who I am sure you will enjoy), then now’s your chance to share your favorite spot in France with the newlyweds.

Here’s when and where they are sure to be, but perhaps you can help them fill in the points in between on their loving heart of France:

August 15th: Château exploring in Chantilly.

August 25th: Making “galettes” in Saint-Brieuc with a bona fide Breton, Fabien.

September 1st: Seeing Angers with Diane from Oui in France.

September 5th: Living French village life in Verteuil-sur-Charente.

September 10th: Bordeaux highlights, hosted by Mike from Bordeaux Expats.

If you want to contribute to their honeymoon memories, with tips on where to go, who to meet, what to see, etc., then click here now!


A la prochaine…


Adrian Leeds

Editor of Parler Nice
Adrian Leeds Group

(By Michael Honegger)


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