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June 07, 2019

Provencal Vignettes

Text and photographs by Emilie Joly Johnson

When visiting Provence, prepare to step into another realm, says photographer-blogger Emilie Joly Johnson who has moved to the French region, family in tow, from New York….

Come to Provence for your senses. For your nose: the salt of the sea, the earthy smell of rock, of oak moss, the musk of the blooming fruit trees. For your eyes: a pitch-perfect palette. For your skin: air that is like a balm. For your ears: the mistral bellowing a soulful song. For your tongue: gusto, zest and authenticity in every bite of what you eat and drink. The villages are sentinels, built into the rocky hillside, as if the rock itself gave birth to them. The azure Mediterranean is in close range — and the famous calanques (sea cliffs and inlets) are pure magic….

Sitting for a long meal in its golden light is the consummation of the Luberon experience – all the senses come together at once. In Oppède-le-Vieux, visit Le Petit Café on a picturesque terrace dripping with roses and vines located right at the entrance of the tiny village, which dates back to the 12th century. In Ménerbes, there is La Bastide de Marie, where the owners are masters of the apéro, a local aperitif – enjoy the tapenade made from home-grown olives and a glass of pale rosé. In Bonnieux, you will find the famous L’Arôme, where Chef Jean-Michel Pagès delivers Provence on a fine plate under a vaulted stone ceiling.

A trip to Provence would be only half-done without a long stroll through a village market. Each vendor’s table is a mass of just-picked produce, still bespattered with the magical earth in which it was grown. A visual feast sits before you, as if you were walking into a painting. Cheeses, tapenades, honey, soaps, fresh lavender satchels and cut flowers…. The market in Ménerbes is held every Thursday morning, while Bonnieux’s is on Fridays.

Aix-en-Provence is the honey-toned town that defines elegance in this part of the world. Every square is adorned with a mossy fountain, some are thermal – bubbling flushed water into their basins. Even Parisians admit to admiring the famously stylish Aixois, as the residents here are known. Make your way up the snaking streets, towards the town hall square, where almost every morning there is a breathtaking flower market.

Visit whatever exhibit is on at the cultural space, Hôtel de Caumont – a beautifully restored 18th-century hôtel particulier in the heart of Aix (what Aix-en-Provence is colloquially called). Whether they feature Sisley, Chagall or another master, the exhibitions in the gallery here are perfectly curated. Have tea or a drink in the exquisite garden. For dinner, try Drôle d’endroit which, true to its name (the strange or funny place), offers a meal you won’t forget, rich with Provençal themes and flavours. This is a place the locals frequent – always a good sign.

The light in the Luberon Valley stains the villages, alleys of plane trees and row after row of grapevine aurelian. Cobblestone streets, tiled roofs and stone homes decorated with wooden shutters seem to be painted in the hues of Van Gogh. A glorious circuit through the Luberon includes the villages of Oppède-le-Vieux, Ménerbes, Bonnieux and Lacoste. In each one, climb its ramparts to the highest point – usually a chateau or church – for a panoramic vista that will steal your breath away. Then duck into the chill of the ancient structure to breathe in an intoxicating mix of musky resin that saturates the stone. Many of the churches in the Luberon feature original paintings on their stone walls.

A beautiful stop along the sea is the little harbour of Cassis. Take in a sweeping view of the town and the entire coastline from Cap Canaille, France’s highest sea cliff. You can easily enter the name into your GPS navigation device or map and follow the Routes des Crêtes to the top of the drive. You will marvel at the vista – the Mediterranean Sea, the cliffs of the calanques and the bays of Cassis.

If hiking and diving into jewel-toned waters calls out to you, the limestone sea cliffs of the calanques of Cassis are mythical. The best place to park is in the lot for La Presqu’ile (permitted for a small fee). The trail to the calanques starts at the Calanque de Port-Miou (a harbour for small boats). Follow the harbour all the way around to the path on the opposite side. There, you can walk along the blue-marked path to Calanque de Port-Pin – a small beach. Climb the shoreline rocks to diving points into the sparkling water. Continue along the same trail all the way to the cliffs above Calanque d’En-Vau and eventually make your way down to its chimerical beach. It is best to visit the calanques on weekdays (weekends get very crowded in summer) and the very best time is off-season (April, May, June, September, October, November).

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