While I may not be going on vacation this summer after just moving into a new house, I can’t stop thinking about a vacation we took last September. We’re big fans of the road trip. He loves mapping out the locations we need to stop to visit, finding the perfect bed & breakfasts and restaurants all along the way. I’m the co-pilot, making sure the music is always on and that we don’t miss any turns. I also do my fare share of eating and drinking, and since I can’t drive a manual car, I have a guaranteed DD! We’ve driven all over this country, from Paris to Saint Tropez, to Alsace (on the German border), to Normandy and every nook & cranny along the coast, through the vines of Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Roussillon, the Pays Basque, and Corsica from North to South. We even accidentally ended up in Spain once when he swore he knew where he was going- but it’s all part of the adventure.
The beauty of road tripping in France is that there is just so much to see from one region to the next; the landscapes will never cease to amaze me. I compare France to Texas often because they are the same size- Texas is actually a bit bigger than France- and the fact that even if you take the ‘scenic’ route from Dallas to Austin, the landscape isn’t going to change that much until you get really close to Austin, where some hills pop up. In that same distance in France, you’d drive through three separate regions of the country, on your way to a fourth, each with its own local specialty products, wines, people, accents, and customs.
Last year, M and I took a road trip through Provence, maybe one of my favorites to date. While we did cheat and take the fast train to Avignon, once we got into Avignon it was all driving. We rented a little convertible, risky due to the high winds and unpredictable weather in the region, but always worth it when you are driving through les Baux de Provence with the wind in your hair.
If you decide to do the same road trip, here are the places you can’t miss.
Where to Visit:
1. Saint Rémy de Provence
The town that was made famous for being the home of Vincent Van Gogh during his years in the asylum of Saint Rémy, and one of the most luxurious towns in Provence, Saint Rémy is an interior decorator’s dream. Throughout the quaint town are shops that hold both rare antiquities and newer wares that’ll let you bring the effortlessly chic “Provençal” style back home. Saint Rémy is also the spot where Vincent van Gogh painted his famous tableau, The Starry Night, which you’ll see why when you see the sky at night around the town. I love a store in Saint Remy called Le Mas des Anges, where you’ll find candles, lavender products from the region, and other cute things for the home. The town is known for its pottery- beautiful baking dishes, olive bowls- fine linens, fresh and dried lavender products, and olive oils.
2. Les Baux de Provence
The winding routes that bring you to this charming medieval town perched 1,000 ft above the pre-alps are lined with wineries and olive plantations. As you arrive at the top of the hill where Les Baux de Provence is located, the views to the sea and across the Alps are endless. Within the tiny village are several spots to pick up handmade lavender lotions, award-winning olive oils, and fine linens. It truly is a unique town and one worth visiting (although it can be a bit touristy, you just have to take it for what it is- a rare preserved medieval town on a hill!)
3. Maussane Les Alpilles
A village that celebrates all things Provençal and gourmet, Maussane is a gem. During the late summer months, the town celebrates the fruits of the olive trees with a festival that livens the sleepy cobblestone streets of the village.
This quiet hilltop village is capped with the crumbling 17th century Chapelle des Pénitents, offering a view over the Alpilles. Worth a visit on the weekends when a charming market forms in the streets, offering everything from rare books to regional specialties such as olives and tapenades.
Where to Eat:
Ou Ravi Provençeau
In Maussane, there is no better example of Provençal cuisine than at Ou Ravi Provençau. In the warm and inviting atmosphere of this restaurant, my favorite dish was the rabbit sautéed with thyme, bacon and white wine. I will never forget this meal! The owners of the restaurant live upstairs, and you really feel like you’re dining with family. From the décor to the wine and food, everything is charmingly authentic.
La Petite Table
After exploring the market of Eygalières, lunch on the terrace of La Petite Table is the perfect way to enjoy the sunshine and cuisine of Provence. It’s also quite affordable at lunchtime (we went back there twice) for a generous serving. The set menu is delicious, and is comprised of four or five courses. The tartare here is amazing (although not very provençal…). I love the setting, either inside or out, as it’s an old house so you’re seated around their sparkling pool and arching trees offering much-needed shade.
L’Oustaù de Baumanière
A stunning two-star Michelin restaurant surrounded by nothing but nature, L’Oustaù de Baumanière is one of the most beautiful, rustic tables in the region. The chefs even offer cooking classes throughout the year, sharing their most cherished recipes with a select few students. I love the décor of the hotel, as its new and renovated without being modern or austere. The same family also owns le Cabro d’Or down the road, which is now a Relais & Chateau hotel with 25 rooms, and they also cultivate their own wine at the organic vineyard “Affectif” in the region.
Where to Stay:
Le Secret des Sources
I almost don’t want to tell you about my all time favorite place on earth, but it’s so good that I thought I think I’ll do you the favor. It’s called Le Secret des Sources. There are so many reasons why I love this place- it’s not only the most beautiful spot in Provence, but the owners (Alain and Marie Van Laethem) are so charming you can’t help but fall in love with them and their b&b. The house is situated in the middle of the rocky pre-alps, surrounded by olive plantations, lavender bushes, and that’s it. It’s a 5 room b&b with a private guest house in the garden as well as a pool.
In the mornings, Mrs. Van Laethem serves breakfast in the garden, complete with everything you could imagine, homemade preserves, served on her precious provençal table cloths. In the evening, they’ll prepare you a bottle of rosé and some tapenade to enjoy as the sun sets, and when we return from dinner, they had M’s favorite scotch waiting bedside.
They built the house in 2006, but for 10 years prior they traveled around France and Italy in search of the finest antiques, giving the house a vintage charm. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet the curious neighborhood fox (named Joseph by Mr. Van Laethem) and hear the tales of Alain’s past days as a horse trainer or race car driver.
All of this sounds like it would be one expensive b&b- but that’s the best part. It’s not!
Bonus Adventure: Would you drive two hours for lunch?
One morning, we woke up at Le Secret des Sources, unsure of our plan for the day, when a craving for the beach and some fresh fish hit me hard. I told M that I would kill for a “loup pour deux” (a sea bass for two) at Les Salins in Saint Tropez, and without hesitation, he proposed we drive there for lunch. Next thing I know we are sitting at my all time favorite beach side restaurant having a whole fish served to us. So, if driving two hours from Maussane to Saint Tropez for an incredible lunch sounds like something you’d do as well, then definitely don’t miss out on the opportunity. Provence and the Cote d’Azur are really not that far from one another, and again, the beauty of the rental car in France is that even if you drive to a completely different region, you aren’t going to have to drive very far.