Picture-Perfect Provençal Villages
by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
Charming, fairytale villages seem to be a French specialty. These sweet enclaves can be found across the country, as ubiquitous as good wine and tasty baguettes. There is even an official organization to determine which of all the French villages are the loveliest. Les Plus Beaux Villages de France Association has found 161 small communities worthy of the title “Most Beautiful Village.”
We’re presenting three of those pretty places here, all located in Provence. Many more are on our list — including a few that didn’t make the Plus Beaux list — but these make for a great start.
Breathtaking in any number of ways, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is an adorable collection of cottages, clinging to a mountain top. A waterfall descends from craggy slopes and flows through the middle of the village. Musical gurgling from the water adds to the winsome setting, of course. You’re likely to pinch yourself and marvel that you’ve somehow wandered onto a movie set — it’s all so perfect
Moustiers-Saine-Marie is especially known for its faïence — beautifully crafted ceramics. Stroll along the cobblestone streets and enjoy the displays in shop windows. Enter at your own risk! The superbly-made dish sets with imaginative designs are irresistible. Fortunately, the locals are also adept at packing the breakable treasures for visitors to take home.
A tiny church, Notre-Dame de Beauvoir, sits like a guardian angel over the village and just next to it, dangling precariously between two cliffs, is a gilded star. According to legend, the star was hung by Bozon de Blacas, who was captured by Saracens during one of the Crusades. Once freed, the knight returned to his home and put up the star to celebrate his release. Most recently, the star was re-hung with the aid of a helicopter, one can only imagine how Bozon de Blacas managed the feat way back in the 13th century.
Inhale deeply and begin climbing the 262 steps to the church. Ascend carefully — years of devoted pilgrims have polished the stone steps until they are quite slippery. Take your time and enjoy the splendid views, not only of Moustiers — spread out like a toy town beneath you — but of the deep-green valleys, lavender fields and lakes lying miles beyond.
Once you’ve reached the small chapel, enter the dark, pitch-black interior. As you become accustomed to the light, you’ll see the small altar, illuminated by flickering votive candles. A few stained glass windows provide a bit more natural light. Notice the ceramic plaque – donated by a local artisan, no doubt — confirming the foundation of the church in 1679 and the plaque date at 1927. Blacas’ hanging star is portrayed as well.
Back down the mountain, reward yourself with a delicious lunch at La Treille Muscate. We’ve dined there many times and enjoy it more with each visit. The restaurant sits above the river; generally, the windows are open on all sides for sunny views and fresh air.
The staff is warm and welcoming and the food is outstanding. Try the Calamari Salad with Tomatoes & Ginger in an emulsion of Yusu (Japanese Lemon) or Batonnets of Foie Gras to accompany an Onion Tart and Moustiers honey.
For a main dish, have the fish — always excellent — choices might include Hake, cooked in parsley oil with Black Olive Jam and Hand-mashed Potatoes, perfumed with Espelette Chile Peppers. You could also choose Rabbit stuffed with Foie Gras, Shallots & Chard, served with Polenta & Truffle Oil.
Desserts are Chocolate Crème brûlée or a selection of cheeses. Priced at $30.00 the lunch menu is a great value. The wine list is also well-priced, with numerous wines from nearby properties.
GORGES DU VERDON: THE FRENCH GRAND CANYON
A mere 20 minutes from Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is the magnificent Gorges du Verdon. The canyon is approximately 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) in length, with a maximum depth of 0.7 kilometers (0.4 miles), making it the world’s second largest gorge.
The most striking feature about the gorge is that the Verdon River turns a brilliant turquoise hue as it runs through the canyon. This remarkable coloring is due to tiny particles of limestone, known as ‘rock flour’ or ‘glacial flour.’ The name Verdon, in fact, originates from the French word vert.
The mountainous, hairpin roads can be very treacherous. And lumbering tour buses tend to take up most of the narrow motorway. If you’re coming from Moustiers after a three-course lunch, be sure to have an expresso before you attempt the drive!
Gorges du Verdon is especially popular for rock climbing, with over 1,500 routes to choose from. Rafting, hiking, canoeing, fishing and paragliding are popular sports as well. If you decide you’d like to overnight in the park, there are several good hotels:
Hôtel Grand Canyon du Verdon
A contender for Europe’s “most spectacularly-situated hotel,” the Hôtel Grand Canyon du Verdon offers 14 rooms, five of which face the gorge and have terraces overhanging the canyon. The restaurant is open to the public if you’d like to simply enjoy the views while dining. The menu offers local specialties for lunch and dinner.
Hôtel & Spa des Gorges du Verdon
Across the canyon, is the four-star Hôtel & Spa des Gorges du Verdon. All 26 rooms have wonderful panoramas with balconies or terraces. A duplex and three suites are also available. In addition to the spa, facilities include two heated pools, tennis court and a climbing wall.
Chef François Bargoing, who holds the title “Maître-Restaurateur” and is also a member of the esteemed “Collège Culinaire de France,” oversees the restaurant. Bargoing offers Provençal classics served with unforgettable views of the gorge.
This fortress city situated within the Alpilles (Little Alpes) commands a spectacular view of the plains to the south. Its strategic position, perfect for surveying potential invaders, was utilized by both Celts and Romans. And it was also from this lofty spot that the Marquis des Baux ruled Provence from the 11th to the 12th century. These princes were supposedly descendants of Balthazar, one of the three Biblical Magi. To this day, the emblem on the city flag is the sixteen-point silver star of the Nativity.
As you walk through the ancient city, see if you can discern the new construction from the 12th century buildings. The massive fortress was so well built, that contemporary shops, cafés and galleries continue to utilize the original castle walls. The blend is fascinating.
At the Musée d’Histoire et d’Archéologie des Baux, you’ll find a collection of relics and antiquities, as well as a slide show featuring the art of Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin. From April through September, you’re able to travel back in time courtesy of locals dressed in period costumes. You’ll even have a chance to launch the catapults or practice with crossbows. Jousting tournaments are held, but beware, the knights frequently solicit tokens from attractive lady visitors!
Make a quick stop at the “troglodyte” Saint Vincent Church. Carved into the mountainside, the 12th century structure holds the funeral vault of the Manville family, once the most powerful of the Les Baux rulers, with modern day connections to the Rainiers of Monaco. The Prince of Monaco continues to hold the title Marquis des Baux.
Centuries after the Les Baux princes were overthrown, the region found new life with bauxite mining. In fact, the name bauxite is derived from the village name. The mining enterprise lasted through most of the 20th century until the mines played out.
With the dawn of the tourism industry, one of the largest of the quarries has been creatively reimagined as a huge art gallery. The Carrières de Lumières displays thousands of images on 66-foot high walls. Exhibits change annually: Bosh, Brueghel & Arcimboldo are currently on display. Past exhibits have included Monet, Renoir, Leonardo and Michelangelo.
For lunch, you can dine at any of the charming cafés in Les Baux, many have views of Val d’Enfer (Hell’s Valley), said to have inspired Dante’s Inferno. If you’re in the mood for something more gourmet these restaurants might be options:
L’Oustau de Baumanière
Established in 1945, L’Oustau de Baumanière was the first luxury hotel-restaurant in the region and is credited with triggering the current tourist boom. Its two Michelin stars and legendary reputation have made L’Oustau a culinary requirement for many gourmands. Chef Glenn Viel has recently taken over the kitchen from Jean-André Charial, the grandson of original founder Raymond Thuilier. The seasonal menus change frequently; view prices and hours online.
A long driveway bordered by cypress, lavender and olive trees immediately summon up all things Provence. Beautiful stonework and eye-catching, original art decorate the walls at Hôtel Benvengudo. Begin lunch with a cocktail or glass of rosé by the pool, then move onto the bistro for beautifully plated salads, soups or sandwiches. Le Burger Benvengudo is one of the most artfully constructed plates you’ve ever seen, with Buffalo meat & smoked pork. The elaborate dinner menu features soufflés, ratatouille, lamb, fish and various meat choices. View choices, prices and hours online.
CHANNELING VAN GOGH
As you drive in and around Les Baux, remember that this is the very same scenery painted so often by Vincent Van Gogh. The artist first arrived from Paris in February 1888. Eager to escape the cold and snow, he settled in Arles. There he produced 200 canvases in fewer than 15 months. At the height of his creativity — which sadly coincided with his deteriorating mental health — Van Gogh committed himself to an asylum in neighboring Saint-Rémy in May of 1889. Two years later the world lost his genius, but Van Gogh’s brilliant sunflowers, starry nights and Provençal scenes live on and on.
ABBAYE NOTRE-DAME DE SÉNANQUE
On your way to Gordes, stop in to visit one of Provence’s most beloved landmarks, the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque. Surrounded by lavender fields, the abbey seems to float on a purple sea throughout the summer. The aromatic flowers are equally breath-taking.
Cistercian monks began building the church and cloister in 1150 and finally completed the structures in the 13th century. The quiet, meditative abbey is devoid of murals or art. The Romanesque architecture, however is exquisite and rare.
During the French Revolution, the abbey was nationalized and later sold. Eventually the Cistercians reacquired the property and planted lavender to support maintenance of the property. Tours are offered — be sure to check the website to make arrangements. Public areas can be visited freely and at any time during the morning.
Appearing like a mirage on the side of a cliff, Gordes easily meets all the “Most Beautiful” criteria. Stone houses climb along the edge of the Luberon mountain top in a tiered spiral. A lovingly restored church and château cap off the scene.
Meander down the pretty walkways and take in the medieval village. Not much time will be required because Gordes is so tiny! Window shopping is another pleasure. But a word of caution: Gordes has become home to a growing number of celebrities, so prices may reflect the rising incomes. If possible, time your visit for a Tuesday morning, when farmers drive up the mountain to show off their fresh produce and artisanal goods.
When you’re ready for a break, savor a glass of wine or light lunch at Les Cuisines du Château, sweet and unpretentious, the bistro provides great dishes and a perfect location for people-watching…. or planning your next visit to another beautiful French village.
TCO Publisher Marla Norman, with a toast to France’s “Beautiful Small Villages.”