I have always dreamt of spending a year in Provence. Unfortunately for me, a week would have to suffice. Staying in the picture perfect village of Vaison-la-Romaine was some compensation though
My husband had just run the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc — a gruelling 100 mile race around Mont Blanc covering three countries which took him nearly 29 hours to complete. I couldn’t think of a better excuse for a relaxing holiday in sunny and serene Provence.
We left Chamonix and caught a train to Grenoble, from where we picked up our hire car and headed south. We spent one night in Grenoble and found it a very pretty little town, especially the narrow, windy cobble-stoned streets of the old town which are full of people eating at candlelit restaurants with tables spilling out on to the streets.
Our destination was Vaison-la -Romaine, a quintessential Provençal village situated in the Vaucluse region. The driving time from Grenoble was approximately five hours. We had decided to splurge a little and stay in a mid range hotel called Hostellerie le Bellfroi which was the kind of place I imagined I would live during my dream year in Provence.
It is situated on a steep cobble-stoned street in the heart of the medieval old town. Spread across two historic buildings, one built in 1554, the other in 1690, the hotel is all stone walls and exposed beams with large windows which filter the soft sunlight into the rooms. It has a fabulous pool and deck chairs in a courtyard garden at the rear – perfect for soaking up the warm southern-French sun or diving in for refreshment after a hot walk around the town’s Roman ruins. Or you can simply lose yourself in the picture postcard perfect views over the surrounding countryside and the newer part of town below.
We stayed in a room in the newer building, which was enormous by city hotel standards, with a luxurious large bathroom and romantic country-style wooden framed bed. The newer building contained a glorious sitting room that was decorated in plush style with antique chairs, chandeliers and expensive fabrics. A traditional French breakfast was an absolute treat taken beneath a tree in the dappled sunlight of the garden, once again soaking up those amazing Provençal views.
Where to eat
There were some wonderful restaurants in Vaison-la-Romaine where we ate delicious, fresh, locally-sourced and produced food at a fraction of the price you would pay in London. For a quick and tasty lunch I would recommend trying one of the many varieties of gallettes at Creperie la Pomme (3 Rue du Pont) just around the corner from Hostellerie le Bellfroi. I enjoyed the white asparagus, cheese and egg variety. There are a whole line of restaurants in the town centre but it is well worth hunting out the out-of-the-way Auberge la Bartavelle where we enjoyed a very reasonably priced set menu consisting of the kind of traditional French dishes that I always dream of when I think of France (12 Place de Sus Auze;+33 (0) 4 90 36 02 16).
Vaison-la-Romaine has an extensive Roman history, being conquered by the Romans in the 2nd century BC, and is home to the largest archaeological site in France. I can highly recommend a walk through the pretty cité médiévale in the late afternoon to reach the viewpoint next to the chateau just before sunset. The views over the town and surrounding scenery are stunning. There are plenty of gorgeous little shops on the way up that you can stop for a rest and a browse – or call into the art gallery and have a chat with the artist. Don’t forget to allow time to explore the ruins from the Roman city Vasio Vocontiorum that are scattered throughout the new part of town.
To market, to market
I am a great fan of markets and pride myself on knowing my way around most of the plethora of markets in London so this was to be a highlight of my trip to Provence. Our hotel provided a guide to the market days of local villages. As it was Wednesday we drove to the town of Malaucene where we discovered a fabulous market surrounded by a selection of interesting little shops and a few cafés and restaurants dotted around the square. The market was an impressive size and sold everything from sauissicon to cheese, homemade lavender products to kitchen wares, clothing, jewellery, meat, fish, vegetables and crafts from across the world. I amazingly walked away with just one pretty wooden bracelet!
A day trip to Avignon
Nearby Avignon is well worth a trip to visit the Palais de Papes and take a stroll along Le Pont d’Avignon whilst humming the tune to the song if you know it! Their website claims that the palace is: "One of the most visited monuments in all of France," so do be prepared for crowds. The combined ticket price for the palace and bridge in high season is €13 and this includes and audio guide.
Canoeing on the River Ardeche
Next stop before heading back to London was the River Ardeche where we hired a canoe and took an overnight trip up the river. We stopped at the famous 60 metre high rock arch Vallon Pont d’Arc for a picnic lunch and swim. At the end of the day we beached our canoe and pitched our tent in a french campsite called Gornier that was well equipped with toilets, showers and picnic tables. It was situated on a bend in the river that overlooked beautiful towering cliffs, which turned a glowing gold color in the dusk light. The canoeing was quite easy and there were lots of families with young children also enjoying the river – although there were a few patches of very mild white water and we managed to capsize in one! We hired our canoe from Adventure Canoes: http://www.aventure-canoes.fr/english/
It really is hard to beat France for a summer trip – who could want more than mountains, markets, pretty villages, amazing food, warm sunshine, history and culture, and romance – and the opportunity to daydream about not leaving for a whole year!