As you approach Provence there's a magical moment when you finally leave the north behind: cypresses and red-tile roofs appear; you hear the screech of cicadas and breathe the scent of wild thyme and lavender. Along the highway, oleanders bloom against a backdrop of austere, sun-filled landscapes, the very same that inspired the Post-Impressionists.
Ever since Peter Mayle abandoned the London
fog and described with sensual relish a life of unbuttoned collars and espadrilles in his best-selling A Year in Provence, the world has beaten a path here. Now Parisians are heard in the local marketplaces passing the word on the best free-range rabbit and the lowest price on a five-bedroom mas (a traditional Provençal farmhouse). This bon-chic-bon-genre city crowd languishes stylishly at Provence's country inns and restaurants. Ask them, and they'll agree: when Princess Caroline of Monaco moved to St-Rémy, Provence became the new Côte d'Azur.
But chichi Provence hasn't eclipsed idyllic Provence, except that now every farmer and crafts vendor has an iPhone. Still, it's possible to melt into a Monday-morning market crowd, where blue-aproned paysannes scoop fistfuls of mesclun into willow baskets, matron-connoisseurs paw through bins containing the first Cavaillon asparagus, and a knot of pépés in workers' blues takes a pétanque break.
Relax, join them—and plan to stick around awhile. There are plenty of sights to see: great Roman ruins; the pristine Romanesque abbeys of Senanque and de Montmajour; weathered mas; the monolithic Papal Palace in old Avignon; the narrow streets in Arles immortalized on canvas by Van Gogh. Check out all these treasures but remember that highlights of any trip here are those hours spent dawdling at a sidewalk café, wandering aimlessly down narrow cobbled alleyways, and, after a three-hour lunch, taking a quick snooze in the cool shade of a 500-year-old olive tree. Allow yourself time to feel the rhythm of modern Provençal life, to listen to the pulsing cigales, smell the parfum of a tiny country path, and feel the night air on your skin.