Peter Mayle has written 11 books about Provence, including his latest tome, Provence A-Z, an informative and highly entertaining sourcebook on the region he calls home. Although the book is in fact organized from A to Z, it’s not a reference book. Rather, it’s a collection of fascinating impressions and facts about Provence. In these pages you’ll learn about, among other things, legends, lavender, linguistic oddities, folklore, a museum devoted to corkscrews, and a great deal about food and wine, naturally. We recently caught up with Mayle, and had a lively back and forth about this most magical of places.
Say that your best friend is planning a long weekend in Provence. What are the “must see” places and activities you’d recommend?
No weekend in Provence is complete without a visit to one of the markets. Lavender essence, olive oil, fresh garlic, cheese, bric-a-brac, jewelry, antiques, clothes, old linen — all these and more are on display every weekend at Isle-sur-Sorgue. Smaller but no less interesting markets are held on Fridays in Lourmarin, Saturdays in Apt, and Sundays in Coustellet.
And no Sunday in Provence is complete without Sunday lunch. You will often see three generations of the same family sitting at the table for two hours or more — the children exhibiting not only enormous appetites but considerable patience.
In between markets and restaurants, try to fit in as many of these [sights] as possible: the 12th-century Abbaye de Senanque, near Gordes; the Roman amphitheatre at Orange; the French Foreign Legion Museum at Aubagne; the Popes’ Avignon palace; the extraordinary church of Notre Dame de La Garde above Marseille; and the Château d’If, just a ferry-ride away from Marseille’s old port. You won’t get to them all, but you’ll have fun trying.
Tell us a little about your favorite town in Provence and what makes it so special?
Marseille is my favorite town — if you can call France’s second-biggest city a town. My reasons for liking it are the port (very picturesque), the people (very friendly), the wonderful sea views from the Corniche, and the fascinating historical associations that have accumulated in the 2,600 years since Marseille was founded. It is a great town for walking, for sunbathing, for finding architectural curiosities and — not least of all — for seafood.
What are your favorite restaurants in Provence, and why?
It depends on the season. In the winter I like the Auberge de l’Aiguebrun, near Bonnieux, set on the banks of a river in a valley of the Luberon, with peacocks and a tame wild boar in the garden. In the summer, it’s difficult to beat Peron (56, Corniche Kennedy), in Marseilles, where you eat on a terrace high above the Mediterranean. I’m also very fond of Le Mas Tourteron (Chemin de St. Blaise, Les Imberts), near Gordes (pictured below). All these restaurants serve excellent food without getting too complicated about it.
Any good budget hotels or villas you can recommend?
Probably the best bet for mid-level budgets are the chambres d’hotes that are becoming more and more popular in Provence. Living here, I obviously don’t stay in them, but I’ve heard good reports about Les Pereilles, below Ménerbes, and the Villa Saint Louis, in Lourmarin. There are dozens of others.
And if you could splurge while in Provence, where would you stay?
Villa Gallici in Aix — nicely secluded, and a five-minute stroll from the center of town; La Bastide de Gordes & Spa, with a stunning view of Luberon; and Oustau de Baumanière in the medieval village of Les Baux.
Can you recommend a favorite daytrip from Provence?
I would take the D22 road out of Apt and drive up through the spectacular countryside that leads into Haute-Provence. I’d stop at the village of Banon, and spend an hour or so in Librarie de Bleuet (Place St-Just), a large and well-stocked bookstore. Intellectually fortified, I would then cross the village square and pay a visit to the charcuterie of Monsieur Melchio (Place de la République), who makes as fine a pork sausage as you could hope to meet.
And then on to the nearby village of Lardiers for lunch at the Cafe de la Lavande (Place de la lavande), a simple restaurant with a good wine list and terrific food. To walk it off, I’d go to Bonnieux and take the footpath through the cedar forest that runs along the crest of the Luberon. It’s about five miles from start to finish. Then home for a swim, and an evening with friends.
Read more about the region in Peter Mayle’s latest book, Provence A-Z.