Provence has always been on my list of places to visit in Europe. I had an opportunity to visit Europe again this year and made it a priority to visit this charming region. My sister and I choose to visit the region in early May before the tourist crowds descend onto the area. Luckily my good friend grew up in the region and planned my trip for me. There is nothing better than having a local show you the best of their home region!
Friday-Saturday: Provence/ Marseilles
Sunday: Aix-en-Provence, Lourmarin and Bonnieux
My sister and I flew into the Marseilles International Airport Friday morning to uncharacteristically rainy and windy weather. Marseilles Airport is very small and the car rental lot is right next to the airport. We rented a small automatic car from Hertz prior to arriving in Provence and the whole process to pick up the car took over an hour and a half. Things move very slowly in southern France. We were advised to book our car months in advance since there are few automatic cars available to rent in France. Once we were able to reset our GPS to English, we set off toward Provence. Provence is approximately 30 minutes drive, without traffic, from the airport. We rented this charming guest cottage from AirBnB located in a small village just outside of Aix-en-Provence. The hard part was finding the cottage on GPS as with most small villages in Europe, GPS may not have the exact address in the system. After circling around for 30 minutes, we found our home for the next few days and were absolutely delighted. (AirBnB listing)
We were greeted with a warm cup of tea from the owners of the property. After settling in, we met up with our local friends at Liquoristerie de Provence for an education and tasting on absinth and the local liqueurs. We watched a short educational video on the history of absinth and liquor making in Provence. Next we were able to try as many liquors and absinth as we liked and purchased a few bottles to bring home as gifts.
My friend had booked dinner for us at Chez FonFon, the most famous restaurant for bouillabaisse in Marseilles and the surrounding region, located in the Marseilles’ Vallon des Auffes. Unfortunately we also encountered two hours of traffic getting to the restaurant due to a concert in the area and got lost numerous times driving into the city. My friend had called the restaurant notifying them of the situation as soon as we realized we would not make the reserved time. By the time we arrived at Chez FonFon, we were very late and frazzled. The restaurant, however, did not make it any better. The service was terrible for us compared to the customers in the restaurant. The food was excellent, but the experience was ruined by management and staff’s attitude toward us. This was the first time in a long time that we left a restaurant in Europe completely dissatisfied. Everything was better once we arrived back to our charming abode in Provence.
My friend had booked us a two hour tut tut tour of Marseilles for Saturday morning. I generally avoided tours, but this one was very good. It gave us just enough time to see the highlights of the city. We were introduced to the gorgeous street art, town plazas, the cathedral and port area of the city.
After the tour, my friend whisked us away to have lunch at a restaurant located at the bottom of la Calanque (cove) de Sormiou. This is located in a national park and only locals are allowed to drive down the steep and narrow roads to the cove. The only other way to get there is to hike for 2 hours which many folks do. We originally were supposed to go to Le Chateau Sormiou for lunch, but were unable to get a table by the time we arrived. Luckily, there is another restaurant next to Le Chateau called Le Lunch which sits directly next to the water. We had a wonderful meal there soaking up the sun and the panoramic view with good seafood. This is a true local experience.
After a long lunch, our group headed to the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization or Mucem for the rest of the afternoon. Besides a good exhibition on the history of civilization in the Mediterranean, the museum has a fantastic roof deck. The modern rooftop is connected via a walkway to the old Fort Saint-Jean so guest can spend the day lounging around the MUCEM rooftop or exploring the fort. This museum also affords sweeping views of the harbor and a wonderful way to end a day of exploration in Marseilles.
We headed back to Provence, a 40 minutes car ride, to refresh for dinner. My friend chose L’Epicurion, a restaurant located in the central square of Aix-en-Provence. We were impressed by the dishes that highlighted local ingredients and specialties with reasonable prices. This was a great way to end a tiring and fun day.
Sunday (Road trip to winery, Lourmarin and Bonnieux)
This was our road trip day through the villages and winery of the famed Provence region. We met up with friends at the weekend market in Aix-en-Provence where we picked up delicious cheese, charcuterie, wine and lavender souvenirs. Most places in Aix are closed on Sundays but it was still very nice to stroll around the narrow streets and marveled at the picturesque town.
We started driving to Domaine de la Dorgonne, a small winery that has picnic tables overlooking the vineyard. We set up a typical French picnic with items from the market, enjoyed the sunshine and absorbed the scenery. After a quick lunch, we headed in for a quick tour of the cellar and learned about the way Dorgonne makes their wine. We sampled a few of their signature wine and had the most amazing bottle of olive oil that was grown and pressed at the winery. The bottles of wine and oil were affordable and all of us purchased a few bottles to take home. The winery allows for visitors to walk around the whole vineyard and we saw a few families do so with their dog.
Next we drove to Lourmarin, a village known as one of the most beautiful villages in France. Lourmarin has many restaurants, artisanal boutiques and cafes and filled with wandering tourists during the peak season. The village is located 37km or approximately 45 minutes away from Aix-en-Provence. There are many winding narrow streets, restored houses and public squares to explore. It was what one would imagined a Mediterranean village to be like.
After strolling around the village, we headed to Bonnieux, a village located on top of a hill in the Luberon mountain area. The first thing we see is the church at the top of the hill as we arrived to the base of the village. The residences are built on winding hillside roads and many are dated back to the 16th century. There are a lot of hilly cobblestone streets in Bonnieux, so it was a workout exploring this gorgeous village. We ended the day in Bonnieux at a tiny family owned bakery and café overlooking a terrace. As we drove back to Aix-en-Provence, we saw the beautiful light from the setting sun intertwined with the twisting country roads.
Cassis is a quaint fishing village located approximately 50 km or 45 minutes’ drive from Aix-en-Provence. My friend arranged for us to sail around Cassis with her childhood friend and her family. They have been residents in Cassis for as long as she can remember and has a sail boat docked at the famed Port-Miou. I was told that the wait list for a dock spot can take 20 to 30 years to come to fruition. We met up with our friends and boarded a sailboat in the most gorgeous port I have seen in a while. The water was crystal clear and shimmered of blue and green. We set sail around the coast of Cassis and visited smaller coves only accessible by boats. There are visitor boats that one can take to view these calanques.
After a few hours, we headed back to the harbor for a typical French picnic on the sailboat by our adorable hosts. We also hiked up the hill to the top of the cove overlooking Port-Miou. The views of the boat dock and the Mediterranean water were spectacular. Toward late afternoon, we said goodbye to our friends and headed back to Provence to relax at our cottage.
Our last dinner in Provence was at a cute restaurant with a small garden in the back in Aix called Restaurant Jardin Wazarn. It was a wonderful way to end our trip to this charming and picturesque region of France. There were many things we did not get to do and I can cannot wait for my next trip back to this region.
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