I make this trip in my role as an advance man. Alison and three of her longtime college buddies, “The Lone Mountain Quartet”, are planning on renting a villa in Provence in 2017 and I’m taking this opportunity to scope out one prime candidate, Maison Sereine, located in a town called Maussane-des-Alpilles, about seven miles down the road from Saint Remy, best known as a haunt of Van Gogh and a few of his impressionist compadres in the 19th Century.
Alison has gotten the info about this particular villa from a woman named Annie Flogaus of Just France, who appears on Wendy Perrin’s list of expert trip planners. Wendy Perrin has been a regular contributor to travel mag Conde Nast Traveler for many years and has acquired the reputation (with me, at least), of being the world’s ultimate travel guru. If Wendy says it, I believe it. And Annie, Wendy says, is the go-to expert on rentals in Provence. Anyway, Annie has given Alison three suggested properties and, based on her research on the Internet, Alison has decided she thinks she likes this one, Maison Sereine, best.
Why the need for a preview? Because Alison and I previously rented homes in the Dordogne and Provence with mixed results.
The Dordogne residence was more or less a renovated farmhouse, high on a hill, with a sheep pasture behind and a nice view of a river and valley below. The Dordogne is what I like to call France’s Iowa, an agricultural area dotted with cute little towns, many of them nearly a thousand years old, populated by scores of mom-and-pop restaurants that all feature fois gras and duck magret. It’s a charming region that requires a little travel guile since almost no one in the local towns speaks English. Since our stay was three weeks long, we of necessity used all of the local service businesses– grocery stores, local markets, gas stations, cleaners (know how to say “light starch” in French?…we never figured it out), florists and so on. It was a delightful visit in a delightful part of this country.
Our experience in Provence was a little different. The house we rented had been featured in Architectural Digest and according to the photos in the brochure offered light, airy rooms decorated in classic Provencal decor, with a lovely swimming pool to boot. Suffice to say that the home’s photographer was a master of deception and the pictures didn’t quite match the reality. What the brochure failed to disclose was that the house was located in a village with s population of about 30, with maybe one bar/café and little else. And the written description neglected to mention that the upstairs of the house didn’t have doors. Rather, rooms–even bathrooms!– were separated from one another by hippie-era style beads or curtains. And so on and so on. Lesson learned.
Based on that experience, I have tried to make it my policy, whenever possible, to take an advance in-person peek at vacation properties to get a true eyeball view of what really is there. I’ve done it on Cape Cod, done it on Nantucket, done it in Hawaii, and by gosh, I’m going to do it in Provence.
Agent Annie has kindly provided s list of Provencal must-see’s and a large list of recommended restaurants, describing each in terms of their atmosphere, level of culinary sophistication, and price. In this part of the world, she strongly advises advance reservations. So for once in my wandering life, I contact each of my planned hotels (I’m going to be in Provence four nights, so four hotels, right?) and ask them to make lunch and dinner reservations for me…lunches at 12:30, dinners at 8:30…at the ones I deem to be closest to my likes and dislikes and most affordable. Unlike so many of my trips, where food is not a major concern, I’m going to be dining in high style.
And so it’s off to France for a look-see. To roughly paraphrase Julius Caesar, omnia Provencia divisa est in tres partes, which in this case are the Vaucluse, the Luberon and the Alpilles, all of which I’ll be visiting, while concentrating on the last one.
I fly into Marseille, get out of that town as fast as possible in my big-as-a-boat Renault SUV and drive an hour north to Les Baux-des-Alpilles, a stone’s throw from Maussane-des-Alpilles where the prospective villa is located. (A word about the “Alpilles”, which I had never heard of until this trip. The Alpilles are a range of low east-west mini-mountains that look like a moustache on the face of Provence. They were a favorite subject of Van Gogh during his St. Remy days.)
Les Baux, my first destination, is one of those hilltop villages made entirely of stone and cobblestone with ho-hum shops and cafes that attracts droves of tourists who park their cars long distances away and trudge up steep roads for the privilege of walking up more steep hills. Exactly what are they all stopping for, I wonder? I could never figure it out.
The outskirts of the village are home to two luxurious 5-star hotels where I will be staying: Domaine de Manville and Baumaniere, both of which are famous for their prestigious Michelin-star restaurants.
My first night I stay at Domaine de Manville, a big, beautiful, hip French manor house into which someone has invested a fortune to install rooms with lush furnishings, an all-glass “Winter Garden” for dining, and a huge world-class spa…all at hip prices. The Domaine also has the biggest and best golf course in the area. The only corner they cut was obviously on plumbing, since on my night there a water pipe broke and flooded the bathroom. As luck would have it, the area experienced the biggest thunder-and-lightning storm in decades that night which made it impossible to go into Maussane for my scheduled reservation, so I was forced to go to their fancy Winter Garden restaurant, Le Table, where I enjoyed a 46 Euro appetizer and a glass of wine.
I have made arrangements to view the Maison Sereine in Maussane the next day at 10:00 a.m., then spend the rest of the morning at the village’s weekly market and have lunch at one of the cafés on the village square. The owner of Maison Sereine, has graciously offered to pick me up at Domaine de Manville and drive me the short distance to the villa. At 10:00 on the dot, there she is, waiting in her tiny Fiat, her “town” car. She is a friendly, artsy-looking late-30’s/early 40’s woman who has a fairly good grasp of English.
We arrive at her residence about 400 meters (her estimate) or 600 meters (Annie’s estimate) short of the village. Outside I notice rows of cypress and palms that frame a swimming pool, and a pathway of roses that leads to the front entrance. Inside, I find a spacious, nicely appointed home with an eclectic collection of furnishings, a large living room (called the “salon”) with large windows facing a lovely courtyard, a picture gallery, a large well-equipped kitchen, four bedrooms, 4-1/2 baths, 3,875 sq. ft. in all. I had a good hour-long look-around, took a few pictures to complement those I already had and made extensive notes about all aspects of the property. I’ll wait until I get home to give Alison the details and make a recommendation.
I take the opportunity to take a look around Maussane, which is somewhere in size between a village and a town. I spend a while at the Wednesday market near the town hall, have lunch at one of the “cute” outdoor cafes in the central square, and roam around looking at the menus of the several restaurants for which the town is famous. The remaining days of my trip will be to survey some of the other surrounding towns and areas in Provence…to see the markets (Annie has sent me a list), the town squares, the cafes and shops and restaurants, and (being who I am) to spend an afternoon at the races at a little racetrack in a town named Crau (pronounced “Cro” with a guttural rolling R) near the larger town of Salon.
The next day and night are spent seven miles away in Saint Remy, many people’s favorite town in Provence. Mine too, as it turns out. The roads leading into town are picturesque allees with towering sycamores lining both sides of the road and creating a cathedral effect. Inside the town itself, there’s an oval road circling close-in to the centre ville, with a pretty crisscross of small shopping streets and alleys inside. This is one good looking town, clean as a whistle, prosperous, stylish, fun atmosphere. A little touristy, but not overly “precious” like some places. What a place.
I stay at Le Tourret, a very pricey boutique hotel in an in-town mansion that has been completely renovated and done up by the owner-architect in a trendy ultra-ultra-modern style. Not an easy place to find. My Hertz Never Lost went crazy trying to direct me to this place, and eventually I had to park on a street and walk to the address with the help of a couple of locals. When I finally got to the address, I discovered that the hotel has no sign, but merely a tiny half-inch typed indication of its identity…to be “discreet”, the manager tells me. It’s an eye-catching place, with the look of the public rooms inviting, the bedrooms very appealing. An interesting stay.
The next afternoon, I head over to the races at Crau. Not a very pretty track, but charming in its own little way. Estimated Paid Attendance on the Friday I was there? That’s easy. Zero. Because at Hippodrome de la Crau, parking is free, entrance is free and programs are free. As for the actual crowd on hand, I’d guess about 200. Not a bad day of racing, though. Big fields. All of the races—all turf routes– were for 16,000 Euro purses, about on a par with Golden Gate Fields, and races were competitive, albeit a little fishy…if you looked at the first tote board click, you’d invariably notice that one horse was being bet down drastically from its morning line odds, and darn if that horse wouldn’t invariably win. Not that I was smart enough to figure that out. I stayed for six races. Bet 60, won 45.
That night I am lodged back in Les Baux-des-Alpilles at Baumaniere, perhaps the most famous hotel in Provence, mostly because of the reputation (which has recently lost some of its lustre) of its Michelin-starred restaurant– definitely not my sort of place, but considered a culinary temple by foodies. Baumaniere, which is currently the result of a merger of two local hotels, both luxurious, has an upper campus and a lower campus. At first I am concerned that upper is for the A-crowd and the lower, where I am assigned, for us B-people, but those concerns are quickly allayed as I am steered toward a room on the second floor of a lovely building with a small sitting room, a generously sized bedroom and bath and a wrap-around terrace with a view of the hotel’s elaborate gardens, swimming pool and tennis courts. In my travels I have stayed at some really nice places, but this one is very, very special. The grounds are gorgeous, with meandering paths through manicured hedges and gardens, highlighted by a picture-perfect pond with ducks and swans. Instead of availing myself of Michelin-starred Baumaniere’s four course Menu at 215 Euros, I take dinner at a little Annie-recommended bistrot in Maussane, Ou Ravi Provencal, a gem of a little place run by four or five middle-aged French women where the fixed price for four courses is 55 (including a bottle of wine!). a bargain in this part of the world, where “Provence prices” are Aspen/Palm Beach/ Hamptons/ Nantucket prices.
On the way out of town, I stop by Les Baux’s local sightseeing phenomenon, the Carrieres de Lumieres, a dramatic 45-minute light show where the works of famous artists—currently Chagall—are projected onto the walls of an ancient 8,000-year-old cave (when the Quartet is here, the show will change to Bosch, Brueghel and Archimoldo). A worthwhile event.
It’s Day #4 and I move over to the walled town of Gordes, where everybody you meet raves about the panoramic views of the Luberon, regarded by many as Provence’s most beautiful valley.
My hotel tonight is Le Bastides des Gordes, another 5-star property that’s part of the Leading Hotels of the World group, which means I’m supposed to get an upgrade, a breakfast, free wi-fi and an “amenity”. Sorry, it’s Saturday night and the hotel’s full, so no upgrade tonight, which means I’m consigned to a “village view” room (my room looks at the wall of a building across the street instead of the magnificent Luberon Valley). I make do with the view– which is darn nice– from the hotel’s elegant top terrace . Again, instead of the hotel restaurant, I head down the Gordes hill to a popular local restaurant on Annie’s list, L’Estellan, another family-run establishment full of locals.
Sunday, and it’s time to head back to Marseille for my very early Monday morning Marseille/Brussels/Chicago/LAX flight, but before I do, I go for lunch in a tiny village named Goult, where Annie has said there exists an incredibly popular local favorite called Café de la Poste. Advance reservations are an absolute must, she says, and Le Bastides has secured the last Sunday noon table for me on a sunny afternoon. What a treat. It’s a packed house, most of us sitting in the outside front garden where, because little English is spoken, I have the opportunity to impress the Goultians with my “Restaurant French” and have a great lunch and a great time.
On to Marseille for an overnight at an airport hotel and my multi-legged flight back home.
Parting thoughts: What a fun trip! On my way there and on my way back, anytime I mentioned that Provence was my destination people universally ooo’ed and ahhh’ed because Provence has the reputation of being one of those nearly perfect places on earth…and rightly so. The region is beautiful and welcoming and charming and is constantly bathed in a “soft” light which makes all of its surroundings so fetching. The Lone Mountain Quartet is going to have a wonderful time there.