Lavender And Beyond

Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Travel Writer

Whether to go to Provence, France’s lavender-scented south, is a no-brainer. But shaping an itinerary from the myriad lovely villages and vibrant cities can be daunting.

The colorful, teeming streets of Marseilles beckon to some, while others head for the winding lanes and rolling fields that inspired Van Gogh — or possibly drove him further into his starlit nocturnal madness.

I found myself pondering the options on a recent weekend, when a friend invited me to visit her father’s olive farm in the hills about a half-hour north of Toulon. Even as best-selling books and university programs have made Provence a global hotspot — with celebrities flocking to Cannes, lovers to Avignon and students to Aix-en-Provence — much of the area retains a low-key rural feel, as well as a cultural particularity that is all the more appealing in this overdeveloped, globalized age.

Weekends still bring outdoor markets to downtown centers across Provence: tables overflow with ripe red tomatoes, fragrant herbs and funky local cheeses under fluttering striped awnings. And many of the postcard-perfect villages look as they must have in medieval times — with fortified walls, breezy green fields and proudly artisanal boulangeries.

After a leisurely breakfast of crepes made with the farm’s own eggs and fresh raspberry jam, I set on a drive that would take me to the picturesque Rhone town of Arles, the posh provincial city Aix-en-Provence, and finally on a loop through several of the region’s most characteristic villages: Cotignac, Entrecasteaux and Carces.

Most travelers will arrive here via the handy Marseilles airport, or catch a cheaper fare by landing in Nice. But I drove east from the Pyrenees, watching the dark mountains gradually give way to arid, rocky bluffs and the rolling green vineyards of the Camargue.

As I rounded one bend in the highway, the blue Mediterranean came into view. Riotous red poppies and clouds of yellow-blossomed shrubs blanketed the roadsides, making the frequent and costly tolls a bit easier to swallow.

Around another curve, the land mass was suddenly split in two by the shimmering Rhone River. Rising above its east bank were the peach-colored, sun-baked buildings of Arles, so characteristic of the region. Juxtaposed against a bright blue sky and equally blue water, Arles from afar has a saturated visual splendor that makes it clear why post-Impressionists parked themselves here to paint.

Both Arles and Aix are ancient Roman towns whose sleepy, small-town feel belies a world-class sophistication. Between the two, there are enough small art and historical museums to fill a rainy week, including the studio used by local hero Paul Cezanne in Aix-en-Provence.

Art may be the year-round draw, but summer is festival season. In July, Arles resounds with world music from flamenco to Afro-Cuban jazz to Lebanese pop is featured in the Les Suds d’Arles Festival. That same month, classical fans flock to the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence — International Festival of Lyric Art for a program of Shostakovich string quartets, Bach organ works and an acclaimed opera series.

Arles is also known for its photography scene, and Les Rencontres d’Arles is an international photography festival that takes place from early July through mid-September, with exhibitions and screenings. But even on these hot summer weekends, Arles is a relaxing place to take a break and sip a panache — beer mixed with lemon soda — somewhere in the shade.

Amid the vine-covered garden terraces, impossibly charming cobblestone lanes, I wandered into a bar and noticed the house red wine had a Hebrew-script label. “Yes, it’s kosher,” said the bartender matter-of-factly.

Indeed, there’s a certain whitewashed preciousness about Aix and its surrounding villages, yet the multiethnic tapestry of Southern France is never far from view. Local Jewish culture dates back a thousand years and is increasingly Sephardic in emphasis, with a number of synagogues — especially in Aix — and strong North African roots.

Black-hatted rabbis and colorfully veiled women blend into the cosmopolitan scenery of Cours Mirabeau, Aix’s wide, tree-shaded pedestrian main street, where harissa spices up local menus and kosher gelato is offered.

Heading east through chateau country, the landscape became wilder and more rugged, and the roads more tortuous. Cotignac, with its pretty, social main square, is an ideal stop for lunch, as its restaurants are superb. Follow any road leading uphill, and you climb through lushly blooming gardens terraced into the hillside, brambled forest thickets and stream-laced fields to arrive atop a mountain whose twin fortress towers overlook both town and valley.

If Cotignac is quietly buzzing, Entrecasteaux can feel still to the point of being deserted — though in a most agreeable way. With an old town dominated by its namesake castle and imposing formal gardens, Entrecasteaux perches on the green banks of a clear, burbling river.

The wood-beamed homes along the water are converted mills and royal stables; a thick-walled church, 10 degrees cooler than the outdoors, has mass in Gregorian chant amid its Gothic arches. Everywhere in town, memorials to the World War I dead are a reminder that this quiet oasis has a turbulent past.

The last leg of my drive looped through Carces, a substantial town where seemingly half the walls are painted in trompe l’oeil murals.

After all the weekend’s visual stimulus, I found my senses overwhelmed. Was that an 18th-century mansion in front of me, or were those stately pillars mere illusions grafted onto a 20th-century façade? Was I really staring at a street of pastel houses?

The town’s loveliness was undeniable. But amid so many layers of history and beauty, it was no longer easy to distinguish what was real.

The Place du Forum in the picturesque Rhone town of Arles. Hilary Larson

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