Why Are You Waiting to Holiday In France?
A year in Provence would be nice, but a few days will also do the trick
August 27, 2015
In life, there are moments of cliché and there are moments of transcendence. And sometimes, in rare and fortunate settings, they dovetail to create something that is breathtaking, seminal—forever etched into your memory, like a stolen kiss or a glorious sunset.
Provence—revered by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, and Picasso; immortalized by Peter Mayle; hijacked by Brangelina—is as clichéd as it gets. This southeastern province’s Mediterranean climate, coupled with quaint villages brimming with crumbling churches and those ridiculous lavender fields, contributes to a symphony of senses that any monkey with a screensaver could rhapsodize about. So it’s just another moment in paradise when Dorothy, our pint-sized biking guide (Veloloisirprovence.com), stops by the side of the road to point out the spreading carpet of red poppies, blooming with abandon.
You can’t help but wonder how the inhabitants can live so casually with such spoils: olive oil, rosé, perfume, truffles, afternoon idylls, and now flowers that line the fields in artful licentiousness. It’s this unbridled beauty that makes for the most cliché of moments: Enjoying France’s Countryside Charm.
Yet no matter how many times you visit Provence, inured to its postcard allure, this moment of rapture always jumps up and bites you dans le derrière.
This time around, it’s a different kind of beauty that has brought me here. I’ve ensconced myself at Le Couvent des Minimes (Couventdesminimes-hotelspa.com), a retrofitted 46-room former convent that has fully embraced worldly delights as part of the Relais & Châteaux empire. But it’s the hotel’s owner that’s truly special: L’Occitane en Provence (Loccitane.com), the skin-care behemoth that has made a fortune capturing the region’s spirit in those little green bottles. The factory still operates in nearby Manosque, but post-bike ride we’re a tad more interested in the newly refurbished L’Occitane spa in the hotel—kitted out in playful white-and-yellow tiles and modern organic furniture—and the chance to have our tight muscles kneaded out to the heady scent of citrus, verbena and lavender. In this light-filled sanctuary, L’Occitane showcases its products from derivatives and variations of essential oils, celebrating local ingredients such as lemon, honey, and that verbena and lavender. Post-treatment, a quick stop at the spa boutique, with its array of fragrant goods, yields a collection of restorative magic to tote home.
From the meandering gravel driveway outside, this circa-1613 property doesn’t reveal itself as a perfect ode to contemporary French elegance. But reimagined through a spare, pastel-hued palette set against ancient limestone and oak beams, the space effortlessly straddles history and cutting-edge glamour. You never know which will dominate: wander down a hall and you might encounter a mysterious dead end or a light-filled courtyard with sleek loungers and AstroTurf.
Down a flight of stairs, in the white-walled Le Pesquier Bistro, Provence’s gastronomic riches shine: consommé of sea urchin, fresh goat cheese with herbs (the rugged landscape makes for excellent grazing), wild sorrel. A basket of fresh rolls arrives accompanied by a small-batch bottle of local olive oil with subtle notes of artichoke: it tastes suspiciously like our bread is mopping up liquid gold, but the complete insouciance with which it was placed on our table suggests otherwise.
We cap things off with a bottle of 2009 Domaine Saint Jeannet Tuilé (left for several months in large glass bottles in direct sunshine—it, too, enjoys the Provence lifestyle—before being transferred to oak barrels). Hot weather, little rain, and the famed mistral may make for demanding grape-growing conditions, but the results pay off. I file this away as another clichéd moment: Drinking Rosé en Plein Air.
The next day, we rise before dawn. Stumbling into the van, we twist and turn our way down the winding roads to a little pullout for a better vantage point. I climb an embankment leading to the edge of a field to chart the sliver of early morning light as it rims the horizon. The sun patiently muscles its way higher into the sky, and I watch its poetic ascent until it hangs as a perfect, unreal circular backdrop.
Then, heading back through the tall, dewy grass, I gingerly try to dodge an army of snails inching their way home under the weight of their massive shells. This quotidian Provençal moment—surely more arresting than ordinary—calls to mind one final cliché: I came, I saw, I cried.