Relishing the Allure of Provence
By Amy Lively Jensen
After reading Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence,” I’ve held a long-cherished dream to spend time in this magical region of France. Decades after his novel, my wish came true; we spent two weeks relaxing, absorbing its beauty and devouring its joys. In this article I hope to take you along my treasured journey of the countryside, towns, foods, wines, perfumes, and other decadent pleasures of Provence.
Home base for our first week was a quaint apartment in Saint-Raphael on the famous coastline of the French Riviera they call Côte d’Azur. This small seaside resort town is one of the oldest resorts on the coast; there is evidence that wealthy Romans used to spend their summers here 2000 years ago! Before we unpacked our bags, we walked to a nearby open air market where dozens of colorful stalls and stores offered enticing displays of fresh fish, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, olives, meats and more. For our happy hour, we eagerly chose strawberries (juiciest and most flavorful ever,) goat cheese with herbs de Provence, foie gras and a crusty baguette. Popping in a nearby grocery store we bought staples and were surprised to find shelves lined with hundreds of rosés at modest prices. Then, lounging on our balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, we noshed on our gourmet treats. We decided that this needed to become a daily routine. Another established tradition was our morning jaunt to a lovely patisserie for baguettes and artistically-designed pastries for which France is universally renowned. Irresistible apricot tarts, fluffy chocolate croissants and beautifully glazed brioche buns.
Strolling along the wide seaside promenade offered vistas of azure blue and turquoise water, lined with soft, sandy beaches. Turn your head and you’ll take in the myriad of restaurants, cafes, fresh fruit gelato shops and various stores. Walking east along the seafront, you’ll arrive at Port Santa Lucia, which is ideal for wandering and discovering quays featuring shops and restaurants. A memorable restaurant in the Santa Lucia marina was La Canne A Sucre. Fresh and exquisitely prepared seafood, a glass of refreshing rosé and sitting within feet of amazing yachts lured us there several times during our stay. Another pleasurable meal was at Chez Gaston, a small healthy French restaurant. In an unpretentious atmosphere with a chalkboard menu and a wall of wine bottles, we tried the large prawns and duck accompanied by a colorful selection of vegetables and profiteroles (delectable cream puffs.)
In the old city section, the small Musee Archeologique de Saint-Raphael (museum of archeology and underwater archeology) has artifacts from the Mediterranean Stone Age to the Roman period and ends with many objects from a sunken Roman ship discovered by Jacques Cousteau. Cousteau’s aqualung is there, too. Next to the museum is a church with the best views of Saint-Raphael. The catch is that climbing the wooden stairs and spiral staircase is challenging.
With over 316 days of sunshine per year, it was almost guaranteed that we had perfect days at the beach. Yet, I have to admit the Mediterranean is too cold to enjoy even during the middle of June. I was much more brave on a snorkeling trip with TakSea. On a small speed boat, we began with a leisurely ride along the coastline, viewing villas and the red mountains of Massif de l’Esterel, a volcanic mountain range. The captain related interesting stories about the tiny islands, smugglers and caves. They dropped anchor at a secluded inlet for an hour of snorkeling, followed by an exciting high speed return.
Right next door to Saint-Raphael is the medieval city of Fréjus. Although it has 2,000 years of history, it is still young and dynamic. On the beach we loved the moment when the sun plunges into the glimmering Mediterranean with its unique pallet of blues and emerald. Climbing up the mountain to the historic heart of Fréjus is the Ampithéâtre. Built in the first century, it holds 12,000 spectators and is used for concerts and bullfights. By incredible luck, we were in Fréjus on June 21st for Fête de la Musique, France’s largest street music party. Music performances pop up all over the country in celebration of the spirit of music on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Along the board walk, we enjoyed classical, pop and rock music plus others to suit every taste.
A trip to the countryside navigating roundabouts brought us to Chateau D’Esclans. Located in the heart of Provence, this prestigious estate and winery produces the industry’s leading rosé. It is a picture-book property, with a stunning buttercup yellow Chateau decorated with blue hydrangeas. We saw the 12th century cellars and learned about their high-tech wine making process and finished by savoring Whispering Angel and Rock Angel wines. The Chateau’s rosé under the label of Garrus is widely considered to be the best in the world.