Monday, December 12, 2016

My Excellent Autumn Luberon Adventure

Huile on Wheels! If you know the Luberon, you know this truck.
(Four pix) Lunch at Chez Auzet in Menerbes: squash soup, a rich Roquefort and walnut tart, goodies to take home,  Gérard and his son Vincent, 6th and 7th-generation bakers.
Local rosés on display at Maison de la Truffe et du Vin. The annual truffle market in Menerbes is December 28.
(Four pix) From Le Clos de Buis in Bonnieux: breafast, a pretty guest room, owner Pierre Maurin, view of Mont Ventoux.
(Two pix) Who could resist the charming Roland Masset or his Bonnieux antique shop Au Detour d'Une Promenade?
(Three pix) At the Bastide de Gordes: me and my new best friends, setting the dining terrace, view of the back of the hotel...and its knockout view.
(Three pix) Anthony Mathieu at Le Phebus, his dad's Michelin-one-star dining room, the pool at night.
The lower "new" church in Bonnieux.
Eighty-six steps up to the 12th-century "old" church in Bonnieux...and fantastic views.
The Restaurant de la Gare: before Pierre Cardin took over...and now. It may or may not be closed for the winter...their hours remain a mystery.
The Roman bridge Pont Julien
Corinne Russo is my secret weapon when it comes to all things Luberon.
One of my Luberon tours will include a guided visit to the Ochre Conservatory.
 Sunset over Roussillon means the party's over, at least for today...

This is the time of year when I do much of my research, checking out new and renovated hotels, visiting rental villas, trying restaurants I've heard good things about, finding cool new places to share with my readers and clients. There are always so many things to discover...I keep a list and am adding to it all year. And it’s so much more fun when someone totally in-the-know, like my sweet friend Corinne Russo, goes with me. So a couple Saturdays ago, when Corinne said "let's go exploring in the Luberon!," I jumped at the chance.  Plus, she offered to drive. Bonus!

Born and raised in Cavaillon, Corinne left her job at the Cavaillon Tourist Office last year and has teamed up with two partners in a company called Culture Couleur, which provides color research, expertise and team building for private companies, tourism organizations and economic development. But tourism remains Corinne’s passion and she is frequently called upon by hotels, restaurants and tourist boards to help with marketing, PR and development projects...throughout all of Provence but especially across the Luberon. No one knows the region better! Using her extensive network of contacts, Corinne is helping me put together some fantastic new day trips and activities to add to my offerings at WhatToDoinProvence.com, where you’ll already find lots of fun things to do in the Luberon such as cooking classes, a foodie bike tour, a lavender tour, art workshops, photo safaris and more.

Our first stop was the Le Clos de Buis in Bonnieux, a perfect little eight-room, three-star hotel with great prices, a large garden and pool, gorgeous views and a super-warm atmosphere created by owners Pierre and Lydia Maurin. (The hotel isn’t new but I’d never visited.) If you like the idea of staying in the heart of an ancient village--but still want a country feel—this is your place. Among other things, I loved the hotel’s pretty Provencal decor and the extra kitchen for guests who want to do some of their own cooking.  I also loved how they kept the old bread oven, back from when this was one of a few village bakeries in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  No one is quite sure when the bakery actually shut down but Pierre’s cousin, age 96, says he’s never seen it open in his lifetime. If you need a handicapped guest room, by the way, they have a really nice one which opens right onto the streets of the village...no steps.

Speaking of steps, I love how Bonnieux—the highest perched village in the Luberon—has  an upper and lower church, so folks who lived in the valley didn’t have to climb all the way up top to attend mass; the 12th century "vieille église" or old church is 86 steps up from the upper-most village street! The one everyone calls the "église neuve" (new church) was built in 1870 and perches on the slope in front of the lower village. These days, Sunday services are held in the new church every few weeks, on a rotating schedule with other villages, while the old church is open occasionally for tourist visits, classical music concerts, marriages and funerals, and special services like Christmas Eve Mass.

Bonnieux’s steep upper streets are lined with 800-year old buildings, most of which are built on top of even older structures and ancient caves; from up top you get a spectacular view. To the east, is the Fôret de Cèdres (cedar forest), with trees imported from North Africa during the Napoleonic era. Three km north of town, you’ll find the Roman-built Pont Julien Bridge, which crosses the narrow Calavon River and was in use until 2005! (The main road through the Luberon Valley, the D900, pretty much follows the route of the Via Domitia, which linked Italy and Spain in Roman times.) Beyond that, you’ll see the mighty Mont Ventoux, “the Giant of Provence,” well known for many grueling stages of the annual Tour de France.

But back to our own tour! Neither Corinne nor I can resist a cute antique shop and the one directly opposite the hotel Clos de Buis, called Au Détour d’Une Promenade, beckoned us. Owner Roland Masset was just closing up for vacation but invited us in to poke around and chat. He’ll reopen in spring, at which time I plan to go back and buy at least half the shop.

We had hoped to lunch at the Cafe de la Gare in Bonnieux, one of my favorite haunts in days gone by. Pierre Cardin took it over a while back and I’m curious about the changes he made. But no luck there...they were closed up tight...despite the sign that says “Open Monday to Saturday.” (Their voicemail says the same.)  This was my third attempt to try it in the last year and a half...but I’ll try again in Spring.

Instead, we toodled up the hill in Menerbes to see Corinne’s old pal Gérard Auzet, at his tiny cafe just next door to the Dora Maar House. A 6th-generation baker, Gérard sold his well-known boulangerie and tea room Chez Auzet in Cavaillon a while back, thinking he’d retire. But he quickly grew bored and decided to open a small cafe “for friends,” next door to his hilltop home, this summer. At this new Chez Auzet (52 rue du Portail Neuf, Menerbes, 04 90 72 37 53), Gérard and his son Vincent prepare just a few things each day for lunch and sometimes dinner...closing up “when there’s no more people.” It’s perfect! Every day, père et fils make a few savory tarts, a few sweet tarts, salad and soup; a terrifically satisfying lunch with a glass of wine, dessert and coffee costs well under 20€. I had the Roquefort/walnut tart; Corinne had the pissaladiere tart; we both had squash soup and salad and a glass of red wine from nearby Domaine de Jeanne. Best of all, Vincent pulled out his guitar and serenaded us after lunch, starting with The House of the Rising Sun, one of the very first songs I learned to play on piano. If Gérard’s name seems familiar, he became a bit of a celebrity in these parts with the 2005 publication of Confessions of a French Baker, a book written (with him and about him) by none other than Peter Mayle.

After lunch we strolled over to the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin, which combines a restaurant, party space, wine shop, tasting room and bookstore....all designed to promote the truffles and wines of the Luberon area (which includes three AOCs: Côtes du Luberon, Côtes du Ventoux and Côteaux de Pierrevert). And yes, you can buy truffles here! If you plan to eat, request a table on the terrace...the view, the view, the view! I’m told they can also arrange truffle hunts for those who want them. And if you love truffles, don’t miss the Petit Marché à la Truffe de Ménerbes (truffle market) which happens in the village on December 28. 

Next stop: the hotel Bastide de Gordes, which I hadn’t seen since their recent and very-major renovation. The big news there is that they’ve just received the prestigious “Palace” hotel distinction from Atout France, the French Agency for Tourism Development; only 23 hotels in France have this higher-than-five-star rating for exceptional facilities, architectural heritage, personalized service, superb location and outstanding design. (My friend Stella hosted her daughter's wedding here just after the renovation, in June 2015, and said the whole event was beautiful beyond words.) Our adorable host was named Manon but since they didn’t have that name tag, she was wearing one that said Julie instead. Works for me!

We capped the day with a visit to another gorgeous hotel, the five-star Relais & Châteaux called Le Phebus, in Joucas. There we were greeted by Anthony Mathieu, the 21-year-old year old son of owner Xavier Mathieu, whose hotel dining room has one Michelin star. Set to close for the season the next day, Le Phebus was completely full except for one large lovely room, but seeing it—and the rest of the property--gave me a perfect sense of this family’s refined sensibility. (I loved the helicopter landing pad...and the indoor/outdoor kitchen, where summer cooking classes are held. How great to learn some new French dishes and techniques...and then settle in for your meal on the shaded poolside terrace!) Over coffee and petits fours, Anthony told us all about their winter renovation plans, which include expanding the restaurant, building a new indoor pool, adding a meeting room and putting finishing touches on a smashing, 3400-square-foot, five-bedroom rental villa with butler service and a private pool. All work will be complete before the hotel reopens in April. Note to Xavier: if and when you retire and hand over the keys to your son, your beautiful hotel will be in very good hands indeed! Anthony couldn’t have been warmer or more welcoming.

When we weren’t jumping out of the car to take photos— the Luberon’s rolling hills and vineyards were magnificent in the autumn sunshine--Corinne filled me in on all the local news and gossip...and pointed out all sorts of places that she loves, such as the indoor/outdoor restaurant La Fleur de Sel in Les Beaumettes, where Nathalie Sodavalle does the cooking and her husband Frédéric runs the front. “Terrific food, very fresh and very reasonably priced!” Corinne proclaimed. This would be a great lunch stop if you’re biking the Veloroute de Calavon, the 37 km path running east/west along the Luberon’s old train tracks: a little trail leads from the bike path to the restaurant.  Corinne tells me that each village along the path purchased the parcel of land on which it sits...just in case they ever want to restart train service through the Luberon. Clever!

What usually happens on days like this is that I run out of time about halfway through my to-do list....and this was no exception.  So Corinne and I scheduled a second recon mission a few weeks later, when we visited two five-star Relais & Châteaux hotels (the Domaine de Capelongue and La Coquillade), the fantastic Ochre Conservatory outside Roussillon, the new hotel La Maison des Ocres in the village itself and the artist/designer Frederic Medina, who will offer sketch classes to my clients next year. But I’ll write about that day another time.

In the meantime, Corinne and I are putting finishing touches on the tours I’ll be adding to my site for 2017. Among other things, you’ll find a day devoted to ochre which will include a visit the Ochre Conservatory, an outdoor painting class and a stroll on the Sentiers des Ochre (Ochre Trail) to see the gorgeous red/orange cliffs for which Roussillon is known. (A bit of advice: don’t wear white!) Another tour will focus on antiques and artisans. Watch my site WhatToDoinProvence.com for more info on these and other Luberon activities in the weeks to come! 

Photo Credits: Pont Julien courtesy of ProvenceGuide.co.uk. Lower church in Bonnieux via Net-Provence.com. Corinne took the photos of Chez Auzet, the portrait of Anthony Mathieu, me at the Bastide de Gordes and the wine bottles. I took the rest...or swiped them from the Bastide de Gordes, Le Phebus or Clos de Buis websites.

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