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, 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 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 for more info on these and other Luberon activities in the weeks to come! 

Photo Credits: Pont Julien courtesy of Lower church in Bonnieux via 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.

Monday, November 28, 2016

If Van Gogh Had a Camera...

If you have a chance before December 23, pop into the two-floored Arles Gallery, where the owners Anne Eliayan and Françoise Galeron--both of them photographers--have organized an interesting show called “Les Photos de Van Gogh.”  The exhibit is on the gallery's lower level, in a vaulted cave that dates to the 17th century.

The idea, Anne says, was to imagine what might have happened if Vincent Van Gogh had a camera. To realize it, she turned to 25 photographers and other artists, asking them for images that either reference the Dutch painter directly or were inspired by his life and work.

One photographer placed himself in the exact spot in Arles where Van Gogh painted a particular landscape; it looks remarkably the same today. A series of three black-and-whites pays homage, in part, to Vincent’s older brother (who was stillborn and also named Vincent) and to Vincent’s father, who--like his own father--was a pastor.

Two embroidered pieces (a pillow and a textile wall hanging) were done by Casablanca-born Christine Millerin, who has her own studio/boutique just across the street (#7 rue de la Liberte).

Anne has three of her own photos in the show; I particularly liked her dreamy take on Van Gogh’s famous “Starry Night.”

Also part of the show are two large paintings by the Arles-based painter Ise Cheddadi, who used a technique she calls pixelisme to create two large portraits of Van Gogh, each composed of 600 or so tiny paintings. Your eye sees the artist’s face clearly only when the piece is viewed from a distance or through a camera lens. One of her Van Gogh portraits hangs in the gallery window and you can see others on her website.

If you’re lucky and Anne has time, she’ll take you through the show herself; she did that for me and it added to my appreciation immensely. The work is varied, moving and quite wonderful but it’s easy to miss some of the references if you’re not so familiar with Van Gogh’s work. Some pieces are just pretty photos until you hear the story behind them.

When I saw the show in mid November, about half of the images were already sold. Most are priced under 200, as Anne and her partner want their gallery and its artwork to be accessible to all.

The “Photos de Van Gogh” show comes down December 23. The gallery's next group show, called “Arles and Mythology,” opens March 24, 2017. And on the main floor, there’s a whole gallery full of interesting photos and posters to explore as well. The Arles Gallery is just off the Place du Forum, at 8 rue de la Liberté, +33 (0)6 59 35 57 51, The hours are Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm.

Where to eat before or after? If you’re looking for a nice, simple lunch nearby, try the interesting open-faced tartine sandwiches (on Poilâne bread) at Cuisine du Comptoir, open all day just next door, at #10. The best-sellers are currently the poularde (chicken, capers, homemade mayonnaise) and marius (tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil, basil). For just 15€, you can have the tartine of your choice,  plus soup or salad, a glass of wine or 1/2 bottle of mineral water and a coffee. For more about the restaurant, read my 2011 review here. Cuisine du Comptoir is open for lunch every day except Sunday; open for dinner every night except Sunday from April to December; and open for dinner on Friday and Saturday only from January through March.

Another extremely popular nearby restaurant is Le Galoubet (18 Rue du Dr Fanton, 04 90 93 18 11), with its friendly staff, pretty shaded terrace nice cooking and good prices.  And a bit further from the gallery (but still a five-minute walk max) is Le Gibolin (13 Rue Des Porcelet, 04 88 65 43 14), considered one of the top three spots in Arles...and great for wine lovers as well. 

Photos: Click on any photo to enlarge. (1) The gallery, with one of Ise Cheddadi's Van Gogh portraits in the window. (2) Gallery co-owner Anne Eliayan curated the show and is pictured with her take on Van Gogh, called "Starry Night." (3) "Les Sabots" by Celine Geneys. (4) "Tourment Creatif,"  a digital lithograph by Christophe Kay. (5) Another"Nuit étoilée," this one by gallery co-owner Francoise Galeron. (6) A "pixelisme" portrait of Van Gogh by Ise Cheddadi. This one is composed of 1008 little paintings, about 3.5 cm each. (7) "Arlésiennes" by Jurgen Grade. (8) Photo by Claude Sportis. The title translates as "Pine Needles as a Van Gogh Painting." (9) An embroidered wall hanging by Christine Millerin. (10)  Photo of a sculpture by Arles-based artist Thibault Franc. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Q&A: Provence Expert Georgeanne Brennan

Author Georgeanne Brennan, who splits her time between Provence and California, is happiest when she's at the either place. Read on for her best Provence insider tips. (Photo by Jessica Theroux.)

Georgeanne recommends the Monday brocante market on the Cours Saleya in Nice (top), where she has bought vintage linens, ceramic asparagus dishes, an antique holder for leg of lamb...and much more. (Photo courtesy of She also loves the Saturday market in Riez (and the sausages!).

Georgeanne's favorite gift for friends back home is colorful soap from the market; her favorite is the lavender.

I asked Georgeanne to recommend some great wines under 10€. She loves the crisp rosé and aromatic Rolle--also known as Vermentino--from Domaine de Saint Ferreol, between Barjols and Ponteves...and often takes guests to visit the vineyard. 

Favorite beach? Frejus Plage; she takes the train to avoid traffic and parking hassles.

When she wants to splurge, Georgeanne heads for Alain Ducasse's country inn Hostellerie de l'Abbaye de la Celle, for the cooking of chef Nicolas Pierantoni, the service and the elegant surroundings. (Chef photo courtesy of

Georgeanne looks forward to exploring more of "the back country of Nice," including villages such as Saorge (above) and La Brigue. 

In her newest book, My Culinary Journey (just out this month), Georgeanne continues to chronicle her love affair with Provence: its food, festivals and colorful characters. You can buy the book on Amazon here...but if you buy it here instead, Georgeanne will sign it and pop a jar of Herbes de Provence into your package. Read our Q&A just below.


Over the years, I’ve turned to well-known Provence insiders—people like Peter Mayle and Patricia Wells--to find out where they like to eat, to shop, to take houseguests, etc. And these Q&As have been super popular with my readers. So this week I posed some quick questions to another well-known foodie/author, Georgeanne Brennan, and asked her to share some of her favorite “addresses” and best tips.

Georgeanne is an award-winning, American cookbook author, journalist and entrepreneur who keeps a long-time home in Provence (in the Upper Var region, not far from Aups), where she once lived year-round, keeping goats and making and selling cheese. Her cookbook, The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence (1998) won a James Beard Award, and her memoir, A Pig in Provence (2008) was rated as one of the “Top 50 Best Food Memoirs” by AbeBooks. Georgeanne’s newest book, out this month, is called My Culinary Journey: Food and Fêtes of Provence (Yellow Pear Press) and it continues her memoir with 40 recipes, gorgeous photos…and stories of her favorite local fêtes and festivals including the Feast of the Fishermen in Le Brusc in June, the Lavender Festival in Sault on August 15 and the Gypsy Fête in Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer in May. These days, Georgeanne lives primarily in northern California, where she runs her on-line company, La Vie Rustic, Sustainable Living in the French Style, and is working on a cookbook of the same name. She travels several times a year to Provence and knows the region exceedingly well.  Here’s our Q&A…

Q: Current favorite casual restaurant and why? 

A: Auberge de la Tour in Aups. It has a large outdoor space, with deep shade, superb wood fired pizzas, and main courses such as duck with fig and honey sauce and steak frites. It’s family owned and equally good for an intimate dinner for two or a large party with children. 

Q: Current favorite splurge restaurant?

A: Alain Ducasse’s Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle, in the quiet village of La Celle, adjacent to a 12th-century abbey. The food is fresh and brilliantly prepared by the young chef Nicolas Pierantoni , a native of La Celle. The service is impeccable but never fussy, and eating on the terrace of the large walled garden is so civilized yet so simple. Rustic yet elegant Provence at its very best!

Q: Favorite beach? Any tips on parking, beach clubs, best beach restaurant, etc?

A: Frejus Plage. My friends and I take the train from Les Arcs to Frejus, about a 25-minute ride, walk a few blocks from the station and arrive directly on the promenade along a long stretch of beach. We sometimes lunch at one of the restaurants bordering the sea, or, get a table at one of the restaurants directly on the beach. Great for mussels and rose wine at the end of the day before taking the return train. Taking the train means no parking or driving problems. Do bring your own umbrella and chairs, if you want them, and towels. 

Q: One decor shop you love and why?

A: My favorite is not a shop but rather the all-day Nice brocante market, held every Monday in the Old City. I always find more to buy than I can possibly carry, from a vintage manche a gigot (leg-of-lamb holder) to vintage linens and ceramic asparagus dishes. Wonderful shopping! And be sure to take a break for socca and a glass of rose at one of the cafes.

Q: Tell us about one of your favorite outdoor markets. 

A: I like the Saturday market in Riez, in the Alpes of Haute Provence. It has lots of food of every kind, kitchen hardware, and interesting clothing – I always find lots of things I like – and, if I get there early enough, I can buy rolls of ready-to-cut-and-fry panisse (chick pea flour fritters). The cafes are numerous. It’s a bit like an old-fashioned regional market. And, part of the allure for me is that Riez has a Roman history and was a bishop see from the 5th century to the French Revolution.  

Q: One great gift you always buy in the market for friends back home? 

A: How can I resist the lavender soap?

Q: Favorite local wine under 10€ per bottle?

A: Domaine de Saint Ferreol, between Barjols and Ponteves, has excellent Coteaux Varois wines for under 8  per bottle. I especially like their clean, crisp rosé and aromatic Rolle, also known as Vermentino. And, the property has some charming B&B accommodations too. 

Q: Favorite winery to take out of town friends and why?

A: See answer just above.

Q: Next place in France you're dying to check out?

A: I want to explore more deeply the back country of Nice, in the Alpes Maritimes, along the Italian border. I just spent some time in Saorge and La Brigue there. The area is mysterious and traditional foods, like ravioli stuffed with borage – delicious! – appear on the menus of the small, family hotel/restaurants.

Q: What’s one site that no traveler to Provence should miss?

A: The Papal Palace and its gardens in Avignon--and the Pont Saint Bénézet Bridge on the Rhone River there--are truly not to be missed.

Q: Favorite book or cookbook about Provence?

A: La Cuisiniere Provencale by J.B. Reboul. It was first published in 1897, has everything you need to know about Provencal cooking, as handed down through the generations from mother to daughter. This is the kind of traditional cooking I learned from my neighbors in Provence. 

Q: Finally, what’s your best tip for first-time travelers to Provence?

A: Don't try to do too much! Settle in somewhere, do day trips, and enjoy being a part of the daily life of markets, cafes...and a slower pace.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Provence Prestige is Nov 24 to 28

The 23rd annual Provence Prestige show opens Thursday November 24 at the Palais des Congrès in Arles and runs through Monday November 28. This festive holiday-theme "salon" fills a number of vast indoor expo halls with 30,000 square feet of holiday goodies, gifts, home decor, food and wine, clothes, accessories, books and much more. And it's all made in Provence by exhibitors who agree to the terms of a special ''locally made'' charter. Some 30,000 visitors and roughly 150 exhibitors are expected.

As in years past there will be Christmas workshops for kids on Saturday and Sunday, from 2 pm to 6 pm (details here). You can see a full schedule of events, background on the exhibitors and much more in the press kit.

Tickets are 6 € (adults), 3 € (ages 12 to 18 and groups of 20 or more), and free for kids under 12. 

Your ticket for Provence Prestige also entitles you to free and discounted admissions at four well-known museums--the Musée Départemental de l’Arles Antique (MDAA), the beautiful art-filled Musée Réattu, the Van Gogh Fondation and the Musee de la Camargue--as well as to all the monuments in the village.

Provence Prestige hours are from 10 am to 7 pm, with special late hours (until 11 pm) on Friday November 25, when it’s open until 11 pm. All the info is on the main website here.  

If you're heading for Arles, you might also want to visit the weekend Christmas Market (Marché de Noël des Commerçants), featuring local businesses. It's at the Chapelle Ste Anne on the Place de la Republique, in Centre Ville, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Nov 25 to 27), from 10 am to 7 pm.