My husband planned our honeymoon twenty years ago--all before the Internet, GPS and mobile phones simplified overseas travel. Every detail was perfect and we returned for our tenth anniversary to retrace our first weeks together. While our journey began in Paris, it is Provence that remains forever embedded in our hearts.
On our way to France, we had our first marital spat--who would be head of household on U.S. customs forms. No sooner had I thought I had worn my new husband out, I felt a tap on my shoulder from the seat behind me. A tall man with very large glasses said, "Young lady, may I give you a bit of advice?" So stunned, I didn't answer. He offered anyway, "The secret to a happy marriage is strategic advances and tactical retreats." My husband smirked and quietly whispered that the words of wisdom were coming from none other than the famous novelist and historian, Tom Clancy. Two decades into our life together, we have both clearly benefitted from his advice.
After landing in Paris and spending four perfect nights, we boarded the TGV and peered at the French countryside as we nibbled on halfway decent croque monsieur and sipped delicious cheap French wine. A bit giddy when we arrived in Marseilles, we walked around the waterfront in search of a place to eat a late lunch. Seeking an authentic Marseilles bouillabaisse, we landed at Le Miramar in the Old Port section of the city. Never having tried this classic seafood dish, we were as much enamored with the ingredients as we were with the myth surrounding it. Legend has it that the Roman Goddess of Love, Venus, prepared this stew for her husband, Vulcan, in an attempt to put him to sleep. While her husband slept, Venus pursued a romantic tryst with her lover, Mars. After devouring the first course of a broth and garlic rubbed bread with a side of the saffron colored "rouille", and a second course of a heaped pile of rockfish, spider crab, conger eel, red mullet, John Dory, scorpion fish and crayfish, we were both too tired for anything but a nap!
Driving is a pleasure in this poppy and sunflower field studded countryside. From Marseilles to Aix-en-Provence it is less than an hour's drive. Winding our way up a steep hill , we arrived at La Villa Gallici and were greeted with an intense scent of lavender and a Rinquinquin peach aperitif. We enjoyed dinner in the garden with the backdrop of a fading Cezanne sky and the limestone surfaced Mount Sainte-Victoire. For breakfast, I remember most the silver pot of African hot chocolate and the dense rocky shapes of brown sugar cubes served on the blooming rose garden patio.
Northwest of Aix, lie the vineyards of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azure region and the famous vines of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Pope John XXII ruled from Avignon in the 14th century and lived in the ruins of the medieval castle that rises from the hill and remains the focal point of the landscape. Today, just over 2000 people oversee the cultivation of the grapevines that produce 13 million bottles of Provence's most famous wine.
The magical stone fortress Les Baux-de-Provence rises out of the Alpilles mountains an hour west of Aix. A quintessential postcard village, Les Baux traces its origins back to 6000 B.C. Built inside a rocky outcrop on the top of a mountain, it is impossible to see the bustling commune without climbing into the city--only foot traffic allowed. Although touristy, the charm of this tiny village remains rooted in the picturesque, beautifully restored buildings and renaissance facades.
A visit to Provence would be incomplete without a few hours in Arles taking in the brilliantly colored wheat field, vineyard, olive and cypress tree landscape that Vincent Van Gogh famously painted. Sip Pastis in the Café de la Gare and imagine Van Gogh with his canvas painting the wild and vivid work The Night Café and writing to his brother, "Today I am probably going to begin on the interior of the café where I have a room, by gas light, in the evening. It is what they call here a “café de nuit” (they are fairly frequent here), staying open all night. “Night prowlers” can take refuge there when they have no money to pay for a lodging, or are too drunk to be taken in."
Dinner at the Ostau on a starry, starry night may just be the most romantic experience of a lifetime. Ask for a table on the veranda and make the reservation months in advance.