I don’t particularly like to admit it these days, but my birthday is coming up. It’s in May, which is a lovely, cheery feeling month to be born in. I don’t feel sorry for my mother for having to carry me through a hot summer, or feel resentful about having a birthday close to Christmas – I have two children, and these are the two regular laments associated with their birthdays. Anyway, I was recently asked if I had a favourite birthday, and the person who asked me was very surprised with the quickness, and definitiveness of my answer. Yes! I certainly do have a favourite birthday! And the reason it’s my favourite is nothing to do with age, it’s to do with where I spent the day. And I spent it in Provence.
It was my 11th birthday, which is a fairly innocuous milestone, and in those days there were no fines or disapproving faces if you took your children out of school outside of the official holidays. No! Mum and Dad had been invited to join my father’s cousin’s family on a vineyard outside Uzes – which has an incredibly beautiful château and, even then, had a memorable farmer’s market – and there’s no way they were going to let school stop them from going. Instead of fish and chip suppers on Fridays nights, in our house it was a cheese spread, with wine for those deemed old enough to partake, and my parents would never have turned down an opportunity to visit France.
I have to admit that I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay at home and have a proper birthday party like everyone else, but no one cared about my plight and we were packed up in the car. And on my 11th birthday I woke up on the top bunk of a small room in a Provençal cottage, surrounded by the light that Van Gogh and Gauguin had both gone on about being beguiled by – I had been given a book about the region, and the romantic bits about the artists had really resonated with the budding artist I imagined I might be. Dressed in our summer dresses, with cardigans, my birthday treat involved being taken around Avignon. We had a picnic close to the Roman bridge, and then at supper time we were taken to one of those traditional French restaurants where they just serve you whatever’s going and everyone is having the same thing. At first I picked over bits with my fork, but when they came around with the wine and dropped a splash in a glass for me I thought I’d suddenly became a wonderfully grown up bohemian artist. And, according to my Dad, I had a lot to say for myself, much of it delivered in mini-lecture form and cut straight from the regional guide my parents had given me.
But I also really started to taste the food – and the cheese, and I had a lot of experience with cheese – and to smell the earth and the plants being warmed in our cottage gardens, and to really feel the age in the stones of Provence’s towns and villages, and the juice within the grapes on the vines. And for the first time in my life I was excited about being in a particular place, and about what I was seeing around me. And on, as far as memory serves, every subsequent birthday I have remembered what it was like to be 11 year old me and to be so excited about the world.
Today I should be much more savvy, but I still love Provence for many of the same reasons – for the farmer’s markets, the food, the castles on hilltops and the winding streets in quiet villages. I love the Roman relics, the varied landscapes and the olive groves which roll all the way down to the Côte d’Azur. So, where to stay?
For Peace and Vineyard Views
Les Florêts is a traditional, family-run hotel set in a fold of wooden hills overlooking the owner’s own vineyards. There are 15 light and elegant rooms and a bustling restaurant, set on a shaded terrace, which serves delicious, good value food which goes perfectly with the Gigondas produced on the estate. There’s also a pool with panoramic views and lush gardens. Rooms start from around £75 per night.
To be close to Avignon
In the medieval town of Saint Laurent des Arbres, Maison Felisa is a 19th century Provençal style house, turned beautiful country B&B, complete with a vineyard, walled gardens, shady terraces and a sunny swimming pool. There are five light, spacious rooms with tasteful, contemporary decor, and you’re just 15mins from Avignon. Relaxing, but convenient, and with room rates starting from around £115 per night, it’s also very good value.
For Provençal château romance
The Château la Roque is a stunning château in amongst the most famous of the Southern Rhône Valley vineyards.
Five cream-coloured rooms and suites offer panoramic views over the valleys and lavender fields and there’s a large pool and a fabulous table d’hote to return to after a days wine tasting. Rooms start from around £160 per night.
For rural relaxation
In an idyllic setting within the grounds of the Lubéron Natural Park, Le Mas des Herbes Blanches, is an elegant, 48 room country escape. The decor is chic and light and boutique feeling, and there’s a heated pool and a restaurant serving gorgeous gourmet cuisine. There’s a spa. Numerous hiking trails, and you’re close to a golf course. Rooms start from around £215 per night, and you can even bring your pet if you want to.
For village life
Le Clair de La Plume’s 16 bedrooms are located in four different places within the historic village of Grignan, which really adds to this property’s unique charm. Each of the rooms is decorated differently, but they share a classic style, and the gastronomic restaurant serves fresh local produce beautifully. The hotel also has a natural outdoor pool. Rooms start from around £115 per night.
If you want to fly in you have several choices: Marseille Provence Airport, Nice Côte d’Azur Airport or Toulon-Hyères Airport. But it’s easy to arrive by car or train as well, depending on how much you want to bring, or bring home with you. Obviously I am recalling a heady May, where we felt warm and sunny in just shirts and cardigans, and even dresses, but summer in Provence is also incredibly appealing, what with the long sunny days, the sound of chirping cicadas in the background and evening meals on the terrace. In July and August the temperature climbs up to a daily average of 25+°C, so there’s no shame in opting for an after lunch siesta when the sun is at its hottest!
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