We often think of time as passing us by. As we drove passed fields of lavender and poppies, rows of grapevines and olive trees I wondered if maybe we were just looking at it wrong. Maybe instead of thinking of time as something that we lose, maybe we should think of it as something we collect. With every passing day, with every memory, with every birthday, we are gathering more time in our basket. We are collecting moments that will become a part of us. With every lavender field, every vineyard, every sunset and sunrise, every new face, every laugh, every cry we are collecting moments. Time goes by, but what a beautiful thing to collect such memories and build a life.
Within minutes of leaving Saint-Tropez the vineyards began rolling along the highway. Our drive to Riez was a spectacular sight winding through hills, communes, vineyards, olive groves, and just when I thought it couldn’t get more breathtaking we turned the corner to see lavender fields and then the next bend in the road, poppy fields. We were on our way to a 3 room bed and breakfast called Hotel Des Colonnes. If the drive was any indication, we were in for a treat.
The decision on where to stay in Provence was overwhelming. There are so many beautiful places and so much to see. Knowing that one of our goals was to hike the Verdon Gorge, helped narrow the decision. Riez is not a popular tourist town, although it does have points of interest like the 4 remaining columns of the 1st century AD Roman temple built by Emperor Augustus and the 5th century baptistery that is one of the only paleochristian edifices in Provence. It is also in close proximity to the Verdon Gorge, also known as Gorges Du Verdon by the locals, possibly the most beautiful gorge in all of Europe and one of France’s natural wonders.
I had discovered Hotel Des Colonnes randomly when researching on the internet, it was not in any books or articles, and it was by far the most affordable of our hotels. It would prove a delightful dream.
Feeling like very accomplished Americans after navigating the hills of Provence successfully we arrived at our destination. Green, purple, and turquoise shutters adorned the building. We knocked on the large wooden door and it was opened by the beautiful, whimsical Geraldine. We immediately met the star of the Hotel Des Colonnes, a French Bulldog named Betty Boop whom just like her owner has never met a stranger.
French author Guy de Maupassant wrote, “It is the lives we encounter that make life worth living.” The people we encountered along our French journey made our experience all the more riveting. And of the people we met, it was Geraldine who was by far the most enchanting. It is people like Geraldine whose smile adds zest to life and whose childlike wonder keeps stress at bay, that remind us to live, really live, and enjoy these moments given to us each day. Geraldine is a wonderful host not just because of her bewitching personality, but also for her knowledge of the area. She can recommend popular points of interest and the most off the beaten path adventures too.
The first floor of Hotel Des Colonnes is a colorful collage of artisan goods from paper masks to weekender bags to blankets to paintings. Geraldine and Betty Boop escorted us to our chamber. Decorated as you would expect an artist’s studio with small statues, dress maker’s bust, and artwork, our room had a king bed, large bathroom vanity, walk-in shower, desk, and sitting area. My favorite part of the room were the large antique casement windows we would crank open in the evening to here the soft sounds of nighttime in Riez.
Each morning we entered the lush courtyard draped in vines and blooms to enjoy breakfast. Freshly baked breads, seasonal fruit, homemade jams and jellies, granola, fresh fruit juices, and French cheeses awaited us at our two top cafe table. Betty Boop stood nearby keeping a careful eye on Geraldine’s movements.
Day 8 South Of France (Day 1 Provence)
My husband and I love to hike, so hiking one of the most beautiful gorges in the world and the most beautiful natural wonder in France was on the agenda. The unique feature contributing towards the Verdon Gorge’s natural wonder status is the incredible turquoise green color of the water winding through the canyon, it’s source is the Verdon River.
We hiked the Lower Verdon Gorges which starts near the commune of Quinson. It is a 3 hour hike that ascends and descends right along the beautiful turquoise water, enveloping into a dense emerald green moss covered forest, then rising high above the gorge to descend and meet once again along the meandering blue-green water.
After our morning hike we had worked up quite an appetite. Geraldine had packed us a picnic cooler with homemade tabouli and breads. We stopped by the market in Riez to buy some olives, cheeses, fresh fruit and vegetables.
We had asked Geraldine for a great spot to swim. She replied, “Oh I know the perfect spot. You will see a sign that says ‘no swimming’, that’s where you go!” We headed to toward Lake Sainte-Croix to find this special spot.
Another unbelievable sight awaited us nestled at this swimming spot along the sandy, pebble beach of the brightly hued Lake Sainte-Croix. This spot is like something described in a great romance novel or a photo that would grace the cover of a magazine. A tree hung over the brilliant water and that’s where we laid our picnic blanket down.
After our picnic we went for a swim. The water was a little crisp, but felt incredible.
Our stomachs happy and our spirit revived we decided to continue exploring the area around Lake Sainte-Croix to the village of Baudinard-du-Verdon, one of my favorite drives through Provence. Built on a rocky hill and occupied since the Neolithic period, Baudinard is a typical Provençal village characterized by its vaulted passageways. Famous for its prehistoric archaeological remains and Chapel Notre Dame de la Garde which we hiked to sitting high upon a hill overlooking Lake Sainte-Croix. The view from the Chapel is superb and the chapel itself is a beautiful structure to see. One thing we loved walking through the village, listening to the sound of the World Cup games coming from the windows of people’s homes.
After Baudinard-du-Verdon we drove to Bauduen, a small commune which sits right on the lake. Geraldine had recommended a cafe called Papillon (butterfly in English) which her friend Bernard owned. We walked to the cafe and asked for Bernard and when I told him Geraldine sent us, he gave me a huge kiss on the cheek and hug. He showed us around the cafe, gallery, and store and then we sat on the patio to enjoy our antipasto. Bauduen is a beautiful place to watch sunset in Provence with a spectacular view of the dying day right over the lake. With the positioning of many Provençal villages among the mountains, a clear view of sunset is not easy to find. Even Papillon owner Bernard walks out to the waterfront to stare thoughtfully at the horizon. After finishing our antipasto plate we walked along the lake to watch sunset and enjoy some ice cream.
As the sun crept closer to the horizon we decided to wind our way back toward Riez. Winding up the mountains along Lake Sainte-Croix we came upon one of the most beautiful views of our trip – the golden hour illuminating Bauduen. Tears of joy instantaneously swelled in my eyes as we stopped and gave witness to something so beautiful.
What a day.
Day 9 (Day 2 Provence)
Day tripping through Provence to find fields of lavender and antiques that was the objective of this day. It was Sunday which meant that one of the largest antique markets in the world was open in L’isle Sur La Sorgue, the largest center for antique trade in France. Their Sunday market is also a food market, making L’isle-Sur-La-Sorgue the creme de la creme of the French market experience. Market or no market, L’isle-Sur-La-Sorge is a beautiful town and worth the visit. Waterwheels still turn in its narrow canals and the colorful buildings and alley ways are something to see.
The market starts early so if you’re staying in another city make sure to plan your drive time, get to the market early, then enjoy breakfast after your shopping. Au Chineur is a great spot to try.
The next spot on our day trip was Gordes, just a short drive from L’isle-Sur-La-Sorgue. Ranked consistently as one of the most beautiful villages in France, this white stone ancient village overlooking the Luberon Valley is breathtaking. Arriving in the village and finding a place to park can be a bit tricky with various tour buses trying to make their way in as well, but once you ascend towards the village by foot, the crowds disperse and you can enjoy strolling through the beautiful village of Gordes without dodging too many cameras.
Gordes has sheltered many famous artists, and is renowned as a summer retreat for artists, businessmen and politicians, making the price of real estate significantly more elevated than its neighboring villages. With numerous cultural events throughout summer, it is worth the visit despite the crowds. The boutiques lining the village are fun to peruse and a must stop on the way out is the Senanque Abbey.
The abbey of Senanque was founded in 1148 by Cistercian monks from Mazan in Ardeche. The monastery was built to provide all the necessary things: water, mill, garden, bakery, and various occupations in order that monks did not have to go outside of the grounds, which is not beneficial for their souls. Monks still live here harvesting and cultivating lavender as their occupation.
From Gordes we drove to Forcalquier, another stop along the way known for its lavender production. For those there on Monday or Thursday, Forcalquier has a lively market scene. Picturesque old town is dotted with artist ateliers, this small village became a place of refuge for artists seeking more solitude. In the 12th century, Forcalquier was known as the capital city of Haute-Provence and was called the Cité des Quatre Reines (City of the Four Queens) since the four daughters of the ruler of this region, Raimond Beranger V (Eleanor of Aquitaine among them), all married royals.
We enjoyed a late lunch at Brasserie Cafe du Commerce, a French style cafe lining the plaza of the town. They had delicious salads and when the rain began to fall as we finished our meal we took shelter inside and enjoyed an espresso.
Our drive back towards Riez was just as scenic as the drive to L’isle-Sur-La Morgue, with a stop at the L’Occitane factory in Manosque. What became quite apparent as we traversed the Provençal countryside was that Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse and other famous painters who took up residence in Provence weren’t embellishing their masterpieces, they indeed had the most beautiful scenery as their muse right outside their door.
Day 10 (Day 3 Provence)
For our last day in Provence we drove towards Castellane, an absolutely breathtaking village that dates back to the Middle Ages and one that takes you deeper into the Verdon Gorge. The drive itself is spectacular. Castellane is known for its towering limestone rock that juts out from the earth and is home to the Notre Dame du Roc Chapel. You can hike to the top for 360 degree views of the Verdon. Take the ‘Du Roc au Serre’ pamphlet with you to learn about what you can see on your way up to the Roc.
For quick history lesson stop into the Musee De La Resistance, open daily until 7pm.
Outdoor activities abound in Castellane from rafting to paddle boarding to canyoning to nature hikes, it is a nature lovers dream with steep canyons, bright blue water,and endless flora and fauna. Haute Provence Outdoor offers a great selection of activities for the outdoor enthusiast.
Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner Restaurant Lac du Castillon serves good, fresh food and a variety of meal options including salads, meat and fish entrees, burgers, and pizzas.
Our end destination today was Monte Carlo, but for a scenic drive we took the road from Castellane to Entrevaux. You will pass through two smaller villages – Saint Julien du Verdon and Annot. The village of Annot was fully part of the French Revolution. For those looking for unspoiled sights that remain much like they were in Medieval times, Annot offers narrow streets lined with Medieval houses, covered passageways, Saint-Jean-Baptiste church, fountains, an old wash house, and a square shaded by plane trees. This beautiful village looks as if it is built out of the side of the sandstone mountain. Depending how your travel schedule lays out, there are also opportunities for day trips from Nice to Annot and Entrevaux via the train.
Once again our drive through Provence did not disappoint as we approached the picturesque village of Entrevaux. Entrevaux zigs zags down the mountain. You must enter Entrevaux over an ancient bridge and through the village gates. Narrow streets, ancient homes, babbling fountains, and even a communal ancient bread oven still make up this gorgeous Provencal village.
At the end of town, you will find the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de l’Assomption. Pass through the carved stone entrance to see the ornate choir inside, and the 18th century organ. After exploring the village, hike to the the 11th century citadelle at that towers high on a rocky outcrop above the village providing views that make the climb worth it.
Entrevaux is a delight for the eyes and must visit for anyone who loves history. It was a perfect end to our Provence travels and made as easy drive back to Nice.
READ more on this entire South of France journey at: