What to Do in Provence, France

© Martin Morrell

By Jane Sigal Posted July 18, 2016

Whether your tastes run to cozy cottages or grand châteaus, beaches or hill towns, long lunches or languid dinners, the south of France delivers. Read on for our rosé-fueled guide. 

Cook at Julia Child’s Cottage

A 30-minute drive from Cannes, and just outside the medieval town of Grasse, Julia’s three-bedroom home is now available to travelers who want to stay and cook in the place that inspired the culinary legend.

Seeing Julia Child’s Provence cottage for the first time in 30 years, I was rocked by the memory of a two-day cooking marathon.

Julia built La Pitchoune (The Little Thing) on the estate of her friend and co-author Simone “Simce” Beck. “Somewhere near Italy” is how Julia liked to describe the location. (It’s west of Nice, in the hills close to Grasse.) In the early ‘80s, I spent a few weeks there assisting Simca with cooking classes. But mostly I remember deboning, stuffing and poaching chicken after chicken for a birthday dinner for her husband, Jean Fischbacher. Those birds, packed with pistachio-studded forcemeat, were the highlight of an epic feast for more than a dozen guests.

I arrived back at “La Peetch” halfway through a recent tour of Provence. The cottage is mostly unchanged—except now there’s a pool. This epitomizes Provence today: reassuringly the same, yet in some respects even better. As I traveled from Cap d’Antibes on the southeast coast to Gordes in the hilly north, I found terrifically innovative chefs as well as unwaveringly traditional cooks. I was thrilled by the sheer deliciousness of the rosés. And I stayed at what might be France’s dreamiest hotel, in a 12th-century castle built into a hill.

Food & Wine: Julia Child, Provence

© Martin Morrell

As for La Pitchoune, the new owners rent it out for short stays, offer yoga retreats and plan to launch cooking classes. I can’t imagine they’ll teach anything as haute as those pistachio-stuffed birds, but I’m available to help if they do.

On the day I drove up the road to Julia’s vine-covered cottage, renters had just finished preparing lunch in the near-mythical kitchen, its pegboard walls marked with the heavy black outlines of pots, lids, dough hooks and whisks for easy rehanging. One of the new American owners, life coach Makenna Johnston—a Smith College grad, just like Julia and I, has left the dinged tools and embossed ingredient labels intact. She also hasn’t changed the unusually tall counters, which were built specially to accommodate Julia’s six-foot, two-inch frame. (Johnston is almost as tall.) I walked the steep terraced property, still planted with olive trees, cypresses and lavender bushes, trying to sync my recollections with what was in front of me. Shielding my eyes against the sun, I wistfully noted the swimming pool just below the wisteria-shaded terrace. I wish it had existed 30 years ago; I would have loved to float in it and soak up the Provençal sun after cooking all day. From $625 per night; Chateauneuf-Grasse; lapeetch.com. 

Food & Wine: Julia Child's Kitchen

© Martin Morrell

Eat on the Cote d’Azur

Stretching from the Italian border to St. Tropez, this glittering coast is the most glamorous part of Provence. I found an outstanding prix fixe menu from one of the world’s best chefs at Mirazur in Menton; had a masterful modern meal at the hotel restaurant Villa Fabulite in Cap d’Antibes; and rediscovered classics at Les Arcades, in the town of Biot.

Mirazur

While most of the top-tier chefs in Provence gravitate to big cities, Mauro Colagreco is the exception. Having trained with three of France’s (and the world’s) great cooks—Alain Passard, Alain Ducasse and Bernard Loiseau—the Argentina-born Colagreco established himself in the quiet town of Menton, half an hour east of Nice. In his decade there, he’s put Menton on the map with Mirazur, which this year rose to the No. 6 spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The location, a multilevel glass-and-steel building, offers unbelievable harbor views and the occasional scent of citrus blossom wafting up from the terraced grove below. That’s fitting: The chef infuses modern dishes, like his crab and grapefruit with white rose petals and almond foam, with the region’s most fragrant plants and flowers. Yet his $62 prix fixe lunch menu is one of the best deals in the south of France. 30 Ave. Aristide Briand, Menton; mirazur.fr.

Villa Fabulite

This 15-room design hotel is home to the friendliest restaurant in the swanky town of Cap d’Antibes. In his tiny open kitchen, Cyrille Chaussade constantly updates a short menu with what’s best at the local market; in the summer months he packs his citrusy squid salad with cherry tomatoes and shaved zucchini. A meal here feels like having your very own chef cook for you in a private garden. After dinner, be sure to take the three-minute walk to the beach, where dramatic coves are cradled by rock formations that jut out into the sea. Back at the hotel, snug, lovely guest rooms like my gold-and-aquamarine one promise a blissful night’s sleep. From $120 per night; 150 Traverse des Nielles, Cap d’Antibes; fabulite.com.

Food & Wine: Rue Saint-Sebastien, Provence

© Martin Morrell

Les Arcades

I first visited this restaurant 25 years ago with my mother, when I was researching my second cookbook. Clearly, my return to La Pitchoune required another pilgrimage to Les Arcades for some quintessential southern French cooking. Opened in 1952, it sits under 15th-century arches in the tiny town of Biot, 15 miles from Nice. The walls are still hung with paintings by artists who bartered their work for food, including Vasarely, Braque and Folon. And there was the 91-year-old owner, Mimi Brothier. When I told her about my history with her restaurant, she wrapped me in a warm hug. I asked for more dishes than any normal person could consume—stuffed squash blossoms; rabbit with olives, garlic and mushrooms; fresh goat cheese marinated in chile oil—and a waiter jotted down my order in neat columns on the paper table cover that doubles as the check. Happily, some things never change. 14/16 Place des Arcades, Biot; hotel-restaurant-les-arcades.com.

Drink Rosé All Day

The south of France produces fantastic rosé. The Côtes de Provence west of St. Tropez is a great place to try both innovative versions (at Chateau Leoube) and ultraclassic ones (at Commanderie de Peyrassol and Domaines Ott). There are other sublime experiences at these properties, too--from laid-back beach cafés to contemporary art set along vineyard trails. 

Château Léoube

Stretching out to the azure sea, Château Léoube is owned by an estimable British duo: Lord and Lady Bamford, the forces behind England’s Daylesford Organic Farmshops & Cafes. They purchased the property in order to restore the ancient vineyard using sustainable farming. At Léoube, Romain Ott, of the Domaines Ott family, produces a bottling he calls super-rosé, which gets its complexity from old vines. He also makes an array of more widely available wines, which you can try at the estate’s small café, in a sandy pine forest near the beach. 2387 Route de Léoube, Bormes-les-Mimosas; chateauleoube.com.

Commanderie de Peyrassol

Food & Wine: Alban Cacaret

© Martin Morrell

This 800-year-old wine estate recently opened a farm-chic B&B outfitted with antique mirrors and galvanized steel tubs. The property’s contemporary art gallery and the sculpture park, with works by Frank Stella and Jean Dubuffet surrounded by vines, are must-visits. Peyrassol’s tasting room is likewise distinctive, created from the rubble of one of the oldest buildings on the property. Those pale, mineral-inflected rosés pair beautifully with chef Guillaume Delaune’s modern Provençal dishes, like tomatoes stuffed with ricotta and spinach. From $146 per night; RN7, Flassans-sur-Issole; peyrassol.com

Food & Wine: Commanderie de Peyrassol

© Martin Morrell

Domaines Ott

Ott operates three estates across Provence, but visitors can sample all the wines at the palm-fringed seaside winery in La Londe-les-Maures. Co-director Jean-Francois Ott helped me taste my way through an array of bottlings. When I admired the Clos Mireille’s light color, he schooled me: “Dark rosés are just as refreshing.” Next up, a short drive to L’Estagnol (restaurant-lestagnol.fr), the beach shack of my dreams, where, from my director’s chair on the sand, I watched the cooks feed whole sea bass and ratatouille into a wood-burning oven. Route de Bregancon, La Londe-les-Maures; domaines-ott.com.

Food & Wine: Peyrassol, Provence

© Martin Morrell

Stay in a Castle

The insider's Provence is up in the hills north of the coast, between the ancient cities of Arles and Avignon. That's where you can find the stunning, newly renovated chateau-turned-hotel La Bastide de Gordes; shop a renowned flea market in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue with finds from all over France; and discover crisp-crusted pizza at a charming little parlor that embodies the region's small-town spirit. 

La Bastide de Gordes

Food & Wine: Bastide de gordes Pool

© Martin Morrell

I’ve always had a secret dream of living in an 18th-century toile de Jouy scene, capering with the shepherdesses next to stone turrets. I came as close as I ever will at this sumptuously refurbished fortress-hotel, where bedrooms are swathed in the pastoral fabric. The historic details (antique bath tiles, intricate wood paneling) are balanced by modern comforts like a Sisley spa and four outdoor and indoor pools. The Bastide’s La Citadelle restaurant serves impeccable New Provençal dishes, like einkorn risotto with raw and cooked spring onions. L’Orangerie bistro hews closer to tradition: That’s where I fell for this outstanding salade niçoise, with the surprise of shaved local baby artichokes mixed in. From $220 per night; Rue de la Combe, Gordes; bastide-de-gordes.com.

Food & Wine: Bastide de gordes

© Martin Morrell

L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue Flea Market

Sharp-eyed interior designers and antiques buyers can outfit entire homes with the French country furniture and housewares from the flea market that takes over the town center on Sundays. Within five minutes of rummaging through one of the stalls, I’d discovered a treasure I just had to buy: a shiny yellow mustard pot-salt cellar with an iridescent blue cicada, the iconic symbol of Provence. By 3 p.m. the stands were well picked over, so I happily sipped a citron presse (in France, the DIY lemonade comes with a glass of fresh lemon juice, a water carafe and a small canister of sugar) at a café in the sun overlooking the rushing Sorgue River.

Pizza Brun

Bruno and Colette Brun’s marvelous pizza parlor in Maussane-les-Alpilles, outside Les Baux and not far from Arles, has a well-deserved cult following. It’s in a stone cottage with sky-blue shutters and colorful metal chairs, the kind of setting that exemplifies laid-back, small-town Provence. I lingered in the courtyard, sipping inexpensive but delicious rosé, waiting for the cowbell to ring, signaling that my order was ready. At last, the clang. My wood-fired pie topped with mozzarella, tomatoes and niçoise olives deserved the advance praise, with a crust that shattered when I touched it. I also loved the reinvention of a pissaladiere, the classic tart, into a superb pizza topped with caramelized onions, olives, anchovies and a little melted Emmental. Ave. de la Vallée des Baux, Maussane-les-Alpilles.

Food & Wine: l'isle sur la sorgue

© Martin Morrell

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