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Rural retreat in Provence

Rural retreat in Provence    

By Steve Jack

Travelling by train is not the quickest way to reach Provence, but it is certainly one of the most enjoyable. There was a chill in the air as we set off from Waterloo, surrounded by low, grey skies. By mid afternoon, however, as we sped towards Avignon, the clouds were scudding away, and the sun bathed the hulking mass of Mont Ventoux in warm Provençal light.

Once off the train, we collected our hire car and meandered along the increasingly picturesque N100 to the lovely hill-top town of Forcalquier. Just 6 kilometres further on, in a perfectly secluded spot on the brow of a small hill, lay our destination. By the time we arrived there, we were already congratulating ourselves on visiting Provence during spring – there were so few tourists, lovely long days of sunshine and a feeling that we were getting a head-start on summer.

Many places will boast of a ‘warm welcome’, but here we were made to feel truly special. Eric Delaetre is the effusive and lovable ‘public face’ of the Marine Apartment and adjoining guesthouse. Nothing is too much trouble for him. He fusses around only until he is sure that you are completely happy. He also manages to combine the roles of manager, barman, waiter, raconteur, butler and comedian with extraordinary panache. He showed us around our ‘apartment’ – in reality, a very well-appointed end of their beautifully converted farm buildings – and left us to enjoy the home-made quiche they had provided in the fridge, accompanied by a chilled glass of rosé.

The Marine Apartment was to be our base for the week, giving us the chance to uncover the delights of Provence for ourselves. Over a huge platter of steak-frites and salad, and helped by a bottle of local red wine, we used our first meal at L’Aigu Blanco in Forcalquier to plan our attack.

There are so many gorgeous villages to visit in this corner of France that you almost begin to suffer beauty-fatigue in the end. Your standards become impossibly high, and it’s hard not to become nonchalant as you encounter yet another sign proclaiming this to be ‘l’un des plus beaux villages de France’. The perfectly situated hill-top town of Gordes is one such place – apparently mobbed in July, but mercifully accessible in May – and was a highlight of our first day’s drive. Roussillon was another, and the remarkable red and yellow cliffs and pathways that make up the sentier des ochres make this place truly memorable.

We ate that night at the Bastide Saint Georges, an Inntravel hotel situated just up the hill from Forcalquier, and enjoyed tasty fillets of red mullet in their modern and friendly little restaurant.

Eric had told us, in no uncertain terms, that ‘le marché est IN-DIS-PENS-ABLE!’ So we dutifully arrived at the Monday market in Forcalquier, and found Provençal village life laid out before us: cheeses, meats, roast chickens, shopping baskets, paella, fruit, clothes… all in a wonderful, bustling atmosphere that only got busier as the morning wore on. Eventually we ducked out of the maelstrom and climbed the steep hill to explore the citadel which guards the town and the hills to all sides.

As you might expect, Eric was determined that we saw the very best of the local area. Thus it was that we zigzagged up steep mountainsides to the Sommet de Lure that same afternoon for stupendous views of the whole area. On the way down, we also managed to locate the Ancien Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Lure where we encountered the local hermit, Lucien, collecting wood in a wheelbarrow with his dogs. After peering into the eerily empty church next to his home, and observing the ‘Silence SVP’ signs with some trepidation, we beat a hasty retreat, feeling rather uneasy about the timeless scene we had invaded. Another special discovery was Bello Visto, a perfect little bar in the neighbouring cliff-top village of Lurs. We ate delicious slices of thick chocolate cake, accompanied by a local bière de la châtaine – dark brown with a sweet and refreshing chestnut flavour.

That night, we were due to eat in the restaurant of the guesthouse. This is where Bruno Boulanger, the more quietly spoken half of the partnership, comes into his own. Bruno rarely leaves the sanctuary of his kitchen and, when he does, it is generally to plunder the local markets for their wealth of fresh produce. He conjures up wonderful dishes, using only the freshest ingredients.

Dinner began in the bar, with Eric pouring home-made walnut and dandelion aperitifs while holding court among the guests with his gloriously imperfect pronunciation. Chèvre was ‘ghost’ cheese, and he referred to anything he thought to be fantastic as ‘terrible’, the French nuance leaving us with a totally different meaning! By this point, he was looking dapper in his waistcoat, signifying his transformation into the role of head waiter, and soon vanishing into the house, ready to serve a truly memorable meal.

To begin with, perfect pastry pies arrived, filled with a black olive tapenade and doused with warm Banon cheese – a famous speciality from a lovely village up the road. This was accompanied by asparagus, fresh from the morning’s market in Forcalquier. Next we ate a deliciously tender magret de canard served with figs, ratatouille provençale and potatoes. Next was a soft and smooth fromage blanc, rather like crème fraîche, accompanied by two types of fresh tomato ‘jam’: one bright red, the other bright green, and both absolutely delicious. The meal ended with iced nougat with almonds and lavender-flavoured honey – beautifully sweet and utterly divine. Somewhat lost for words, we shuffled off to bed.

While many people understandably don’t feel the need to stray very far from their Provençal ‘home’, we were determined to explore and so we set out the following morning for Cassis, a gorgeous little harbour town to the east of Marseille. Here we took a ride on a tourist boat which chugged around the coast to the spectacularly steep-sided Calanques, or inlets, which eat into the cliffs on this part of the coast. With aquamarine, crystal-clear water, rock climbers all around and lovely beaches to relax on, this could have been Thailand rather than France, and was one of the unexpected highlights of our week. From here, we scrambled up to the cliff-top on foot, and walked the scenic 6-mile trail back round the coast to Cassis, for a well-earned feast of moules, pizza and a pichet of rosé.

The following two days saw trips that were equally memorable in their own ways. Firstly, we tackled a short walk in the beautiful scenery of the Luberon, visiting many of its picture-perfect hill-top villages during the day. A slow lunch of charcuterie, salade niçoise and the ubiquitous vin rosé at Café César in Bonnieux was lovely, but visits to Ménerbes – home to Peter Mayle during his ‘Year in Provence’ – and the delightful village square in Saignon were also highlights. The next day was spent at the awesome Gorges du Verdon. This was quite a journey from Forcalquier, but the scenery was quite simply unbelievable, and the drive around the Corniche des Crêtes at the canyon’s rim was not for the faint-hearted! For lunch we discovered a ramshackle little crêperie in Rougat, high above the appropriately named Point Sublime, where we watched griffon vultures circling overhead and took in the panoramic view before us, all the way down the canyon to the east.

With such varied experiences and different places to visit every day, the week really didn’t fly by as quickly as we’d feared. There were wonderful cities to explore along the way, too: Aix, with its youthful feel, packed squares and crumbling grandeur, and then Avignon, former home to the papacy and resplendent with its exquisite palace, designer shops and beautiful squares. Here we had a memorable meal in the Place du Crillon – sword fish and estouffade du bœuf with a smooth and powerful bottle of Gigondas to accompany it, originating from a vineyard we had visited earlier the same day.

Wine had become a recurring theme of this holiday. A coupe de champagne or a glass of muscat as an aperitif had become more of a habit than an indulgence by this stage, and the wines we tasted everywhere – from a Vacqueyras or fine Châteauneuf-du-Pape to the quaffable white, red and rosé carafes left in our fridge by Eric – were a delicious accompaniment to the holiday.

Our hosts’ tireless and genuine hospitality was another unforgettable feature of our trip and, judging by the comments Inntravel receives from its customers, we are not alone. Eric and Bruno had given up the challenges of running a considerably larger hotel in the nearby town of Céreste a couple of years previously. They had tired of the work involved in managing a team and dealing with a bigger business, choosing instead to ‘downsize’.

Now they had settled in their own Provençal paradise, they were a perfect team of just two (three if you count Zara the dog, who regally surveyed our every move), and they could dedicate themselves to what they do best – making other people happy. As we took the fast train back up north to the chilly cloud cover once again, we reflected that they’d got it absolutely right.