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Undiscovered Provence

Posted on 7th August 2017

Getting away from the glitz and glamour of Cannes, Nice and the Côte d’Azur, Joanna Leggett discovers the hidden magic of Provence off the beaten track.

From the very first you’re struck by a different world. Bleached silvery landscapes are set below the craggy foothills of the Alpes-Maritimes department thrusting their way downwards towards the Mediterranean. The ranges seem to be painted misty blue with the peaks pointing into the azure sky. It’s not for nothing the coast is known as the Côte d’Azur. Cypress trees dot the landscape, as if thrown carelessly by a giant’s hand, placed so perfectly they enhance the view from any vantage point. The scents of lavender, rosemary and pine are so evocative of Provence. With the sun warming my shoulders, I close my eyes, inhale, listen to the cicadas and could be nowhere else. Where Provence starts is unclear. Of course, it stretches from Alpes-Maritimes down to the coast, but exactly where the light changes to the golden hues which bathe this part of the country seems to happen somewhere along the Rhône valley between Montélimar (just think nougat) and Orange.

To me, Provence is a state of mind – an entry into a brighter, warmer world. Of course there are tourist areas where numbers swell over the summer months, but in the heart of true Provence – away from areas lauded by Peter Mayle in his books and that delicious film A Good Year – life continues at a different beat. Old men play boules in village squares, stopping for pastis at shaded tables under ancient plane trees. Markets abound with wonderful sun-blessed vegetables waiting to tempt your tastebuds and inspire you to create something special for supper; this might be as simple as goat cheese with the freshest ripe tomatoes sprinkled with herbs and local olive oil, luscious bread and, naturally, a glass of Provençal rosé.

All the charming villages and busy towns have their own character. Stopping at traffic lights in some obscure little town, look to the right or left and you’ll see townhouses painted in the palest ice cream shades of vanilla, rose or pistachio, with wrought-iron balconies and shutters in faded Provençal blue or green.
Vegetation flourishes, from cascading geraniums to lollipop-shaped bay trees in pots. Sometimes the village squares seem to cascade too; one such in rural Barjols has three fountains set on terraces. The mairie to one side is painted dusty pink with pretty shutters and restaurants sit at different levels, offering various vantage points. We sat under amethyst-coloured umbrellas enjoying salmon with beautiful yellow risotto and the freshest vegetables – and it was simply perfect.

Of course, there are the well-known spots which one should visit. The views from Grasse down to the coast are not to be missed and the whole town smells divine thanks to the scents diffused into the streets each day by the local perfume factories. Wind the car window down as you approach and inhale deeply. A visit to its old town with streets full of shops and cafés is always a highlight. But to me the real Provence sits up in the countryside where vineyards and olive groves give way to lavender fields and warm scented air wraps around and seduces you.

Tourtour, Var, €223,000

One of the most beautiful villages in France is Tourtour, a picturesque place north-west of Draguignan. The road into the village goes through a stone arch, and the central square is shaded by enormous olive trees where you can sit and relax for a leisurely meal at one of the village cafés.
Artisans and a variety of interesting shops are here to tempt you, but really Tourtour is all about the views from this medieval perched village. Looking out over the wooded hillsides, you can see as far as the Luberon range, St-Baume and St-Victoire when it’s a clear day.
Set in secure grounds with shared pool, tennis court and lake in a quiet residential spot is a two-bedroom villa currently for sale at €223,000. French windows open out from the charming sitting room onto the shaded terrace – the perfect spot for barbecues and enjoying the long, warm evenings that are so much a part of Provençal life. With two bedrooms this could be the ideal holiday home with rental potential.

Saumane de Vaucluse, Vaucluse, €365,000

You cannot visit Provence without enjoying its street markets, one of the most famous being l’Isle-sur-la Sorgue where the river encircles the town. Market days are on Thursday and Sunday mornings, but perhaps its greatest claim to fame are the twice yearly antique fairs. There are brocante stores everywhere in this lovely place – but don’t expect any bargains. Saumane de Vaucluse is just 7km distance but a million miles away from any madding crowd. Past beautiful stone houses, fountains and the remains of the ramparts you walk up to the dominating fortress castle, once home to the uncle of the infamous Marquis de Sade. Built onto the hillside of this postcard village Vaucluse is a beautiful Provençal house. Full of character, it takes advantage of stunning views over the countryside. This ancient home has spacious rooms that have been beautifully fitted out and decorated. The vast main sitting room has an open fireplace and patio doors onto the terrace where you can take advantage of those gorgeous views over the valley below. Bedrooms and sitting rooms are set out over a number of levels; one lounge and bedroom could be easily converted into a self-contained apartment. Four bedrooms and three bathrooms complete the picture in this
fantastic stone property which is on the market for €365,000.

Andon, Alpes-Maritimes, €360,000

About 30km north-west of Grasse, somewhat off the beaten track, sits the pretty village of Andon. Backed by a long, rocky cliff, its main street doubles as a long central square with a few shops and some great restaurants. Set in a high valley in Alpes-Maritimes it even boasts a small ski resort with three ski lifts. In the heart of the village is this lovely three-bedroom Provençal home – a great family or year-round holiday home. In excellent condition with a garden that wraps around the
property, it has three bedrooms and a fully fitted kitchen with French windows opening onto the covered front terrace. There’s a spacious dining and sitting room and a further living room or snug. Set over a single floor, it’s been built to make the most of the spectacular views and is on the market for €360,000.
Before we discovered Provence, the Greeks visited, Phoenicians traded, Saracens looted and Romans settled – and they all left their own legacies. Its striking natural beauty and glorious light is irresistible. The fragrances and colours of this sunburnt land are found in its cuisine complemented naturally with Provençal rosé. I can’t wait to get back

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