A few years ago, I visited Saint-Remy-de-Provence in France for just a few hours, and I liked it so much, I wanted to return and explore the village and the area nearby.
I finally had the opportunity to revisit Saint Remy last month for two days, and I had Provence Post Travel, owned by Julie Mautner, plan an itinerary for me. I emailed Julie and she promptly replied within a few hours. She said that she likes to speak to her clients on the phone first so she can get a sense of what they are looking for and what services she could provide. We spoke a few days later, and I discovered Julie was an American who had lived in New York during the same time I did. I found out we both worked in the gourmet food industry in New York, where she was an editor at a highly revered food magazine and I was a chef and caterer. I already felt lucky that I found Julie. I knew that she would plan the perfect trip to Provence since we had such common interests. She sent me her suggestions and recommendations based on what I was interested in, and she sent the itinerary for me to approve.
I arrived Friday morning at about 11 a.m. at the Avignon TGV station, the closest railroad station to Saint Remy. My guide, Marlene, met me at the station and we drove to Avignon for the first part of the tour. Marlene, who was born and raised in the area, spoke perfect English with a melodic French accent and was friendly and outgoing.
We arrived at Les Halles, an indoor food market in Avignon for lunch at Cuisine Centr’Halles, a cafe, cooking school, and catering company. The owner and chef Jon Chiri is from California and has been living in Provence for 20 years. Jon was preparing lunch and he invited me into the open kitchen and offered me a glass of wine and taste of one of the dishes. Jon was easygoing, and we shared about our experiences about being chefs. The three-course lunch started with four different spreads made with local olives, and my main course was a tender and juicy sliced duck breast served with roasted potatoes, lavender, and ratatouille. Jon was kind enough to spoil us with two desserts, a moist spice and honey cake with fresh figs and warm tarte Tatin that just came out of the oven. After lunch, Marlene introduced me to many of the owners and workers at the food stalls and she shared in detail about their products.
Next, we drove through the Alpilles mountain range to Les Antiques de Glanum, where there are two well-preserved stone monuments from 200 B.C., once part of the ancient Roman city of Glanum. The Mausoleum of the Julii and the triumphal arch of Glanum were discovered during an archeological excavation led by Pierre de Brun and his team in 1921, during which they uncovered major parts of the city.
Many of Van Gogh’s iconic works were painted when he lived in Provence. He voluntarily admitted himself to the Saint Paul Asylum on the outskirts of Saint Remy and spent a year there in 1889. During his recovery, Van Gogh painted dozens of paintings from his room which overlooked the farm fields below. He also frequently took walks on the country road in front of the asylum and captured the olive trees, cypress trees, wheat fields, and lilacs and irises in his paintings. Although I have studied Van Gogh extensively, Marlene shared many new facts I didn’t know. There’s a lovely church within the asylum buildings and a formal, manicured garden enclosed in a courtyard.
We continued to climb to the higher points of the Alpilles mountains in the car, and I was astonished at the beauty of the rugged, natural terrain and rock formations. At one point, we stopped at a lookout point to admire the astounding views of the mountains and the ancient hilltop village of Les Baux-de-Provence.
Les Baux-de-Provence is accessible only by foot, so we had to park the car below and walk up a semi-steep incline to reach the village. Settled in the Middle Ages, the roots of Les Baux date back to 6000 B.C.
The last stop on the tour that day was at Carrieres de Lumieres, which featured an outstanding laser and light show on the walls of a former rock quarry. Every year, Carrieres de Lumieres creates a different show about a single artist, and this year, it’s Salvador Dali. Images of Dali’s surrealist works were emblazoned on rock walls of the vast quarry and accompanied by dramatic music, creating a visual and sound spectacle.
I arrived back in Saint Remy about 7 p.m. after a full and fun day.
For Saturday morning, Julie arranged an electric bike tour with Jeff, another local guide. I met Jeff at 10 a.m. at the Sun-E-Bike shop, where the staff assisted me in choosing the correct bicycle and also gave me detailed instructions on how to operate it.
It was a beautiful, crisp autumn day with a strong wind, which in Provence is called the mistral, so the electric bicycle came in handy when we were riding against the wind. We rode along a narrow path with a stream alongside, and the perfume of the greenery, the fresh air, and the sound of nature were a welcome relief from city life in Paris.
Our first stop was Moulin du Calanquet, a family-owned olive oil company and olive grove. We were guided through the process of how olives are turned into oil, beginning with the picking of the olives from the trees once a year, usually in September or October — for only about a 30-day period before they become overripe. The next step is when the olives are put through two machines to extract the oil, with the oil eventually stored in large metal vats. The guide informed us although the process of turning the olives into olive oil is done by machine, the quality and purity is actually superior to olive oil pressed by hand using old-fashioned presses.
After the tour, I tasted the various types of oils and the guide expanded on the subtleties of taste and texture for each oil. The oil was so tasty, I bought four bottles.
A few kilometers away was Le Nectar des Alpilles, which produces honey from their own beehives. A number of processing machines are used to convert the liquid from the honeycombs into actual honey and transfer it to jars, and they’re located in a hangar. Le Nectar des Alpilles has 250 beehives on a multi-acre farm next to the plant, and the cultivation period starts in late March and goes until mid-June when the queen bees are bred. The array of various plants and herbs on the land add to the taste of the honey, thus producing the different flavors. The staff at Le Nectar des Alpilles are as busy as bees in July, when most of the honey is processed. The gift shop offers many honey flavors including rosemary, acacia, lavender, and chestnut plus bee pollen and royal jelly.
The last stop on the tour, a visit to a goat cheese farm, was my favorite experience. Dani, short for Danielle, cheerfully welcomed us to her farm, along with her partner and her 12-year-old son, who also worked on the farm. She walked us to the field where the goats were herded and then started to milk a goat. She poured the milk into a glass for us to taste, and it was sweet and slightly warm. Next, Dani accompanied us to her rustic cottage and served three types of goat cheese, ranging from soft to medium to hard. All of them were delicious, and each one had a distinct texture and taste. I bought one of each cheese at the incredibly low price of 2 euros each (about $2.40 USD), realizing that it was cheaper than cheese food or Velveeta at a U.S. supermarket.
We arrived back in Saint Remy at about 2 p.m., which gave me a few hours to explore the lovely village and its charming shops, cafes, and restaurants before my train back to Paris. I had to take a taxi home from the train station in Paris because I was weighed down with bottles of olive oil and jars of honey.
Another service Julie provides is booking villas, townhomes, and apartments for rent across Provence. She introduced me to Karen Stride, originally from Australia, who rents out a three-bedroom apartment in Saint Remy, which is perfect for families or groups of six. Karen is an interior designer and has done a great job of decorating the apartment with high-quality antiques and new furniture in the Provencal style. Each bedroom has a queen-size bed and a full bathroom, plus there’s also a full kitchen to cook in and air conditioning. The apartment is located on a quiet side street in the center of the village. Another cool feature is a rooftop deck with fantastic views of Saint Remy.
Karen rents the apartment out by the night (with a two-night minimum) and by the week and can be contacted at [email protected]
I thoroughly enjoyed the unforgettable Provence experience that Julie and her company Provence Post Travel provided for me. For more on my one-of-a-kind travel experiences, read up on cruising on a luxury barge in Bordeaux and why you should try it and Rovos Rail: the Orient Express of South Africa.