Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Off The Beaten Track of France: Daytrips from Aix-en-Provence

The whole of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region is not short of hidden gems. I recently went on a trip to the Southeast of France to find out what is so fascinating about this region. What I found out was that these places are still mercifully spared by mass tourism, but I got this feeling telling me: not for long, not for long. 
       We had chosen Aix-en-Provence as our base for the weekend. I have to start by saying that it was indeed a great choice as the city is beautiful itself. We love every moment of our stay in the city, going back in a heart beat.

1. Self-drive The Lavender Route 

       I know what you are thinking: everyone comes to Provence for the Lavender, this should not be included in a "beaten track" list. Indeed, the lavender field is one of the most photographed regions in France. But, the truth is, this is often the one and only thing most visitors do: photographing one or two lavender fields and get going. Have you considered going deeper? 
        The Lavender Route could be reached easily from Aix-en-Provence (within 2 hours drive), making the city an excellent base. Reaching Aix-en-Provence during early July put us in the perfect timing (full bloom of Lavender) to photograph the postcard view. Despite having a lot of tour operators offering lavender tours, the tourism board decided to send us on a self-drive journey in search of Lavandula Angustifolia, the purest form of Lavender (a.k.a. True/Fine Lavender). 
       Did we succeed? No, because true lavenders grow above 2500 feet on the side of a mountain and they tend to be less drought and heat tolerant, so they ain't that easy to find. Instead, what we came across are mostly Lavandin (a sterile hybrid between true Lavender and spike lavender varieties). What we did find, were some beautiful sunflower fields tucked away in between the lavender fields. The view of sunflowers together with lavenders formed a beautiful contrast and let me tell you, it was beyond stunning!
Our trip covered: (a lot of) Valensole Lavender Fields

2. Gorges du Verdon

       The Gorges du Verdon is often compared to the Grand Canyon. It was first formed as a result of earth movements and then changed over the years due to the fast flowing Verdon river corroding the Jurassic limestones. It is as spectacular as the US version, with the Verdon river flowing through the canyon and goes right into Lac de Ste Croix at the western end. 
       I’ve only been going along a small part of Route des Crêtes, so I couldn’t provide much insight on the 2 rims— North and South. A full 63-miles loop will most probably take up the whole day, sounds like a perfect destination for nature lovers. 
       You can easily spend a full day here enjoying various activities, for example, canyoneering, rock climbing, bird-watching, rafting, horseback riding, kayaking or picnicking.  

3. Moustiers-Sainte-Marie

       Just 62 miles from Aix-en-Provence, lies Un Des Plus Beaux Village de France (one of the most beautiful villages of France) —Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. It wasn't too far from the Verdon Gorge... in fact, the village is surrounded by it, as well as the Sainte-Croix lake and the Valensole lavender fields. What a perfect setting! 
       This village WOWed me with all those beautiful handpainted pottery called Faïence. There are a lot of Ateliers in the village that welcome visitors (some require you to make an appointment beforehand), some even offer Ceramics decoration courses. 
       According to my guide, there is a golden star hanging in between 2 cliffs which I couldn’t identify without my zoom lens. How it first got up there? Well, that’s still a mystery. But according to legends, it was hung up by a knight who vowed to do that if he was able to return to his village alive. 
       I am in no position to recommend anything due to my brief visit, but I did try the Lavender Ice-cream here. I was not disappointed. 

4. Chateau La Coste 

       If you love wine, contemporary art, and landscape, then this is your excellent day-trip destination. Just a 20 minutes drive towards the north from Aix-en-Provence, Chateau La Coste welcomes visitors unconventionally with a SPIDER by Louise Bourgeois sitting in a huge water basin! (Arachnophobics, be warned!). 
       With a multitude of incredible modern artworks (including works and designs by Tadao Ando, Calder, Gehry, Bourgeois) dotted all over the vineyard, this is by far the best interactive open air art museum I’ve seen, honestly. Kick start your day by taking the art trail (I recommend everyone to start early in the morning because it might get too hot in the afternoon). Give yourself plenty of time to wander from sculptures to sculptures, surprise at every turn guaranteed! 
       After that, visitors can have lunch in one of the restaurants, tasting fine Chateau La Coste wine. I am no wine expert, but I have to recommend the La Coste's Rose wine. Since 2009, La Coste's wines have been carrying an "AB" label (French organic label), acknowledging their effort in environmental-friendly wine-making, enhancing their status in the industry.  
Tips: Take a pair of comfortable shoes with you, some stretch of the road is a little hilly. 

5. Montagne Sainte-Victoire

The mountain had long been a great source of inspiration for the famous painter Paul Cezanne, until it finally drove him to the point of obsession. Looking at the mountain from afar, I agree that it is indeed a fascinating sight. I think the best way to get acquaintance to it is by hiking the mountain. Once you reach the summit, you will be rewarded by the spectacular panoramic vista of the surrounding as well as Croix de Provence. 
Tips: After hiking, you should visit all the Cézanne sites back in Aix. 

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Thank You for Reading! 
My trip to Aix was supported by Aix-en-Provence tourist office and Bouches-du-Rhône tourism board. My day trips were arranged by Provence-Alps-Côte d’Azur Tourism Board. 
However, all opinions are as always, my own.

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