How My Dreams Came True in Provence

I had dreamed of Provence for a long, long time. I pictured myself wondering through quaint little towns with slim, cobblestone streets and little houses with brightly colored doors and shutters. I imagined parleing all day with tanned, French, cafe owners while they served me homemade aioli. I thought of how wonderful it would be to stand among the endless fields of tall sunflowers and rows of lavender plants: the scenery that inspired the greatest works of Van Gogh and Cezanne. My mouth watered at the thought of eating ratatouille, salade Niçoise, and sinking my teeth into a fougasse d’olive, and starting off every lunch and dinner with a glass of vin.

I sometimes find that I’m disappointed by the reality of the things I have built up in my head for years, but Provence is everything I dreamed it would be and more.

Like America, life in the South is slower, and people are nicer. In Provence, we were talking with the train conductor for at least 15 minutes about the best things to see and do in the city. Each person we passed on our short walk to the hotel said “bonjour!” and smiled at the sight of us, even though we were noticeably American. The owner of the hotel spent time calling all her favorite restaurants to get us a dinner reservation for that evening, and when we arrived – the chef popped his head out of his kitchen to smile and wave! It was a total joy to walk into each shop, talk with each street artist about ses oeuvres, and discuss the menu du jour with each waiter. I’ve always felt at home in France, but in Provence I felt especially welcome.

We stayed in Avignon and from there went to visit the smaller Provencal towns nearby. It was a mere ten minutes into the drive to Arles that we pulled over on the side of the road next to a field turned bright yellow with a million sunflowers. I leapt out of the car and stood there with my jaw detached. And it wasn’t just the sunflowers… it was the tall, skinny Cypress trees and mountains in the foreground; it was the medieval, stone cottage in the off to the side with turquoise shutters, and the field across the road that was deep purple from rows and rows of lavender. It was the whole landscape, exactly as the post-impressionists painted. And it made me swoon.

The tiny town of Arles is where Van Gogh lived when he moved south from Paris, in his pre-crazy years. Here he painted The Terrace Cafe, Bedroom in Arles, and of course, The Yellow House. It’s also where he spent time in a hospital recovering post his ear-cutting-off incident. The town is one of the oldest in Europe and was Roman for many years, so there are ruins adding to the standard, incredible beauty of a little, French village. We toured around Arles, stopping to admire each important place and patisserie window, and we had our first fougasse d’olive – a provencal speciality that looks like a pretzel but is flakey like a croissant and studded with sun-dried olives. I had been wanting to try one for years, and it was worth the wait.

 

From Arles, we drove to St-Remy-de-Provence, a town that’s smaller yet and is home to the mental institution, Saint-Paul Asylum, where Van Gogh spent several years of his life and painted some of his most important paintings.

Today, Saint-Paul Asylum still stands, and still operates as a mental institution. But the main form of therapy for all the patients there is art. There’s a separate section, away from the patients, that tourists can visit. As we pulled up a vast field of olive trees was to our left and a beautiful, stone entryway covered in ivy and flowers before us. We began to walk down the entry, which was entirely lined with greenery on either side so thick you could barely see the stone underneath. Big pots of bright, pink flowers and small benches for taking a rest were planted every few meters. The institution itself looked like a small castle, entirely built of smooth stone and rising high above the countryside with turrets and arches. I couldn’t believe the beauty, considering it was a mental institution. If I lived in France I’d pretend I'd go nuts just to get to live there.

In the gift shop, you could buy the canvases painted by the current patients there. They a small collection of each person’s works, and we weren’t at all surprised to find several that we wished we could take home.

The village of St-Remy was smaller and more charming yet than Avignon or Arles. The towns kept getting cuter as we went, making me never want to stop going to the next. St-Remy was completely devoid of a ZARA or McDonalds or any name you would recognize. There was, however, a vast collection of old, french, countrymen sitting outside their homes with straw hats and half-drunk bottles of wine.

But the real heartthrob of the day was our final stop, Les Baux. Tucked away on the top of a mountain, it seemed like the whole village was carved out of stone. There are 20 people who actually live in Les Baux, and over 2 million who visit each year. It only takes about 15 minutes to walk the entirety of the town, in which you mostly just pass several shops full of lavender sachets, AOC olive oil, and hand-made soaps in every color and fragrance imaginable. But it’s so charming that every corner you turn makes you want to cry! And so you grab a table with a view, get out your deck of cards and have a cribbage tournament on top of the mountain in the little town in the middle of Provence.

By the end of the day, every scene and viewpoint I had imagined and dreamed of had been realized. Provence looked exactly the way I hoped it would – and so it was time to taste it.

I ate without fear of consequence. Foie gras stuffed guinea hen, Coquilles Saint-Jacques, truffle papperdelle, baked camembert with fig jam, salade Niçoise, creme brulee, red wine, white wine, sparkling wine! But despite searching everywhere, I couldn’t find aioli.

Aioli is often called the butter of Provence. It’s a mix of eggs, garlic, herbs, and olive oil that they serve in a big scoop with vegetables, fish, and if you’re lucky – snails. It’s basically like a homemade garlic mayo, but rather than being a condiment, it’s a meal. I first learned about aioli while watching Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.” He explained that aioli is so delicious and special here because of the olive oil in Provence, which is some of the best in the world. I remember sitting on the couch with my dad before I had really traveled anywhere, drooling, as we watched Anthony observe some old, adorable french man make the aioli by hand, and thinking “I HAVE to get to Provence!”

Naturally, I was on a mission to try it, but my search came up dry and it came time for our final lunch in Avignon and I still hadn’t had aioli. Josh does not exactly share my passion for searching endlessly until I find the exact restaurant with the atmosphere and menu I’m after each time it comes to eating a meal out (something I learned from my mother). He, understandably, often gets a bit restless as we walk from place to place and I pass on it for one reason or another. So since we were short on time and starving, I gave up on my search for aioli and settled on lunching in a little cafe called Maison Ripert because of how wonderfully French it was. The interior had clouded, stained mirrors for walls, a checkered floor, and wooden tables with round vases of white flowers. Accordion music was softly piped through the corners of the room and the french doors to the place were open, letting the warm breeze come in and out.

Our waiter came over to see what kind of wine we wanted, and also to tell us that there was a special plat du jour…which as fate would have it: aioli! He was a bit shocked when this announcement was met with cheering and laughter, but he liked our enthusiasm. I stared back at the young chef in the open kitchen as he whipped it up, thinking Anthony Bourdain had nothing on me now.

The plate alone made me giddy – the final missing piece was before me. Such a simple, typically Provencal dish - this was what being in Avignon is all about. The aioli was thick and creamy like pudding and looked like a scoop of ice cream. I carefully smothered it on the white fish, boiled potatoes, sea snails, and roasted vegetables it was served with, icing it as if it were a birthday cake, and indulged in my final gastronomic dream-come-true in Provence.