In my book, it would have been sacrilegious to have a photo assignment to the south of France and not spend a bit more time exploring the region. I studied French for several years and, as many people do, have a great affinity for the culture, countryside AND food. It is also incredibly refreshing to go somewhere that I can communicate and interact with people sans difficulty in their native language- not like in Czech Republic.
I’ve been to France several times and wanted to see new places, the sun and sea. The New York Times travel section has been a great resource in the past and proved equally spot-on for this trip.
My first stop was Bandol, a town on the coast east of Marseille on the Côte d’Azur. The day I arrived, there was an article in the NY Times about the red wines from Bandol. Some French friends had also told me the reds from this area are an excellent value since Bandol is well known for its rosés but the reds are exceptional quality, described as “powerful and velvety”. Yum. The serendipitous timing of the article was surely a sign that I was in the right place.
In addition to lower prices, visiting very popular tourist towns in off-season proved to have several advantages. You could easily imagine the standstill summer traffic on the Quai Charles de Gaulle and hear the throngs of sunburned tourists. Instead, locals were extra friendly, restaurants were no-reservation-required, and traffic and parking were hassle-free. Going to sleep listening to the Mediterranean waves crashing gave me a Zen-bliss but I was also eager to see what I would discover the next day.
The weather wasn’t quite warm enough to sit on a beach so after a walk through the village, I decided to explore Bandol’s surroundings. I drove on a scenic department road, surrounded by famous vineyards to the medieval village of La Cadière d’Azur. Like Bandol, the village was remarkably empty and while charming, I wanted to see a bit more life. The nearby village Castellet felt less like a deserted ghost town. I convinced the owner of a special sandwich shop that I was not a spy sent to copy his secret recipes through photographs.
Driving to my next destination- the village of Rousillon in the Luberon region (just north of Aix-en-Provence), I saw some of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve seen in years. Windy roads leading over hills that were like richly-woven tapestries of autumn leaves, through quaint yet unique villages, next to creeks and by vineyards. And to think- this is my job while others sit in offices!!
I also learned of Le Luberon from an article in the NY Times travel section, described as “a collection of small hilltop towns in sun-baked northern Provence” full of particularly amazing restaurants and farmer’s markets that rotate through the villages. I chose Roussillon for its location and because it would have a farmers market on one of the mornings during my stay.
Roussillon is classed as one of the most beautiful villages in France- if you’ve been to France at all; you know this is quite a feat. The color palette reminded me a bit of Santa Fe, New Mexico because of the contrast between the red/orange/yellow ochre rocks and the deep blue sky. At first it seemed there were no restaurants open for dinner but a nice man at my hotel assured me that there was one restaurant open- Le Castrum. This selection makes for easy decision making.
If I felt a tinge of disappointment that there was only one restaurant open in the village, it quickly dissipated with the warm welcome and homey vibe in the restaurant. Since there was only one choice, this was the place to be and everyone seemed content. I learned that the homey vibe was in part from the familial operation: the kitchen was “manned” by one woman, her daughter was the server and the owner also helped serve tables.
I said earlier that it was refreshing to be able to communicate but the downside was since I could understand what people were saying, it was almost impossible not to listen- not like in Prague where chatter is really just white noise in the background. A fun group of three couples from Panama came in and I offered to help translate French/Spanish for them.
The next morning I went quickly to the Roussillon market before the real purpose of my trip- a shoot for Satcon in Les Mees. At the market I bought beautiful spices, fresh olive oil, homemade soap, mustard with balsamic vinegar, and sunflower honey. Can the experience of buying such exquisitely simple and perfectly wonderful products be more different than shopping at a supermarket??
The rest of my day involved another spectacular drive, interacting with friendly people and a very interesting shoot of a massive solar farm. When I returned to Roussillon, there was a 2nd restaurant open, right next to Le Castrum but I felt it would be disloyal to go there. People greeted me as if I’d been coming for years, asking me how my day was, how did I sleep, etc. The couples from Panama were back too and they insisted I have a drink with them.
The following day was my last in Le Luberon. I drove to Gordes and walked around the village, which looks more like a movie set than a place where people live. After Gordes, I went to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue where I finished a very fun trip with yet another delicious meal. The week was an exhilarating combination of work and leisure and I would return to the region in a heartbeat. There were so many pictures to take along the road but it wasn’t always easy to find a place to stop. I thought of something (exceptional photographer) Charlie Riedel said when I heard him speak for my photojournalism class- that he knew the kind of week he was having by how many u-turns he made. I had an excellent week.