Rachael and I needed a little holiday, so we headed down to Provence as many friends had recommended the area and I hadn’t been since before I could remember. We had booked a week in two different hotels the first few nights in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie (Moustiers) in the Verdun Gorge area; and three nights in Mougins just north of Cannes so we could explore more of the Côte d’Azur region.
Day 1 – Marseilles to Moustiers
After a smooth flight down to Marseille and a not so smooth pick up of our hire car (2 hours waiting for Avis to sort themselves out….) we headed up the motorway towards Aix. Driving on the right was straightforward although our little Yaris lacked a little va-va-voom to get it up to the 130kph speed limits! However, I couldn’t blame the Yaris for picking the wrong lane at the tollbooth and subsequently got stuck in an auto-toll without the required electronic tag. The French driver behind me was about to gesticulate but he saw I was just a helpless English idiot and took pity. We all reversed back up the lane, he explained which symbol on the signs I needed to follow and with a friendly wave – we were all heading back on our way with just a little dent to my English pride!
After the Avis delay, we decided to skip our previous plan to lunch in Aix and instead, carried on towards Moustiers but do it via the back-roads. Passing Aix, we carried on down the A8 to the little town of Brignoles and turned north. The road was slower than the motorway but far more scenic with lovely views of the hills and forests and each village we passed had unique charms. After a couple of hours, we arrived in Moustiers.
The lovely little hotel of La Bastide de Moustiers is set along a quiet track on the other side of the main road from Moustiers’ old town. We were warmly welcomed and shown to our room ‘Lavende’ (Lavender) which was very cute with an oldie, open bathroom in the bedroom with an en-suite toilet. It was about 4pm and since we’d skipped lunch, we managed to arrange a small snack on the beautiful terrace they had looking out over some forested hills with the sun straight ahead. The small snack turned out to be a meal in itself with homemade breads served with cheese and ham washed down with some delicate rosé wine.
Deciding to explore the grounds, we found La Bastide had a beautiful flower garden leading through to a boules pitch and then the fields behind with a couple of donkeys. After failing to tempt the donkeys to get interested in our grass offerings, we embarked on an epic boules match which was tightly contested although I’m sure our play would fail to meet even basic boules standards in France!
That evening, we enjoyed a meal in the hotel restaurant since they are well known for their delicious food. I choose the fish which was very nice but got food envy when I saw a passing duck dish. Perhaps tomorrow.
Day 2 – Exploring Moustiers
Breakfast was laid beside the flower garden which was great except for pesky wasps wanting to share our food. A selection of breads, a delicious honey yogurt, an omelette together with a couple of strong coffees set us up nicely for a day to explore Moustiers.
It was a tiring 20 minute walk up a couple of steep roads before we made it into the old town but our reward was a beautiful village with terraces of pastel coloured houses with white shutters and cobbled streets in between. The village was set across a small gushing stream that came down from the back drop of tall, imposing cliffs. High above was a metal yellow star strung via a long chain between two of the cliffs which, according to legend, was first hung (albeit not this particular star!) by a knight returning from the crusades. The highest building was the church of Notre Dame de Beauvoir nestled about a third of the way up the steep cliff-ed valley reached via a stony path and that was to be our first destination while the weather was still cool.
Before we left the old town, Rachael found a nice-looking restaurant – Los Sontins – and booked us in for dinner the next day. Taking the small Rue de la Clappe running up north from the main square, we followed it up until a tiny rocky series of steps branched off and up the hill. We weren’t taking the main route up to the church since I wanted to explore this supposedly more interesting route that would provide some lovely views over Moustiers and we weren’t disappointed!
The route wound back and forth up the cliff and became quite narrow in places with steep drops. The small grotto of St Magdelene provided a little break in the hike before the final section and before the small church of Notre Dame de Beauvoir. The temperature was pleasant inside which gave us the chance to recover from the climb whilst looking at the shrine and a few paintings.
We followed the main path back down to the old town of Moustiers which was much easier going and arrived back in the village after about 20 minutes walk. We found a little café – La Terrasse De Cassius – and enjoyed a coffee before taking a slower exploration of the alleyways and shops of Moustiers. Most of little shops were either artisan or focused on good food. We became friendly with the proprietor of shop focusing on cheese, ham and wine who kept us happy with various tastings of his favourite nibbles and tipples.
Finally, we decided to head back to the hotel by following the same Rue de la Clappe out of the main square. This time we didn’t turn off on the grotto route but instead continued along the tiny road to the old village gate, around the edge of the village and slowly back down the hill towards our hotel.
Rachael had organised a surprise bottle of champagne on the terrace and it was a lovely occasion to relax and chat whilst watching the sunset over the valley. We were served accompanying ‘nibbles’ that was a meal itself of olives, butter bread and coated nuts so by the time we got to dinner – we were already feeling pretty full! However, we had a private room all to ourselves and both found room to choose the filet steak which was delicious and worth overdoing it for!
Day 3 – Verdun Gorge, Aix and Los Sontins
The large lake of Sainte-Croix was a 10 minute drive away and we hired a bright yellow kayak from MYC plage on the lake shore. We intended to explore the river through the Verdun Gorge but were advised we only needed an hour since there was a limit as to how far we could go.
I’m sure Rach and I looked pretty professional with the cut of our paddles as we swathed through the water avoiding (mostly) the various other kayaks, paddle boats and the odd electric speedboat. The gorge was stunning with the steep rocky banks rising in places hundreds of feet straight up. The occasional stream erupted from the sides sometimes cascading straight into the narrow river so that the small boats could choose to pass underneath for a natural shower. We weren’t paddling too hard but we reached the end of the navigable river (at least according to the rope strung from side to side) in about 20 minutes. We meandered around slowly drifting and taking a few photos before turning around and paddling back to the beach where we dropped off the kayak.
After a quick change of clothes, we headed off to explore Aix which was a little over an hour away via the motorway. The ‘Parc relais Hauts de Brunet‘ was a park and ride on the north side of town which was only about 2 euros including the ticket on a bus into town. We jumped off at ‘Napoleon’ and took our first wander down the semi pedestrianised, pretty main street of Cours Mirabeau which was lined with restaurants on the northside (I presume to get the rays of the sun from the south since the road was east-west), and nearly all banks along the south. We explored around the smaller, cobbled streets and found a lovely place for lunch – Le Forum which served a great burger and chips! (Le burger and les frites?).
After lunch and a little more exploring of the old town, we wandered north, out of the centre and on to visit to the former studio of Paul Cezanne – the famous artist. He died in the early 1900’s but his studio, in a rustic villa in a hillside looking back towards the town, has been left virtually untouched. I am not an art buff but I found it very interesting to feel the history in the room, the feel of the light and to see all the objects which felt somewhat familiar from paintings I don’t specifically recall but perhaps saw in museums or books.
After the museum, we decided to walk back to the car. This was a pretty walk but it was up a steep hill and in the hot afternoon sun, we were pretty exhausted by the time we returned.
Following the motorway north, we cut a slightly different path via the D6 which was a great decision. It was an amazingly beautiful drive through the heart of lavender country. Although it wasn’t the flowering season for the world famous purple blooms, the scenery was fantastic with fields filled with neat lines of lavender bushes set against the back drop of the Provence Alps.
Dinner that evening was in Los Sontins restaurant which couldn’t have a more perfect spot. We had the best table in the outward corner of the balcony, perched high above the stream and canyon looking across Moustiers to the setting sun. The food was a series of heavenly dishes and it was a lovely way to have our traditional ‘gala night’ – the one extra special night out of our holiday.
Day 4 – a day by the pool
Our final day in Moustiers was a relaxing one spent largely by the pool of the hotel. For most of the morning, we had it largely to ourselves and we rotated between the pool, the self-serve bar and our sunbeds. Not enjoying the direct sun, I cooped under the umbrella doing a little research for our next destination – Mougins and its surrounding areas.
After another lovely dinner at the hotel, we retired to prepare for a long journey tomorrow.