By Travelin’ Gal Maxine Albert
Have high airfares and complicated connections put the kibosh on your jaunt to the south of France? If only it were possible to wake up in New York and have dinner in Provence without breaking the bank. XL Airways France must have heard our prayers. It’s the only carrier offering nonstop service to the region, and through the end of October, it’s providing direct service from JFK to Marseille for a fraction of the price of other airlines with connecting flights.
This is great news for all lovers of this gorgeous locale, of which I am one. Marseille is the gateway to Provence, with Avignon only a fifty-minute car ride away and St. Tropez, less than 2 hours. Plus, you can hop aboard the high-speed train to Paris after visiting Provence. XL Airways France also offers direct service from Paris to JFK. Whether you travel in economy class with spacious seats, or choose the wider seat options in comfort class or the top amenities of galaxy class, now you can zip over to France easily and spend the money you saved on airfare for shopping and dining.
Long considered the melting pot of Europe, this age-old port town with a multicultural population is fast becoming transformed with top luxury hotels, world-class restaurants and a thriving art scene.
Marseille has been crowned the European Capital of Culture for 2013, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the newly opened MuCEM. On a pier overlooking the water, this museum has 1 million cultural artifacts dedicated to Mediterranean heritage and will be a concert venue for world music. Its photographs, videos, paintings, collages and sculptures give voice to the immigrant, the disenfranchised and the displaced. MuCEM makes a powerful statement about the human condition and spirit. Another must see is the Van Gogh to Bonnard exhibition from June 13 to October 13 at Palais Longchamp, Musée des Beaux-Arts.
Stop at Notre Dame de la Garde basilica with its magnificent views and the ship of faith painting on the altar. I love walking around the buzzing old port in the morning where fishermen sell their catch of the day off the boat. You can hop a ferry for the short scenic ride to Chateau d’IF made famous by Alexander Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo, as the prison of the hero.
Food lovers will be wowed by the region’s tasty Mediterranean cuisine. I savored excellent seafood and great sea views on the terrace of stylish Peron Restaurant. Dinner at Miramar on the Vieux Port with the house specialty - the famous bouillabaisse - was a standout. The just-opened luxurious 5 star Intercontinental Hotel Dieu housed in a historical monument overlooking the port, boasts a Clarins Spa, beautiful terraces and glorious views.
Marseille Tourist Office
The moment you open your eyes in Avignon you see the gorgeous light that has attracted so many artists to the region. You also notice that people are smiling a lot here, quite different from the more serious Parisians. I asked a local about that. She laughed and said, “The sun makes you smile.”
In the morning, locals shop for dinner at Les Halles, the indoor market with every variety of fish, meat, cheese, produce, bread, truffles and sweets. I sampled the tasty Provence goat cheese, learned that the southern French prefer olive oil to butter for cooking, ogled blood sausage, loved the red wine bread and discovered that a Provence macaroon is quite different from a Parisian macaroon.
Afterwards I headed to the main thoroughfare, Rue de La Republic, and then turned down lovely windy cobblestoned streets passing ateliers, trendy boutiques, eateries, picturesque squares, charming buildings with wrought iron balconies and shops with yellow and red flowers in their window sills.
Avignon’s turn as the papal seat graced the city with magnificent architecture and art. Surrounded by spectacular ramparts, the striking Palais des Papes is a must see. Marvel at the frescoes, tapestries and large banquet hall where twenty-seven courses were served in the grand medieval fortress and papal palace. Today, the annual Avignon Art and Cultural Festival celebrates this creative heritage with theater, dance, music and film.
Set in an old mansion at the foot of Palais des Papes, 5 star La Mirande hotel spectacularly recreates an 18th century aristocratic residence replete with period tapestries, tufted armchairs and master paintings. My dinner, including lamb, seasonal vegetables and other local delicacies at their Gastronomic Restaurant, was superb. Cooking lessons are available for those who would like to bring the Provence gastronomy home.
The next day, I drove through bucolic landscapes sprinkled with fields of lavender, past picturesque hilltop villages to Chateauneuf du Pape. I lunched al fresco at Restaurant Le Verger des Papes overlooking the countryside, vineyards and the Alpilles Mountains. The sun was shining as I relished monkfish, regional specialties and the requisite cheese course paired with their esteemed wines. There was not a cloud in the blue sky, and the light was glorious.
Avignon Tourist Office
I drove into sun-drenched St. Tropez, playground of the rich and famous, passing palm trees, the shimmering Mediterranean and golden sand beaches. Brigitte Bardot, legendary beauty and sex kitten, put this seaside resort on the map when she filmed And God Created Woman here. She became the town’s muse.
My palatial hotel, the prestigious 5 star Byblos, was conceived by a Lebanese businessman to attract Bardot, with whom he was obsessed. Frequented by jetsetters and A-list celebrities like Mick Jagger, it boasts villas and dazzling suites with private terraces, each uniquely furnished with bespoke antiques and exclusive fabrics. And let’s not forget the most famous nightclub on the French Riviera, Les Caves du Roy, a favorite haunt of Naomi Campbell and other glitterati. There’s a pool, Sisley Spa and 24 hour restaurant serving everything all the time. A highlight was my al fresco gastronomic dinner of exceptional Mediterranean cuisine at Alan Ducasse’s stylish new eatery, Rivea at Byblos.
In addition to the glitz and celebrity sightings, there’s also a charming side to this fishing seaport village. Stroll past the yacht-filled harbor and port side cafes to the cobbled alleyways with art galleries, antique shops, brightly colored resort wear boutiques, ‘K Jacques’ for the famous ‘tarte Tropezienne’ dessert that Bardot loved and ‘Sandals Tropeziennes’ for snazzy custom-made numbers. You’re bound to see myriad photographs and memorabilia of Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, Sting, and other celebrities who visited here.
St. Tropez has taken the luxury shopping experience to a new level, above and beyond chic shops selling designer goods and jewelry. You will want to check out the pool at Chanel, the lush gardens with sitting areas at Vuitton and the swank outdoor restaurant at Dior with beautiful people swanning around.
Then off to the beach at Plage des Jumeaux, for a dip in the sea and a lunch of fish paired with a glass of Rosé.
Provence – what a life!
Saint-Tropez Tourist Office
For Information on Travel to France: