En Route in Provence

A road trip through some of Southern France's best vacation terroirs
Robert Camuto

When it comes to dream destinations, few have been mythologized as much as France's Provence. This sprawling, sun-splashed Mediterranean region—bursting with olive groves, orchards, wild herbs, vineyards and antique stone villages where pastis and rosé flow—has for generations drawn moguls, movie stars and legions of tourists in search of a piece of the good life.

Yet Provence has managed to keep its authentic heart intact as it has evolved. A boom in worldwide rosé demand has brought recognition to regional wines and given a boost to producers and investment. (See "The Rosés of Summer".) The region's capital, Marseille, is undergoing a renaissance with some of Mediterranean Europe's boldest and most ambitious architectural and restoration projects along its stunning waterfront. A new generation of chefs is not only preserving Provence's classic market cuisine, but also celebrating it with modern twists.

Provence is not a region you can exhaust in a week. Bigger than Massachusetts and with cultural centers such as Marseille, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence, there's just too much of it to see in a short time. The region is traditionally defined by the Rhône River on the west, the Italian border on the east, the Mediterranean on the south, and a northern Alpine border roughly where the cultivation of olive trees peters out. Provence spans a spectrum of terroirs in more than 20 wine appellations, from coastal Bandol and Cassis to the catchall Côtes de Provence to the Southern Rhône.

Smart strategizing is key to planning a visit to Provence. For example, an ideal weeklong road trip would take in some of the great natural beauty, regional soul and concentrations of great food and wine. We suggest an itinerary that begins in Marseille, with its stretch of rugged coastline, then moves north to three areas defined by local mountains: the gentle, cultivated towns of the Alpilles around St.-Rémy de Provence, the wild beauty of the Lubéron, and the vast windswept landscape around Mont Ventoux, in striking distance of the Rhône's great wine-producing villages. At every step of the way, you'll be in delicious wine country that transforms from white and rosé to richer, deeper reds as you head north.

Provence has long been both a welcoming, friendly region and the agricultural garden of France. When it comes to restaurants, the region offers France's best olive oil-based Mediterranean cuisine. Abundant aromatic plants—including rosemary, thyme, oregano, garlic, basil and fennel—provide the seasoning. Provençal cuisine is full of vegetables, served with local seafood on the coasts, and game, fowl and lamb specialties in the mountainous interior. Though prices in French gastronomy have soared in recent years, many restaurants offer less expensive lunch menus on weekdays. Local wines are still bargains, with very low markups by U.S. standards.

The trip we outline here starts in Marseille, France's second-largest city (after Paris) and site of the country's oldest Greek settlement, dating to about 600 B.C. Marseille mixes Mediterranean cultures, from Europe to North Africa, and is as varied as its signature dish, bouillabaisse. The city's greatest natural feature is some of Mediterranean Europe's best-preserved coastline: 12 miles of wild, white-cliffed inlets known as calanques pass the village of Cassis and its dramatic vineyards. In 2012, 200 square miles of coastal landscape along pristine sea, marked by rare biodiversity, were declared a national park; much is within Marseille's southern limits.

Marseille is a foil to high-culture, high-strung Paris. The city comprises a friendly, down-to-earth collection of neighborhoods. Just north of the port is the oldest of them, Le Panier, a colorful labyrinth of winding streets, ocher facades, peeling shutters and family-style restaurants that recall coastal Italy's small towns.

The city's urban heart is its Old Port area, which last year was transformed by the completion of two ambitious projects. The first was the revival of the Hotel Dieu. Resort chain InterContinental revamped the landmark—built as a hospital in the Middle Ages—into a five-star property. The second was the opening of the architecturally stunning Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM), topped with an inventive restaurant, Le Môle Passédat - La Table, by Marseille's most acclaimed chef.

Just 45 minutes outside of Marseille, visitors can cruise through the platane tree-shaded towns on the flanks of Les Alpilles, a 15-mile stretch of squat limestone peaks in the heart of the countryside. Enjoy lunch on a terrace in the laid-back shepherding village of Eygalières or in the historic center of St.-Rémy—home to one of France's most impressive collections of archaeological vestiges, and where Vincent van Gogh painted some of his noted works.

From Les Alpilles, an hour's drive takes you across the Durance River into the Lubéron, with its dramatically perched and placid medieval villages, dense forests, lavender fields and crystalline mountain light. Another short drive on another day will take you to the countryside around Mont Ventoux—the "giant of Provence" whose legendary, grueling Tour de France climbs have made the mountain a magnet for amateur cyclists. The ascent of Ventoux wines has also made it a destination for wine lovers, who invariably head west along the mountain's chain of foothills, the Dentelles de Montmirail, leading to celebrated Southern Rhône wine villages such as Cairanne and Gigondas.

IF YOU GO

The best time to travel is April through October, but beware the crowds of August and the violent mistral winds of early spring.

In the companion articles in the sidebar, we have collected some of the best restaurants, hotels, attractions and wineries for wine lovers. Provence has hundreds of wineries across its more than 20 wine appellations, from the Rhône to the city limits of Nice. Some have tasting rooms with regular hours and offer tours; others are open to the public in season only or by appointment. We offer in these listings a small selection for a Marseille to Mont Ventoux road trip.

Note: When calling the following establishments from North America, dial 011, then the telephone number. Prices in this story have been converted to U.S. dollars using the exchange rate at press time ($1 equals 0.72 euros) and rounded to the nearest dollar.

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