Monday, April 22, 2013

Cassis, One of the Most Picturesque Seaside Towns in Provence

If you have been to Cassis, you won't be surprised to know that it's one of our favorite towns in Provence. Thank goodness, it's an easy drive of only 1 hour and half from Sablet to Cassis. The picturesque town is tucked into a curve along the Mediterranean Sea between the calanques (little coastal fjords with tall cliffs), about 20 kms east of Marseille.

In case you don't know, Cassis is a small fishing port on a steep hillside with vineyards and pastel-colored houses which tumble down to the seaside port lined with more pastel-colored houses and shops with 8,000 inhabitants. The port is filled with little fishing boats, yachts and a collection of charter boats that take visitors out to the calanques.

If you visit Sablet, we will take a day trip to Cassis. We like to go on Friday mornings since that is one of the days (Wednesday is the other) the Marché Provençal takes place. That is exactly what we did one Friday last fall, when Shirley's friends and work colleagues Liz, Yvette, and Jennifer, were visiting Provence for the first time.

Cassis Marché Provençal

We try to get to Cassis early in the morning since parking is often a challenge. From time to time, we have to park in a remote lot (Relais des Gourgettes) and hike or ride the navette (shuttle bus) to the port. I should say I get to hike or ride the navette, since I drop Shirley and visitors off close to the port and then I go and find parking.

Brightly colored peppers

I should tell you that the area where Cassis now sits was first occupied between 500 and 600 BC by people from Liguria, a region of north-western Italy, who built a fortified habitation at the top of the Baou Redon. These people lived by fishing, hunting, and farming.


The sellers set up their stands for the Marché Provençal on the square around the Baragnon Fountain. This fountain pays tribute to Pierre Baragnon, owner of the Château de Fontcreuse and Counsellor General who brought fresh water to town via the Canal de Provence in 1892.

Here are a few pictures of the Marché Provençal.

Hat seller in front of the 19th century Baragnon Fountain


Cheese lady

Cassis street

The port is lined with tourist shops, terrace cafés and restaurants which offer a variety of food and prices. As you can imagine, it's great fun to watch people stroll down Quai (dock) Jean-Jacques Barthélémy while you soak up the sun in front of one of the eateries that line the port. Unfortunately, the view is much better than the food so we usually just order drinks.

Tourists walk down Quai Jean-Jacques Barthélémy

As I mentioned, you can arrange for one of the charter boats that line the Cassis port to take you out to the calanques. The tourism office sells tickets for trips that will take you to 3, 7 or 13 calangues. It takes about 45-minutes for a boat tour out to 3 calanques.

A charter boat heads out to the calanques

The Romanesque style Saint Michel Church was built near the port just a short distance from the center of town between 1859 and 1867. Here are a few pictures of the pretty Cassis port.

Cassis port with the Saint Michel Church belltower in the distance

The shops and houses that line the port are all different colors and shapes

The port area in front of Place Mirabeau

Boats in the port

Fishing was the main industry for many years. Now there are only 8 fishing crews which still operate out of Cassis. The town holds a festival every year during June and July in the town and on the docks to celebrate the fishermen, the sea and their patron saint, St. Peter.

Fishing boat

Events include the procession of the "prud-hommes" (regulators of the local fishing industry), the blessing of the boats, water jousts, grilled sardines and anchovies and dancing.

Fishing nets

Shirley and friends pause for picture near the port

You often see locals playing intense games of the Provençal sport known as Boule near the harbor at Gilbert Savon Square.

Gilbert Savon Square

At the outer most tip of the port stands the statue of Calendal. Calendal was a humble anchovy fisherman and hero of a work by poet Frédéric Mistral that recounts Calendal's exploits to win the heart of his true love. His memory is now honored by this statue made of Cassis stone.

The statue of Calendal

There are more shops and restaurants on the narrow streets of Cassis away from the port.

Cassis Street

Thanks to a recommendation from Sara over at Sara in Le Petit Village, Le Bonaparte Restaurant has become our favorite restaurant in Cassis. The restaurant is located on a side street several blocks off the port. There is a small dining room and seating on the street. Le Bonaparte Restaurant is owned by the chef Jean-Marie who has been in business 23 years.

Le Bonaparte Restaurant

Here are some pictures of pretty houses away from the port.

Pretty shutters on a Cassis house

A window full of plants in Cassis

Pastel colored houses in Cassis

A view up Quai Jean-Jacques Barthélémy toward the center of Cassis

The Maison des Baux Castle was built in 1381 by the counts of Les Baux and refurbished last century by Mr. Michelin, the boss of the company that makes tires and publishes the famous Green Guides. Today it is privately owned and partially converted to a luxury B and B.

Maison des Baux Castle

Once you exit off of the A50 autoroute, you will descend to Cassis on a winding road that goes past vineyards planted on steep hills between olive groves and country houses above Cassis. The wineries of Cassis produce red, white and rosé wines but it's the white wines for which the appellation is best known. We like Cassis white and rosé wines a lot.

Don't confuse the wines of Cassis with crème de cassis, a sweet black currant liqueur, a specialty of Burgundy which takes its name from black currants (cassis), not this town.

A view down a Cassis street with Villa Maureque in the distance on the hill

The Cassis Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée wine region is unique in the Provençal wine region because 75% of its production is white wine. The soil is primarily limestone which is particularly suited to the cultivation of Clairette, Marsanne, Ugni Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes which are the major varietals of the AOC. Grapes are harvested by hand.

A pastel colored bar with flags festooned on the top floor

Cap Canaille which rises up between Cassis and La Ciotat, is one of the highest cliffs of Europe at 399 meters (1,309 feet) and the highest cliff in France.

There are four public beach areas in Cassis. The Grand Mer beach is the main beach near the center of town and consists of sand and pebbles. The beach pictured below with the great view of Cap Canaille is Bestouan beach and consist of pebbles and rocks.

Cape Canaille

Thanks for coming on my visit to Cassis. I can't wait to return to Cassis when we are back in Sablet in a few weeks. Have a great week. Bonne journée mes amis et à bientôt.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Simiane-la-Rotonde, a Charming, Fortified Village along the Lavender Trail

We have explored many of the towns and villages in the Vaucluse, the French department where Sablet is located, but we have never made it to the famous Saturday morning market in the town of Apt in the Southeastern corner of the Vaucluse.

Since I was meeting cousins Ginette, Pascale, and Yoan in Apt to see the purple lavender fields (lavender routes) and explore the villages between Apt and Banon, I got to Apt early to check out the market (I will tell you about that part of my day in a future post).

Our first stop on the lavender route was Simiane-la-Rotonde, a small, seemingly quiet village (population 584), on a hill (2132 feet elevation) overlooking a plateau with lavender fields. Simiane-la-Rotonde is located at the Southwestern end of the Alpes de Haute Provence department, close to the border of the Vaucluse.


The village dates to the 11th century when a prieuré (monastery) was established in Simiane-la-Rotonde by the Saint-André Abbey in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon that I told you about here.

Simiane-la-Rotonde street

The name of the village comes from the Simiane-Agoult family who were powerful rulers in Haute Provence and from Rotonde, a large conical structure at the top of the village.

Narrow walkway in Simiane-la-Rotonde

As you wander around the village, you will come upon the "Maison des Poupées" (Doll's House), a 17th century house with more than 1000 exhibits, dating from 1920 to the present day.

La Maison des Poupées (Doll's House)

We strolled down narrow stone-paved streets lined with tall stone houses that date from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The cousins pause for pictures along one of the stone-paved streets

Simiane-la-Rotonde is one of the main areas for production of lavender. In 1979, Alain Cassan, a farmer who is also the current mayor of the village founded the "Société Coopérative Agricole des Plantes à Parfum de Provence" (Agricultural Cooperative Society of Aromatic Plants of Provence), the largest in France.

Local distilleries transform the cut plants into essence which the Cooperative collects and stores. Its 330 members produce 424 tons of essential oils, which accounts for 34% of total French production of fine lavender, used to make perfume, pharmaceuticals and aromatherapy, and for 40% of total French production of lavendin, used for washing powders, detergents, and cosmetics.

Archway through a stone wall

The Rotonde was built at the end of the 12th century to strengthen the defense of the castle. It was saved in 1841 by Prosper Mérimée, who had it declared a historic monument. It is 62 feet tall, the massive exterior hides a ceremonial room with a twelve-ribbed cupola, beautiful stonework, and columns decorated with stylised leaves of water plants, and sculpted human masks.

The Rotonde

Before lavender, glass-making flourished and the village became prosperous and wealthy families built houses along the paved narrow flower-decorated streets. Mullioned windows, carved stone lintels, and diamond-shaped decorations on the wooden doors are proof that aristocratic and wealthy bourgeois lived here between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Simiane-la-Rotonde street

Besides production of lavender, there is limited commerce in the village except for one goat cheese maker, a bakery, a small food store, a bookstore, a rose nursery and pottery studio.

Simiane-la-Rotonde street

Every August, an international early music festival, “Les Riches Heures Musicales de la Rotonde” takes place in the Rotonde. The Festival specialises in instrumental and vocal early music, performed by famous artists and Provençal musicians.

17th - 18th century Pellissier-les-Granges House

As we walked along the stone-paved streets past the stone houses, all of which are creamed-colored, I thought about the other people who have walked these same streets during the past three-hundred years; what were their clothes like, where did they live, how did they light and heat their homes and what did they do for a living?

Pottery studio

Although there is a 16th century, covered market hall, I can't find anything to indicate that there is a weekly market in Simiane-la-Rotonde so I assume that villages go shop at the weekly markets in Apt, Banon, or Forcalquier.

Pretty flowers in front of the 16th century covered market hall

If you go to Simiane-la-Rotonde, make sure you check out the great views over the countryside from the top of the village near the Rotonde and from the covered market hall.

A view over the lower village and lavender fields from the covered market hall

Have a great week. Bonne journée mes amis et à bientôt.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Villedieu, a Tiny Jewel in the Northern Vaucluse

One of our favorite villages near Sablet is Villedieu, a small village (population 514) built on a hill overlooking vineyards, olive groves and pine trees near the Eygues River on the border of the Drôme Provençale.

Place de la Liberation, Villedieu

Villedieu dates to medieval times when the village was a commandery of the Knights of Templar with a chateau with a single tower. The village was founded during a time when potential invaders would come around and you can see the defensive fortifications as you stroll around the village.

14th century town gate with papal coat of arms

In the center of Villedieu is the village square, with a fountain and plane trees, called Place de la Liberation. The Mairie (town hall), a café and two restaurants are situated on the sides of the square. Our friends Bruce and Christine live in Villedieu.

Villedieu Town Hall

La Remise is a crêperie restaurant that also serves tarts and salads. La Remise is only open during the summer as the owners have another restaurant in the Alps. We are big fans of the La Maison Bleue Pizzeria and friends with the owner chef Daniel Roger. The one time we ate at La Remise, I didn't enjoy it very much because I felt guilty that we were not sitting at a La Maison Bleue table.

La Remise Restaurant

The Café du Centre is a bar-restaurant that serves tapas. It seems to be open most of the year.

Café du Centre

During warm weather between March and October, the village square becomes a grand terrace shared by the café and restaurants. Tables and chairs are arranged around the village fountain with the area for the café and each restaurant defined by the color of chairs.

Place de la Liberation

Sitting under the trees with family and friends on the square during a spring, summer or early fall evening is a magical experience and makes the food and wine oh so good.

Place de la Liberation

As I said, Villedieu is one of our favorite villages and we go often. Observant readers of this post will notice that these pictures were shot during three different visits at different times of year.

Statue over doorway

In the heart of Villedieu is Saint Michel Church with the 60 foot tall donjon (keep) and bell tower built on the nave of the church. At the top of the bell tower, there are three openings, each with a bell. The church is Romanesque and dates from the 10th and 12th centuries with later additions.

12th century Saint Michel Church

The oldest known relics (flint tools and weapons) discovered so far in Villedieu date the first settlement back to the Palaeolithic age. They say the odds are high that Villedieu was originally a Gallo-Roman villa near Vasio (Vaison La Romaine) bearing the name Villa Dei. There is no written account of the origin of its name, but probably, Villedieu, comes from the Latin "villa", which means country house and "dei" which means god.

Statue in corner alcove

Villedieu became part of the "Comtat Venaissin" and annexed to France in 1791.

Magnificent stone archway into Villedieu

One of the great things about Villedieu is that although it is quite well known to the locals, it is largely undiscovered to tourists as there is no mention of the town in the Michelin Green Guide and just one sentence in Rick Steve's infamous blue book about Provence.

First time I have seen a cat on a leash

The defensive walls were probably built at the same time as Saint Michel Church. The walls are over 32 feet high. Restored at different times, there are three majestic gates off Place de la Liberation. The middle gate is topped by a belfry and has a clock on the face which dates from the 12th century. On the arch is the papal coat of arms, the only authentic papal coat of arms still in place in the Vaucluse.

Olive trees grow along the Villedieu fortifications

View toward Drôme Provençale and Vinsobres

As I said earlier, Villedieu was a commandery of the Knights of Templar with a chateau with a single tower seen below.

Chateau with one tower

A third of the villagers live within the old defensive fortifications in the center of Villedieu. The other two thirds live on farms and in detached houses that have been built around the village over the last few years. Most of the commune is planted with vineyards.

Another view of the chateau with one tower

The defensive walls with the circular towers are publicly owned in the northeast corner of Place de la Liberation. The rest of the walls are a part of privately-owned dwellings.

More of the Villedieu fortifications

As I told you here, La Maison Bleue Pizzeria is owned by a wonderful chef named Daniel Roger. From a small kitchen equipped with a large wood-fired pizza oven he built himself, he turns out a variety of salads, large enough to share, and pizzas with a variety of toppings on dough perfectly blistered by the wood-fired oven. He also offers pastas and other specials.

We have eaten quite a few meals at La Maison Bleue since our first visit to Villedieu; we've sat in the small dining room and out under the plane-tree covered terrace in front of the restaurant. I strongly recommend that you make reservations since chef Daniel only does one seating and the terrace fills up very quickly.

La Maison Bleue Pizzeria

There are many wonderful restaurants within a short distance of our house in Sablet including several with Michelin stars and others designated as Bibb Gourmand restos but I don't think you will have an experience like sitting on the terrace in Villedieu on a summer evening. So if you are in the Northern Vaucluse, plan to go to Villedieu and eat at La Maison Bleue Pizzeria. By the way we get no financial consideration for this recommendation; we just love eating at La Maison Bleue on the terrace.