Dozens of inviting villages are scattered throughout sun-drenched Provence, in southern France. Two of my favorites, perhaps because they’re lesser known and have such unpretentious charm, are Eygalières and Mausanne-les-Alpilles, in the Bouches-de-Rhone region.
Both lie near the Chaine des Alpilles, a low east-west range of limestone peaks that rise steeply from theRhone River valley. Hiking trails wind along the stony, arid ground and, on the range’s lower slopes, paths lead walkers through stands of oak, pine, olive and almond trees. There’s a nature reserve in the highest areas, with wildlife that includes some rare species of eagles, vultures and owls. The French Resistance to the German occupation of France during World War II began in the Alpilles; you often see commemorative plaques, especially to the hero Jean Moulin.
Eygalières (not to be confused with Eyguières, a medieval village to the south which no doubt has its own appeal), perches on a hill above olive orchards, farmland and villas on the north side of the Chaine des Alpilles. Stone houses and shops line the main street, with chateau ruins on the summit, where the view, looking over the valley toward the mountains, is spectacular. On Fridays, the open-air street market, filled with stalls selling produce, cheeses, pottery, baskets, and lavender, has a festive atmosphere and draws crowds of local folks and tourists. Of the several cafés and restaurants in the village, I’m partial to La Maison Sucrée, where meals are served indoors or on the vine-shaded terrace. The lunch crepes and soups are excellent.
Eygalières is close to several famous attractions of Provence: busy St. Rémy de Provence; picturesque Les Baux-de-Provence; the ancient trading center of Arles; and a plethora of museums and Roman ruins. The perfect place to end a day of sightseeing and exploring, in my opinion, is with an apéritif on the terrace of a comfortable, quiet, country hotel such as La Bastide, in Eygalières.
This 3-star lodging isn’t exactly unknown (nothing is undiscovered here) but it’s off the beaten path and offers a warm welcome in a style that makes sense of the phrase “casual elegance.” The atmosphere is relaxed—you’ll probably encounter two mellow resident dogs, Belle and Bastide–and the décor is nicely appointed, with 14 spacious rooms and two suites. Some have private terraces, and there’s a lovely pool. Lavender, thyme, and rosemary, the spicy scents of Provence, line the walkways of the estate. La Bastide serves breakfast all year and other meals between March and November, from a menu featuring Provencal cuisine with local organic produce and, of course, good wines.
The other village that charms me, Mausanne-les-Alpilles, lies in a valley south of the Alpilles. Long ago it was a significant stop on the Roman road between Arles and Aix-en-Provence. Now it’s known as a leading producer of fine-quality olive oil; some 37,000 trees grow in surrounding orchards. An olive mill in town is open for visits at times, and stalls at the Thursday street market brim with shiny black and green olives. The heart of Mausanne is its central square, with a church and clock tower on one side and cafés on the other. The cafés do a thriving business in good weather serving tables set up on the square, near Quatre Saisons fountain.
A meander through the village takes you past an 18th century church, a bakery and ice cream shop, picturesque walls covered with vines and bougainvillea, and a restaurant not to be missed. Le Clos Saint Roch is a wonderful spot for lunch served indoors where the daily menu is written on a mirror, or at an umbrella table on the leafy terrace. Chef Emanuel, who worked in San Francisco for a time, prepares thin-sliced salmon, grilled eggplant, tiny gnocchi, crisp green spinach salads, duck dishes, and more. I tasted several and can vouch for them all.
It’s easy walking distance from Mausanne to Val Baussenc, a 3-star hotel with 23 rooms, some opening to private terraces. It has a pool, a wide expanse of lawn, a pretty terrace, and the sense of peace and tranquility you expect in a member of Relais du Silence. The hotel’s restaurant specializes in Mediterranean/Provencal cooking. This is a spot I’ll happily return to any time I get the chance.
Across the road, a few meters toward town, is a delightful shop selling ceramics and all kinds of artistic gift items. You can’t miss it—it’s the place with baskets hanging from the trees.
Written by and photos by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com