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Destination: France

Provence: As Advertised : Taking the back roads to avoid crowds, discover hidden eateries

June 22, 1997|NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Zamichow writes for The Times Metro section

ST.-REMY-DE-PROVENCE, France — We made our first visit to Provence with some trepidation.

Would this most desirable of vacation locales be as crowded and touristy and expensive as friends had warned? Had Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence" and subsequent books ushered in hordes of visitors to transform exquisite pastoral villages into a Disney of farmlands?

What we found on this trip in May surprised us. It was easy to avoid the best-known spots and venture along tree-lined back roads that wove through small picturesque towns in the Provencal heartland of Les Alpilles, the "Little Alps."

Here, ancient ruins dotted rolling green hills. Country bistros dished up the best food we'd ever eaten. Town markets offered a dizzying array of fresh produce and regional specialties: blocks of soaps, distinctively patterned fabrics, handcrafted pottery, sachets of lavender and lusciously flavorful olive oils.

The 15-mile-long white limestone mountain chain spreads between the Rho^ne and Durance valleys. We chose the town of St.-Remy-de-Provence (population 9,500), often dubbed the gateway to the Alpilles chain, as a base to explore the region.

Halfway between Avignon and Arles, more than 400 miles south of Paris, St.-Remy is a farming community sitting amid one of France's most fertile regions. The surrounding countryside is divided into a patchwork of lush vineyards, pastures, orchards and cultivated fields. Here, Vincent van Gogh, who spent a year in an asylum in St.-Remy after hacking off part of his left ear, painted some of his most stunning landscapes.

Only days before our arrival in Provence, a friend and I booked a room in the Cha^teau des Alpilles. (After all, who among us hasn't ever wanted to stay in a cha^teau?) Just outside St.-Remy, we stopped our tiny white rental car to ask directions.

Unfortunately, there are two French words that I always confuse: droit (right) and gauche (left). After a lengthy conversation with a mustachioed man, I returned to the car, proud that my high school French had proven sufficient, armed with the knowledge that we were 10 minutes away, but uncertain as to which direction to turn at the next junction.

An hour and a half later, we found the Cha^teau des Alpilles, a small, elegant 19th century villa at the end of a lane where branches of tall sycamores knit together overhead, creating a green cathedral-like passageway.

"Well, we weren't in a rush," I said, placatingly to my friend.

Our tall-ceilinged bedroom was filled with Provencal fabrics and heavy wood antiques. Fragrant red roses adorned the mantelpiece of our room; the small writing desk was equipped with a dish of mints. Thick white terry-cloth robes sat ready by the tub.

Satisfied with our accommodations, we trundled down the winding staircase and plied the cha^teau's owner, Francoise Bon, with questions about restaurants in the vicinity--a tactic we employed wherever we went, figuring residents might have better suggestions than our guidebooks.

Silently praying that we'd be able to find our cha^teau in the dark, we set out for Eygalieres, a place so small (population: 1,500) that it's not mentioned in many books. It's a 20-minute drive east of St.-Remy.

The narrow main street in Eygalieres climbs up a hill, leading to an ancient castle keep. Here, we found the 12th century stone church and belltower. As the sun painted swaths of red and orange clouds across the sky, we climbed farther. There at the top of the hill, you can gaze beyond the olive and oak trees, out upon the La Caume Mountains, Durance Valley and the chalky-white Alpilles.

So, we sighed, this is Provence. We saw no one on our sunset stroll up the hill, no one at the ruins. As far as we could tell, we were the only tourists in town.

At the Bistrot D'Eygalieres, we had our first in a series of spectacular meals: lightly cooked asparagus over which a deep green olive oil was drizzled, thin strips of delicately smoked salmon and succulent rosemary-flavored lamp chops. The apple pie, with nuggets of carmelized sugar and a light, flaky pastry shell, concluded the dinner.

Many towns in Provence have a weekly outdoor market, le marche. St.- Remy hosts its market on Wednesdays, including a small flea market as well as a food and produce market. Beginning early in the morning, dozens of vendors lay out their wares. Some tables are loaded with soaps, including chunky green blocks made from olive oil. Other tables offer an array of jugs of virgin olive oil and huge bowls of spiced olives. Still others have bolts and bolts of traditional Provencal fabrics in bright reds, blues and yellows.

Several vendors display an array of cheeses, including a number of different goat cheeses (some wrapped in chestnut leaves into little packets). During the spring and summer, fruit abounds. Nothing beats the flavor-packed strawberries of Provence.

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