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July 16, 2017

Rest and relax in Provence

The best of home: Ambassadors to Singapore provide an insider’s guide to their favourite destinations

Lydia Vasko

Favourite destination: Mont Ventoux is in the Vaucluse department of the Provence region in southern France. It is where I have spent my summer vacations since I was a child.

Called the Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux is a Unesco biosphere reserve and the road there provides exceptional views of the Alps in the north and the Mediterranean Sea in the south - past vineyards, orchards and lavender fields.

SEE

The Harmas de Fabre Museum (mnhn.fr/en/visit/lieux/harmas-fabre-fabre-museum) in the town of Serignan-du-Comtat is a museum, botanical garden and herbarium that used to be the home and garden of famed naturalist and entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre (1823- 1915).

The museum houses his collections of fossils, minerals, 594 watercolours of mushrooms, manuscripts, a private herbarium of more than 20,000 specimens of plants and the small table on which his manuscripts were written. The gardens have 20 historic trees, more than 500 plant species, trails, a pool and a small, cold greenhouse built in 1880.

Nearby, in the city of Avignon, the Palais des Papes (Popes Palace, palais-des-papes.com/en) stands as a mighty symbol of the church's influence throughout the Western Christian world in the 14th century.

With 15,000 sq m of floor space - the size of four Gothic cathedrals - it is the biggest Gothic palace and fortress in Europe.

I also enjoy hiking on Mont Ventoux, which has incredible variety. Its different faces and altitudes host a great number of microclimates, ecosystems and landscapes, from Mediterranean to Alpine.

You can discover Mont Ventoux in many ways - on horseback, by bicycle, motorbike or car, or by taking part in activities such as paragliding or rock climbing.

Three Grandes Randonnees (gr-infos.com), France's long-distance footpaths, skirt the mountain. There are all sorts of shorter rambling trails around the mountain as well.

EAT

For breakfast, I recommend viennoiseries - flaky pastries such as croissants, pains au chocolat and pains aux raisins - from a good bakery such as Patisserie Jouvaud (patisserie-jouvaud.com/en) in the town of Carpentras. Try its pine kernel croissants and get some sweets such as glace fruit (candied fruit), chocolates or rum and vanilla puff cakes for afternoon tea.

You must try the poppy seed cake at Hotel La Mirande (la-mirande.fr) in Avignon. The hotel dates back to 1309. Every afternoon, in the glass- covered patio or on the terrace, a buffet of housemade, 100 per cent organic pastries is prepared by the pastry chef.

Madeleines, gingerbread, almond croquants (brittle), poppyseed cakes, chocolate fondants and seasonal fruit tarts are served with hot chocolate or tea. A pastry set costs €9.50 (S$15); pastries with a coffee or tea are €14.50; and pastries with a housemade hot chocolate €17.50.

Also try my favourite pastry, navettes a la fleur d'oranger, a cylindrical sweet pastry from Provence with an orange blossom flavour. It is baked in the shape of a boat and is one of the rare biscuits made without yeast. It can be kept all year and only has to be warmed up before being consumed.

Another regional treat is Papaline d'Avignon, a candy of l'origan du Comtat, a liquor made from marjoram and 60 other plants found in the foothills of Mont Ventoux. It is surrounded by two layers of chocolate, each painstakingly applied by hand using a special brush to create the candy's unique texture.

My favourite restaurants in the region include Le Mas des Vignes (restaurant-lemasdesvignes.fr), near the town of Bedoin on the road to Mount Ventoux. It serves seasonal Provencal food and boasts amazing sunset views on the terrace that overlooks the Les Dentelles de Montmirail chain of mountains. A set meal costs €38to €50.

Chez Serge (chez-serge.fr) in Carpentras is a restaurant in a renovated village house made of stone and serves delicious set meals (€17 to €19 for lunch, €29 to €39 for dinner). Try its summer truffle pasta or summer truffle omelette (both €19).

In the heart of Avignon, Restaurant Avenio (restaurant-avenio.fr) offers modern Mediterranean cuisine. Expect well-chosen ingredients and a warm welcome. A set meal costs €15 to €50 a person.

PLAY

Les Choregies d'Orange (choregies.fr/?lang=en) is a summer opera festival held from June to August in the ancient Roman theatre in the town of Orange. The sets and acoustics are amazing.

In July, the annual Festival d'Avignon (festival-avignon.com/en), an arts festival, is held in the courtyard of the Palais des Papes and other locations throughout Avignon.

Festival International de Piano de la Roque d'Antheron (festivalpiano.com/fr/accueil/bienvenue.html) is an open-air piano festival held every summer in the park of Florans Castle. It features all types of music, from classical and contemporary to jazz and electronic, and attracts some of the world's most famous pianists such as Martha Argerich from Argentina and Krystian Zimerman from Poland.

In Provence, there are a few walks and hiking trails that are popular with the locals.

The 11km Combe de Malaval trail at Bedoin provides magnificent views over the Comtat Venaissin plain and Dentelles de Montmirail mountain range. It connects the foothills of Mont Ventoux and the many hamlets that make up Bedoin.

The Ochre Trail at Roussillon is a short and easy hike through a former ochre quarry and nearby woods. There, you can visit the Ochre Conservatory (avignon-et-provence.com/en/museum/ochre-conservatory) to learn about plant dyes and the different steps in the processing of ochre.

From Vaucluse, you can easily travel to the stylish city of Aix-en-Provence, an hour's drive from Avignon. It is southern France's version of Paris, home to a network of grand leafy boulevards and elegant 17th-century Baroque architecture. Aix is also where French artist Paul Cezanne was born.

The city's old centre is steeped in history and partly pedestrianised, but Aix is also a modern city with a thriving student population and numerous clubs and bars.

SHOP

The best way to experience the local culture is to wander through one of the traditional markets, which are an integral part of life in all French towns and large villages.

The Marche de Velleron in Velleron is listed among the 100 outstanding markets in France and draws 150,000 visitors each year. The farmers selling their produce here harvest everything the same day and offer many heritage vegetables that you will not find elsewhere.

From mid-November to midMarch, you can visit Marche aux Truffes de Richerenches, a truffle market held every Saturday from 9.30am to 1pm. It is the region's best and accounts for about half the truffle transactions in south-eastern France and about 30 per cent of all the truffles sold in the country.

Every Friday morning, the Marche de Carpentras hosts 350 stalls offering a wide variety of products, depending on the season.

The Marche Hebdomadaire de Sault, known for its textiles and arts and crafts, has set up in the town of Sault every Wednesday morning since 1515.

The markets are the perfect place to buy the many delicious foods that you can take back to Singapore, such as Provencal honey; pastis, an anise-flavoured spirit and aperitif; olive oil; truffles; lavender; and Gigondas, a red wine produced exclusively in the commune of Gigondas in Vaucluse.

STAY

Chateau de Mazan (chateaudemazan.com/en) is a beautiful 18th- century structure with a remarkable history. Once the family home of French aristocrat Marquis de Sade, it is now an independently run boutique hotel, about a 30- minute drive from Avignon.

Hotel Crillon le Brave (crillonlebrave.com), located about 40km north-east of Avignon, is perched atop a tiny hill village surrounded by vineyards and olive groves.

The views from the rooms, terraces and gardens are stunning.

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines and Air France offer daily direct flights to Paris. From there, you can drive (seven hours) or take the train (2.5 hours) to Avignon, the main city of the department of Vaucluse.

Or fly from Singapore to Marseille via Frankfurt, Paris or Amsterdam, and drive from Marseille (one hour, 15 minutes) or take the train (40 minutes) to Avignon.

TIPS

•Provence's pleasant climate, slow-paced lifestyle and rustic earthiness make it a perfect place to relax in. One week will allow you to take your time and slow down.

•To better understand Provencal life and culture, read Ascent Of Mont Ventoux by Italian poet Petrarch,  autobiographical novel My Father's Glory by Marcel Pagnol and The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono.

•The French eat dinner late, usually after 7.30pm and sometimes as late as 10pm in the summer months.

• The architecture and size of some little villages in the south of France may surprise Singaporeans. Some do not have more than one or two hundred inhabitants.

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