Julie Mautner is an American living in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence for over 20 years. She has extensive knowledge of Provence and creates individually designed itineraries and experiences of the region with her company Provence Post Travel. Mautner can arrange everything from A to Z, including hotel reservations, villa rentals, tours, local activities, transfers and restaurant reservations. Before she moved to France, Mautner lived in New York City, and was a longtime editor and writer for a prestigious food magazine.
Last September, Mautner planned a terrific two-day itinerary for us—and we enjoyed every moment of it. In planning the initial itinerary, she emailed us with a number of questions, asking about our preferences and what type of activities we were interested in, and within 24 hours she sent a detailed itinerary that was spot on in terms of what we wanted to do and see.
We took the 8:20 a.m. train from the Gare de Lyon station in Paris and arrived at the Avignon TGV station at about 11 a.m. Marlene, our tour guide for the day, was warm and welcoming as she escorted us from the train station by car to the center of Avignon. She was born and raised in the area and spoke English fluently.
Our first stop was Les Halles indoor food market, a vast, open space with local French food stalls. Marlene was friendly with many of the stand owners, and they fed us a steady stream of French delicacies such as olives, tapenade, cheese, olive oil, foie gras and jams and jellies.
We had a lunch reservation at Cuisine Centr'Halles, a café, cooking school and catering company, owned and operated by another American ex-pat, Californian Jon Chiri, who also has been living in Provence for over 20 years. Chiri is also the chef and was just finishing up preparing the lunch we were about to have. The three-course lunch started with an appetizer of four various spreads that were made with Provencal olives, which we scooped up with slices of baguette. A succulent sliced duck breast accompanied with roasted potatoes, lavender and ratatouille was satisfying. Then, Chiri sent out two desserts, a just-out-of-the-oven tarte Tatin and a moist spice cake dripping with honey, served with fresh figs.
After lunch, we toured Les Antiques de Glanum, where two well-preserved monuments from the Roman city of Glanum from approximately 200 B.C. stood, the Mausoleum of the Julii and the triumphal arch of Glanum. An archeological excavation headed up by Pierre de Brun in 1921, uncovered a major part of the ancient city.
Van Gogh, who painted some of his most iconic canvases in Saint-Rémy, self-admitted himself to the Saint Paul Asylum in 1889, and over the next 12 months he spent his days painting from his room overlooking the farms below his window. He also ventured outside, capturing the nature around him by painting cypress trees, wheat fields, olive trees, haystacks, lilacs and irises. The Saint Paul Asylum also has an ancient chapel you can visit and a beautifully landscaped courtyard garden.
We continued our tour, driving up the steep Alpilles Mountain range with its ancient rock formations and boulders of gray stone, until we reached the medieval village of Le Baux. Marlene gave us the in-depth history of the village, whose foundation dates back to 6,000 B.C., pointing out some of the significant buildings and sites. Our last stop in Le Baux, was a hidden overhang that had a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and landscape.
Our final stop of the day was a visit to the Carrieres De Lumieres, a dazzling laser light show, located in an abandoned rock quarry. Similar to the Atelier des Lumieres in Paris and run by the same company, the show at Carrieres De Lumieres was about Salvador Dali, and his works were brilliantly displayed on the walls.
In the evening, we went to a cozy bistro, Bar Tabac des Alpilles, in Saint-Rémy that Mautner made reservations at, and we enjoyed some authentic Provencal dishes.
We stayed at a lovely, three-bedroom apartment, owned by Australian interior designer Karen Stride, which Mautner also arranged for us. The recently renovated apartment is decorated with Provencal-style antiques and current-day, locally crafted furniture; each bedroom has a queen-size bed with a full bathroom with a rain shower. There’s also a fully equipped kitchen which is well-stocked with pots, pans, dishes and kitchen accessories, so you can cook full meals. Located on a quiet, narrow street, it’s directly in the center of Saint-Rémy.
The next day, we took a food tour by bike accompanied by our guide Jeff, a sporty Frenchman who also lives in the area. We met him at the Sun-E-Bike shop to get outfitted for an electric bicycle and, a few minutes later, we were gliding through the Provence countryside alongside a brook on a sunny day with clear blue skies.
Our first stop was a visit to Moulin du Calanquet, an olive oil factory and grove, owned by the same family for five generations. We were guided through the multi-step process of how the olives are picked from the trees at a particular time of the year when they are ripe and then put through two different machines to extract the oil. The oil is finally stored in temperature-controlled metal vats. We were also told that the automated process was more efficient at drawing out the most flavorful oil from the olives than the time-honored wood presses.
After the informative tour, we tasted the various flavored oils in the retail shop, which also sold olive tapenades in jars and jams and jellies from the region.
Le Nectar des Alpilles is an expansive honey farm with 250 beehives on a multi-acre property. A large hangar is where the honey is processed, and we learned that the breeding period for the queen bees was late March till the mid-June and that July is when most of the honey is produced. We visited the small shop on the premises of the hangar, which sold jars of honey in different flavors, such as rosemary, lavender and acacia, and other bee-related products like nectar, bee pollen, royal jelly and propolis.
The last stop of the tour was our favorite: A small, family-owned goat cheese farm. Dani, short for Danielle, brought us straight to where her goats and adorable kids were grazing, and milked one of the goats. She handed us the glass of milk to taste, which was warm and sweet. At one point, her 12-year-old son cradled one of the goats in his arms and we couldn’t resist petting it. Afterwards, we tasted a few of the cheeses that were produced earlier that morning; some of them creamy, others drier and flakier. We agreed that they were the freshest cheeses we ever tasted and that we had been spoiled for life.
Our tour ended at about 1 p.m. and we spent the afternoon exploring the village of Saint-Rémy until we took our train back to Paris that evening.