A week in Provence

Find more than lavender during an escape to Provence, with art, vineyards and plenty of luxury



It’s little wonder that Provence is a perennially popular tourist destination — with beautiful countryside, beaches, historic towns and villages, you’re not short of reasons to love this part of France.

And with some gorgeous villas to base yourself in — although there’s also everything from simple campsites to high-end hotels — it’s easy to find somewhere that’s convenient for families and groups, or for a slice of luxury, with the option to bolt on extras such as a private chef or childcare.

My own Provencal retreat was at Le Mas de Vinci in Lambesc (near Aix-en-Provence), one of the handpicked villas in the Oliver’s Travels collection, which had the advantage of being a short walk from the local village, as well as the benefit of its own peaceful location with a large garden and private pool.

High on my list to visit was the pretty village of Cassis, around one hour away, described in her letters by regular visitor Virginia Woolf as “a little paradise”.

Set around a pretty port, the village is book-ended by Cap Canaille, one of the tallest coastal cliffs in Europe on one side, and the famous white limestone headland of Calanques on the other.

After lunch of fresh fish at Le Grand Large, one of the portside restaurants overlooking the small beach and clear blue sea, the narrow, cobbled streets lined with artisanal shops are a delight to wander, while there’s also a colourful morning market twice a week and festivals throughout the summer.

From here you can also take boat trips to visit the Calanques, diving or kayaking, and visit one of several wineries in the area, including Domaine du Paternel.

Wine here is produced organically and has been in the same family for four generations; our brief tasting came with beautiful views of the surrounding countryside.

The Cassis area is especially well-known for its deliciously crisp white wines, though the domaine also produces red and rose wines from grapes in its vineyards which are slightly further afield.

Closer to the villa, Chateau La Coste, at Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade, is only a 20-minute drive away — and definitely not what you might expect if you think of a traditional French chateau, with installations and exhibitions dotted throughout its vineyards.

It’s also a great place to head for lunch, with five restaurants on site, ranging from the Michelin-starred Hélène Darroze at Villa La Coste to the relaxed La Terrasse which serves simple dishes and sharing platters, and regularly hosts live music.

We opted for Tadao Ando which serves simple, refreshing dishes, largely based around colourful, crisp vegetables, on its terrace beside a cooling shallow pool of water.

To follow the full art trail through the vineyards takes around two hours, though it’s entirely possible to do a cut-down version if you are short of time.

The artwork ranges from the classical — Chagall, Pissarro, Matisse and Monet — to the very modern, including Crouching Spider by Louise Bourgeois, displayed in a large, shallow pool, along with a temporary exhibition of excellent, colourful paintings by Bob Dylan and another of photographs by Mary McCartney.

The chateau is also an organic wine producer, with wines available for purchase in the shop and the restaurants, while you can also book a wine workshop.

For more art, head to Aix-en-Provence, the nearest large town in the area, where you can follow the Cezanne trail. This subtly marked route leads you from the house where he was born to the St Jean cemetery where he is buried, via the school he attended, the homes of his friends and family, and the cafes he frequented.

Save time to stroll around the old town, with the third-largest collection of Baroque architecture in France (after Paris and Versailles), while you’ll also find a wide variety of markets taking place throughout the week, along with boutiques and dining for all budgets.

La Petite Ferme, close to the lively café-lined Cours Mirabeau, specialises in dishes using local ingredients such as oeuf mimosa with truffle, tuna tartare with yuzu and avocado, and burrata with sweet and tangy green zebra tomatoes.

Between exploring, there’s plenty to tempt you to stay at the villa; the large pool, painted in natural colours to blend in with the environment, is the perfect place to cool off, or there’s a large hot tub to lounge in.

The lush garden hides plenty more nooks and crannies for relaxing in, along with a pond where croaking toads join chirruping cicadas to provide the classic Mediterranean soundtrack in the long warm evenings.

Built around 15 years ago, the villa is cleverly designed to look much older, with plenty of natural stone and wood, a huge fireplace, and traditional Provencal muted colour washes on the walls.

But it’s not short of mod cons: the kitchen is enormous and very well-equipped with an enormous range oven and two “bean to cup” coffee machines, plus there’s a small utility room with washer and dryer .

If cooking and cleaning isn’t your idea of a relaxing holiday, there’s a fridge-filling and maid service, as well as childcare and a private chef available to be booked in advance from the Oliver’s Travels concierge service, which can also recommend outings and excursions.

Local private chef Stéphane Camillièri cooked for us on two nights — one a three-course menu and one of four courses, with dishes which could happily have been served at a high-end restaurant, from taste to presentation.

Simpler meals designed for sharing among families are an option, while dietary requirements can easily be catered for as menus need to be chosen in advance. A typical meal might include citrus-marinated seabass, followed by John Dory with spiced bulgar wheat and cashew nuts before a dessert of a chocolate shell with tonka-flavoured cream and seasonal fruit.

The villa has its own separate cinema room ready-stocked with popcorn along with the light, airy living room, while the shady terrace — perfect for outdoor dining and general hanging out — even has its own resident cat, Orphé.

Sleeping up to 14 people, there is plenty of room to ensure that no one feels like they are crammed in with each other. The seven bedrooms are comfortable and simply stylish with integrated sound systems, some with mezzanine sleeping areas, some with décor designed for children.

All rooms have stylish ensuite bathrooms of sorts (or a bath or shower actually within the bedroom), although somewhat bizarrely, only one downstairs bedroom has its own toilet, while the upstairs rooms share one single loo.

And whether you’re looking to avoid airports or embrace slow travel, you could even take a train for the seven-hour journey from London to Marseille with only one change in Paris — realistically you’d need to hire a car on arrival to explore regardless.

But whether you take the slow route or the speedy, this slice of Mediterranean heaven is as tempting as ever.

Getting There

Flights to Marseille cost from around £20 from Stansted or around £100 from Manchester with Ryanair. Avignon and Nimes both have international airports, but at present there are no direct routes from the UK.

Trains from London St Pancras to Marseille via Paris cost from around £215 return, with Eurostar and high-speed TGV train.

A week at Le Mas de Vinci costs from around £4,150. A private chef costs from around £47 per person in high season, excluding drinks. Book at

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