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'Provence still has hidden corners to explore'

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'Provence still has hidden corners to explore'
Photo: Julie Mautner. Photo (right): K. Hurley
11:12 CET+01:00
American food journalist Julie Mautner, 53, took a holiday to Provence 14 years ago and she's still living there now. As part of The Local's My France series she guides us round some of the best attractions and restaurants in the idyllic region of southern France.

What brought you to Provence?

The first time I came here was for a holiday. I think it was on my third day, after the jet lag had started to ease, that I realized two weeks wasn't going to be anywhere near long enough.

I returned again, about a year later, and that's when reality hit: my long marriage to New York was pretty much over and my romance with Provence was in full bloom. I never really moved to France. I just came here for a while and stayed.

What made you stay?

As a freelance food and travel writer, I can’t think of any better place to live and work than Provence.  And now that I’m working as a travel planner as well, I’m finding—as I expected I would—no shortage of people who want to visit Provence but need a little help planning the best trip possible. I have a wonderful group of friends here, not to mention a pretty house, a career I adore and a happy life in the charming village of St Rémy de Provence.

I love the climate, the architecture, the history, the food and wine, the lifestyle, the geography, the mountains, the valleys, the rivers, the sea and all the different types of interesting people who come here from all over the world. And I absolutely love the Provençal sense of humour.

What’s the Provençal sense of humour like?

People here are always saying that Provence is paradise and that Provençal people are somehow more intelligent, more handsome, better cooks and better lovers than anyone else - but the truth is that they can also be self-deprecating. My experience is that they’re quick to laugh at situations and at themselves.

Was it difficult to settle in?

Yes! I did everything wrong. I had no idea how anything worked and I didn't speak a word of French. I had to find a house, buy a car, furniture and appliances. I also had to find the right providers for phone, cable, internet and TV and sign up for electricity and gas, none of which are easy to do let alone in your own language in your own country!

And of course I had to make friends and there weren't that many English speakers around when I first came to St. Remy. Once I’d found some great friends though, everything sort of fell into place and it became much easier and more fun.

What’s the first place you take visitors?

The Pont du Gard is a must. It’s a 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct on a stunningly beautiful site. If the river below is high enough, I take visitors for a swim or take out canoes. Sometimes we go to the city of Arles to take a little stroll through Roman history - there’s so much of it - plus around the great galleries, museums and shops.

During the summer, we might go to see an exhibition at the annual Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival, which gets better and bigger each year. Arles has a wonderful market on Saturday mornings, so sometimes we’ll start our day there. For a fabulous lunch or dinner in Arles, I love L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel – although the food is so good you always end up eating too much. Or we’ll eat at À Côté, Rabanel’s more casual restaurant next door.

Any more good bars or eateries you can recommend?

For casual dining, I love Le Mirabeau in my hometown of St-Rémy-de-Provence. The owners and staff are very friendly and the food is always good. I also hang out at Le Café de la Place for the same reasons. Plus, they make a great iced coffee – not so easy to find in Provence.

In the evening, I also like to go to La Cantina, an Italian-style restaurant that serves wonderful pizzas, salads and specials such as ossobuco. For a more special night out, I go to Le Mas du Capoun in Mollégès, where the food, service and setting are divine and the prices extremely reasonable.

Provence has been a tourist destination for years - are there any secrets left?

Of course! Provence is huge, and no matter how much time you spend here, there are always more hidden corners to explore. Even in the height of summer, when the most popular towns are thronged with tourists, it’s possible to find areas of completely unspoiled nature and tranquility that aren’t far off the beaten path.

What advice would you give someone thinking of moving to Provence?

Come and stay for a while – especially in the winter. Many French villages close up in the evening and are dead in the winter months, so you need to experience what it’s like. If I had to do it again, I would have paid a professional to help me get settled, buy furniture, buy a car, open a bank account, pay bills and generally learn the ropes.

Julie Mautner has her own website ProvencePost.com “For anyone who lives in, travels to, or even just dreams of visiting the South of France” and also runs Provence Post Travel, which helps couples, families and groups of all sizes plan holidays in Provence and on the Côte d’Azur.

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