the best of Provence

a couple enjoying the hilltop scenery from Lacoste (c) 2016 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

Provence flew by, one charming town after another, beautiful sights, great meals, and four different hotels over the course of five evenings. That's why I haven't had a chance to post day-by-day reflections about all we've seen and done ... and why I'm putting together this best of Provence post for now. I'll write more detailed articles later!

How do I love thee? Let me count the Waze. We would have been lost (literally) without Waze, the free iPhone app that provides spoken driving directions all over the world. Some tips for using Waze:

1) If you're driving in France and know some French, choose Vanessa, the French language voice, to provide the narration. The English voice totally butchered the pronunciation of the street names, making them totally incomprehensible.

2) Take advantage of WiFi when you have it to lock in your next destination. You don't want to start in the middle of nowhere, without a strong enough cell signal, to get yourself "found." (You can also download a section of Google Maps to your phone for off-line use. We found this to be helpful at times.)

3) Keep your eye on the moving map as you travel. It will help you choose the correct exit off the many roundabouts.

4) Waze will get you there, even if it's on tiny little country roads. You may end up at the back door of your destination, but trust Waze!

5) When traveling in the country, turn off "toll roads" and "freeways" to take advantage of the great scenery. When traveling in more populous areas, turn on these options. We learned the hard way. Traveling through Nice while avoiding freeways at rush hour is not fun!

Thank you to the hotels who provided hospitality during our time in Provence.

1) La Mirande is the Virtuoso option in Avignon. Right next to the Papal Palace, it is the former home of a Cardinal, now a very friendly and authentic small Provençal hotel.

2) La Couillade is a Relais & Chateaux resort well situated to be your base for visiting towns like Gordes and Roussillon. Featuring outstanding food and two great resort pools, this hotel will appeal to visitors who admire its minimalist yet stylish room decor.

3) La Domaine de Manville is a very appealing French resort. Part of Small Luxury Hotels with its own 18 hole golf course, we loved our Junior Suite with terrace. Large, high ceilinged, with tall windows, its decor was stylish and contemporary with French accents that worked together extremely well.

4) Villa Gallici is a Virtuoso property with a spa and beautiful gardens located on the north side of Aix-en-Provence. Our Deluxe room was a bit cozy, but we loved its traditional French decor — extremely elegant without over-doing it.

We enjoyed a superb tasting meal for lunch at La Bastide de Marie. I can't say enough about how good the meal was ... and the wine parings. I don't normally eat beef, but the beef fillet was perhaps the best I've ever had. This property has a lovely setting and rooms decorated in a traditional Provençal style. If authenticity is what you're after, I cannot recommend this hotel strongly enough.

Cooking class with Jean-Marc Villard - Jean-Marc has retired to Maubec and offers cooking classes in his home to small groups. We spend a whole day with him and four other students, visiting a local market and preparing a three course French meal designed with our food preferences in mind. I never imagined how much is involved in creating a beautifully presented meal.

Sight-seeing highlights:

1) Roussillon — a hill town with reddish-colored buildings, reflecting the ochre deposits in the area. Be sure to take the Ochre Trail; 2.50€ admission per adult to this beautiful, shaded walk.

2) Bonnieux — a cute little hill town. It's worth the climb to the ancient church at the top of the town.

3) Lacoste — another cute little hill town. Most of the parking is on the north side of the village.

4) Saint Remy de Provence — Come here if you want great shopping and/or are a fan of Vincent Van Gogh. You can visit the sanitarium where Van Gogh spent some years of his life, learn about his story, and see his bedroom.

5) Gorges du Verdon — Moustiers Saint Marie is a beautiful small town at the western end of this incredible region of France. The drive through the gorge is simply gorgeous. Are the words etymologically related?

Final thought: visit Provence during the shoulder season. We were able to find parking everywhere at the end of September, although sometimes with difficulty. I can't imagine how difficult a visit must be during the summer months when the small roads are crowded with cars and busses ... or how you could possibly find parking.

copyright  (c)  2016 by Ourisman Travel LLC.  All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell Travel. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.



Roussillon (c) 2016 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

The hilltop village of Roussillon was the highlight of our Sunday drive through Provence.

We began the day at La Mirande, an utterly charming small boutique property in the small city of Avignon (and a member of Virtuoso). Our arrival was an adventure in itself as we drove our full-size car through the narrow, crooked streets of this old city ... but once we arrived, the hotel staff parked our car and returned it the  front of the hotel the next morning, even before we checked out. We spent just one night here, but we were won over by the Provençal character of this small, individually owned hotel. It was like living in a house, not a hotel at all. It was originally built as the home of a Cardinal. Our room was spacious by European standards with cool, marble tiled floors, a bed comfy enough that I did not stir until 7:30 a.m. (rare for me), and a fall bathroom with everyone I could want — a step-in shower with good water pressure, a long vanity with two basins, WC, and even a soaking tub in the bedroom (that Claire enjoyed). After a great breakfast, we even met the owner who enlisted me as her ambassador ... which I'm happy to do for La Mirande.

Our morning drive began in Gorges, a hilltop village visited by many tourists. I can't imagine how crowded it must be in the height of the season, but we easily found parking at the base of the village and enjoyed a walk through the town. Drop into the tourist center to get a walking map.

But once we reached Roussillon and found parking right in a lot right in the center of the city, we knew we had found someplace special. I can't imagine where people find parking during busier times of the year, as parking was scarce. Right across the road from the parking lot was the scene pictured here — the red cliffs once mined for ochre. We bought tickets for le Sentier des ocres (the ochre footpath) and took the shorter loop which provided interesting views on a delightfully shaded path. Afterwards, we explored the town of Roussillon and saw its church, homes, shops, and art galleries.

Our final destination was La Coquillade, a recently opened Relais & Chateaux resort (in its second season) built around a small 1860 village. Our accommodation was in one of the original buildings, converted for use as as fully five star resort. The newer buildings blend in quite well, and guests have a choice of three restaurants. Our dinner last night at the Bistro was quite wonderful.

copyright  (c)  2016 by Ourisman Travel LLC.  All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell Travel. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


one fine stay, indeed!

OneFineStay apartment on rue Saint Andre des Arts in the 6th arr.

This review of a OneFineStay apartment was written by guest columnist, Jessica O... more information below at the bottom of the article. 

I recently had the pleasure of staying in a gorgeous Parisian flat listed through One Fine Stay. Overall, I can safely say that the experience was near perfect — but it was absolutelyperfect for a francophile such as myself, in Paris on a weeklong romantic getaway with my partner, Tom. 

The apartment was situated on the Left Bank of Paris in a phenomenal location, close to the St. Michel subway stop, walking distance from Notre Dame, and mere steps away from countless restaurants and dining establishments. As they say, location is everything, and we could not have handpicked a more desirable spot. 

As an individual living on a restricted diet (unfortunately), I was even able to find a gluten-free creperie nearby and an organic, gluten-free market just a street away, a luxury I had never anticipated. Had we decided to see a French movie, there was a movie theater across the street. There was trendy, young shopping available just a couple blocks away, and easy-to-rent bikes available to ride around the city. 

Even our trip to Versailles was as easy as taking a train to dinner, an RER train being available at the closest subway station to our flat. My boyfriend went on a morning run to the Eiffel Tower, which was visible from our window, and we were able to start our mornings with much-needed coffee, thanks to the kitchen’s French Press (we bought the grounds just down the street).

Having your very own Parisian flat for the week is the ideal experience for anyone interested in a truly immersive French cultural experience. Sure, you won’t benefit from the perks of a Concierge, turn-down service, or room service… but considering our unique preferences, the benefits more than made up for it. 

Rather than relying on the amenities of a high end hotel, you’ll find yourself interacting much more with the local culture… picking up groceries to cook a meal in your fully-stocked kitchen, or enjoying a glass of wine in the living room while you run a load or two of laundry in your private washer/dryer. Plus, without a TV in the flat, we spent our evenings talking and exploring, truly making the most of our trip and of each other.

For a French-culture junkie, ever on a quest for all-things-French, the set-up was downright idyllic. I was able to use the free wifi to work during my stay, and the use of One Fine Stay’s iPhone came to our rescue on more than one occasion. Thanks to an app called City Mapper — similar to the likes of HopStop, which I used regularly while living in NYC — the former difficulty of acclimating to the metro system was a challenge of the past. The phone’s data and wifi allowed us to map out our destination from wherever we were, making it possible to hop on the subway and head to our next stop with only minimal planning in advance. 

We enjoyed the benefits of unlimited texts and internet, even to the US, and received concierge-like customer service on an as-needed basis. When we struggled to turn on the apartment’s hot water, they walked us through the steps to restore it. They were available to provide us with near-immediate assistance when the French washer and dryer confounded us, and followed up to ensure our needs had been met. 

Rather than having daily maid service, the maid came once per week. She cleaned our dishes, took out the trash, replaced our towels and linens, and restocked our luxurious L’Occitaine toiletries. There was even a French hairdryer there for our use, an amenity I was thrilled to discover, having long, unruly hair. 

One Fine Stay also provided us with some snacks, as there was no mini-bar available, although a few more bottles of water would have been helpful. (That being said, a bottle of wine, some fresh fruit, and some French chocolate would have been downright perfect). 

The experience gave us the sort of privacy one simply cannot experience in a hotel stay, allowing us a degree of self-sufficiency that permitted us the freedom to daydream that we were real-life ex-pats. There is simply no better way to indulge your adventurous side than by braving French living all on your own. The knowledge that we had immediate help at our disposal, 24-hours-a-day, gave us the courage to maximize our experience there and resulted in a culturally immersive Parisian dream for the length of our stay. 

Be forewarned, however, that one thing was missing: an elevator. It was one sacrifice we made in order to enjoy the gorgeous historic building, making our way to the fourth-floor flat on an original staircase. (Being young and fitness-oriented, we considered the 70+ stairs a great leg work-out). Otherwise, only the presence of our dogs could have made our week-long stay any more perfect. 

For the right traveler, One Fine Stay is certainly a company to consider for your next getaway. And for an honest to goodness Francophile? One Fine Stay is your ticket to a veritable Parisian paradise. [Editor's note: book through your Virtuoso travel advisor for advice finding your perfect Parisian apartment ... and a Virtuoso amenity!]

The guest columnist is my daughter, Jessica O, not the Jessica Ourisman who is my daughter-in-law and CEO of Ourisman Travel. Her Instagram handle is @jessicagrey091 


my best of Paris awards

St. James Paris, boutique hotel in the 16th arr (c) 2016 by David Ourisman

A city of superlatives, Paris has something for every visitor — whether you're a traveler who desires the highest standards of luxury or whether you'd be happy with a simple pied-à-terre as a base for your explorations of all that the City of Light has to offer. We have experienced so much on this trip, I wanted to express my recommendations and sincere thanks.

getting around Paris
Passe Navigo Découverte. Paris has the most fabulous metro system, and you can go everywhere for just 21.25€ for a week (Monday - Sunday) with a Passe Navigo Découverte. A great value in efficient, reliable public transportation. 
Citymapper. So incredibly useful for finding your way anywhere in the city with directions for walking or taking the metro. Totally free except for any cell phone data charges.

thank you to our gracious hosts
Le Meurice hosted our first two nights in Paris. The smallest of the palace hotels of Paris, Le Meurice is ideally situated right on the Tuileries for walking anywhere in the heart of Paris. Our Premier Suite had a panoramic view from the Louvre (to the left), the d'Orsay (straight ahead), and the Eiffel Tower and Grand Palais (to the right). 
Le Bristol hosted our middle two nights. Located just off the Champs Elysees and in the midst of many high-end fashion shopping opportunities, we enjoyed the warm service, great food, and the two house cats! 
Four Seasons George V was home for our final three evenings. In the Golden Triangle, Le George offers classic French décor with the luxury predictability you would expect from Four Seasons... and wait until you see the new Suite product that I previewed.

a couple of incredible meals
Plaza Athenee reopened two years ago after a renovation and expansion, and this art deco classic on avenue Montaigne is back better than ever. I enjoyed lunch at Le Relais with George-Alexis, Sales Manager ... and if you're a chocoholic, you must order the Chocolate-Caramel Finger for dessert.
Peninsula Paris is a stunningly elegant, contemporary hotel — simple gorgeous rooms — and we were lucky enough to enjoy dinner at its rooftop restaurant, L'Oiseau Blanc. Not only did our view include the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur all lit up for us, but the three course dinner was delicious in every way.

New Discoveries award
I always look forward to discovering new treasures, I can recommend two properties I'd never before visited. La Reserve is a small hotel right around the corner from Le Bristol, and if you prefer to stay somewhere small and hidden away, you'll love this boutique property. St. James Paris (pictured above) is the city's only chateau hotel, a boutique, 49 room treasure in a 16th arrondissement mansion near the Bois du Boulogne. Rooms are decorated in a quirky yet elegant style.

Guided tours
Thanks to Antoinette Azzurro for her walking tour highlighting the Occupation and Liberation of Paris during World War II ... and thanks to W Travel France for organizing a tour of the street art of the 13th and 20th arrondissements. Great tours introduce you to a city in a way you couldn't experience on your own.
copyright  (c)  2016 by Ourisman Travel LLC.  All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell Travel. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


Paris street art

street art in Paris (c) 2016 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

A tour of the street art of the 13th arrondissement ... that was on our recommended itinerary. We didn't quite know what to expect, but having been to Paris over a dozen times and seen most of the "usual" tourist sites and many of the less well known attractions as well, we were ready for something  completely new that most visitors will never visit. W Travel France arranged a walking tour for us with an excellent guide who is an expert on street art.

After taking the Metro to the Corvisart metro station, we walked through the small Jardin Brassai, reaching the beginning of our tour at 23 rue Jonas. There we saw two stenciled images of a female figure created by an artist who goes by the nickname Miss Tik; one of those images is pictured to the left. Our guide, Romuald, knew street art as thoroughly as most art historians know Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, or any other formal art genre, and he introduced us to its history, themes, and motifs. By its very nature, street art is impermanent. It is painted on walls and is exposed to the effects of sun, rain, and other natural elements. Moreover, the tradition of urban art allows other artists to incorporate their art into existing pieces.

Definitely counter-cultural, street artists are in a constant battle of wits with the police who technically consider their work to be graffiti. It is, in a sense, graffiti; street artists literally spray and run. But their art is so much more. Taking the idea of a salon des refusées to another level, we witnessed the constantly changing public outdoor exhibition of works by anonymous artists known only by their nicknames.

Miss Tik is perhaps the best known of the street artists who has been active for over 30 years. Her stenciled iconic female images are combined with poetic captions that always involve an element of double entredre. It helps to understand French to get the word play!

You'll encounter the art of other "famous" street artists if you walk through the streets of the 13th. Known only by their nicknames (such as Jef Aerosol and Speedy Graffito), each artist exhibits his or her own distinctive style. You'll get to know the range of artists and their commentary against societal conventions and especially "brand names." Afterwards touring the 13th, we took the Metro to the Belleville station in the 20th arrondissement. Here the art is more graffiti-like — using a more vivid color palette and a more in-your-face social commentary — but there are many arresting images.

Looking for something completely different to explore in Paris? Let the streets of Paris be your museum. A guide is highly recommended, as otherwise you'll never know where to search ... and you'll miss out on expert commentary that helps you appreciate what you're seeing.

copyright  (c)  2016 by Ourisman Travel LLC.  All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell Travel. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


reflecting on Monet

Lily Pond at Giverny (c) 2016 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

I have loved Claude Monet for at least 50 years, first encountering him in an Art Appreciation class in high school. During my senior year, I even wrote a paper on the French Impressionists in my French class. At the forefront of modern art, the Impressionists thought of a painting not as a representation of an external reality but as a reality in itself. Monet's subject was not the scene pictured but the light falling on the scene. Thus he would paint the same scene many times under different lighting conditions — the cathedral at Rouen, the houses of Parliament, hay stacks, water lilies, etc.

Monet was fascinated by reflections on water, and his way of seeing water has informed me as I have pursued my avocation of photography. Whenever I see water, I instinctively look for the reflections! During my trip yesterday to Giverny, I visited Monet's home, gardens, and lily pond. As it was a calm day, the water was still, so there were none of Monet's wonderful ripples on its surface. The mostly cloudy sky created the beautiful soft light and muted colors captured in my photograph above.

If you've read this far, you must be a fan of Claude Monet. Here's what you should include in your itinerary when you travel to Paris:

1. Musée Marmatton Monet. Not even on the radar of the vast majority of visitors to Paris, this small museum has the world's largest collection of Monet's works. The permanent exhibit on the lower level is so stunningly displayed.

2. Musée d'Orsay. This former train station has been transformed into the world's largest museum of 19th century art. Housing many of Monet's most beloved works, it also includes many works by Renoir, Manet, and Degas. One of the most visited museums in Paris, you should purchase tickets in advance to avoid standing in the long ticket lines (or purchase a Museum Pass).

3. Musée de l'Orangerie. This small museum at the southwest corner of the Jardin des Tuilleries (right by the Place de la Concorde) was created specifically to exhibit the monumental canvasses of Monet's Water Lilies series.

4. Monet's home at Giverny. We were privileged to make the trip with a driver-guide who was also an art historian (which added so much to the experience). It also made the logistics so easy for us. Though it's possible to take public transportation to Giverny, it involves taking a train to Vernon, then waiting for a public bus.

Bonus attraction: After our visit to Monet's home, we walked with our guide through the Giverny Museum of Impressionism where we saw an outstanding collection of the works of the Spanish Impressionist, Joaquín Corolla. On display through November 6, 2016, this is a must-see it if you're in Giverny.

copyright  (c)  2016 by Ourisman Travel LLC.  All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell Travel. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


Citymapper | the most useful travel app

A friend recommended Citymapper to me, and the program has lived up to the recommendation and more! It's the ultimate resource for using public transportation in three dozen popular cities of the world ... including Paris, where we now are.

Just type in your destination, press "GO," and you're given several choices for getting there ... by walking taking the metro, taking a bus, or using a combination of the above. We discovered two really good features of the app.
1. If you're taking the Paris metro, the app will suggest whether to get a car in the front, middle, or back of the train. This will put you in position to get to the preferred exit in your transfer or arrival station.
2. If you're using the map to walk from point A to point B, a symbol on the screen will indicate the direction you're facing. I've been so frequently frustrated reading maps because I don't know which way is north. Citymapper solves that problem in a most elegant way.
Totally free, just download the app to your iPhone or Android device.

copyright  (c)  2016 by David Ourisman LLC.  All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell Travel. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.