Provence fosters repeat visits

Judi Janofsky, 64, is an Asheville-based travel writer who with her husband, Rich Steck, operates Provence Escapes (, a company that organizes small-group tours in southern France. The couple spends a month to six weeks a year in the region.

Q: Why Provence?

We’ve been going there for almost 20 years. We vacationed there, got to know the area and would bring friends and relatives to share the experience. They suggested we start a tour business. Now, about 80 percent of participants are repeat guests, so we change our Provence tour each year. This year we’re also adding Dordogne, in southwest France.

Q: What brings them back?

The nice thing about Provence is that there are so many picturesque villages, vineyards and historical sites in a small geographic area. You could theoretically spend a whole month in just the Luberon area, or venture beyond to the Alps and the French Riviera. We try to create a theme year. This year, it’s “How the Mediterranean Area Influenced Artists,” such as Monet, Cezanne, Matisse and Chagall.

Until the late 19th century, most artists painted in large urban areas, like Paris, that were grey and gritty. But Provence has wide-open spaces, long days of sunlight, bright blue skies and the Mediterranean. Seeing this area changed the way they painted – from dark, moody works to pleasing paintings that reflected Provence’s landscape.

Q: Do you have a favorite town?

Probably Gordes. It’s a magnificent medieval hilltop village. When you’re just coming upon it in the morning, the entire village turns golden from the sun – it’s spectacular. If you get away from the normal sites where tourists go, there are narrow cobblestones paths that take you to great views of the countryside. Plus, it has a history. During World War II, monks from the nearby abbey negotiated with the Germans to spare it.

Q: What attracts tourists to Provence?

Some come for the historic value, especially the ruins, many of which date back to Julius Caesar. At the time, Provence was right in the middle of the pilgrimage route between Spain and Rome. Romans built cities like nearby Arles, with large arenas and coliseums.

Others come for the food and wine and markets. In Provence, you can go to the local market any day of the week and get fresh produce. Farmers pull up in trucks and from the back sell cheese, fresh fish, vegetables. ... We buy wonderful ingredients, go back to the villa and cook whatever we get that day for our guests.

Many more come to explore the market town of l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue – meaning “Island on the Sorgue,” a river there. It has the largest antique market in France outside of Paris.

Q: What about the lavender thing?

It’s pretty big. Tourists come just to follow a lavender route: We often meander from one magnificent purple field to another, picnicking on bread, cheese and wine along the way. Unfortunately, you can’t always time peak season exactly, although it usually happens from late June to mid-July.