Chapelle des Penitents Blancs, Les Baux de Provence

The fortified village of Les Baux de Provence has commanding views of the Fontaine Valley, and one of the best spots to enjoy the view is from the square in front of this little church. The church was built by the Brotherhood of White Penitents in the 17th century. Today the interior is decorated with frescos by Yves Brayer, painted in 1974, showing scenes from a Provençal-style Shepherd's Christmas.

The Brotherhood of White Penitents is so named because of the white habits they wear, which to modern eyes, especially in America, look like Klu Klux Klan outfits.

Far from being some sort of racist organization, the White Penitents began in the 12th century as one of a number of Catholic confraternities that are dedicated to public service. Members of the White Penitents specifically were dedicated to caring for the sick, burying the dead, providing medical service for those unable to afford it, and giving dowries to poor girls.

TBT: Cooking school in Provence, France

A Hand Crafted tour group from 2007, enjoying the fruits of their labors. We met our chef-instructor early in the morning at the farmer's market in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, one of the largest and most colorful weekly markets in France. After wandering through the stalls, selecting a few key ingredients while getting to know the vendors, we headed to the chef's rural farmhouse.

We spent the next few hours preparing our meal – Chicken Provençal, Rice Camarguaise, and a Qunice Tart for dessert. After several breaks for snacks and drinks, we finally sat down to lunch at around 3:00 pm. Nobody needed dinner that night.

Market day in L'Isle sur la Sorgue

This is one of the largest weekly markets in Provence, with antiques, farm produce, and hand crafted products.

Romans and Popes

The Colosseum, one of the most iconic monuments from ancient Rome, is also one of the most crowded. Combine its bloody past, renewed interest thanks to the movie Gladiator, and the fact that there is only one entrance gate, and you end up with lines that can stretch hundreds deep and create a frustratingly long wait to get in. Fortunately the city of Rome is not the only place where you can experience the grandeur that was the Roman Empire.

Roman Theater, Orange

For over a thousand years Rome dominated the lands bordering the Mediterranean, adopting, developing and exporting almost everything that we think of today as Western civilization. As the empire expanded into the 'barbarian lands' they brought the modern world with them, building projects such as roads, baths, aqueducts, theaters and amphitheaters. Vestiges of these public works projects are scattered all around the Mediterranean, from Spain to Tunisia to Syria. Some of the best preserved Roman ruins are in southern France, especially in the region of Provence. Pictured here are the theater at Orange and the aqueduct know as the Pont du Gard.

Pont du Gard

Orange's theater is the best-preserved in Europe, and is still used regularly for performances. It's one of only two Roman theaters in Europe that still has the original back wall intact, and tourist visits are complimented by an extremely well-done audio guide, included free with your admission. I made several visits to the theater this year, and there were never more than three or four people in line in front of me; there are seldom more than 30 people inside the theater at any one time.

The Pont du Gard, one of the ancient world's most elegant structures, is nothing more than a bridge built to support a water channel crossing a valley. The Romans designed and constructed huge water projects to deliver a constant flow of fresh water to their cities -- dams, reservoirs, water channels, and cisterns. With no modern pumps, they had to rely on gravity, so their water channels had to have a constant, steady slope from the source to the city. If there was a mountain in the way, they dug through it. If there was a valley, they bridged it. Romans were "CAN-DO" people. While the Pont du Gard gets more visitors than the theater at Orange, it seldom feels crowded. There's no admission charge, just a €5 fee for parking.

Papal Palace, Avignon

The ancient Romans are not the only connection Provence has with Rome, though. During the 13th century, for a period of about 70 years, the city of Avignon was home-base for the Roman Catholic church. Pope Clement V, born in France, decided to establish his court in southern France rather than moving to Rome. He owned property in Avignon, and set about building a palace fit to be the home of the world's most powerful leader. Today the palace, in the center of Avignon, is mostly a beautiful shell hiding empty rooms.

Wine Bottles, Chateauneuf du Pape

Between the city of Avignon and the town of Orange lies Chateauneuf du Pape, literally "the Pope's new castle." Pope Clement V was from the region of Bordeaux, so naturally he wanted some good wine in his new home.

Wine Tating, Chateauneuf du Pape

Wine lovers know this is one of the best wine regions in France, producing hearty red wines that are generally a blend of syrah, grenache and cinsault (though 13 grape varieties are officially allowed). Chateauneuf du Pape is a regional designation, like Bordeaux or Champagne, not an actual producer. Today there are over 300 wineries producing wines in the Chateauneuf du Pape region, and the village of Chateauneuf provides plenty of opportunities for tasting their products.

Gourmet Chocloate in Provence

Joel Durand Chocolates

Just before departing on any trip to France that includes Provence, I'm given clear, unmistakeable instructions: do not return without a box of chocolate. This order comes from my wife, but our children eagerly chime in as well. By "chocolate" they don't mean just any old bar, but a box of Joël Durand chocolate.

The little Provençal village of Saint-Rémy is the home-base for Joël Durand, Chocolatier, whose flavor creations bear about as much similarity to a Hershey® bar as Welch's® grape juice does to a fine Bordeaux. Durand's main product is what he calls the Alphabet of Flavors. Each member of the alphabet is about one inch square and a half-inch thick. Visually they all look the same, except for a cluster of small letters stenciled on top of each one. The letters identify what's inside each chocolate (maybe See's Candy should be taking notes here). Using the standard 26 letters plus some punctuation marks, Durand produces roughly 32 different flavor combinations. And what combinations!

There are the standard sort of flavors that any chocolate lover would expect: C = chocolate and caramel, in this case 40% milk chocolate with salted Brittany butter caramel; O = dark chocolate and fresh orange; K = dark chocolate with pure Arabica coffee. Many of Durand's flavor combinations lean heavily on the products close at hand in his provençal home, things like lavender, thyme, rosemary and honey.

But as you work through the alphabet you'll find some flavors that give you pause, sort of a "I wouldn't have thought of that, but it sounds good." These include things like H = dark chocolate, clove and fresh lemon peel; or G = 40% milk chocolate, nutmeg, cinnamon, sun-dried Bourbon vanilla, and fresh lemon peel. And then there are things like: P = almond praline with black olives from Les Baux valley, and X = dark chocolate and India green cardamom. You wonder what sort of mind-altering state he was in when he produced it. And then you taste it and realize . . . he's not mad, just a genius.

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