Living like locals in Provence with Untours

By Victor Block
This item appears on page 15 of the February 2022 issue.
Estelle Alcaraz by an heirloom credenza at the farmhouse in Pernes-lesFontaines. Photos by Victor Block

My wife, Fyllis, and I took our fourth trip with Untours (Media, PA;, 888/868-6871), Sept. 22-Oct. 6, 2021, this one to the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France, and it lived up to the standards set by our earlier experiences in every way.

We received a wealth of helpful pre-trip information, and after we arrived at our destination, a briefing at the welcome dinner provided details on the use of a rental car as well as restaurant recommendations and suggestions for under-the-radar sites and activities. (The briefing was for any Untours participants who were at that destination; briefings we’ve attended have never had more than about 10 people.)

Then, with a car and armed with a load of helpful information, we were free to explore on our own. We did not follow a tour guide on a set itinerary or clamber onto or off of a tour bus.

As always with Untours, Fyllis and I never set foot in a hotel room. During previous trips with the company, we stayed in an apartment or a farmhouse. This time, we stayed in a beautifully renovated 100-year-old house, with numerous nods to the surrounding countryside and the area’s history. (The grandparents of Estelle Alcaraz, our landlady living next door, owned the house and the surrounding land when it was an operating farm.)

Typical village scene in Provence, southeastern France.

Stone walls enclosed the yard, and a grape arbor shading an outdoor dining area would bear fruit that visitors could pick. The owners harvest the olives that grow on two trees and have them milled into oil, which is also available to house guests. The local olive oil is among the best in the world.

On display inside the house were implements and reminders of its history and that of Pernes-les-Fontaines. The dining room ceiling and some interior stone walls date back to the original house.

This setting epitomized Untours’ goal to immerse guests in the history, culture and customs of destinations they visit.

The accommodations are but one aspect of Untours trips supporting the company’s primary objective of helping participants “live like the locals.” For us in Provence, that included enjoying a number of meals “at home” after shopping for food at a nearby store and also at the outdoor markets held at least weekly in many towns and villages throughout the region.

While the trendy Côte d’Azur has many advocates, Fyllis and I opted to spend our time in what we call the “real” Provence. This is where the jewels of the destination reside: history-rich villages of stone buildings crowding narrow, winding cobblestone streets and walkways and compact, tree-shaded squares. These hamlets lie at the heart of Provence’s charm.

During ancient times, many of them were perched on high places for defensive purposes. Today they’re collectively called hill towns, and they come by that name honestly.

While many of these enclaves share similar traits, each also has its own unique appeals. We found that days exploring them provided a variety of experiences which, though different, were equally intriguing.

The village of Gordes.

For example, Gordes — included on the government’s list of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (The Most Beautiful Villages of France) — looks out over the surrounding countryside from its strategic location on the peak of a towering rock. It lives up to its reputation as one of the most photogenic settings in a region that is rich with them.

Roussillon is located near once-active ochre mines. Many houses, which were constructed three centuries ago, are painted shades of red, pink and orange, echoing the colors of the surrounding rock cliffs.

And Pernes-les-Fontaines, where our home away from home was located, is a fortified medieval town named for the 40 ornate public fountains that began furnishing water to its inhabitants in the 17th century. (They’re no longer operational in order to preserve that precious resource.)

For two weeks’ lodging, we paid $3,098 (about $200 a day), which we figured was less than we would have paid for a hotel room. The price also included the first night’s dinner and orientation, a rental car with GPS, transfer upon arrival, and an on-site company representative to provide any help or information we might need.

With the assistance and amenities provided by Untours, a stay seems more like a local living experience than a visit.

Washington, DC

Medieval city gate of Pernes-les-Fontaines.
Outdoor patio and grape arbor at the farmhouse in Pernes-les-Fontaines.