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A Weekend in Provence

continued (page 2 of 3)

Continuing your drive from Moustiers, choose between two detours (or do both). The first is Le Couvent des Minimes Hôtel & Spa, an hour's drive southwest from Moustiers, which has helped revive the neighboring village of Mane. After passing fields of sheep and goats, and signs for more goat cheese and honey, you'll arrive at the gates of the 17th-century convent, founded by a marquis for the probably very grateful nuns of Les Minimes, although it looks anything but monastic now. Renovated and reopened in June 2008 as a Relais & Chateaux property, the hosed-down and spruced-up convent still retains its original sensual charm (pale yellow façade, red-tiled roof, a jutting bell tower). Today, though, the hotel is surrounded by freshly planted almond, acacia, and lemon trees and terraced gardens showcasing poppies, roses, and campanulas (every flower, poetically, is named for one of the original Franciscan sisters), and offers a few things the sisters probably wouldn't have thought of: a pool; a state-of-the-art spa featuring the L'Occitane products produced in Provence; a wine cellar; 46 hotel rooms and suites; the formal, fine-dining Le Cloître restaurant, and Le Pesquier bistro. Lunch at the bistro is the best option—especially if it's warm enough to take a table in the cloister courtyard or on the terrace outside—and the thing to order is a simple shrimp and eggplant salad (the shrimp are as big and pink as langoustines) as a prelude to a bright, citrusy Grand Marnier and orange soufflé that rises in a feathery cloud.

If you have the time you can stay the night, but if you want to move on, or skip the convent altogether, head another 50 minutes west (about 32 miles) to Lacoste. This is essentially a one-street village, but it's quite the street—and enough of a contrast to the nun's domain that you can say you covered both the sacred and the profane in one day. Lacoste, in fact, was the Marquis de Sade's retreat: His squat Château de Sade castle, now being slowly restored by Pierre Cardin, sits like a closed secret at the top of the main street's long vertical cobbled climb. Even under construction, the place has the feel of the perfect self-contained hideout—the better to conceal his unlucky guests' screams. But these days, the most decadent thing going on in town gets dished up at the base of the main street at the Café de Sade, which is a lot less ominous than it sounds. No one is going to throw you in a crawl space if you don't finish one of its signature salads, but the real torture may be deciding which dish to order. The Salade Café de Sade consists of a wheel of mild, creamy goat cheese surrounded by slices of grilled bread and fig jam and sprinkled with pine nuts. But even that can't compete with the Salade Lacostoise, a mound of diced bacon, cubed Emmental cheese, olives, and grilled peppers, served with a fresh baguette.

Walk off your meal with one more hike up the hill to the château and then head back southeast this time, your loopy circle completed, to Aix-en-Provence (30 miles and about another hour's drive, depending on traffic) for the weekend's big finish. Of all the storied cities claiming to be Provence's soulful capital Aix feels freshest, and sunniest. That has something to do with the constant waves of international college students drawn by the university (the result: shoe boutiques and tech stores fight for space now on its cobbled streets). But it also has to do with Aix's own relentless charm, its fountains, squares, and 18th-century manors glowing gold at dusk, and the rows of bistros and brasseries—offering an epic showdown of escargots and crème brûlées—that line the Cours Mirabeau. Probably the most fabled of the bunch is the Brasserie Les Deux Garçons, founded in 1792, where everyone from Cézanne to Picasso and Cocteau broke baguettes. It could coast on its history alone—and a flashy mirrored-and-gilt dining room—but the food is still excellent. This is the kind of classic place where you should order a classic, so sample the liver salad, strewn with the fattest, most velvety chicken livers, or the slab of beef filet crowned by a panfried lobe of foie gras.

If that sounds too old-school, Aix counters tradition each year with another crop of ambitious kitchens aimed at all those stylish students. A favorite is Jacquou le Croquant, which serves some of the best, well-sourced updates of signature Provençal dishes in town. Particularly satisfying are the kitchen's big-bite salads (a seasonal green salad with market vegetables, duck rillettes, curry-marinated chicken, smoked breast of duck, and prunes; and the seasonal green salad piled high with salami, chorizo, rabbit pâté, coppa, and butter pickles), thoughtful, beautifully composed bowls that turn hearty eating into something surprisingly delicate. And then there is Pierre Reboul, with its Gallic take on molecular cooking that favors shape-shifting dishes (Parmesan scooped into gnocchi-like pillows; deconstructed ratatouille). Reboul's namesake restaurant opened in late 2007 and it still excites a lot of local debate.

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