VACATION IDEAS

Lessons Learned From a Vacation Without Reservations

What would happen if you took a trip without any plans? No itinerary. No guidebooks. No GPS. No cell phone. No hotels booked. Travel the old-fashioned way: using advice from folks you meet along the way. We dropped our reporter in France and told him: Wing it! How’d he do? Let’s just say he returned with almost no reservations.

"Only trust a local who gets excited about her recommendation."

Yvonne's counsel solidified a no-reservations hypothesis for me: Only trust a local who gets excited about her recommendation. When I made some loose rules for my trip, selecting the right source was crucial. Artists, boutique owners, concierges. But one thing I learned quickly from the Loire stop was that specificity was as key as gusto. Yvonne had praised Bruno's wine as the only Sauvignon Blanc she drinks at home. She'd also raved about a restaurant in Lacave called Le Pont de l'Ouysse as the true home of foie gras (46200 Lacave, lepontdelouysse.com, three-course prix fixe dinner $78). The fact that it was a four-hour drive from Bruno's didn't deter me one bit.

Stéphane Chambon inherited the chef shirt at Le Pont de l'Ouysse from his father, Daniel, but the restaurant goes back to 1886, when Stéphane's great-great-grandmother fed the town's bridge builders. He keeps the Michelin-starred recipes alive—most famously, the foie de canard bonne maman, duck liver roasted in a grape-and-caper port-wine reduction. That in itself fed us generously, rivaled closely by an evening ambience that made me think of Midnight in Paris, the Woody Allen flick we'd seen a few nights earlier. Chestnut and lime trees, volleyball-size white lights suspended below the limbs. The feeling was of a quiet park in Paris.

The rooms at l'Ouysse were full, and a tad pricey anyway, so on Stéphane's quick advice (lesson: Don't ask a chef during the dinner hour for in-depth travel suggestions) we snagged a simple room in the nearby medieval town of Rocamadour and rested up for another big drive. When I had asked the chef about the one place everyone who visited France must go-you'd be surprised how people can get uncomfortable when you ask for directives—he went the opposite of definitive and said, as if asking me an obvious question, "Provence?"

"We got stuck with maybe the last room in a city crowded with tourists."

But this was the deal, to resist the temptation to enter the Google vortex. Even if the chef's tip was pretty thin. For most of that 210-mile-long haul with no confirmed hotel, I worried, and it turned out I was right to. We got stuck with maybe the last room inside a city crowded with tourists. After coughing up the 130 euros ($186) for our underwhelming night's stay, we ate chorizo pizza for dinner, upon the suggestion of seven university students crowded in front of a place with a red awning that read Pizza Capri (1 rue Fabrot, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, pizza-capri.fr, slices from $3). Even though I was ashamed to eat pizza in Provence, the slices smoked every New York City piece I've ever consumed.

After a good rain during the night, we hit the streets on Thursday, happening on to the place de Verdun, where we watched an outdoor market explode with vendors. (We found this on our own. Wandering can be a source, can't it?) On the southern section, china dealers, painters, booksellers, and relic merchants rigged up a flea market in 20 minutes. Beyond them, a parking lot morphed into a pop-up chef's paradise with the fattest tomatoes I've ever seen. We befriended a cheese-truck driver named Luke with oil paint under his nails and talked about the contemporary art scene. (Only in France do artists moonlight as truckers.)

"We befriended a cheese-truck driver named Luke with oil paint under his nails and talked about the contemporary art scene."

Turns out, Aix-en-Provence is known for two things: painters and fountains. We ate a billowing spring salad at La Fontaine, recommended by Luke, and the waiter shared a cigarette and a lesson on how more than 100 fountains flowed in Aix (40 rue de la Verrerie, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, 011-33/4-42-27-53-35, La Fontaine salad, $18). He then pointed me to the gallery Carré d'artistes on rue de la Glacière (20 rue de la Glacière, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, carredartistes.com, paintings from $85).

Crowds in Aix go to Cézanne's workshop, but I was more in the mood for contemporaries, especially work done by local painters. Carré d'artistes was exactly the place. Ten years old this fall, the gallery carries 30 artists at a time. And best, every piece comes in four sizes of paintings, the smallest originals selling for about $85. Anne-Laure Hoaro, one of the gallery clerks, provided us with two travel tips: One was to drive route de Cézanne, an hour-long loop east of Aix, where the painter often worked plein air. Second, she mentioned an oil painter from Marseille named Liisa Corbière, whose work I liked most and who regularly hosts gallery patrons in her home studio.

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