In an area famous for so many things, like beautiful lavender fields, charming hilltop villages, and delicious food, it’s hard to pick favourites. We asked local author Keith van Sickle for his top ten fabulous things to do in Provence …
Magic in a Mountain
Imagine this: you enter a giant cavern with sheer, 30-foot-high walls. Huge images start to appear on one wall, then another, then on the floor. You realize that they are paintings by a great artist like van Gogh or Cézanne. The images pulse and swirl, full of life and color, their movements choreographed to beautiful music. This is the Carrières de Lumières, the world’s most magical sound and light show, and a different artist is featured each year. It’s so popular that copies are popping up all over the world, but none matches the original. You really do have to see it to believe it!
East of Marseille, tall cliffs plunge down to the sea, with craggy inlets here and there. These calanques are like mini fjords, the grey stone contrasting with the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean where you see sailboats anchored, their passengers sunning on tiny beaches. If you’re feeling energetic you can hike to the calanques, but I recommend taking one of the regular boat rides that depart from the pretty little port town of Cassis, then you can see the calanques in two hours or less. Be sure to try some seafood at one of the restaurants along Cassis’s waterfront.
Picnic in the Sky
The Cedar Forest sits far above the Luberon Valley, higher even than the nearby hilltop village of Bonnieux. As you take the winding road up to the forest, there’s a secret spot off to the side where you can picnic under a tree and enjoy an unparalleled view across the valley.
Walk Through a Rainbow
A century ago, ochre was mined in Roussillon and used as pigment in paint. The ochre quarries are abandoned now but there’s a well-marked walking trail through them. Follow it and admire the brilliantly-coloured hillsides—you’ll see red, purple, orange, and yellow. The town of Roussillon is a nice place to enjoy lunch or coffee, and all the buildings are painted in various ochre shades. Nearby and less crowded is the Colorado Provençal, with its own abandoned ochre quarries that are more rustic than Roussillon’s but equally beautiful.
Bike to Hell and Back
The Alpilles Mountains are full of biking routes with fabulous views, that range from easy to moderately difficult. Our favourite ride is to puff our way from St-Rémy up to the Val d’Enfer (Hell Valley.) It’s full of rugged boulders and rocky outcroppings and there’s a spot where you can look straight across to the mountaintop fortress of Les Baux-de-Provence. The best part of the ride is coasting back!
The Stunning Roman Aqueduct
The Pont du Gard was built over 2,000 years ago, to bring water to the city of Nîmes. It is so big that Roman engineers had to build it on three levels, each with its own set of arches. The aqueduct crosses over the Gard River and is as tall as the top of the Statue of Liberty’s torch! For extra fun you can rent a kayak and float under it.
Hike to the Top of the World
La Caume is one of the highest points of the Alpilles Mountains and is surprisingly easy to reach on foot. Rather than starting at the bottom, you can drive to a big parking lot that’s part of the way up and join the trail there. It’s paved and well-marked and not too steep, and the view from La Caume is terrific—to the north you can see the Rhône Valley and to the south the view goes all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.
The Outdoor Markets
One of the glories of Provence is its outdoor markets, full of wonderful sights, smells, and tastes. You can sample cheeses, drool over roast chickens, and chat with the olive vendor, find perfect souvenirs, then relax in a café. You can’t visit Provence without going to its markets – every town and village has its own. My favorite, of course, is St-Rémy’s.
A River of Sheep
Every year, thousands of sheep march through the streets of St-Rémy, accompanied by musicians, shepherds, sheepdogs, and the occasional goat. It’s like a river of sheep flowing through town! Afterwards there are sheepdog trials. This is a fun event for the whole family. It’s all part of the annual transhumance festival that commemorates the days when sheep used to walk to higher pastures to escape the summer heat.
Birth of a River
Imagine that you are walking on a path next to a river, going upstream. You look up and see that you are coming to a high cliff. You wonder how the river gets past it – maybe it goes around? Then you get to the cliff and you realize the river is coming out of the ground, just bursting forth. You’re at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, one of the largest springs in the world, and so deep that even Jacques Cousteau couldn’t reach the bottom.
Keith and Val Van Sickle live part of the year in St-Rémy-de-Provence and have traveled widely throughout the region. Keith is the author of An Insider’s Guide to Provence (read our review).