What do the Romans, Nostradamus and Van Gogh have in common? Give up? For a time, they all bunked down in the enticing Provençal enclave that we know as Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Here, the Romans built Glanum. The renowned seer entered the world. And the Dutch artist created his masterpiece, Starry Nights. Fast forward to the 21st century, folks are still falling for this vibrant town, nestled at the foot of Les Alpilles. Including author Gayle Smith Padgett who lives there with her husband Ralph.
Gayle shares her top tips for wandering in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
The many charms of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
With its rich history, contemporary vibe, and alluring natural setting, Saint-Rémy’s charms captivate many a visitor. Tie on your trainers and walk with me. I’ll show you.
Let’s begin at the popular Café de la Place with its cherry red chairs and umbrellas, the place to see and be seen. Next door at the now snazzy Hôtel Gounod, Charles Gounod composed the opera Mireille (1864), based on a poem by Nobel Prize-winning Frédéric Mistral, born nearby.
Leaving Place de la République, we walk up the hill a kilometer to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, the sanitarium where Van Gogh lived for a year (1889-90), creating an astounding 150 works. Beyond a field are the ancient ruins of Glanum, and Les Antiques, comprised of an impressive mausoleum (30-20 B.C.) and triumphal arch (early 1st century A.D.) Keep in mind, the big, flat rocks surrounding the site make it a perfect place for a pique-nique.
Wandering the streets of Saint Remy
Winding around the back of Van Gogh’s hospital, we stroll the Voie Domitia (the oldest road in France), which skirts the Regional Natural Park of the Alpilles. Soon the landscape opens to a très belle vue over Saint-Rémy.
On a cloud-free day the view stretches to the fortified walls of Avignon and Mount Ventoux, a Tour de France-worthy destination. If you are a birdwatcher, bring up your binoculars. With luck, you might spot a striking blue roller. By the way, fabulous flamingos await an hour away, in the birding paradise of the Camargue, where the Rhone River spills into the Mediterranean.
Next, we make our way down a road-ravine, marked by a Grande Randonée (GR6) post. At the next intersection, we turn left and head downhill, back to town. But, if a hike appeals, you can march right to the top of Les Alpilles. During hunting season beware of galloping wild boar, with dogs and their masters in fevered pursuit!
Now we follow the road past a fledgling vineyard, and then the fancy Hôtel de Vallon de Valrugues with its posh spa. At the “T,” we take a short-cut through the grassy car park and follow the sign for Centre Ville, rue Mirabeau. After serpentining through the narrow passageway, we emerge onto the périphérique, the road that encircles the town.
Bistros, boutiques and beautiful things
Walking to the left we come to the film-themed Hôtel de L’Image with its clever Robinson Crusoe tree house suite. You can see it from the expansive “backyard,” along with a terrific view of Les Alpilles. The building was formerly a cinema, created by the acclaimed French filmmaker Jean-Luc Goddard.
Now we pass through the arched Porte Saint-Paul, entering the pedestrian-friendly historic center, full of chic boutiques, inviting bistros, and fascinating art galleries. Rue de la Commune leads us to enchanting Place Plessier and the stately Hôtel de Ville, formerly an Augustine convent. The graceful Fontaine de Quatre Dauphins was the centerpiece of the convent garden, fashioned after a similar fountain in Aix-en-Provence. On Wednesday, market day, this square is packed with food vendors. In front of Comptoir des Alpilles, one of my favorite home design stores, there’s a stand with the most stunning array of olives.
Museums, Markets and music
On the far right of the square, we’ll take the stone steps, turning left onto tiny Rue Jaume Roux. At Rue Carnot, let’s take a detour to the right to the attractive fountain dedicated to Nostradamus, Saint-Rémy’s most famous native son. Backtracking a block, we come to the formidable Musée des Alpilles on shady Place Favier. Here during le marché, talented craft artisans sell refined wares from lavender wands to colorful straw baskets, perfect for safe-guarding precious new treasures.
On warm days it’s delightful to sit under the ancient plane trees at Crèperie Lou Planet, while sipping a chilled verre de rosé, sometimes listening to jazzy tunes of street musicians.
Ready to give your pièds a pause? What do you say, shall we take a seat?
Gayle Smith Padgett is the author of Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie (review here), a tale of two Americans falling in love with Provence whilst honeymooning in France… Find out more from Gayle’s website: gaylesmithpadgett.com