If you don’t fancy driving when you visit Provence – then head to Avignon in the heart of Vaucluse. In Avignon, it’s super easy to get around on foot, and it’s also easy to explore the surrounding countryside and gorgeous little towns and villages of Provence by train, bus and bike.
Avignon will definitely keep you occupied with its colossal Palace of the Popes, pretty public gardens, cobbled winding streets lined with welcoming cafés and delicious restaurants. You could also dance on the Pont d’Avignon, take a boat ride and meander in the museums. Everywhere is easy to reach on foot, plus there’s a tram and bus service. We wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t go anywhere else.
But you’d be missing out if you didn’t go a little further afield. And if you don’t have a car – don’t worry, it’s not necessary.
Car free Provence
The main TGV station in Avignon is on the outskirts of the city and connects to the central station Avignon Centre by a 5-minute train journey.
From Avignon Centre you can hop on a train to a whole host of lovely places. Or you can take a bus, hire a bike, take a boat ride – and see a whole lot more of Provence.
Need a car in Provence? No – you really don’t!
From Avignon Centre train station, take the TER 9 bis regional train to Carpentras, at the foot of the majestic mountain of Mont Ventoux (30 minutes). For an extra adventure hire a bike in Avignon from Provence Bike or South Spirit Bike and hop on the train with your bike. Or better, rent in Carpentras at Veloc’Sud.
This small city has a rather exotic feel, almost Roman with a jumble of terracotta roofs atop the higgledy-piggledy houses. The Romans were in fact here, and though there are few remains, traces of the city’s ancient history are everywhere you look.
In 1313 Pope Clement V took up residence in Carpentras. His successor moved the Papal Court to Avignon before it was re-established decades later in Rome. Carpentras was the capital of what’s known as Comtat-Venaissin, territory which belonged at one time to the Counts of Provence, at another time to the Catholic Church, and didn’t become French until 1791, after the French Revolution
History and markets
One of the legacies of the French Popes in Carpentras is the Synagogue, created in 1367. The Jewish community, expelled from France, was welcomed into Papal territory. The synagogue is one of the oldest still active synagogues in Europe.
Carpentras’ Friday morning market is one of the best in France. Some 350 stalls snake their way along a warren of streets and plane tree shaded squares. You’ll find everything from clothes to baskets, shoes to cakes, fruit, veg, truffles, olives marinated a dozen different ways, pungent herbs, tangy cheese, aromatic lavender and mouth-watering street food.
And if you’re there on a Sunday morning, enjoy the flea market under the plane trees in the centre of town. Around 180 stalls set up at the Parking des Platanes.
Carpentras is famous for its berlingot bonbons, hard, translucent, striped, multi-flavoured, multi-coloured boiled sweets in a tetrahedron shape. You can watch these delicious little treats being made at the Confiserie du Mont Ventoux.
2-wheeled fun – Carpentras
By bike, head out on the Via Venaissia, a path dedicated to cyclists, to explore the Dentelles de Montmirail (Beaumes-de-Venise, Lafare, Suzette, Le Barroux…) See: www.provence-cycling.co.uk
Or follow the route of the Carpentras Canal and discover the lovely countryside. Or even take the Comtat Plain route to see the bucolic landscape, fields of asparagus, strawberries and vineyards. The tourist office has lots of details for local cycle routes or check the Provence-cycling website at the bottom of this post.
From Avignon take a 20-minute train ride to Orange then walk 1km to the city centre (or take a bus from outside the station) to discover the extraordinary Roman theatre, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Once the theatre hosted 10,000 Romans, incredibly its famous wall still stands, one of the best preserved in the world. Close by is a majestic triumphal arch, and don’t miss the Museum of Art and History, which houses mosaics, cadastral maps, ancient remains and artefacts. The town itself is enchanting, bijou boutiques, bars and brasseries will tempt you to linger.
2-wheeled fun in Orange
From Orange, hire a bicycle with Orange Bike. From the town, you can follow the same Via Venaissia cycling path (linking Orange to Carpentras and eventually to the Luberon and the Mediterranean) towards the vineyards of the Côtes du Rhône, or the Viarhona – up or down the Rhône river, or ride to Châteauneuf-du-Pape (don’t forget to rent panniers to bring back a couple of bottles of wine!). Get a detailed map and description from the Tourist office in Orange.
It’s around 30 minutes by train from Avignon to l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and the train station is in the town so it’s a short walk to anywhere. This former fishing village has a laid-back charm, with water wheels along its canals, pretty houses and fabulous shops. Its fame is worldwide due to the many, many antique shops and annual antique fairs. This town is the number one antique centre of southern France, and third in Europe.
Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, the source of the water that feeds the canals and river in l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, is close by and well worth a detour. Take Zou line 21 (8 July to 31 August) or rent a bike (7.5 km).
2-wheeled fun – Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
If you took a bike with you (or hire one in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue for instance with Kvelo), it’s a gentle ride of about 7.5km to the Fontaine de Vaucluse.
Or go further afield on the 27km Sorgues River cycling route. (Details below).
Provence is famous for its superb wines and Châteauneuf-du-Pape is where some of the finest wines in the world are produced.
Wine is part of the culture of Provence, and in Châteauneuf-du-Pape life revolves around the wine. The hilltop town rises like a ship amongst a sea of grapevines, topped by the ruins of a castle built by those 14th century popes to be their summer holiday home. It was the popes who first planted the vines here. And they chose well. The terroir, that French word that’s so hard to translate which refers to the conditions the vines grow in, makes for the most superb wines to this day. There’s plenty of opportunity to taste them in the town with a cellar or shop every few metres. Stroll the historic street, climb the hill to the ruined castle from which you have spectacular views and walk the marked circuit from the village through the vineyards.
As you might expect, it’s not easy to plonk a train station and tracks down in the middle of vineyards, so take a tour from Avignon with an excursion company such as A la Française (ask at Avignon tourist office for details of tour companies), or you can train to Sorgues from Avignon Centre (6 minute train ride) and cycle from the train station up to the village (approximately 30 minutes).
Across the river Rhône which skirts Avignon, Villeneuve-sur-Avignon is truly beautiful – a place that most visitors to Avignon never discover. The garden of the Abbey Saint André, perched on a hill, has a tranquil ambiance with wonderful views. The 17th/18th century abbey, a national Heritage Site, is where 6th century Saint Casarie once lived, she chose the hilltop above the abbey as a place of prayer and meditation. It’s an easy journey on line 5 of the Orizo network, taking just 11 minutes. Or you can hire a bicycle from Provence Bike or South Spirit Bike and enjoy a 5-10 minute lovely ride across the Rhône river. On the way back, explore La Barthelasse river island between the two towns, along quiet shady roads between orchards and agricultural fields.
Or see the village from a boat. The Grands Bateaux de Provence enable you to discover the most beautiful sights of Avignon and Villeneuve-les-Avignon from the Rhone river; or push the boat out on a discovery cruise that includes lunch or dinner.
Want to explore further? From Avignon you can take a 1-hour (or less) train journey to many southern French must-sees, including Nîmes, Montpellier, Marseille and Arles, or a bus to the centre of Aix-en-Provence.
Detailed itinerary for car free Provence
It’s very easy to discover Provence without a car, you’ll find a fabulous several day itinerary to visit Vaucluse and its prettiest villages here: provence guide.co.uk/routes
Note: you can take bikes on TER trains (but not TGV unless its packed in a box).
Cycling routes in Vaucluse: provenceguide.co.uk/choose-your-activities
Find heaps of information for what to see and do in Vaucluse here: provenceguide.co.uk