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The ultimate Guide to Provence

When it comes to irresistibly beautiful towns and villages, Provence in the south of France is a prize winner. Brightly coloured poppies in the spring, aromatic lavender fields in the summer, swathes of nodding sunflowers and vibrant vineyards surround it’s towns and villages. There are quaint and pretty street markets, exquisite little cafés where you can sit and watch the world go by, chilled wine and wonderful architecture… There’s no doubt about it, Provence is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Check the A-Z of drool-worthy towns and Provencal culture in our ultimate guide to Provence. You’ll find perfect inspiration for any visitor to the area and fuel for day dreams…

Guide to Provence

Apt

Apt is a fabulous market town, famous for the crystalised fruit which has been made there for centuries. Wander the boutique and gourmet shop lined cobbled streets, and soak up the sunny ambiance… More on Apt

Also Avignon, Abbaye de Senanque and Aix-en-Provence (see X below).

Les Baux-de-Provence

Officially classified most beautiful village in France – yes Provence does have a lot! – Les Baux-de-Provence is topped by a ruined castle. The picturesque medieval village at the feet of the chateau has a charming mix of  narrow streets, gift and craft shops, restaurants and cosy cafés, all determined to delay you. You might think that with just 400 residents in the town, its odd to have so many eateries, but Les Baux attracts around 1.5 million visitors a year, lured by its beauty, culture and history. It’s quite simply – irresistible. Also Bonnieux

Carpentras

At the foot of Mont Ventoux, Carpentras has a rather exotic feel, almost Roman with its terracotta roofs and fabulous fountains. The market in Carpentras is one of the best in Provence – no strike that. It’s one of the best in France. It really is that special. More on Carpentras

Durance River

The most well known river in the Provence Region is the Rhone River (4th river in France for its flow rate) but there is another major river in Provence -The Durance. In Provencal history, it is mentioned numerous times as one of the icons of Provence alongside the Mistral wind and the Parliament of Aix which lasted from 1501 to the Revolution, 1790.

It was a treacherous and capricious river to cross, yet essential to trade and political business matters as it divided the region owned by the counts and the region owned by ecclesiastics (The Roman Catholic Church). The source of the Durance starts at Lake Serre-Poncon in the Alpes and flows into the Rhone River close to Avignon. This valuable water source is one reason why Provence is an agricultural paradise. Coupled with a lot of sunshine year-round.

The oldest canal in France was constructed in the 12th century channelling the Durance river water to the plains for both irrigation and hydraulic energy (ie. flour mills).

Eygalières

Discretely nestled close to the Alpilles Mountain range is a quaint village, rather small with a bakery, butcher,  cheese shop, and a few cafés and restaurants inviting the visitor to soak up its authentic Provencal charm.

There’s a sense of community here with locals greeting each other as they go in and out of the shops, friends meet up for lunch on a terraced café, hikers coming in from the nearby trails to refresh with a drink or people head to the Friday morning market.

As you walk up the hillside towards the 12th century Eglise St Laurent and the remains of the late 16th century White Penitents’ chapel, you’ll pass some amazing old houses recently remodeled with luxurious tastes. This little jewel of Provence is no longer a secret – meeting a star while meandering around here is not totally out of the question.

Flassan

This tiny village is nestled in the middle of orchards and vineyards at the foot of Mont Ventoux. There are a couple of small shops and an artist’s gallery. You’ll rarely find this place mentioned in a mainstream guide to Provence. But the beauty of Flassan is that you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. It is impossibly pretty, tranquil and authentic and filled with ochre coloured buildings. In the central square is a fountain and wash house where the local women once washed their laundry under the shady trees. It’s the perfect place to stop to take photos and soak up the atmosphere.

Gordes

Gordes is the poster boy for Provence. It’s officially one of the most beautiful villages in France. Incredibly pretty with a medieval castle at the summit and wiggly streets lined with houses whose ancient stones are the colour of whipped honey. This town steals a little piece of your heart and you’re not alone – Renoir, Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh were all bowled over by the beauty of Gordes. Also Gigondas

Abbaye St Hilaire

Among the off-the-beaten-path treasures to explore in the Luberon region of Provence is the Saint Hilaire Abbey, set on a peaceful sunny slope between Lacoste and Menerbes. Its origins go back to the 5th century with Saint Castor. In the 13th century it came back to life as a religious site with the Carmelite Order (on their way back from the 7th Crusade with Saint Louis). Today the abbey is registered as a National Monument. It has been meticulously restored by a passionate couple (René and Anne-Marie Bride from Reims).

Parking is in a rugged parking lot above the abbey so a walk down (5 minutes) is necessary. The walk back up will take a bit longer. Should you need handicap parking you can go down the dirt road but beware of a few dips in the road.

Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

The town sprawls along the fresh clear water of the Sorgue River which is dotted with ancient mill wheels. Sorgue is famous throughout France for its antique shops and antiques markets and it’s the perfect place to stroll, stop at a friendly cafe and sit and watch the world go by. Read more on Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

Joucas

Not too far from Gordes and en route to Roussillon is the tiny village of Joucas. It sits on the slopes of the Mont de Vaucluse, the mountain range north of the Luberon range. Joucas is a quiet place to stop for lunch with an inviting easy stroll through its cobbled lanes. Whether lunch is at the bistrot with outdoor seating looking over the vineyard valley or a picnic lunch by the fountain square, you’ll appreciate the way time stands still here. Don’t miss the unique church close to the fountain, a “modern” 18th century construction. The original church, in a different location, was destroyed and rebuilt many times during the wars of religion (16th century). The 18th century church style was restored by a village association starting in 1990. Today you can marvel at the exceptional paintings and trompe-l’oeil decorations.

Kabellion (Cavaillon)

Travel back in time, before the Romans had even arrived. The Indo- European tribes had their oppidums (fortified dwellings on hilltops) and Cavaillon was no exception (a hilltop next to a river!). The tribe here in Cavaillon was of Ligurian origin. They gave the prefix ‘Kab’ to their dwelling, a root word referring to the rock they had built their oppidum on. We know today, from coins found in both Marseille and Cavaillon, that trade was abundant between the two towns. These coins, as well as a stele marking the port entrance below the Cavaillon oppidum are marked with ‘Kab’. It is interesting to note that most names of towns and villages today are derived from their original Celtic-Ligurian tribal town name.

You’ll get a 360° view of the heart of Provence from the ‘oppidum’ (known as the Colline Saint Jacques

Lavender

If you yearn to see, sniff and experience the lush lavender fields of Provence, you’ll find some of the best are in the Luberon area. It’s especially beautiful around the hilltop village of Sault and the iconic Abbaye de Sénanque in gorgeous Gordes, where the resident monks grow and harvest lavender. The Plateau of Valensole is the largest lavender field area in France, located between the Luberon and marvellous Gorge du Verdon. Also Lourmarin

Menerbes

Officially one of the prettiest villages in Franc, Menerbes was made world-famous by writer Peter Mayle who lived there and wrote of it. The perched village has cobbled streets, traditional stone houses and is surrounded by glorious countryside.

Nimes

Hot, sunny Nimes is the ‘Rome of France’ with its wonderfully preserved, still used amphitheatre, a stunning temple, fountains and park with Roman remains. There’s also a superb museum of Roman history. Fabulous restaurants, bars and museums make Nimes a great place to visit. More on Nimes

Orange

Famous for its Roman theatre which hosts annual concerts and performance, Orange has a bit of a sleepy vibe, is full of charm and very friendly. More on Orange

Popes Palace, Avignon

The monumental Palais des Papes was home to several popes in the 14th century. The Papal court was moved to France for several decades before being reinstated in Rome. The legacy of the Popes is a mind-boggling palace in the centre of Avignon which now hosts exhibitions and events.

Saint-Quentin-la-Poterie

We might be stretching the limits of Provence to the north a bit by including this unique village but if you happen to be a potter or love to contemplate the work of a potter’s hand, you should try to get to this place. The natural clay soils in the area led to a flourishing industry in utilitarian pottery starting in the Middle-Ages.  In 1984, twenty artist set up shop giving the town a special recognition as Town of Art and Artisans.

Meandering the streets and shops is like being on a scavenger hunt with something visually unique to spot in every nook & cranny. You can buy a pass for a few euros to visit the Pottery Museum. It includes entrance to the clock tower where a beautiful view awaits you on the third floor.

Roussillon

Roussillon is a quintessential Provence town with a difference. It’s famous for its ochre deposits. Officially one of the most beautiful villages in France, its narrow cobbled streets are lined with boutiques and bars, art galleries and beautiful stone houses. And everywhere, you’ll see the influence of the colourful landscape reflected in the buildings. From pale lemon to vibrant orange and blood red, plus every colour in between. The area is nicknamed the “Provencal Colorado.” More on Roussillon

Saignon

This little village has winding little streets, lovely old squares that cry out to be sat in. There are tinkling fountains and beautiful old houses with pastel coloured shutters. The architecture is glorious. This is a perfect town to wander and lose yourself in the past whilst still in the present. There are plenty of restaurants and cafés where you can sit on a shady terrace and watch the world go slowly by.

Tourtour

Take a walk through tiny streets to admire the well-restored village houses with their manicured gardens. The restaurants serve simple yet freshly made food which of course goes perfectly with a nice glass of chilled rosé. It’s about a 20 minutes’ drive from lively Cotignac. Read more on Tourtour.

Uzès

Oh magnificent and elegant Uzès which almost fell to ruins not so long ago. The town is a remarkable testimony of what can be done when passion and humanity come together to restore heritage. In 1965, Uzès was classed as ‘a sector to be saved’ allowing the gradual rebuilding of its fragile existence.

There is a friendly pedestrian-only center with quaint shops, artisan boutiques, and irresistible bakeries. There’s a magnificent castle known as the Duchy of Uzès (the first Duchy of France and still owned by the same ducal family). The Cathedral also stands out with its Fenestrelle tower. From a distance, you might just think you are seeing a cousin of the Tour de Pisa in Rome.

If you have a sweet tooth or kids back home who love Haribo candies, visit the place where the story began. The company was created here in 1920 and the factory tour ends with an irresistible boutique for stocking up.

Last but not least, a nearby water spring is where the Romans started their meticulous water canal descent to Nimes. It passed  over the Pont du Gard aqueduct, a total distance of 50 km and with only 34 cm of gradient per km!

Vaison la Romaine

The area of Haute Vaucluse is not well known to visitors. Its towns and villages are less touristy and have retained an air of authenticity. Take Vaison-la-Romaine, it’s lively and very local with colourful weekly street markets. And there are plenty of great cafés and restaurants in the medieval haute ville. But it stands out for its Roman remains including a stone bridge still in use, a 1st century theatre and some of the largest Roman villa remains in France. History buffs will adore this fabulous town. Also Mont Ventoux

The Warrior of Vachères

W is a letter you don’t want to get when playing French scrabble! But in Provence we talk of warriors. The Warrior of Vachères can be seen in Avignon at the Lapidaire Museum. It was found in 1875 close to the village Vachères located in the High Alpes of Provence region. This warrior statue was made from local limestone. Dating to around 30-10 BC, it could be, according to archeologists, one of the first statues from this time period representing a heroic warrior (a Celtic soldier who stood brave with his Roman status). When a Gaul was incorporated into the Roman army he could obtain citizenship. The prestige gained from this promotion can be seen in the statue’s warrior eyes, rebel hair curls, open mouth. His clothes depict he has a high social status.

X: Aix-en-Provence

Locals just say, ‘Aix’  pronounced like ‘X’. If you plan on a 2-city break in Provence, Aix and Avignon are ideal. Aix will cover the southern geographical area: Cassis, Marseille, Saint Victoire & Cezanne territory, southern Luberon (around Lourmarin & Ansouis), and the Côtes du Provence wine region (hello rosé!).

The city has cosmopolitan flair and 18th century aristocratic architecture. It’s known as the city of fountains owing to its thermal waters being used since the arrival of the Greeks in the 6th century BC. It was once home to Cezanne and Zola. A guided tour through the city will help you see beyond the boutique shopping. Though it’s probably the best city shopping in Provence – it’s not necessarily why you came to Provence. And if you happen to be a foodie and like to taste your way through a trip, you’ll love Aix. Don’t miss crepes, calissons, nougat, macaroons, and the daily market at Place Richelme in the center of town. Plus there are markets on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. There’s a café every one meter in Aix!

Y: Alyscamps

No, we can’t think of a place beginning with Y in Provence but one that ‘Y’ in its name. Alyscamps is a great spot for photography. The shadows and light here create a deep atmosphere. It’s located just outside central Arles and easily accessible from the tourist office by foot in just 8 minutes. Inside you feel like you are worlds away from the main tourists attractions.

Once the site of a Roman necropolis (the burying of bodies inside the ramparts was strictly forbidden). It’s rarely busy as it’s outside the main area of Roman attractions. The site took on even greater importance with the burial of the first bishops of Arles. In the 12th century, a part of the site was given to the powerful abbaye Saint-Victor in Marseille. The church was then enlarged and the necropolis became an official stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela (Saint James Way).

This site is also on the walking route to discover the life of Van Gogh. He lived in Arles (1888- 1889). Both Van Gogh and Gaugin painted the Alyscamps, which means Champs Elyséés from a Roman expression meaning the road to paradise.

Zehrfuss, Bernard

Travel with us to Oppède in 1940; a rundown village on north flank of the Luberon Mountain chain, deserted for the most part, and a perfect spot for artists to come together during the war. By this time there were about 17 artists (sculptors, musicians, painters, writers) inhabiting and restoring the ruins. Zehrfuss, who, at the young age of 28, won the Grand Prix de Rome (a French scholarship to study in Rome), joined the group and obtained an official authorization from the Vichy government to host an architectural workshop. Together, the ambitious group created a project known as, Le Jardin de Provence. It’s ’Renaissance’ virtues were not only for the village itself but also for the local abandoned farm houses. All restoration was with the intention to create structures that would bring together artists, workers and artisans.

Visiting the village of Oppède-le-Vieux (not to be confused with the lower more modern village, Oppède) is a must when coming to the Luberon region. You won’t find tourists shops or crowds. It is still considered a ‘ghost village’ although there are lovely homes among the ruins that have been traditionally restored. After meandering your way up through the village ruins you reach the remains of the chateau and the beautiful 16th century Notre Dame d’Alidon church.

By Emily Durand runs fabulous, authentic tours of Provence: YourPrivateProvence.com and Janine Marsh, Author of My Good Life in France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream  and My Four Seasons in France: A Year of the Good Life

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