Provence is famous for clear blue skies. Its brilliant sunlight has attracted painters such as Cezanne and Matisse as well as scads of tourists. There are plenty of things to see outdoors in Provence, like the colorful ochre mines of Roussillon and the lavender fields of Sault. But what if you happen to visit when the weather is not so great? Can you still enjoy Provence in the rain?
Yes! Here are some fun things to do on a rainy day in Provence while you wait for the sun to come out again.
Visit the Carrières de Lumières
One of the top sites in Provence is the Carrières de Lumières, which draws over half a million visitors per year. Just next to the mountaintop fortress of Les Baux-de-Provence, it’s kind of a trippy sound and light show with a cultural purpose. And it’s indoors! Each year a new artist is featured, like Chagall or Klimt—this year it’s Picasso. The show is in an abandoned quarry made up of several mammoth rooms carved inside a mountain. Dozens of digital projectors show images of the life and work of the artist, coordinated with music. It’s hard to describe so check out this short video. It’s magical!
The area around Les Baux produces some of the best olive oil in the world so pop into next-door Maussane-les-Alpilles to pick some up for yourself or as a gift. Two shops with great selections are Moulin Jean Marie Cornille and Boutique Jean Martin.
Just north of Les Baux is St-Rémy-de-Provence, where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year in an asylum and painted masterpieces like Starry Nights. You can visit the asylum, Saint-Paul de Mausole, and see the room where Van Gogh himself lived. Look out his window to the fields beyond and you’ll find yourself imagining what it was like when he lived here.
Both St-Rémy and Maussane have plenty of terrific restaurants, so take your time and enjoy a hearty Provençal meal. Remember, food and wine taste just as good indoors as out! Two of my favorites are L’Aile ou la Cuisse in St-Rémy and Le Clos St-Roch in Maussane.
City of the Popes
In the 14th century, Rome became too dangerous for the pope and so the papacy moved to the Provençal city of Avignon for about a hundred years. Still surrounded by massive stone walls and ramparts, the old part of the city is an impressive warren of narrow, winding streets. But it’s raining, remember? So let’s explore those streets another day and head straight to the Palace of the Popes. Take a quick look from outside and then head in to see where the pope once lived. It is both a palace and a fortress and is worth a few hours to explore. If you are ready to brave the weather, walk out to the Pont Saint-Bénézet, the bridge made famous by the song Sur le Pont d’Avignon. Or just enjoy the view of it from the Papal Palace.
Near the palace is Les Halles, the city’s indoor market, where you can get fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, meat and fish—you name it. Most Provençal markets are outdoors but this one is fun to visit no matter what the weather. For dining, consider the area around the Place de l’Horloge, filled with a wide variety of choices. Want something different? Consider the Couscousserie de l’Horloge and warm up your day with some North African spice.
How to spend the perfect weekend in Avignon
The Pope’s Wine
When he lived in Avignon, the pope’s summer palace was located a few miles north in what is now the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. And the pope needed good wine to drink, so the area was planted with vineyards that now make some of the best wine in France. And what better way to spend a rainy day than tasting some of this liquid deliciousness?
Many of the wineries are open for tasting and two that are especially welcoming are Domaine Mayard and Château la Nerthe. And at the top of the village, the Verger des Papes lets you to taste wines from different wineries and compare them. It’s in a charming old cave with curved stone walls—you almost feel like you are back in the Middle Ages.
Attached to the Verger des Papes is an excellent restaurant with beautiful views over the vineyards. Or you can dash between the raindrops and pick another place to eat; there are plenty of good choices. And be sure to have a glass or two of the local vin with your meal.
Shop Till You Drop
Perhaps the best place to shop for antiques in all of France is the town of L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The choice you can find here is amazing–offerings range from art works to knickknacks, from antique bathtubs to jewelry, from clothing of all types to collections of clocks. You name it, you can probably find it in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
Wander through the shops for a while, then stop and have a coffee and a little slice of tart au pomme. Then shop some more and take another break, maybe fortify yourself with some ice cream. And don’t forget lunch! You can spend a full day, and maybe more, exploring the town’s many treasures. And the town itself is beautiful, with a river that passes through and around it and restaurants all along the riverfront that offer lovely views and delicious choices.
Now that you’ve enjoyed some of Provence’s many indoor attractions, let’s hope the weather improves and you can enjoy a nice glass of rosé under brilliant blue skies. Allez!
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence. He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence; Read more at Life in Provence.