Hillside Villages, Local Food & Wine, Coastal Escapes
By Jamie Ivey
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- Flexible itineraries for exploring Provence at your own pace, including the best of the region in 7 days, a day in Aix-en-Provence, and more
- Strategic advice for art lovers, oenophiles, outdoor enthusiasts, and families
- The top sights and unique experiences: Marvel at the lavender fields in full bloom, stroll through a market of fresh produce and artisan-made goods, or explore Avignon’s Palais des Papes, the largest Gothic palace in the world. Step into the world of Van Gogh’s art in Arles, village-hop through the charming Petit and Grand Luberon, or have a gladiator moment in a Roman arena. Hike in Les Alpilles Regional Park, bike the ascent of Mont Ventoux, one of the most punishing climbs on the Tour de France, or just play a game of pétanque by the beach
- The best local flavors: Sip rosé where the wine was first created, try cured wild boar saucisson or a hearty bowl of daube de boeuf, and sample truffle cheeses
- Honest insight from Provence local Jamie Ivey on where to eat, sleep, and discover the true spirit of the South of France
- Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
- Focused coverage of Aix-en-Provence, The Luberon, Arles, Les Alpilles and the Camargue, Avignon and the Vaucluse, Marseille, and more
- Thorough background information on the landscape, wildlife, history, government, and culture
- Handy tools including a French phrasebook, customs and conduct, and information for LGBTQ, solo, and senior travelers, as well as families and travelers with disabilities
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
Planning Your Trip
THE BEST COOKING SCHOOLS AND CLASSES IN PROVENCE
IF YOU HAVE...
The Best of Provence
LAVENDER IN HAUTE PROVENCE AND BEYOND
Best of the Outdoors and Nature
THE BEST SEASIDE RESTAURANTS IN PROVENCE
People have found it impossible to agree on the geographic boundaries of Provence. Some insist on a “golden triangle” of land around the major cities of Aix-en-Provence, Arles, and Avignon. It’s here that you will find the most celebrated sites: the arched glory of the Arles Roman arena and the vaulted splendor of the Palais des Papes. And it’s here that you’ll tread in the footsteps of Van Gogh and Cézanne, the painters who define Provence in the popular imagination.
By contrast, some are adamant that Provence stretches almost as far north as Lyon. This is where you first encounter the scent of the south, wild thyme and rosemary, mixed with the sweet sticky smell of pine trees.
For others the geography of Provence is shaped by its food and wine. Imagine yourself on a market morning. The smells are evocative: bread fresh from the oven; bundles of dried lavender harvested under the watchful eye of Mont Ventoux; a grilled leg of Sisteron lamb slowly turning on the rotisserie. People move from stand to stand thinking of the perfect accompaniment for a glass of rosé: perhaps some wild boar saucisson (dry, cured sausage) from the pine forests of the Var or an oozing morsel of Banon goat’s cheese. Then again, why not some anchovies that have been plucked from the sea just off Marseille, or some olives ripened below the medieval fortress at Les Baux-de-Provence. If all the right food is on sale, many are prepared to allow they’re in Provence.
Photographers, artists, and nature enthusiasts, however, insist the most important factor is not food, but the presence of Provence’s mystical light. No one can doubt that hiking through the Calanques next to the glittering Mediterranean is a high-definition experience. Yet just a few hundred kilometers up the coast near Montpellier, the piercing clarity vanishes.
The unifying theme that runs through all these different views of Provence is that, whatever the precise boundaries, life in Provence hovers on the verge of sensory overload. This guide covers the major cities of Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Avignon, and Marseille, and the regional nature parks of the Luberon, Les Alpilles, the Camargue, and the Verdon Gorge. In addition, it will take you from the sweet-smelling lavender fields of Haute Provence to the pungent, earthy truffle markets of the northern Vaucluse, and from the beach in Bandol, where light-hearted rosé wines almost seem to wink back at you, to the robust and legendary reds of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Good-natured quibbling from the locals aside, this area forms the most truly unforgettable region of France: La Provence.
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Strolling down the Cours Mirabeau in Aix, a street that epitomizes Provence in its beauty, history, café society, and centuries-old plane trees.
2 Experiencing the wonder and reverence induced by Palais des Papes. New technology has revived the splendor of touring this vast Gothic palace.
3 Imagining gladiators, clashing metal, and the smell of sweat and blood at Arles’ Roman arena.
4 Getting up close and personal with local wildlife, including rare wading birds, flamingos, bulls, and white horses, on a Camargue Safari.
5 Wine tasting in the Northern Vaucluse, hopping between Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Vacqueyras, Gigondas, and Rasteau to discover the region’s stellar reds.
6 Village hopping through the Petit and Grand Luberon. This is Provence at its most alluring; the hills of the Luberon hold numerous charming villages in their soft embrace.
7 Smelling the intoxicating pine forests, olive groves, vines, and wild herbs among the jagged bare rocks of Les Alpilles Regional Nature Park.
8 Visiting the daring, futuristic MuCEM, a glass box containing a museum of Mediterranean culture, one of the many architectural projects transforming the reputation of Marseille.
9 Exploring the Verdon Gorge, especially via kayak. At 700 meters (2,296 feet) deep and 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) long, it’s an awe-inspiring demonstration of the power of nature over time.
10 Walking through the waving seas of the lavender fields of Haute Provence, with picturesque villages rising like islands, and shoals of bees darting this way and that.
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
Avignon and the Vaucluse
The busy metropolitan outskirts of Avignon give way to a walled medieval interior. The main draw is the world-famous Palais des Papes, closely followed by the Pont Saint-Bénézet, whose arches famously stretch only halfway across the Rhône. Day trips to the Pont du Gard Aqueduct and Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards are a must. Nearby L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is an antique lover’s mecca and a great base to explore north toward Mont Ventoux.
Arles, Les Alpilles, and the Camargue
For the locals here, life is all about bull running and bull fighting. There are plenty of other reasons to recommend the region, including major Roman sites and the Van Gogh art trail. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and Arles are filled with shady restaurants, art galleries, and boutique shops. Don’t miss the surrounding countryside, which is dominated by rocky peaks and a pungent combination of pine forests, olive groves, and vineyards. In the nearby Camargue Regional Nature Park, a wildlife safari takes you to hidden salty marshlands filled with flamingos and herds of the iconic white horses.
The Luberon and the Lavender Fields of Haute Provence
The Luberon Regional Nature Park is a rural idyll, dotted with renowned villages such as Lourmarin, Ménerbes, Gordes, and Bonnieux. Depending on the time of year, the fields will be full of melons, pumpkins, drifting blossoms, or vines sagging with fruit. Thanks to the closeness between man and nature, simple pleasures are elevated to the unforgettable; a goat’s cheese salad and a glass of wine can taste every bit as good as a Michelin-star meal. The hills are crisscrossed with cycle and hiking routes and dotted with vineyards to visit. In late July and early August, the lure of lavender in full bloom calls visitors to the high plateaus of Haute Provence.
The city, rather than any given sight or museum, is the star. Time in Aix passes almost unnoticed. Most visits begin underneath the shady canopy of the plane trees on the wide café-lined Cours Mirabeau and end in the old town amid a maze of cobbled streets and small squares adorned with trickling fountains. Don’t miss a visit to Cézanne’s workshop or the chance to see his work at the Musée Granet. The countryside surrounding Aix is dominated by Cézanne’s most cherished subject, Mont Sainte-Victoire, plus plentiful vineyards and small Provençal villages.
Marseille, Les Calanques, and the Côte Bleue
Marseille is a loud, brash, in-your-face melting pot of cultures, founded by the Greeks, and, thanks to centuries of immigration, France’s second-biggest city. Sparkling new cultural centers, hidden neighborhoods, fishermen offering the catch of the day, and restaurants offering vrai (true) bouillabaisse all compete for attention. To the east is the Calanques National Park, perhaps the most scenic, unspoiled stretch of Mediterranean coast remaining in France. Accessible largely either on foot or by boat, the Calanques are a series of rocky inlets cut into the coastline. To the west is the beautiful and more accessible Côte Bleue, a section of coast that also boasts its own Calanques, as well as one of the most beautiful railway lines in Provence.
The Verdon Regional Nature Park and the Var
Sometimes clichéd descriptions are appropriate: The Verdon Gorge—the limestone gorge cut by the Verdon River that in some places is 700 meters (2,296 feet) high—does momentarily take your breath away. Cooler summer temperatures, great water sports, and traditional Provençal villages such as Moustiers-Sainte-Marie make the Verdon Regional Nature Park a popular destination in high summer. Farther south, Var villages such as Cotignac and Tourtour offer an authentic Provençal feel and easy access to the Côte d’Azur. The Var resorts between Bandol and Toulon are just as scenic as their more celebrated Riviera counterparts and a lot less busy.
When to Go
The period between July 14 and August 14 is by far the busiest and hottest in Provence. Sightseeing can be oppressive under the beating heat of the summer sun. Most tourists in these months get out and about early, doing as much as they can before lunch, and then spend the afternoon by the pool. Restaurants are busier, the weekend traffic on the autoroutes is terrible, and at the seaside there’s hardly a spare inch of beach. The first two weeks in July and the last two in August are slightly quieter, and a good option for determined sunseekers who want to avoid the worst of the crowds. July is also the best time to see the lavender fields in full bloom.
Spring and Fall
Spring and autumn are a delight. April-June and September-October are perhaps the best months to visit. The sun is usually shining, and the Provençal countryside looks its most beautiful. In early spring the fields fill with the wild blossoms of almond and cherry trees. In autumn the vines turn a magnificent range of russet and golden colors. It’s the perfect time of year for activities like cycling, hiking, and kayaking. The roads are quiet, so it’s easy to get from sight to sight.
In December, when the weather can still be mild, the towns, cities, and villages begin gearing up for Christmas. Lights go up at the beginning of the month, and special Christmas markets take place on an almost daily basis. Gourmands start salivating at the thought of truffles, the so-called black diamonds of Provence, which grow in the ground under oak trees between mid-December and the end of February. Christmas itself is a gastronomic festival of seafood, foie gras, and those truffles.
In January and February, it’s best to base yourself in a city. The towns and villages of Provence can be exceedingly quiet, and it gets quite cold, with nighttime temperatures often falling below 32°F (0°C). If you love hiking and cycling, then it’s still a good time to visit. The sky is often almost impossibly blue. By the seaside, it’s not unusual for people to sunbathe in sheltered spots, and the brave even swim.
By March the countryside is slowly stirring into life, vines sprout with an urgent vigor, and the fruit trees begin to blossom. The markets fill up with traders, and village shops and restaurants reopen. Everyone seems happy as the tourist season begins.
Before You Go
Passports and Visas
The latest visa requirements can be checked at the France Diplomatie website (www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/coming-to-france). The site offers a “visa wizard” that will quickly tell you your requirements. Here is a summary of the situation at time of writing:
Nationals from the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand can enter France and stay for up to 90 days without a visa. Stays of more than 90 days require a visa and proof of income and medical insurance. Citizens of EU-member countries who have a valid passport and national identity card can travel freely to France. British nationals should check visa requirements once the United Kingdom has exited the European Union. South African nationals require a short-stay visa for visits up to 90 days, and a long-stay visa if the traveler plans to stay more than 90 days.
What to Pack
What should go into your suitcase very much depends on when you visit. In addition to weather-appropriate clothing and other necessities, don’t forget a plug adapter for your electronic devices. European outlets take round, two-prong plugs.
Most travelers will arrive at either Marseille or Nice airport. Both have low-cost terminals as well as regular scheduled flights to all major destinations in Europe.
For transatlantic passengers, Marseille Airport has direct flights with Air Canada and Air Transat to Montreal. For other North American destinations, travelers must fly to common hubs such as Paris, London, or Amsterdam and then take a connecting flight to Marseille.
Alternatively, North Americans can fly from New York direct to Nice, which is approximately a 1-hour drive from the area covered in this book. Flights are offered by Delta and newcomer La Compagnie.
For Australians the quickest way to get to the South of France is a flight to Dubai. From Dubai, Emirates flies direct to Nice. Alternatively, there are direct flights to Nice from Hong Kong.
There are no direct flights to the South of France from South Africa. South Africans should fly to London, Amsterdam, or Paris and pick up a connecting flight.
Avignon Airport is a low-cost hub that has flights to and from Birmingham and Southampton in the UK. Nîmes Airport, a 45-minute drive from Avignon, is a low-cost hub with flights to and from Stansted and Luton airports near London. Farther into the Languedoc, Montpellier Airport, which is a 60-minute drive from Avignon, also offers flights to multiple UK destinations, as well as Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, and Dublin.
Provence is directly connected by a TGV line to Paris. Hourly TGV trains stop at the major cities of Avignon (under three hours from Paris), Aix-en-Provence, and Marseille.
Eurostar operates a weekend service from May to mid-October from London to Avignon. The outward journey is nonstop, but the return journey requires getting off the train at Lille for passport control.
The main route to Provence from the north is the A7 autoroute, which runs between Lyon, Avignon, and Aix-en-Provence. It is nicknamed the Autoroute du Soleil. During weekends in the summer months of July and August, it is advisable to find alternative routes because the stretch between Avignon and Lyon becomes one long traffic jam.
The A8 autoroute runs from the Italian border near Nice to Aix-en-Provence, and the A9 runs from just outside Avignon to the Spanish border near Barcelona.
The Best of Provence
The itinerary recommended below is relatively ambitious. You will need a car, and it’s intended as a happy combination of history and culture, blending inland Provence with a dash of the coast, and mixing in plenty of stops that will satisfy gourmands. For some there may be too much travel from place to place, so adapt as necessary and, above all, don’t forget to leave time to sit in a café, preferably with a pastis, and watch the world go by.
Start in Avignon. An early TGV (bullet train) from Paris will get you there in time for lunch at the Carrés du Palais restaurant. In the afternoon, tour the Palais des Papes and cross the river to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon for a view back over the city and of the famous Pont d’Avignon (Pont Saint-Bénézet). Stay overnight in the Clos Saluces bed-and-breakfast and make it your base for the first three days.
Rise bright and early for breakfast in the verdant garden of Clos Saluces and then head out into the countryside around Avignon. History buffs will love a morning trip to the Pont du Gard Roman Aqueduct. On the way back to Avignon in the afternoon, stop off at Châteauneuf-du-Pape to sample the luxurious velvety reds.
Tour the hill villages of the Luberon Nature Park. Be sure to include Gordes, Goult, and Roussillon as stop-off points. If you have time, go and see the Abbey de Senanque, just outside Gordes. It is particularly worth the detour in early summer when the lavender is in bloom. Eat lunch on the terrace of the L’Esprit des Romarins restaurant overlooking Gordes. In the afternoon head back to Avignon via L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Walk along the banks of the River Sorgue, enjoying the tumbling water wheels and browsing the renowned antiques shops.
Head to Arles and prepare for some serious culture. Visit the Roman theater and Roman arena as well as the Fondation Van Gogh. Then head out into the Camargue for a late lunch at La Chassagnette, followed by flamingo spotting at the La Capelière nature reserve. Drive to Aix-en-Provence and stay overnight in the Hotel des Augustins.
In the morning explore Aix-en-Provence by following the Cézanne walking trail. Have lunch at Les Deux Garcons on the Cours Mirabeau before enjoying a cultural afternoon visiting the Musée Granet or the Hotel Caumont, or both.
Head north to the Gorges du Verdon, stopping at the Valensole Plateau en route to see the lavender (July/early August). Wander the picturesque streets of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, before driving the head-spinning Corniche Sublime in the afternoon. If there is time, rent a paddleboat from one of the beaches on Lac de Sainte-Croix. Return to Aix.
Head to Cassis, and either hike out into Les Calanques, or catch a boat from the port. Enjoy a bouillabaisse portside either for lunch or as the sun dips below the horizon. If you have time, visit Domaine Paternel to pick up some of the finest white wine and rosé in Provence.
- On Sale
- Dec 17, 2019
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Moon Travel