Four Fabulous Days in Provence!


A milestone birthday deserves a milestone event... 
So, when my husband offered to take me on a little excursion to the South of France to celebrate, there was nothing to say but, "MAIS, OUI, OUI !!"


There was no way in 4 days that we could do everything in Provence that I wanted to do, (especially with a broken foot!), but because I had studied abroad in Avignon when I was in college, I'd been to a lot of these places before, and I was excited to see if any had changed. (short answer: very much!)

What do you think of our itinerary?
1. Carrières de Lumières Les Baux 
2. Les Baux de Provence 
3. Avignon
4. Chateau Neuf du Pape wine tasting
5. Fountaine de Vaucluse
6. Gourdes village
7. Roussillon village
8. Loumarin village
9. Aix en Provence 

After a just a short 1 1/2 hour direct flight from London's Gatwick airport, we land in Marseille, rent a car and head directly for Les Baux (dang the roads are narrow, so word to the wise---get the smallest car you can!). 

We had found an adorable hotel online, Castillons Les Baux, and after a great sleep, we woke up to the smells of breakfast: pastries, meats, cheeses, fruit and coffee. Ahhh, croissants!



Although we would have loved to stay longer and enjoy the pool and grounds, we were also anxious to drive through the rocky Luberon National Park, and to visit one of the highlights of our trip, Carrières de Lumières, so we took off at 8:30 am for Les Baux's rocky cliffs.


1. Carrières de Lumières (purchase 9:30 timed tickets online €13 adult)
https://www.carrieres-lumieres.com/en
If you are even remotely near Provence, this is a MUST-SEE. Set in a rock quarry, this monumental light show features the work of Van Gogh until January 2020. To be further impressed, just check out any of the numerous You Tube Videos of this incredible installation. 

This light show is created by projecting over 70 multimedia on every square inch of wall, ceiling and floor in the quarry. My husband and I were left in absolute awe as we walked through the massive area, each with a different view. We could have stayed here for hours. (Jeff, who never takes photos, filled up his phone with videos and great photos. I never knew of his hidden photo talent until now!)

Insider's tips: This sell-out attraction gets incredibly busy, so be sure to purchase an advance ticket on-line (otherwise you will wait in a massive queue to purchase tickets), and we advise a 9:30 ticket. It's nice to have a few moments to yourself--by the time we left, it was absolutely packed. Make sure to arrive before 9am, so that you can get a parking spot in the tiny area near the venue, otherwise plan to park along the road and walk up the 1/2 mile or so to the venue. Is that incentive enough to get there early? 

This is what the walls look like without the projection.
After visiting Carrières de Lumières, leave your car where it is already parked and walk to the ancient town of Les Baux (5 minute walk). 

2. Les Baux village and Chateau les Baux
Next stop is the village of Les Baux, considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. Les Baux means "stone outcroppings" and the mineral Bauxite was discovered here.  The entire village is pedestrian (there are only 22 year-round residents) and walk from Carrières de Lumières. Explore the narrow stone streets and shops filled with beautiful Provençal wares, like olive oil, pottery, lavendar, woven fabrics, all beautifully presented. This is a great place to have lunch, and you will have many choices as long as you eat before 1pm, when most Europeans start thinking about their mid-day meal.



You won't want to miss the Chateau, a medieval fortress located above the village. It was built in the 900's, and was home to rulers until the 1600's, when it was demolished by Louis XIII (he demolished a lot of things around here during his siege). Purchase a ticket at the ticket booth (or on-line in advance, as we did: https://www.chateau-baux-provence.com/ . You can also purchase a combined Chateau and Carrières de Lumières ticket, but we didn't as we couldn't figure out how to have the Carrières portion as a timed entry). The ticket comes with an audio-guide, which is just so-so, but take it anyway. As you walk through the ground, just imagine what it must have been like to live in this cliff-top village, as you watch the various artisan actors recreate medieval life. Plus, the views from the top--simply incredible!


It's mid-afternoon, and we make our way to our next stop, Avignon.

3. Avignon is a beautiful 45 minute drive from Les Baux, and we arrive at our converted-monastery hotel, Le Cloitre St Louis, just in time for a late afternoon dip in the rooftop pool. 
Hotel Le Cloitres at night
Avignon is a lovely walled city (of almost 100k), inhabited as early as 500 B.C., probably founded by the Phoenicians, but made famous by its partially remaining bridge and well known children's song ("Sur la ponte d'Avignon, on y dansant....."). What makes it really special is that it was home to nine Popes (1309-1377), and has a  beautiful rampart wall surrounding the old city.


There is quite a lot to do here, with many winding streets and quaint squares to explore, which makes it a perfect central location from which to launch day trips.  



Driving anywhere in Provence involves beautiful countryside. In August, we were a bit late to see much of the famed Lavendar, but there were fields of sunflowers along the road... and of course, more than a few vineyards :)


Some of the highlights of our stay in Avignon were:

a. Day trip to Chateau Neuf du Pape for wine tasting.  The 32 square kilometer area north of Avignon,  the Chateau Neuf du Pape appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) is home to some of the most renown red wines in the world. (The white wines are also quite good, but they comprise only 5% of production, therefore not generally exported from the area--they are gobbled up by locals, so make sure you try a CNDP white wine before you leave!). 

CNDP wine is especially known for its most unusual terroir (or ground). The grapes of this region are grown on a layer of rocky pebbles called "galets", which provide additional heat to the vine roots speed up the ripening of the 13 varieties of grapes which make up the traditional red wine blend (the main base is Grenache Noir, at @ 70%)

We set ourselves a challenge to drink only CNDP wines on our trip. Depending on who you ask, there are either 180 or 300 makers of Chauteau Neuf du Pape wine, so try as we might, we just couldn't drink them all!  This was further inhibited because day we set aside for wine tasting was a national holiday in France, and very few places were open. So I guess we have an excuse for failing our CNDP challenge!


To consider: There are 3 main ways to wine taste in this region: hire an organized tour and therefore leave the thought process and driving to someone else (my good friend, Erin raves about spending the day with Francois, a local wine guide she found through www.avignon-wine-tour.com/), you can visit one of the many wine tasting rooms in CNDP village, or try driving around the wineries yourself. We went for option #3, but because of the national holiday that day, we ended up visiting the tasting rooms, which were also a great source of wine and education.  I don't think you can go wrong whichever you choose! Plus, the little town of Chateau Neuf du Pape is off the beaten path, so there are very few tourists. Definitely plan to spend a day in this area! Another very fun thing is that the roads take you actually through the vineyards. And watch your GPS, it just might take you down an irrigation path--REALLY! :)))


our lunch spot!
Wine guide Francois, who my friend Erin raves about!
Back to reality and to avignon...next on the list is a visit to the Palace of the Popes...

b. Visit to Le Palais des Papes, with iPad guide.  
€12 adult  http://www.palais-des-papes.com/en
What is pretty cool about this tour of the 14th century Papal home is that the iPad guide has a fun feature--when you hold it up, you can see what the palace would have actually looked like in the 1300's. The Palace is definitely worth an exploration. It's much bigger than you would expect!


b. "Vibrations" light show, 9:15 pm inside Le Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes). 
https://avignon-tourisme.com/en/events/vibrations-monumental-360-show/
This is something very entertaining to do in the evening! Buy your ticket on-line to save time, and to have a fast-track entrance--cost €14. This after-dark light show traces the history of Avignon via a 360 degree projection onto the palace walls. stunning.  (there are also 2 free shows outside of the palace in Place de l'Horlage (clock square) which you can see afterward, but Vibrations is worth the cost of admission). You will sit on the ground, so make sure to wear something you don't mind getting a little dusty.


d. Bridge of Avignon
The real name of this bridge is Pont Bénézet, named after a sainted monk from the area, but most know the bridge from the famous children's song.."on the bridge of Avignon, they are dancing, they are dancing...". You may be surprised to find that the bridge does not completely cross the Rhone River. It was first destroyed by Louis XIII during his siege of the area, but rebuilt and subsequently destroyed by numerous floods. Finally, in the 1600's residents gave up, and only 4 of 22 spans remain of the famed bridge. 

e. We enjoyed two wonderful meals, which we highly recommend, each accompanied by a bottle of CNDP, of course!

Michelin starred Le Mirande--the nicest and most expensive meal of our trip. Ask to sit outside on the terrace. and you will need to call for reservations. Good enough for the Obama's, good enough for us! https://www.la-mirande.fr/en/gastronomic-restaurant-avignon.html


Restaurant Le Violette--beautiful romantic outdoor location, exquisite French-Thai inspired cuisine. Contact: 04 90 85 36 42 - restaurant.leviolette@gmail.com

Now for the side trips! We wanted to visit as many charming villages as we could, and we started off another sunny day drive with Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. Jeff and I laughed so many times on this drive, as we followed our Google GPS down miniscule streets with INCHES to spare on either side of the car.

4. Fontaine-de-Vaucluse (45 minute drive east from Avignon)
This charming village, which means "closed village", is set in a forest ravine, and is simply lovely. The village is home to only about 600 residents, and is famous for the hidden springs which are the origin of the River Sorgue. If you are into hiking, or biking, this is your village!. We arrived by 9:30 in the morning and it was just delightful (and tourist-free!).


Be sure to take the lovely walk up to the origin of the Sorgue River. Fun fact is that the true underground source of the Sorgue has never fully been located. French underwater explorer Jacque Cousteau and his team almost perished here, attempting to find the supposed underground lake which collects all the winter rainwater from the surrounding mountains, and only recently a robot has been able to travel -308 feet to somewhat locate it. 

While you are here, why not have a quiet lunch along the riverbank afterward? Or visit the paper factory, one of the few remaining in France. You can purchase some beautiful flower-filled paper. When I was here as a college student, I purchased a beautiful floral paper poem about Provence, which was framed and hung in our guest room in California until we relocated to London.
Jeff at the mouth of the springs. When I was last here, there was a small lake.

5. Gourdes (25 min drive east from Fountaine-de-Vaucluse)
This ancient hilltop village with buff-colored stone walls has been named one of the prettiest in France, and from its perch, has gorgeous views of the Luberon National park. 

This area has always attracted artists-- Marc Chagall lived here (pretty impressive!), and nowadays what are "pretty impressive" are the real estate prices! Some highlights of the area are: The Senanque Abbey (the monks grow lavender), the Chateau in the center of town, the Tuesday market, and a not-so-well known Wall of Plague (constructed in 1721 to protect against the dreaded illness). We loved exploring the incredibly narrow winding streets, the lovely views over the Luberon National Parc...oh and some very good pastries! 


6. Roussillon (20 minute drive east from Gourdes)
Located in the heart of the Luberon, Roussillon is home to one of the largest ochre deposits in the world, thus its name and red cliff fame. This village was one of my favorites when I studied abroad in the area, and it still is. Enjoy the various ochre painted homes in the village as you stroll the streets....

...and do make sure you walk up the hill and take the cliff walk (just follow the crowd). There is a small 3 euro entrance fee, but worth it. The hills are brilliant on a sunny day!


7. Loumarin (30 minute drive south from Rousillon). My absolute favorite village in Provence. Home to 1500 year-round residents, the village is one big instagram photo. Charm practically oozes from the quaint cobblestone streets and vine-covered homes. There is plenty to do here, between visiting the 15th century castle, St. Andre's church, boutique shopping, or exploring the numerous village squares and fountains. On Fridays, there is a great regional market (until 3pm) located near the car park. Great place to pick up gifts! 




8. Aix-en-Provence (70 min south of Avignon, 45 min south of Luberon, 45 min north of Marseille)  Unlike many of the villages which we visited, Aix is a bonafide city, boasting about 150,000 residents and is also called "The City of 1,000 Fountains".

Aix is a university town, and is full of culture, great restaurants and shopping.  But even with its size, Aix manages to maintain its old world charm within the ring of the old city. Make sure you walk the Cours Mirabeau, and take part in the large Saturday market featuring clothing, crafts and food! My friend Alexandra lives here, so she gave us some great tips, like eating at La Petite Ferme and hitting the Saturday Market. We were also so excited to have lunch with our old exchange student, Sophie, and her husband Guillaume, who had traveled up from Marseille to meet us!





Even though Provence is just a small part of France, there is just so much to do and see here. We gave it our best shot with the 4 days we had, but just couldn't manage it all. Here are some villages that we missed. Hopefully you have time to add a few of them into your itinerary. For us, it will have to be next time!

ISLE SUR LA SORGUE
This town of 20k inhabitants is located 40 min east of Avignon (just before Fountaine-de-Vaucluse). It's very different from other Provençal towns and villages, with its  picturesque canals and water wheels, which were used for the silk and paper industries that thrived here. Nowadays, the town is known for its antiques fairs, and charming bridges and walks. 
Photo credit: vacances-lagrange
APT
20 minutes east of Roussillon, the Gallo-Roman town of Apt lies inside its famous ramparts. This town of 11,000 inhabitants is also known for its food, candied fruit and the largest Saturday market in Provence. Make sure you see the St. Anne Cathedral and the clock tower... and why not pick up some local crafts while you enjoy the 300+ stalls of the market?
photo credit: curiousprovence.com
NIMES 
From Avignon, it is a 50 minute drive southwest to the 2000 year old city of Nimes, once an important Roman outpost and home to Pont du Gard, the famous Roman Aquaduct. This bustling town of 150k also features the Nimes Arena (Roman Arena), Jardin de la Fontaine and the Maison Carrée.
photo credit: Britannica.com
ST. REMY DE PROVENCE (20 min north of Les Baux, 35 min south of Avignon. On your way to Avignon from Les Baux, you will go through it!)
A charming village, famous as the birthplace of Nostradamus, and the asylum where Van Gogh painted Starry Night. Some sights to see are the archeological site of Glanum, as well as St. Paul's Monastery.
photo: Trip101.com
UZES (30 minutes North of Nimes, 45 min west of Avignon) A lesser known village of about 8000 people, you will be taken by its whitewashed limestone homes, winding streets, Saturday market, and the Duke's castle. 
photo credit: Pinterest, by Garden Design
ARLES
This city of 50k is perhaps best known as being the Provençal home of Van Gogh. Indeed, you can visit the Van Gogh Hermitage here, and soak up the beautiful Arles sun. But there is more to see than Van Gogh--here you will find a 2000 year old Roman Ampitheather where bullfights and chariot races would have occurred,  as well as a well-preserved and still utilized Roman theatre. Be sure to visit the Place de la Republic, Place du Forum, as well as the Cryptoporticus, a network of underground tunnels.
Photo credit: The Crazy Tourist
SAINTES-MARIES-DE-LA-MER AND THE CAMARGUE
I love the coastal Camargue region of France, which is known for its wetlands, wild white horses, flamingos, wild black bulls, and the charming coastal town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, pop 2,500.  Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer was named for three Catholic Maries, and is a pilgrimage site, attracting Roman Gypsies each spring (May 24-26 in 2020) for a ritual sea plunge as well as dancing and festivities. Picasso, Hemingway and Van Gogh all drew inspiration from the area's natural beauty, whose symbol is an anchor, cross and heart intertwined. 
photo credit: Catholics and Cultures
Photo credit: landofhorse.com

Hope you enjoyed a little slice of our wonderful time in Provence! Did I miss your favorite? Let me know some of the sights you have seen in this beautiful southern area of France.






Comments

  1. Splendid! Didn't know you had a problem with your foot ... I was wondering b/c a long gap since the last report.

    Hope you still have Allington Castle on your list!

    Best, Tom

    ReplyDelete

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