I have an urge to go to Provence again. I think it’s because my lavender is thriving this year and that the rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano are flourishing as never before that makes me want to immerse myself in the pungent scent of wild herbs crushed underfoot and the juniper, golden broom, and cistus that cover the hills of Provence.
I like the journey there too, on the Eurostar from London (less than 6 hours): with a change at Paris, there is enough time to enjoy a leisurely meal to get the trip off to a good start. The views from Paris down to Avignon of tiny, half-deserted medieval villages perched on steep hillsides, red geraniums and lime-green ferns tumbling over balconies, fertile valleys of yellow corn and wheat, occasionally highlighted with a blaze of red poppies like a Van Gogh landscape, and the occasional field of wild irises and lavender, always make me happy that I’ve taken the train to this corner of France.
Avignon: The best viewpoint is from the Gardens of Rocher des Doms above the Palais des Papes. The gardens are not worth the trip for themselves, but there are benches on which to sit to take in the peacocks and the panoramic views over the entire city and the surrounding areas.
If you visit only one monument, make it the Papal Palace, the Palais des Papes, which includes the Popes’ private apartments with some fabulous frescoes, and is one of the musts of Avignon. This emblem of the city, an awe-inspiring monument to the importance of Avignon in the Christian world of the Middle Ages was built in the 1300s by two popes – Benedict XII and his successor, Clement V. It was to become the biggest gothic edifice in all of Europe and is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, along with the episcopal buildings and the Saint Bénézet Bridge.
Next to the palace is the Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral, built in 1150, with the statue of the Virgin Mary, entirely covered in gold, 6 metres high and weighing 4500 kilos, protecting the city from the bell tower.
The historic centre radiates from the Place de l’Horloge, a popular square bordered by cafés and restaurants. Just like the Place du Palais higher up you could spend the day just watching the street performers. Here is the City Hall built in the mid 19th century over a former cardinal’s palace. Next to it is the 19th-century municipal theatre which houses the Avignon opera.
Avignon is a city full of ancient dwellings, museums, churches, chapels and art galleries and you can easily fill a week here without leaving the city but it also has a hippy, boho area. In the Rue des Teinturiers, a delightful cobblestone street dating from the Middle Ages, the street is lined with wine bars and small restaurants, and artists and musicians mingle here in a village-like ambience. Then there is bourgeois Avignon on one side of the main avenue, the Rue de la Repúblic, a chic designer clothing and luxury shops area. The other side of Repúblicc leads to the Place Pie and the Halles, the famous covered market and meeting place for the people of Avignon.
But most people come to Avignon to see the famous bridge, the St. Bénézet Bridge, built around 1180 (by a simple shepherd, or so goes the story) to link the city to Villeneuve-les-Avignon. Over the years, war and flooding took their toll on the bridge and today, the 12th-century St. Nicholas chapel along with four arches of the bridge are all that remain of the original structure.
The historic region (Luberon) between Aix-en-Provence and Avignon is often cited as being the most beautiful in France, rolling hills streaked with lavender and medieval villages perched on craggy rocks.
Villages like Gordes, a compact hilltop town at the foot of the Vaucluse Mountains which is one of the trendiest places to live in Provence. The ancient Borie village, an impressive complex of stone houses which was once the homes of shepherds and agricultural workers before the industrial revolution, was lovingly restored in the 1970s by a team of archaeologists and locals. There are 300 of these in Gordes.
Roussillon: This area has to be visited, if only for the startling ochre colour of the earth as it is located in the very heart of the biggest ochre deposits in the world. These natural pigments are used throughout the village, the walls of the houses being washed with the traditional ochre rendering, the many different oxides in the ochre sands combining in countless shades.
The hills are streaked with it, and an Ochre Trail has been laid out and marked.
Ochres was mined by the Romans
during their settlement of Provence but only became a widespread, industrial product in the late 18th century when Jean-Etienne Astier had the idea of washing the ochre-laden sands to extract the pure pigment. Today, though natural ochre faces strong competition from synthetic pigments, it remains unrivalled for use in certain applications.
Arles and Aix de Provence. More like Spain or Italy with narrow streets and shady squares it is the gateway to the Camargue. Arles has a Roman theatre ringed by cobbled, medieval streets and is one of the most interesting towns in France.
It was home to Van Gogh in the 1880’s and because of this the town now has a flourishing artistic centre. Buy books on Van Gogh and postcards here which you won’t find anywhere else. The elegant spa town of Aix is Cezanne’s own town where you can visit his workshop and take a guided tour of landmarks in the life of the painter and that of the writer, Emile Zola.
After Arles, Van Gogh went to the pretty little town of St. Remy which nestles at the foot of the magnificent Massif des Alpilles, now classified as the Parc Naturel Régional des Alpilles. Stroll along the boulevards under the shade of century-old plane trees in the evening and raid the boutiques and art galleries for bargains (well, perhaps not, the Provencals are not as slow as Peter Mayle made them out to be and they strike a hard bargain).
And then there is Baux de Provence, officially classified and labelled as “one of the most beautiful villages in France” (by the French).
About 15 Kl from Arles this is a village high up in the limestone-mountains of Les Alpilles, located on a 245m. rocky plateau from where magnificent views of Arles and the Camargue can be had. It is rich in cultural treasures, with 22 architectural monuments classified as “Historic”, including the church, chateau, town-hall, hospital, chapels, houses, doorways and many items of furniture.
The village (pop. 400) has been painstakingly restored, beautiful Renaissance façades and ‘hôtels particuliers’today serving as art galleries and museums, visited by more than one-and-a-half-million tourists a year, even though the visits must be made on foot.
The narrow streets leading up to the Citadelle des Baux are lined with bistros and restaurants with terraces hanging over the cliffs – all with views to die for. Many of these restaurants have international reputations and offer high quality dining.
I’ve probably missed off your favourite village: this is just a sample of what you can see comfortably within a week using local buses. Many years ago we toured the area by car but I found the local transport both easy to understand and very efficient.