Originally Published on Urbandesis.com, Nov 2014
The second half of our vacation took us deeper into the heart of Provence (The first half was in The French Riviera, you can read it here). We stayed a week in the Bouches-du-Rhône region, in a small village called Maussane Les Alpilles. Another week, another town, another 4-bedroom villa, another swimming pool (and a covered one too this time)! And two families all geared up for a comfy stay, and a few day-trips to enjoy the surrounding beauty.
As we travelled from the Côte d’Azur, across the Verdon Gorge, to the South-West of France, the landscape and the atmosphere changed so much that we seemed to be in a different country altogether.
Think Provence and you envision fields of lavender and olive trees. But Provence is much more than lavender and olives. Villages perched on mountaintops, historical monuments, vineyards, narrow cobble-stoned lanes, roads lined with plane trees are just some of the things that you can find in this vast region.
A refreshing change from Singapore, is the slower pace of life. You haven’t fully enjoyed Provence till you’ve had a long lunch in the middle of the day, at a village square, while sipping on chilled Rosé. The cost of the wine is another refreshing change by the way.
St. Rémy is a traditional Provençal village, full of history. Within the village itself are boutiques, galleries, restaurants and cafés, and even a famous fountain or two.
Just outside the town, sits the Archaeologic Site of Glanum, which dates back to 6th century B.C. when it was inhabited by natives. Around the 2nd century B.C., the town came under Greek influence through trade with Greeks via Marseille and around the 1st century it was colonised by the Romans. Glanum did not survive the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was destroyed and abandoned in the 3rd century AD and thereafter lost and forgotten till excavation began in 1921 and the lost town came back to light.
It is evident from the ruins of Glanum that the residents were a prosperous people. As we walked along the streets and saw the foundations of private residences (with swimming pools no less) and the remains of public baths, fountains and temples, I was astounded by how advanced the architecture and construction were back then. Walking through those ruins will make you want to go back in time to see how magnificent this settlement would have looked when it was thriving.
Another reason for St-Rémy’s popularity is its association with Van Gogh. The town is home to St Paul de Mausolee, the psychiatric centre where Van Gogh was treated unsuccessfully after he cut off his ear. While residing there, he painted some of his most famous works. The mausoleum houses a reproduction of Van Gogh’s room and from the windows, you can see the fields which featured in some of his paintings. The gift shop at the mausoleum is a good place to shop for some artistic souvenirs.
St. Rémy is also famous for being the birthplace of the famous 16th century physician and seer Nostradamus and his house still exists in the village. Thank God his famous prophecy about the apocalypse (end of the world) on December 21st, 2012 didn’t come true.
Les Baux de Provence
The medieval village of Les Baux de Provence is amongst the most visited spots in France and rightly so. We saw and did a lot in the two weeks that we spent in South France, but Les Baux was my personal favourite. It is more a touristic village than an active one but by saying that I’m in no way discrediting the magical beauty of the place. It is places like this that make you understand the meaning of “soak in the atmosphere”. Just being there was enough!
The drive to Le Baux de Provence is lined with a few vineyards and olive groves and the picturesque village, like typical Provençal villages, is full of terraces, cafés and souvenir shops. In fact, I dare you to leave here empty handed.
Its main attraction, the spectacular Chateau Le Baux sits precariously atop a rocky limestone spur and has been home to humans since 6000 B.C. The chateau ruins are fascinating and there are informative panels (in English) everywhere. A trip to the top of the plateau is also worthwhile to enjoy gorgeous panoramic views.
Not to be missed is the Carrières de Lumières, an extraordinary multimedia show, where images are projected on to surfaces of rock. Simply astounding!
The Luberon Valley is a designated region of outstanding natural beauty, full of vineyards, lavender fields, wheat fields and cherry orchards.
Lavender blooms in Luberon from end of June to early August when it is harvested. We planned our visit to Luberon at the end of our stay, during the last week of June but we did not manage to catch the full bloom. If you plan to catch the bloom, check out the ‘Lavender Routes of Luberon’ online or in a guide book and plan a route depending on how much time you have.
Although we ended up being a little early for the Lavender bloom, it was still worth driving to the Luberon Valley. The views of the magnificent village of Gordes, perched on a mountain side, and the small ochre coloured village of Roussillon make for some pretty pictures. Rousillon is a beautiful village with red rocks, red buildings, red roofs and red everything. Depending upon what route you’re driving around the Luberon area, it might be worth stopping here for half an hour for refreshments and photography.
Amongst the most famous lavender fields in Luberon is the one in front of the Cistercian Abbaye de Senanque. Most tourist websites say that it is impossible not to get a memorable picture here. Guided tours to the monastery are also available at particular timings.
This town is simply overflowing with history. Avignon has several attractions to boast of, we chose to visit the must-see attractions and took a Tram ride for an overview of the rest of the city. You’ll see the tourist Petit Train everywhere in Provence but Avignon is probably the best place to hop aboard for a memorable ride across old medieval streets, and be wowed by the city’s picturesque quarters.
Palais des Papes (Pope’s Palace), a UNESCO world heritage site, is the largest Gothic palace in the world and the most famous of Avignon’s attractions. In the 14th century, 7 successive popes resided in Avignon and Palais des Papes was the residence of these sovereign pontiffs. Inside the massive palace, there are many areas to visit, including ceremonial halls, chapels and even the Pope’s private apartments. Grand!
Right next to the Papal palace, is the 12th century cathedral of Notre-Dame des Doms. The beautiful church houses tombs of popes and has a magnificent treasury room with artifacts on display. By the time you exit the Palais des Papes, you’ll probably be exhausted and might consider skipping this. Don’t. Out of our party of 4 adults, I was the only one who went, had a feeling of immense peace sweep over me, so came back and dragged the others in. And, they thanked me.
Other attractions that you can visit in Avignon are the Rocher des Doms and the bridge of Pont Saint Benezet. Not to be missed is the stunning Pont du Gard, a UNESCO world heritage site about 30 mins drive from Avignon. This ancient Roman aqueduct was built over 2000 years ago, in 19 B.C. and is now a major tourist site.
But before you head out of Avignon towards the Pont du Gard, head over to the Place de l’Horloge, and spend a leisurely couple of hours there (it even has a carousel for kids). Lunch at one of the many restaurants in the square and just immerse yourself in the culture. Ienjoyed a Rose Pampellmousse and Le Gazpacho de Legumes du Sud, Toasts de Tapenade du Pays (Yes, that’s just one dish – chilled tomato soup with tapenade on toast), while just watching the locals, the foreigners and the lone busker. I did not want to leave.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot to see in Avignon and a day is just not enough. We made the best of the time we had but you can consider staying here for a couple of days or get there early in the morning to maximize your day.
And if you still have a few more days left of your vacation, Arles, Camargue and Marseille are just some of the other cities, which might be worth a visit too.