ALLURING PROVENCE

 

A Printable, Downloadable, PDF version of this itinerary is available for purchase.  Includes Places to Stay in proximity.

ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:

Provence, settled by the Romans around 120 B.C., is a region of contrasts and colors. This delightful region of the French Midi (the South) is associated with warm breezes, a mild climate, and rolling hillsides covered in the gray washes of olive trees and lavender. Its rich soil in the bath of the warm southern sun produces a bounty of produce that is incorporated into its regional cuisine. Some of the world’s most popular wines are produced here and complement the delicious local dishes. The romance and beauty of Provence has inspired artists and writers for generations.

Recommended Pacing: This itinerary assumes the large port city of Marseille as a starting point, winds north to the beautiful university city of Aix en Provence, into the hilltowns of Haute Provence, and then circles back to the heart of the region and the lovely towns set in its valley. It is possible to see Provence in just a few days, but the countryside calls for you to linger, to settle and absorb the climate, the beauty, and the landscape. Our ideal would be a night to explore Aix en Provence, one to two nights in one of the hilltowns of Haute Provence, and at least three nights at the heart of Provence.

Marseille is the second-largest city in France. Settled as a Phoenician colony, this major Mediterranean port is where our Provence itinerary begins. Apart from the Roman docks and fortified church of Saint Victor, there are few monuments to its past within the city. However, you must see La Canebière, a major boulevard that captures the activity, gaiety, and pace of Marseille. The old port has a number of museums to draw your interest; the Musée Grobet-Labadie has a beautiful collection of tapestries, furniture, paintings, musical instruments, pottery, and sculpture. (Open daily 10 am to 5 pm, Sun noon to 7 pm.)

From Marseille drive north following either the N8 or the Autoroute 51 to the southern periphery of Aix-en-Provence, an elegant city that deserves an overnight stay. (Recommendations for places to stay can also be found in our France hotel guide.) Aix achieved fame when “Good King René,” count of Provence, and his wife chose it as their preferred residence in the 1450s. Upon his death Aix fell under the rule of the French crown and was made the seat of parliament. The city flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries and became one of the most prosperous metropolises of the region. Much of Aix’s elegant architecture is attributed to this period of affluence. Today it is predominantly a university town, home to some 40,000 students who represent almost a third of the city’s population. Numerous fountains adorn the elegant tree-lined Cours Mirabeau, edged by aristocratic residences and numerous cafés. The Cours Mirabeau separates the Quartier Mazarin to the south from the Quartier Ancien on the north. The Quartier Mazarin attracted dignitaries and many lovely parliamentary homes still stand in this neighborhood. By contrast, the Quartier Ancien is the heart of the city, with a bustle of activity along its charming little back streets lined with numerous cafés and restaurants.

Aix is an enchanting, beautiful and aristocratic city to explore. The beckoning cobblestoned streets of its Old Quarter are intriguing to wander along at night and the illuminated tree-lined Cours Mirabeau is enchanting-a bit reminiscent of Paris with its many sidewalk cafés. Nineteen 17th-century tapestries from Beauvois are on display in the Museum of Tapestries. Another fifteen Flemish tapestries can be found in the Cathedral Saint Sauveur. (Closed noon to 2:00 pm and all day Tues.) Aix is also the birthplace of Paul Cézanne who was born here in 1839 but left to join his colleagues and the impressionistic fever that prevailed in Paris. He returned to his hometown in 1870 and settled here until his death in 1906. You can visit the studio he built, Atelier Paul Cezanne, set behind a little wooden gate just north of the old quarter. Paul Cézanne studied in Aix with Émile Zola and the distant Mont Saint Victoire, which inspired much of his work, can be seen from various vantage points in the city. (Closed noon to 2 pm except in summer-noon to 2:30 pm, and all day Tues.)

From Aix en Provence you travel north on country roads through groves of olive trees and acres of vineyards to the hilltowns of Haute Provence. Less traveled, the medieval hillside perched villages of this region are intriguing to explore.

From Aix follow the N7 northwest in the direction of Saint Cannat. Turn north 6 kilometers out of Aix at Lignane, following the D543 north across the Chaîne de la Tréversse, to Silvacane on the waters of the River Durance and the Canal de Marseille. Cross the river and the D543 becomes the D943, traveling first to Cadenet and then on to Loumarin, the capital of this region of Luberon. Loumarin is a small city surrounded by the bounty of the region: fruit trees, flowers, and produce. The château on the outskirts of town is a school for artists.

From Loumarin, the D943 enjoys the beautiful path of the Aigue Brun for 6 kilometers and then you take the D36 just a few kilometers farther west to the hillside village of Bonnieux. From Bonnieux you can wind a course northeast to the thriving city of Apt, known for its crystallized fruits and preserves, truffles, lavender perfume, and old Sainte Anne Cathedral, which is still the site of an annual pilgrimage. From Apt follow the N100 west for 4½ kilometers to the D4 north to the turnoff west to Roussillon. Another option is to navigate a course directly north to Roussillon, an exploration along countryside roads.

Whichever the route, Roussillon is worth the effort to find. This lovely village is a maze of narrow streets, small shops, and restaurants that climb to the town’s summit. In various shades of ochres, Roussillon is an enchanting village, especially on a clear day when the sun warms and intensifies the colors.

From Roussillon travel first north on the D105 and then west on the D2 to the neighboring village of Gordes, perched at one end of the Vaucluse Plateau and dominating the Imergue Valley. Bathed in tones of gray, this is a wonderful place. Off its main square are some inviting cafés, restaurants, and shops selling Provence’s wonderful bounties: lavender, olive oils, wines, regional dolls (santons), and garments in the charming local fabrics. Gordes is also known for the ancient village of 20 restored bories, or dry-stone huts, that lie in its shadow. Unusual in their round or rectangular shapes, these intriguing buildings (many of which accommodate 20th-century comforts) are thought to date from the 17th century.

Across from Gordes, Joucas is a perfectly preserved jewel of a village perched above the Luberon Valley.

Just four kilometers to the north of Gordes is Senanque, a 12th-century Cistercian abbey standing drama-tically isolated at the edge of the mountainside surrounded by lavender and oak trees. Vacated by the monks in 1869 and accessible on foot by a 2-kilometer path up from the car park, the abbey is now a religious cultural center and hosts concerts in the summer months.

From Senanque follow the small country road (D177) north to connect with the D4 and then travel west through the dense Forest of Vénasque to the beautiful and striking hilltop village of Vénasque. Charmingly untouched by civilization, this village is tucked in a dense forest cupped between two steep hills and is notable for its 6th-century Église de Notre Dame and the 17th-century Chapelle Notre Dame de Vie. The town comes to life during the early summer when it is the market center for the region’s cherry crop. Near Vénasque is another lovely hilltop village, Crillon le Brave.

From Vénasque weave a course south in the direction of the market town of Cavaillon. Known for its melon fields, Cavaillon is another village to include on your itinerary if your schedule permits. On the outskirts of Cavaillon, detour east to the amazing Fontaine de Vaucluse, fed by rainwater that seeps through the Vaucluse Plateau . In the late afternoon as the sun begins its descent, walk around this celebrated natural fountain: at certain times of the year the shooting water is so powerful that it becomes dangerous and the fountain is closed to observers. The most dramatic seasons to visit the spewing fountain are winter and spring. Over a million tourists travel to Vaucluse each year to see the fountain, but few venture the 4 kilometers farther to the idyllic perched village of Saumane de Vaucluse. whose hillside location affords an idyllic spot from which to watch the sun bathe the countryside in the soft hues so characteristic of Provence.

Retrace a path back in the direction of Cavaillon from Fontaine de Vaucluse and take the N100 southwest in the direction of Avignon. A wonderful place to stop en route, especially if you like antiques, is the country town of L’Isle sur la Sorgue, known for its many shops.

Considered a gateway to Provence, Avignon is one of France’s most interesting and beautiful cities. Easy to navigate, its medieval encasement is encircled by one main boulevard and various gates allow entry into the walled city. The Porte de l’Oulle on the northwestern perimeter has parking just outside the wall and a small tourist booth with maps and information, and provides convenient access into the heart of the old city. The Porte de la Republique on the south side is opposite the train station and opens onto the Cour Jean Jaures, the location of the main tourist office. The Cour Jean Jaures becomes the Rue de la République and leads straight to the Place du Palais on the city’s northern border. You might want to inquire at the tourist office about the miniature train that travels the city, highlighting the key points of interest, and the excellent guide service that conducts either full- or half-day walking tours of the city. Avignon is fun to explore-a wonderful selection of shops line its streets, a festive air prevails with numerous street performers, and the historical attractions are monumental.

Avignon was the papal residency from 1309 to 1377 and the Palais des Papes is a highlight of a visit to this lovely city-if only to stand on the main square and look up at the long, soft-yellow stone structure that dominates the city skyline, stretching the length of the square and towering against the blue skies of Provence. If time permits, enter the papal city through the Porte des Chapeaux into the Grande Cour. A little shop just off the entrance provides maps, information, and admission into the palace. Just off the entry, the impressive inner courtyard and beginning point for a palace tour is often a stage for the open-air theater performances of the popular summer festival.

Allow approximately an hour to explore the palace effectively, noting the distinction between the old palace, built by Pope Benedict XII from 1334 to 1342, and the new palace commissioned by his successor, Pope Clement VI, and finished in 1348. The tour will take you down the Hall of the Consistory (Aile du Consistoire), hung with portraits of popes who resided in Avignon, to the upstairs banqueting hall (Grand Tinel), to the impressive Deer Room (Chambre du Cerf), whose walls display a beautifully painted fresco by Giovanetti depicting the decadent life of leisure led by the papal court in the 14th century, on to the Audience Hall (Aile de Grande Audience), elaborate with its star-studded ceiling, and the magnificent Saint Martial Chapel (open only on Sun for church service, tel: 04.90.27.50.00)

Devote the majority of your time to visiting this feudal structure, but don’t miss the two lovely churches, Cathedral de Notre Dame des Doms and L’Eglise Saint Didier. Just off the Rue Joseph Vernet is the Musée Calvet, . named for the doctor who bequeathed his personal collection of art and funds to launch it. The museum displays a rich collection of work from artists of the French and Avignon schools of painting and sculpture: Delacroix, Corot, and Manet are some of the impressive masters represented. (Closed 1 to 2 pm and all day Tues.)

Although only four of its original twenty-two arches still stand, the Pont Saint Bénezet is an impressive sight. A small chapel still sits on one of its piers and shadows the waters of the encircling River Rhône. This is the bridge referred to in the song familiar to all French children, “Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y dance, on y dance.” Even if all the arches still stood, passage would be difficult by modern-day transportation as the bridge was constructed at the end of the 12th century with pedestrians and horses in mind.

Villeneuve les Avignon is separated from Avignon by the Rhône. (Cross the river by following the N100 west of the city and then turn immediately on D900 in the direction of Villeneuve.) Villeneuve flourished when the pope held residence in Avignon and a number of cardinals chose it for their magnificent estates. Today it presents a lovely setting on the river, enjoys magnificent views of its neighbor, and yet benefits from a quieter setting and pace. A stronghold that once guarded the frontier of France when Avignon was allied to the Holy Roman Empire, it has towering on its skyline Fort Saint André whose vantage point commands a magnificent view across the Rhône to Avignon and the Popes’ Palace. Another military structure still standing is the Philippe le Bel Tower and the curator is often on hand to provide all the historical facts. The Saturday morning antique and flea market is a popular attraction.

From Avignon it is a very pleasant drive south along a lazy, tree-lined road, the D571, to Saint Rémy de Provence, a pretty, sleepy town, nestled in the shade of its plane trees. Of interest in the town are a Romanesque church, Renaissance houses, and a busy public square.

On the outskirts of Saint Rémy, following the D5 south in the direction of Les Baux de Provence, you can visit the Clinique de Saint Paul where Van Gogh was nursed back to health after slicing off his earlobe; Les Antiques, an impressive arch and mausoleum commissioned by Augustus; and Glanum, a thriving point of commerce during the Gallo-Greek years that was virtually destroyed in the 3rd century.

From Saint Rémy it is a beautiful drive along the D5 as it winds through the chalky gray hills referred to as Les Alpilles and then turns off to cover the short distance across the valley to the charming Provençal village of Les Baux de Provence. (The mineral bauxite was discovered here and derives its name from the town.)

The village appears to be a continuation of the rocky spur from which it rises. This site has been occupied for the past 5,000 years, and is now visited by more than a million visitors every year. A number of craft shops, inviting crêperies, and ice cream vendors are tucked away along the village streets. From Les Baux you have splendid views of the area.

 

En route to the lovely Roman city of Arles from Les Baux, the D17 travels first to the small roadside town of Fontvieille. Fontvieille is home to a wonderful hotel and restaurant, La Régalido, and is also worth a stop to visit the Moulin de Daudet, an abandoned mill set on the hillside above town, reputedly where Daudet wrote Letters from My Windmill.

Continuing on the back road from Fontvieille, the D33, as it travels beyond the mill, passes the ruins of an old Roman Aqueduct that stands unceremoniously in a field just off the road at the intersection of the D82. Head west from the aqueduct along the D82 to connect with the D17 and travel once again in the direction of Arles. On the approach to the city, surrounded by fields, stand the ruins of Abbaye de Montmajour, which was built in the 10th century by Benedictine monks.

The skyline of Arles can be seen as you approach the city. Abounding in character, this is a truly lovely city whose growth is governed by the banks and curves of the Rhône. It has fierce ties to its Roman past when it thrived as a strong port city and gateway. Arles is glorified because of its magnificent Gallo-Roman arenas and theaters in the heart of the old city. This is a city to explore on foot: it is fun to wander through the narrow maze of winding streets that weave through the old section. Bullfights and festivals are still staged in the magnificent Arles Amphitheatre, or arena, able to accommodate in its prime more than 20,000 spectators. (Open Jun to Sep all day, Oct to May seasonal hours.)

The Arles Théâtre Antique, although apparently a ruin by day, becomes a lovely stage on summer nights under the soft lights of the Festival d’Arles. (Same hours as the Amphithéâtre.) The Place du Forum is bordered by cafés and is a social spot to settle in the afternoons and into the balmy evenings of Provence. Just a block from the Place du Forum, the Muséon Arlaten was conceived and funded by the town’s poet, Frédéric Mistral, from the money he received for winning the Nobel Prize in literature, to honor all that is Provençal. The museum is rich in its portrayal of the culture and fierce traditions of Provence. (Closed noon to 2 pm and all day Mon in winter.) Another fascinating museum in Arles is the Musée de l’Arles Antique, just south of the Nouveau Pont, which you can reach by walking along the ramparts on the edge of the Rhône. Large and open, the museum houses a dramatic display of sarcophagi, mosaics, statuary, models, and replicas depicting the dramatic arenas and theaters, as well as jewelry, tools, and pottery that lend a glimpse of life in ancient Arles. It is built on a site overlooking the ruins of the Roman hippodrome and from the rooftop of the museum you can see the outline of the track, which in time they hope to restore to its original dimensions. (Open Apr to Oct, 9 am to 7 pm daily; rest of year 10 am to 6 pm, closed Tues.)

At the gateway to the Camargue and nestled at the heart of Provence, Arles is a wonderful base from which to experience the region.

Nîmes lies approximately 35 kilometers west of Arles. A Gaelic capital, it was also popular with the Romans who built its monuments. Without fail see the Nîmes Amphithéâtre that once held 21,000 spectators, the Nîmes Arenas, Maison Carrée, the best-preserved Roman temple in the world, and the magnificent fountain gardens.

As a final destination, journey just another 20 kilometers or so north of Nîmes (N86 Remoulins, D981) to the spectacular Pont du Gard, an aqueduct that impressively bridges the River Gard.  Still intact, three tiers of stone arches tower more than 36 meters across the valley. Built by Roman engineers about 20 B.C. as part of a 50-kilometer-long system bringing water from Uzès to Nîmes, the aqueduct remains one of the world’s marvels. Park in the car park amid the tourist stalls and food stands and walk a pedestrian road to the span of river that thankfully lies uncluttered, dominated only by the impact and shadow of the towering structure.

From Pont du Gard, you can easily return to Nîmes or complete the circle back to Avignon.

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