Provence is one of the most beautiful regions of France. Lying in the south-east of France, it takes in the Vaucluse, Bouches-du-Rhone, Var, Alpes-de-Hautes-Provence, and the Alpes-Maritimes. From the snow-capped mountains of the Alps and the splendors of the Verdon gorge to lavender fields, the sparkling blue Mediterranean sea and Roman towns such as Nimes, it has everything the visitor could want. While you could spend weeks exploring this scenic and historic region, here are 10 things you absolutely shouldn't miss.
Visit the Palais des Papes in Avignon
The Palace of the Popes in Avignon stands high above the town, an incredible mass of towers and solid high walls colored a deep orange in the Mediterranean sun. Avignon was once the heart of Christendom, elevated to the top position by Pope Clement V who moved the Papacy here in 1309 at the invitation of the French King. As much a political move by the French monarch to extend his power over the church as the safeguarding of the Popes from a pretty dodgy time in Italy, the movement made Avignon the most important city of Europe for nearly a century. It took just 20 years, from 1335 to 1355, to build a palace grand and large enough for the Popes who brought all their servants, secretaries and papal business with them.
Pope Clement was succeeded by John XXII (of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose), then Benedict XII who built the Old Palace, and Clement VI who added the New Palace in the extraordinary Gothic style, giving the building its distinctive outline stone walls.
Highlights in the include St. John’s and St. Martin’s Chapels, with their 14th-century frescoes, the Pope’s chamber in the Tour des Anges decorated with intricate foliage and birds, the Stag Room of Clement VI with huge hunting and fishing frescoes, and the Great Audience Hall where the grandly named Court of Apostolic Causes met to pass judgment, against which there was no appeal.
Taste Wine at Vineyards in Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a medieval village where the Château des Papes, built in 1317, looks out over the rolling hillsides and lavender fields. The château was the summer home of the Avignon popes, but the village's main claim to fame is the wine of the same name.
Start at the Musée du Vin for a glimpse at the history of the area and of this particular winemaker. The Tourist Office on place du Portai has information on the various vineyards in the area where you can taste and buy. You can also find out about walks, cycle rides and accommodation and restaurant recommendations.
See the Famous White Horses (and Cowboys) of the Camargue
The Camargue, in the mouth of the mighty Rhone River, is French cowboy country. On an island where the river divides, the remote area is home to these guardians who herd the black bulls and ride the white horses that characterize the salt marshes. For the nature lover, there's an extraordinary variety of wild birds including pink flamingos. If it’s bird watching that interests you, make for the Parc Ornithologique du Pont-de-Gau, which you'll find easily off the D570 just north of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Horseback riders wanting to take to the marshes should consider an accompanied ride, leaving from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
See the Roman City of Nîmes
Nîmes, which lies on the border between Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon, is a Roman city with some impressive remains. Start at the wonderfully preserved Les Arenes, the first-century Roman arena. Two stories of tiered seats housed the crowds of up to 20,000 who came to watch the gladiators fight, and the charioteers race their teams around the vast enclosed arena. Today it’s the place for bullfighting and for Roman games which take place on a May weekend.
The other must-see sight in the city is the Maison Carrée, a temple built in the 5th century and subsequently used by Napoleon as a model for the Madeleine church in Paris.
For modernists, Nîmes has some famous recent buildings like the glass, concrete, and steel Carrée d’Art designed by British architect Norman Foster. It houses the Musée d’Art Contemporain with an excellent collection of French and Western European art from the 1960s through present-day.
Visit Lavender Fields at the Abbaye de Senanque
The 11th-century Cistercian Abbaye de Sénanque in the Luberon is one of the iconic images of Provence. Surrounded by deep colored lavender fields, its robust Romanesque architecture radiates peace and tranquility, encapsulating the original aim of Bernard of Clairvaux who founded the Cistercians as a simple, pure order in the 12th century.
Like all monasteries, its fortunes waned from its high point in the 13th century, and it was torched, struck with plague and attacked by the French Revolutionaries. Rescued by a private foundation of friends, it now has five monks living here permanently and has become one of the most visited abbeys in the south of France.
You can walk through the cloisters, its columns carved with fruit and vines, making a welcome cool respite in the heat of the summer and look at the tomb of the 13th-century Lord of Venasque in the nave. Other buildings include the calefactory, which was the only heated room where monks could read and write, the vaulted dormitory, and the chapter house lined with stone seats so the monks could sit to listen to the readings of the abbot.
Shop for Antiques in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
If you’re antique shopping, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is the village to come to. It’s near Avignon so is easily accessible if you're in the area. More than 300 outlets sell antiques, china, glass, furniture, paintings, and just about anything you can imagine.
It’s a chic town that owes its wealth originally to the watermills that pressed grain and oil. Today many of the shops are housed in the old mills and factory buildings and on Sunday there’s also a brocante fair along the river’s edge, where the goods are more bric-a-brac than antiques, and cheaper as a result. In addition, there are huge international antique fairs at Easter and in the autumn.
See the Perched Village of Gordes
"Perched villages" are one of the endearing sights in Provence. Located high up on rocky crags, they look out over the surrounding countryside. Originally built around the local medieval castle, the villages once defended a valley or hill from the enemy. They have defensive walls, and often just one gateway as the entrance. Steep, narrow streets, often with arcaded passageways, wind through the villages, passing the all-important public fountain and the small church.
You’ll come across them all over Provence, many with beautiful, smart and expensive hotels offering accommodation. Once inhabited by poor peasants, today you’re more likely to find the streets and bars full of fashionable French who’ve converted the previously insanitary hovels into chic second homes.
Among the most beautiful is Gordes, about 25 miles east of Avignon in the Luberon, and near the Abbaye de Senanque. The village rises in terraces, its cobbled streets full of tall houses leading up to the castle, rebuilt in 1525 and now the town hall and museum. Like much of this part of the south of France, it attracted artists and the likes of Marc Chagall, Victor Vasarely and Pol Mara all spent time here.
Drive Up the Gorges du Verdon
The drive up to the Verdon gorge is spectacular, mainly if you take the D71 from Comps-sur-Artuby through the blasted heath that is the vast military terrain of the Camp de Canjuers. You arrive at the Balcons de la Mescla and look down some 250 meters to the 15-mile long Verdon gorge that contains the river. The road snakes like a serpent above the river until you reach the vast Lac de Sainte Croix, made by damming the river near Ste-Croix village.
Stop to visit some of the charming villages that line the banks: Aiguines has a 17th-century chateau, and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie to the north of the Gorges is picture-postcard pretty and has good pottery to buy.
If you’re energetic, take the long GR4 walking trail through the canyon, with a smaller part known as the Martel Train taking you through the middle of it. There’s also rock climbing and whitewater rafting available.
Visit the Ancient Town of Vaison-la-Romaine
With a Roman bridge, remains like the Puymin, an essential district in Roman times, an entire medieval haute ville (upper town), and a ruined cliff top castle built in 1160 by the Count of Toulouse, Vaison-la-Romaine is an attractive place. It started life as a flourishing Roman town, then over the centuries was buried by sand from the river. Rebuilt in the Middle Ages, the Roman remains were only discovered by archaeologists in 1907.
The old quarter of the upper town to the south of the river has delightful 17th-century townhouses and fountains protected by stone ramparts and a massive 14th-century gateway. It’s linked to the Roman residential districts by the Pont Romain that takes you to the north part of the river. Here you’ll find the Maison des Messii, home of a prominent Roman family; the theater with 34 semi-circular rows of stone benches used today for the July festival, the House with the Dolphin and the impressive portico of Pompey.
Visit the Mercantour National Park and the Vallee des Merveilles
The Parc National de Mercantour is a vast mountain park in the east near the Italian border. More dramatic and in many places bleaker than the Verdon gorge, this is one of France’s great wildlife habitats, with chamois, ibex, golden eagles and birds of prey, hoopoes, ptarmigan, and many more species.
One of the most spectacular walks is in the Vallée des Merveilles (the Valley of Marvels), which has some excellent rock engravings from the Bronze Age. It's best to do a guided walk with experienced guides; if you want to do an overnight hike, you’ll be staying in the various refuges, carrying your own equipment and food.