Most people journey to Provence for at least 7-14 days to sample fresh produce, admire the beautiful scenery, enjoy the long and hot summer days, and generally adapt to the Provencal way of life. Provence is located in the South Eastern region of France, and is blessed with warm Mediterranean weather which makes it an ideal holiday destination for most of the year. For the time poor traveller with only 3-4 days to spare but still wants to soak up the beauty of this region in France, this itinerary packs in the highlights in the small towns and sights worth exploring, primarily in the Vaucluse and St-Remy-de-Provence region – perfect if you only have 4 days in Provence.
This is one of the larger towns in Provence in the Vaucluse region, and definitely worth exploring because of its place in history and its accessibility. You are likely to find yourself here after taking the TGV from Paris or Marseille, so why not explore the town? It is also a great place to find food and restaurants given it is a much larger town. Always an important factor whilst travelling!
Avignon is probably most well known in the region as the ‘Papal City’ where the Roman Catholic Church once fled to during the 14th century. The Palais des Papes (Papal Palace) is definitely worth touring whilst you are here. Be amazed by the architecture of the fortress-castle, the numerous rooms that make-up such a structure, and appreciate the history of this Palace. You will discover why Avignon used to be known as the ‘Vatican of the North’ after touring the palace.
Another highlight of any Avignon visit is the sight of Pont St-Benezet – the ‘unfinished’ bridge. Made famous by French childrens song “Sur le pont d’Avignon on y danse, on y danse…” You can pay a fee to go on the bridge, walk to the edge of it and take a photo, or do what I did with my friends – due to our inability to follow GPS instructions, we were guided around the walled city of Avignon several times which meant we kept seeing le pont.
Not all of Avignon is ancient, and whilst I was here with my friends, we were fortunate enough to experience the summer solstice in Avignon. Avignon is certainly not as big of a party-town as Paris, however there was music and performances in the streets which made the atmosphere and vibe of the town awesome. If you have more time in Avignon, do explore the city by foot. It may be an old town with a past, but it is modern too. We even found a trip to the local Carrefour a highlight!
Technically not a town, but it is on all the Provence marketing material so you simply have to visit this sight! One of the main reasons why we headed to Provence was because of the lovely photo spreads of lavender fields and this Abbey in the background. Don’t be surprised to find bus loads and car loads of tourists here, after all, it’s in all the marketing brochures.
You can pay an entry fee into the Abbey, however we had fun browsing (and buying) at the gift shop lavender products and ensuring we took plenty of photos of the lovely purple lavender flowers. Some useful trivia – lavender was introduced by the Romans to disinfect their baths and perfume their laundry back in the day; and the South of France still remains as the largest producer of lavender!
39km from Avignon, 10km from Fontaine de Vaucluse
The view as the car approached Gordes was simply breathtaking. I wish I had known that prior to the drive up so I could photograph it! Gordes is perched on this hilltop where the terrain appeared to be fairly dry and rocky, but it is simply amazing to see how one can blend the built environment so seamlessly with the natural environment. Gordes is one of the most famous towns in the Luberon region and once there I could comprehend why. We were lucky enough to catch the weekly markets – fresh produce, arts & crafts, and sample some of the fresh market foods, such as the pomme des terres (potatoes).
While in Gordes, spend some time exploring the cobbled stone paths – meandering around this small town is a pure joy.
14km from Gordes, 43 km from Avignon
After exploring the beauty of Gordes, I didn’t think another town could amaze me. I was wrong. The mix of bright orange and red colours derived from the naturally occurring ochre which Rousillon sits on gives this town its splendour. It is one of the premier villages in the Luberon region, and understandably so given its unique colour and formation. Even though this was only the second village we visited in Provence, I finally understood why they say no two villages in the Provence area are the same.
I must confess my main obsession with Rousillon were the coloured doors! I strategically positioned my friends to stand next to doors and windows to practise my photography. Like most towns in Provence, they rely on tourists dollars to keep it going, so be prepared to find yourself exploring a range of art & craft stores, as well as lavender stores whilst in any town or village in Provence.
25km from Avignon
Another ancient village in the Vaucluse region, as evident by castle ruins that dominate the skyline, is located at the end of a narrow valley which sits at the foot of the Vaucluse Mountains. Here we found ourselves back on ground level, where the main attraction of the town is the vivid hue of the emerald coloured river at the bottom of the cliffs. We enjoyed a walk along the river up to the main mill to appreciate nature.
Its amazing to think that driving in different directions within this small area one can find such variety in scenery. Luckily we got there around late-afternoon, after the tourists had done their sightseeing, so we managed to enjoy the town at our own leisurely pace.
23km from Avignon
This town is interesting as it is not a hilltop village, but one with many canals running through the town. We drove to this town once en-route to one of the other ones, and returned in the evening purely because we were recommended good restaurants here by the B&B owners we were staying with. It was nice to enjoy a relaxing meal by the canal after a long day of village touring. I should mention this town is actually more well-known as an antique market town! If you plan on finding some treasures in France, this is the place to visit.
Mention St-Remy-de-Provence and one artist will spring to mind – Vincent van Gogh. This fact alone was reason enough for me to head here! It was a bonus to see a field of sunflowers on the drive into St-Remy. Being the keen historian and art-history professional I wish I was, we visited St-Paul-de-Mausolee which is where van Gogh spent the last year of his life, in a psychiatric hospital. Here you will not find any real van Gogh paintings, only prints, however it is enough to give you an indication of the scenery that surrounded van Gogh which inspired him to paint St-Remy and bring this region onto the world stage.
About a ten minute drive out of the main town you will also find Roman ruins in Glanum. This was on our travel agenda, however the summer heat of Provence actually affected some travellers, so we abandoned this plan and just adapted to the Provencal way of life. We spent a lot of time exploring both the fresh food markets of St-Remy and wished we could just bring home a French pantry of fresh tomatoes, olives, cheese, pate, foie gras!
If you are in the business of buying art, there’s plenty of boutique art galleries to view and buy in St-Remy, however my pay cheque isn’t quite that high yet for me to enjoy such expenditures. St-Remy-de-Provence also has an abundance of cafes and shops – so after all the village hopping, it is a nice change of pace.
10km from St-Remy-de-Provence
This would have to be another Provence highlight and definite must see. Prior to driving to Les Baux, I really had no idea of the terrain that I’d have to drive into. Being a relatively conservative driver from Australia, where our roads are wide and flat, it was definitely a challenge to navigate our way through very winding and narrow roads. I should have known better given this town is in the Alpilles (Little Alps) region! Why is the GPS suddenly showing tree symbols? That’s right, we are heading into the mountains! Once you get to Les Baux, you wonder how people actually used to get up here without a car?!
The town is almost hidden in the skyline of stone.
Out of all the towns we visited in Provence, I really liked how one can do an independent tour of Les Baux as significant sights are marked with background information for tourists. It’s almost like heading to an art gallery, but outdoors!
A bonus for us was going to the Carrieres de Lumieres exhibition. The concept of displaying the works of famous French artists in a quarry using multimedia is such an innovative idea to present artworks. The exhibition from 2012 focussed on the works of van Gogh and Gaugain. It reminded me of the Vivid Sydney Light Festival, but this was in a cave! Definitely a highlight and bonus for all of us that managed to see it.
The best way to navigate through Provence is to hire a car. I explored various other options, and whilst a private tour looked like a fabulous idea, consider your price points before making that decision. I highly recommend hiring a car and exploring the region on your own though – you will drive through some amazing scenery, and part of the travel experience is also getting lost, even with a GPS. For more information, click here.
Today’s featured dispatch from Provence comes our way via Rachel Chen – a fellow traveller and close personal friend. Rachel is from Sydney, Australia. She loves traveling and blending it with a bit of photography and writing. Her blog is dedicated to documenting all her travels since 2006. She’s been to cities in the USA, Europe, UK, East Asia & South East Asia.
Rachel loves the energy of the mega cities, the food scene of South East Asia and wandering old streets. She also gets a kick out of finding cheap getaways via her uncanny knack of redeeming frequent flyer points for business class tickets. For more information on how to plan your own trip to the lavender fields of Provence, check out her blog, Rach Travel!