PROVENCE, lavender fields, perched villages and vineyards
Provence has been a top tourist destination for decades. And with its pastoral landscapes, fragrant Provence lavender fields, world-famous vineyards, perched villages and vibrant towns and cities, it’s easy to see why. With its typical Mediterranean weather, Provence is the perfect French destination for a vacation in the sun.
What to see and do in Provence
Two thousand years ago, the region now known as Provence was part of Roman Gaul, and the Romans left behind a rich legacy of monuments, buildings, roads, and even vineyards, making Provence one of the best places in France to see Roman ruins.
The city of Nîmes, with its pretty, palm-lined streets, was once one of the most important cities of Roman Gaul, and today tourists flock there to see the impressive Roman amphitheater. The two-tiered structure was built to seat 24,000 spectators, who crowded together to watch gladiatorial contests and public executions. Nowadays, the amphitheater hosts less gruesome events like concerts and other performances. The adjacent museum has reproductions of gladiatorial armor, and even original bullfighting costumes. Other Roman sights in Nîmes include the Maison Carrée (“square house” – though it’s actually rectangular) and the ambitious Musée de la Romanité, a museum containing over 5000 artefacts from the region.
Other important towns in Provence include Arles, a place that will probably give you a strange sense of déjà-vu even if you’ve never heard of it. Vincent Van Gogh spent just over a year there in 1888-89 and painted some 200 paintings of the place. Naturally, the town has capitalized on this claim to fame somewhat, and many of the most popular tourist attractions are related to the artist.
Another of the region’s major towns is Avignon, most famous today for its annual arts festival, which spans several weeks every July. Things to do in Avignon include exploring the medieval ramparts and bridge, wandering leafy lanes, and, of course, indulging in Provençal delicacies in one of the many fine restaurants. The main attraction, though, is the Palais des Papes – Popes’ Palace – the largest gothic palace ever built, which has featured on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1995. Seven successive popes lived there for almost seventy years in the 14th century, following a conflict between the papacy and the French crown.
If you’re less interested in history and more in left-bank, Parisian chic, then don’t miss Aix-en-Provence (“aix” is pronounced like the letter “x”). Aix is an elegant city, famous for its leafy boulevards, inviting cafes and restaurants, and pristine squares lined with 17th and 18th-century mansions. Cour Mirabeau is the grandest avenue – laid out in 1650, it’s guarded by a pair of stone lions who overlook those café-hopping along the street. One of the best things to do in Aix-en-Provence is to head to the medieval-renaissance old town, particularly on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays when the bustling market takes over the squares. For the grandest aristocratic townhouses, don’t miss the Mazarin district.
Aix is also the birthplace of French painter Paul Cézanne, who loved the place. Visitors today can visit the artist’s own workshop, and permanent collections of his work can be admired at two museums, the Musée Granet and the Hôtel Caumont. To get a taste of Cézanne’s landscapes, a drive along the Route Cézanne – Cézanne Road – is in order. The only French road to be classed as a Historic Monument, the road links Aix-en-Provence to the village of Le Tholonet, and is famous for the extraordinary beauty of the landscapes it runs through.
Not far from Aix is the cultured and charming St-Rémy-de-Provence, a much smaller town which has managed to retain its charm and identity despite its status as a tourist hotspot. Like much of Provence, it’s busy in the summer, but it’s still possible to find peace in the tranquil backstreets of the old town.
Of course, a Provence holiday is just as well spent driving the back roads through the varied and beautiful countryside. The region is home to France’s deepest gorge and oldest road, and lavender fields, olive groves, and snow-topped mountains speeding past the window make for an extremely scenic drive. For those seeking outdoor pursuits, the Lubéron mountain range and national parks, perfect for hiking, kayaking and canoeing. The area is also home to some of the most picturesque villages in France, such as Roussillon, Gordes, and Ménerbes, whose houses perch precariously on the rocky hillsides.
And if visiting Nîmes (and Arles, which also has an amphitheater) has whet your appetite for Gallo-Roman history, the once thriving Roman town of Glanum is well worth a trip. Including baths, temples, columns, houses and marketplaces, the archaeological site will give you a glimpse into the everyday lives of the romans in Gaul 2000 years ago.
And of course, you can hardly talk about Provence without mentioning wine. Historically specializing in rosé which is best sipped on a terrasse in Aix or watching the sunset on a rocky hillside in the Lubéron, the Provence wine region has been making wine for centuries, and has no shortage of vineyards to visit. These days, many younger vignerons are moving towards organic wines and traditional methods of farming, so you may well stumble on pleasant pastoral scenes from times gone by, with fields being ploughed by horses, or flocks of sheep grazing instead of using weedkillers.
The best time to go to Provence
Provence is at its busiest in July and August, when beaches and attractions will be crowded, and hotels booked out. However, the famous art festivals in Avignon and Aix-en-Provence make it worth the crowds.
And there’s another reason to visit Provence in the summer too: the rolling fields of fragrant lavender pictured on the covers of so many guidebooks and travel magazines are in full bloom from late June to early August, the best period to see Provence lavender fields.
For a more peaceful Provence holiday, try April-June and September-October, when the weather will be more tolerable than in the scorching summer, and the cities more peaceful.
While it’s certainly possible to travel to Provence in the winter (and the idea of spending the holidays in the South of France is an attractive one), note that many hotels close up shop for several months.
Travel to Provence with Paris-Toujours
Need some help planning your Provence holiday? We can organize private day tours to the Lubéron, an area named for the mountain range it’s sprawled over, and encompassing vineyards, ancient abbeys, Provence lavender fields, and villages perched precariously on the hillsides.
We can also arrange private tours to the craggy Alpilles mountains, where more hilltop villages like Les Baux de Provence and impressive scenery await you.
We’ve also organized plenty of private wine tours and tastings of famous wines like Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras, and private tours of the roman sites scattered around the region.
If the sound of all that exploring makes you hungry, we’ve got you covered too: how about a private Provençal cooking class with a view over the Lubéron hills?
And for the more active among our guests, we can organize a private bike tour at the foot of Mont Ventoux, Provence’s highest peak and world famous étape of the Tour de France.
Have other ideas? Whatever your Provençal dreams, contact us today to make them a reality!
Only with Paris-Toujours
Just across the Rhone River from Avignon lies Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, a compact town with plenty of attractions, but without the crowds of Avignon or Aix. Join us as we explore a 14th century hilltop fort with spectacular sweeping vistas over the surrounding countryside, and the Carthusian monastery – La Chartreuse – and its gardens.