Southern France: Provence (and environs)

We just took a trip to the Provence region of southern France and had a fantastic time! The lavender fields are in full bloom for a few weeks in the summertime, which was the impetus for our trip. The lavender didn’t disappoint — and we discovered so much more in the surrounding area! The region has plenty of bucolic scenery, with rolling hills, hot sun, and the ever-present trill of cicadas in the background.


Orange

Our first stop was the town of Orange, where was visited an impressively well-preserved, huge Roman amphitheater in the center of town, which dates back to the 1st Century. (How did I not know about this before?) As part of the visit, we did a virtual reality show that demonstrated how it was built and what the theater looked like in its heyday. (The VR show is only a few Euros more and is worth it!)

Nearby is a ornately-carved Triumphal Arch dedicated to Roman emperor Tiberius… the photos looked amazing online, but it was completely covered in tarps for renovations when we got there. (Oh well… next time!) Orange also has a large Cathedral, great classical era architecture, several highly-rated gourmet restaurants, as well as an American-style diner.


Châteauneuf-du-Pape

As someone who enjoys a good wine from time to time, I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is famous for producing some outstanding French wines! The town is as small as it is famous, and despite its size, there are over 300 chateaus in the appellation. To learn more about the wine and production method, I booked a private tasting at Les Caves Saint Charles hosted by Master Sommelier Guy Bremond, who shared a range of reds and whites, traditional, modern, neo-classical, and specialty versions. While that experience would’ve been outstanding on its own, the atmosphere really upped the ante! The tasting was housed in a candle-lit stone cellar at the base of the city’s castle, which was founded by Pope Jean XXII as a summer home (he also planted the vineyards). I highly recommend doing this if you’re in town!

We also visited Chateau Fortia, which is housed in a picturesque castle with gorgeous vineyards overlooking the Pope’s castle in the background. Our host provided a great tasting, and a friendly explanation of the history of the region and the vineyard. This is another stop I strongly recommend making while in town– you won’t regret it!

We also went to Ogier, in the center of town, which has a scenic garden and offers an expansive variety of wines. I could’ve continued exploring wineries all day, but we had a full agenda and had to press onward. Besides, the mistral wind (a phenomenon common to this region) was exceptionally strong the day we arrived, which was another indicator that it was time to move along!

Note: for those of you who use the Vivino wine tasting app, feel free to add me (username: Michael Polyak) to see tasting notes on the wines here (and elsewhere!)


Avignon

Palais des Papes

We spent a couple afternoons in Avignon, which is famous for being the site of the Papacy from 1309 to 1376 stemming from a dispute between the Papacy and the French Crown. After the Papacy returned to Rome, the palace went through various stages over the subsequent centuries. At one point Napoleon’s troops used this palace as a base during the French revolution!

The Old City is ringed by well-preserved, castle-like ramparts, which give it a medieval feeling. The Palais des Papes cuts a dramatic figure in the center of town and is well worth a visit! The tour includes a tablet (‘Historypad’ or something like that), which was a bit confusing to use, but neat and innovative when it did work). Either way, this palace is the key sight in Avignon. (There is apparently a light show on the palace in the evening, but we didn’t stay for it. If anyone has seen it, I’d be eager to hear how it is!) At the base of the palace are plenty of restaurants, cafes, and souvenir shops.

Another key sight is the nearby Pont d’Avignon arched bridge, which spans over the Rhone river. It’s possible to buy a combo ticket to see that along with the Palais du Papes (for only 3 or 4 more Euro). North of the Palais is the Musée Du Petit Palais, where the Bishops lived during the 1300’s, alongside adjacent gardens.

We stayed in Hotel Saint Laurent in the nearby town of Saint-Laurent-des-Arbres. It was a cozy B&B– an old stone building in the center of town, which was very clean and appointed with antique furniture to match the area. It had an inviting garden and a rooftop pool, but we didn’t get the chance to go for a dip.

The town of Saint Laurent itself was also a fun place to spend an evening. The B&B owners made a dinner reservation at nearby Le Papet, a great gourmet restaurant with a garden terrace. We also wandered around and saw the town’s castle and cathedral and admired the ancient stonework comprising most of the town’s architecture.

Going for a nighttime stroll in the village

Note — for all of you #Starbuckslovers, there is a Starbucks at the Avignon TGV station, where we stopped one morning for a massive filter coffee. (What can I say — coffee addictions are tough to kick!)


Arles

Driving southwest, we stopped by Arles, a picturesque, walk-able city that is perhaps most famous for its connection to Van Gogh. Nestled in a pleasant courtyard in the center of town is Cafe du Nuit, a sidewalk cafe that is the subject of one of Van Gogh’s famous paintings by the same name. The menu seemed fairly overpriced (as you might expect for a famous tourist draw), but it had a great atmosphere, so we grabbed a drink and cooled our heels for a bit. Walking down to the river, another Van Gogh painting spot can be found at the Stairway Trinquetaille Bridge. For those who want to continue the Van Gogh circuit, there are museums and foundations bearing his name scattered throughout the city.

Yakpacker sighting at Cafe du Nuit

The city also has a rich Roman past, with a well-preserved two-story amphitheater, an adjacent open-air theater, a cemetery (Alyscamps), and a thermal bath dating back to the days of Byzantine Emperor Constantine.

Constantine-era bath

For dinner we ate at a sidewalk cafe at the gourmet restaurant Le Plaza-La Paillotte, which had fabulous food and I highly recommend! I especially enjoyed the scallops in a creamy sauce (almost like a vanilla, cooking cream, coconut milk, and butter… maybe with a touch of citrus : )

Best scallops ever!

While in this region, we stayed at Garrigae Abbaye de Sainte Croix – which was fabulous! It’s a hotel that was built out of a 12th Century abbey on a hilltop in the middle of a remote woodsy area. Each of the 25 rooms is unique, clean, and cozy. The property has a huge dining terrace / garden overlooking the valley below, as well as a pool and nearby hiking trails. It really felt like stepping back in time, and it allowed for some serious relaxation!

Indoor dining room at the Abbey
Having some evening coffee — and pastis– at the dining patio

Aix en Provence

Heading further south, we stopped at Aix en Provence, but just for long enough to grab some breakfast at a cafe, some sweets at Pâtisserie Béchard, and walk around the airy streets soaking up the scenery. Fans of French impressionist Cézanne will want to visit his studio, in the north of the city.

Fountain at Aix-en-Provence

Marseille

We eventually came to the city of Marseille, which was massive and expansive, with a true Mediterranean feeling. In the north of the city is Palais Longchamp — an ornate, expansive 19th century structure. Heading to the waterfront, the Cathedrale La Major stands out prominently, despite parts of it being under renovation. The MuCEM – Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean provides an overview of the Mediterranean region’s history — and sits next to the Memorial of Deportations and Fort Saint-Jean.

Cathedrale La Major

Heading along the Quai du Port street, through the Old Port, there are plenty of souvenir shops and seafood restaurants — note that Marseille is famous for Bouillebasse, a fabulous French seafood dish. Marseille is also famous for making soap — and outdoor soap stands abound throughout the old port. There is also a Soap Museum for those who want an extra dose of suds!

Old Port
Marseille Harbor — with view of Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde in the background

Further south is the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, which has a golden statue of Virgin Mary at the city’s highest point. Heading out of town, we took the road to the picture perfect coastal town of Cassis through the Parc national des Calanques — which is famous for its dramatic cliffs and blue water, similar to one on the island of Corsica. The roads down to the water required special permits and it would’ve been a hike of several kilometers down to the water — which we normally would’ve been up to– but given that the temperature was 93 degrees (F) that afternoon, we decided to give it a pass!

View over Marseille en route to the Calanques

We spent the night at Auberge du Parc in Orgon, a traditional stone chateau B&B set against a gorgeous park with a pool in a rural area. It was an exceptional find — and another recommendation! The rooms were comfortable, in an antique room with high ceilings– and the breakfast in the garden was really enjoyable!

Auberge du Parc — almost heaven!
View from our room
Our room

Lavender Fields

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the lavender fields were what prompted this trip, but as we did research, we discovered so many more things (those listed above) to explore! Even with all of those things, we barely scratched the surface and will definitely plan another trip to this region. We DID see lavender, however, and it was all that it was cracked up to be!

The below section could be its own blog post for those who want to do lavender tourism. From late June until mid-August the lavender fields are in bloom, and farmers typically begin harvesting it o/a August 15, when the flowers are at peak concentration. The lavender farms are scattered throughout the region, and we visited three key regions: 1) Luberon, 2) Valensole plateau, 3) fields near Mt. Ventoux.

While travelling through the region, there are numerous farms, shops, and museums that sell distilled lavender essential oil, sachets of lavender, and pretty much anything else lavender-based that you can imagine. Shop around before buying everything at the first place you visit!

Every place will be sure to point out the difference between Lavendin (the hybrid, which is much cheaper and grows at lower altitudes) and Lavender, (which is far more expensive and grows at higher altitudes).

Our first stop was the Lavender Museum near the town of Coustellet, which was okay if it’s the only lavender thing you plan to do on your trip. But for 10 Euro, it basically gave the same overview of the distillation process that you can learn about for free at any of the other places throughout the region (some of which I mention below).

At the first Lavender Museum

We then headed north to the town of Gordes, consisting of several ancient buildings perched alongside a hillside, surrounded by gardens. The road leading into town has plenty of parking areas where you can pull off and admire the view. Just west of Gordes is the Village de Bories, which has a series of beehive-shaped stone dwellings.

Gordes

After Gordes, we headed north to Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, which is surrounded by lavender fields and offers fantastic scenery. This is another key Yakpacker recommendation! It’s also possible to tour the abbey, and the gift shop sells the full range of lavender products, including delicious honey harvested by bees from the lavender fields.

Abbaye Notre-Dame de Senanque
Lavender fields at the Abbey — view from a nearby hillside

We then ventured north on winding country roads, stopping at a few lavender farms along the way, such as Ferme Auberge La Maguette, a family-owned spot that sells good products at reasonable prices. There are plenty of fields along the way for those who want to stop and take photos of lavender fields, as well. Just north of the town of Sault, we encountered more lavender farms, some of which I’ve flagged: here, here, and here.

We stopped at Distillerie Aroma’Plantes, and I’m glad we did! It provided a comprehensive (and free!) overview of the lavender distillation process, along with an interactive museum and videos explaining the process from start to finish. For those who want a detailed museum / learning experience — in my opinion, this is the best value and most comprehensive. They also have a large store and a cafe serving lavender infused food, drink, and beer.

For dinner, we went to the town of Sault, which was very scenic — a classic small town filled with colorful flowers and stone homes. We ate at O Pichoun, which had great French fare and burgers on a pleasant terrace overlooking the farm fields. (Note– the good seats overlooking the valley fill up quickly — best to make a reservation here!)

View over the plains from O’Pichoun restaurant at Sault

We then headed east to Manosque, which is home to the famous L’Occitane brand of skin care products. We took a tour at the factory, which was fun an informative (and free), and then ventured further on to Valensole— which is (yet another) inviting, pleasant town comprised of ancient stone buildings (France is literally full of these!). The area surrounding Valensole has some of the most scenic lavender fields, as well as several bright sunflower fields that form a nice contrast to the rich purple of the lavender. Again, for those wishing to photograph lavender fields, the Valensole plateau is your spot! (I’ve flagged some locations here and here).

4 Thoughts

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