By Briana Seftel
The bucolic beauty, extraordinary light and good food and wine of Provence enchant all who visit. After all, it was the author Peter Mayle who extolled the region in his bestselling novel A Year in Provence. From fields of fragrant lavender to ancient Roman structures, Provence truly embodies the essence of la belle vie (the beautiful life). When exploring this region in the south of France, you’ll certainly need a handy guide on what to see and do to get the most out of your Provencal getaway.
What to Know
Provence was the first region in France to fall under Roman rule and the remains of the mighty empire can still be seen throughout, from the pantheon in Nimes to the amphitheater in Arles. With its strategic location between Italy and Spain, Provence became an important trading hub and in the 14th century, it was the powerful seat of the Catholic Church.
Provence has long been known as an artist’s haven, attracting such masters as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Auguste Renoir, Henri Matisse and many, many more. It’s easy to see why: with its wide, expansive rolling hills and warm stone villages, the pleasures of Provence unfold like a beautiful painting. Add in outdoor markets, excellent wine and scene-stealing natural wonders, and you might as well have the perfect vacation destination.
When to Go
With a mild Mediterranean climate year round, there really is no bad time to visit Provence. Like the rest of France, peak season is the summer months from June to August, when the crowds swell and the weather is hot and dry. A major summer event in Provence is the Festival International d'art Lyrique in Aix, a festival dedicated to opera and classical music. The French take their holiday vacations in August, so keep in mind some businesses might be closed. To see the famous lavender fields in full bloom, plan a trip in mid to late spring.
How to Get Around
Unless you plan on staying stay in one city like Avignon or Aix, you’ll need a car in Provence. There’s nothing quite like driving Provence’s winding roads through beautiful countryside and discovering small towns along the way. Book a rental car online and well in advance for the best rate (go here for more info on renting a car in France). If you’re not totally comfortable driving a car, hiring a driver is another recommended option.
Where to Eat
Of course, a trip to Provence requires eating typical Provencal cuisine. Bouillabaisse (Provencal fish stew), anchoïade or tapenade (anchovy or olive spread) and ratatouille are just a few common dishes you’ll find on menus where seasonal fruits, vegetables and herbs take center stage. No meal is truly complete without pastis, an anise-flavored aperitif. Below are just a few of our favorite places to eat and drink in the region.
- Le Galoubet 18 Rue du Dr Fanton, 13200 Arles Phone: +33 4 90 93 18 11
- L’Epicerie 10 Place Saint-Pierre, 84000 Avignon Phone: +33 4 90 82 74 22
- La Bonne Etape Chemin du Lac, 04160 Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban Phone: +33 4 92 64 00 09
- La Gueule du Loup 39 Rue des Arènes, 13200 Arles Phone: +33 4 90 96 96 69
- Les Deux Garçons Aix 18 Rue du Dr Fanton, 13200 Arles Phone: +33 4 90 93 18 11
- Le Mas Tourteron 53 Cours Mirabeau, 13100 Aix-en-Provence Phone: +33 4 42 26 00 51
- Le Bistrot du Paradou 57 Avenue de la Vallée des Baux, 13520 Paradou Phone: +33 4 90 54 32 70
The quintessential Provencal town, Aix-en-Provence is where many travelers begin or end their country adventure. Stroll the tree-lined main street Cours Mirabeau, which is like a smaller rural version of the Champs Elysees in Paris. Stop for a breather at one of the many fountains, and watch the world go by at an outdoor cafe. Also worth visiting is Atelier Cezanne, the studio of famed Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne.
Set on the Rhone River, Avignon is a medieval town with a fascinating history. From 1309 to 1377, it was the seat of the Catholic Church, and that legacy can still be seen at the UNESCO-certified Palais de Papes surrounded by fortified walls. With a large student population, Avignon maintains a youthful glow, while the annual Festival d'Avignon in July draws crowds for its celebration of contemporary performing arts.
An important river port, Arles played a strategic role in the Roman Empire. In its later years, the town became well known as the residence of Vincent Van Gogh, who lived in Arles for two years and painted some 300 works of art. Twice a week, Arles comes alive during the outdoor market with heaps of colorful produce ready to be eaten. Nearby, the Camargue provides a welcome respite from the bustling town with its famous flamingos and white horses.
A city of incredible Roman ruins, strolling around Nimes is like walking through an open-air museum. Central to the town is the arena, the best preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world. You can still catch a thrilling bullfighting show here and experience life as it was thousands of years ago. Les Jardins de la Fontaine is a beautiful 17th-century park, and the first built not for royalty but for the public.
Pont du Gard
Close to Nimes, the Pont du Gard is perhaps the most recognizable Roman structure in Provence, if not all of France. Built over the Gardon River, the 2,000-year-old aqueduct was built to supply water to Nimes and was made entirely without mortar. Just a few short steps on the left bank, a museum offers visitors an in-depth history of the bridge.
Palais des Papes
One of the most visited places in France, Palais des Papes is the former papal residence in the heart of Avignon. It is the biggest Gothic palace in all of Europe that was the symbol of the Christian Western world during the 14th century. Visitors can see more than 20 rooms in the palace, including the Papal apartments with their priceless frescoes painted by the Italian artist Matteo Giovannetti.
Known as the Grand Canyon of Europe, the Verdon Gorge (aka Gorges du Verdon) is pure jaw-dropping beauty. An electric blue river in between steep limestone cliffs, the gorge is one of the must-see natural wonders of central Provence. The best way to experience this area is by kayak, which can be rented at the top end of the Lac de Sainte Croix.
A true hidden gem, Reattu Museum houses one of the best art collections you’ll find in Provence. Named after the Arles-born painter Jacques Reattu, the museum is located in the late 15th century Grand Priory of the Order of Malta. Inside, you’ll find an extensive collection of works by Reattu, as well as 57 sketches from Picasso and a letter from Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin.
Founded in 1148 by a community of Cistercian monks, Senanque Abbey is a stunning religious and cultural monument in Provence. Nestled among lavender fields near the village of Gordes, the working abbey is home to an order of monks who make ends meet by selling lavender and honey to visitors.
Travel tip: Guided tours are only offered in French.
Tips and Tricks
Many people in Provence speak French with a strong regional accent. Brush up on your French and expect to say pouvez-vous répéter? (can you please repeat?)
You will likely see locals playing petanque or boules, a game similar to bocce where the goal is to get your boule (a heavy metal ball) closest to a smaller target ball.
Provence is famous for its fields of fragrant lavender, which becomes the signature scent of the region. Pick up a sachet of dried lavender or a bottle of perfume while you’re there.
The wine to drink in Provence is Cotes du Rhone, grown along the sunbaked hills of the Rhone River.
The word “denim” comes from Nimes (de Nimes).