Provence what to see was the question I asked myself when I made my first trip to Provence in 2003. Since then, this destination rich in history, art and romance has been the focus of my summer holidays for several years. One of the French regions most similar to my Tuscany and with a similar charm.
What to see in Provence
Provence is a place that has fascinated us so much that we have been there many times and this account of mine is based on a series of 6 trips made over 10 years that have allowed me to see much, but still not everything about the region.
The last trip was this summer where Ornella and I took those few of our family who had not yet been there to see the lavender.
What to see in Provence on a road tour
The first time I decided to visit Provence and the South of France was back in 2002. To impress Ornella, who was to become my wife years later, I was looking for a place where we could make our first elopement in secret. A little ‘trip out of town’ that would give us excitement and why not, amaze her just enough.
I searched a lot on the net for a similar place I could visit in a weekend, but nothing that convinced me much in Italy with the time constraints I had, until I found a photo of the Lavender bloom in Valensole and decided that was the place.
I looked it up and immediately associated it with our favourite painter: Van Gogh. Those were the places where he had expressed his best painting in my opinion and where he died in the village of Saint Remy de Provence.
Where is Provence
Provence, more precisely Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur or PACA, is the region in the south of France on the border with Italy. Having crossed the border at Ventimiglia, we are officially in that region.
It runs from the Alps to the Rhone that divides it from Occitania. In the north, it borders the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.
Provence is located on the border with Italy, specifically with Liguria and Piedmont, so it is easy to reach, especially from the coastal side with the motorway leading from Genoa to France.
Although people often think of Provence as the Arles region, as soon as we cross the border we are already in the region.
Cities of Provence
The most important cities in Provence are:
- Aix en Provence
Provence when to go
The best time to visit Provence is from late spring to the end of August to fully enjoy the colours and blossoms.
Although the summer can be very hot, with temperatures always above 30 °C – we have exceptionally found even 46 °C – I recommend visiting the area from 20 June to 31 July because it will allow you to fully experience the Lavender and all the traditional and bucolic festivities that accompany the harvest period, starting with the feast of St John on 24 June.
Looking at the Map of Provence, one can see that it is composed of six departments: Alpes de Haute Provence (04, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence); High Alps (05, Hautes-Alpes); Maritime Alps (06, Alpes-Maritimes); Bouches du Rhone (13, Bouches-du-Rhône); Var (83, Var); Vaucluse (84) and also includes the Principality of Monaco.
What to visit in Provence by car
Visiting Provence by car is the best way, if not the only way, not to miss even one of its wonders.
Provence Tours by Car
Very often we were always more than 6 people, so for our tour of Provence by car, we opted to hire a 9-seater minibus LEARN HOW TO RENT A CAR. If you hire a minivan, make sure that the air conditioning system has a good distribution throughout the vehicle to avoid freezing in the front seats and still suffering the heat in the back seats especially in very hot summers.
On our first trip to Provence we only had two days, but over the years we went back to that region many times because each time we got more and more excited as if we were watching a television series that at the end of each episode makes you want to see the next one right away.
- Bouches du Rhône – Bouches du Rhône
- Alpi dell’Alta Provenza – Alpes de Haute Provence
- Provence of the Alpes Maritimes and Côte d’Azur
This is how we have built our Provence itineraries over time
1. Trip to Provence: Bouches du Rhône – Bouches du Rhône
For our first Provence Itinerary we left very early on Saturday morning in the direction of Aix en Provence. From Viareggio it is just a four-hour drive, which allowed us to be at the Saturday morning local market in Aix by mid-morning.
Aix en Provence what to see
A truly tres jolie experience, a truly beautiful atmosphere and light framed our escape. There were many stalls selling typical products, from cheeses to a whole range of handicrafts made from olive wood, to works of art, and finally products made from lavender.
The thing that struck us most and that continued to excite us afterwards was the atmosphere created by the hidden squares with huge trees, the cafés full of people having lunch while listening to the many street performers singing traditional French songs from Edith Piaf to Charles Aznavour typical of almost every villages of Provence
A mood truly made for lovers made to strike the senses.
In about two hours you can walk through the old town and visit the cathedral, after which we are driving towards Arles, which in my opinion is the queen of Provence.
Arles a city to remember
Among the things to see in Provence, Arles is worth a visit.
The city lies on the banks of the Rhone River and has been a key point of Roman expansion into Spain since antiquity.
The Gauls there were not only overwhelmed militarily, but using the ancient saying: ‘Panem et Circenses’ The Romans transformed the ancient villages into a city with theatres, palaces and an amphitheatre second only to the coliseum, thus giving this city periods of development and splendour.
When it became a Roman colony, it was a place for the legionaries of the VI Legio Ferrata on leave and one of Emperor Constantine’s favourite residences.
Walking through the streets of, one breathes in ancient and even medieval history. In this city, in the cathedral of Saint Trophine, Frederick Barbarossa was crowned as king of .
Van Gogh in Arles
But one of the most exciting periods in history was the stay of Vincent Van Gogh, who lived in the Provençal town from 1888.
Van Gogh wanted to develop in the house his brother Theo had rented for him in the small Provençal town, ‘The Yellow House’, a place where Impressionist painters could work together aided by the splendid light of Provence and thus overcome the hegemony of Paris in the pictorial art of the time.
The Yellow House no longer exists today, destroyed by German bombing in World War II, but I can assure you that being in that place gave us a very strong emotion.
We had another immense emotion when we dined at the Café de l’Alcazar where the Dutch painter and also Paul Gauguin made magnificent paintings including the very famous Café la Nuit. We dined at the tables in the painting.
Where to sleep in Arles in Provence
In our travels. the first time we stayed at the hotel La Feniere a small hotel 10 minutes’ drive from really nice. It felt like a setting from the film Mary Poppins.
The rooms were not very big, but breakfast was served in the garden among fragrant flowers and waiters in black jackets.
On two other trips, we stayed at Mas Saint Florent, a beautiful villa with a swimming pool on a b&b basis. In the middle of nature just outside . Very well-kept rooms and unbelievable friendliness on the part of the owner. A truly top romantic spot
Camargue is among the best places to visit in Provence
Not to be missed in Provence is a visit to the Camargue and Saintes Maries de la Mer (READ THE STORY), which is only a few kilometres from Arles.
This location also inspires serenity and contact with nature, which is why we find it truly romantic.
Beaches that seem unspoilt, nature unchallenged but managed, the large herds of white horses galloping through the marshes transported us to another world.
Characteristic in the region are also the large cattle farms including the bulls used for bullfights which in the Camargue are almost all non bloody, a real bullfight where the bulls come out of the arena with their paws.
The area is very beautiful and important from a naturalistic point of view. It is easy in the numerous ponds to admire the pink flamingos that stop there on their migratory routes, but the villages and towns such as Saintes Maries de la Mer and Augues Mortes are also worth visiting.
The latter is a beautiful walled city situated on the edge of the large expanses of water bordering the sea.
On our way back to Arles, we made a passing stop in the city of Nimes, one of the most important and flourishing cities of Gaul in Roman times. Impressive is its well-preserved amphitheatre, which, as happens in these parts, is used as a bullfighting arena and for events.
In the same area another incredible testimony of the greatness of the Romans, the Ponte du Gard.
Provence places to visit – Pont du Gard
Truly impressive is the Pont du Gard, this ancient Roman aqueduct built around 17 B.C. and still intact in all its beauty.
It was part of a long aqueduct that brought water to Nimes. No cement or lime was used in its construction, which makes the work even more extraordinary.
You pay a 5 euro ticket to access the bridge area, but it is really worth it.
The Gardon river near the pont de Gard is used as a bathing area, and since we found ourselves during our visit in the hottest time ever (temperatures of 46°C were reached), we took advantage of it too.
2. Vaucluse between countryside and Van Gogh sites
Again using Avignon in the department of Vaucluse, an area also loved by Petrarch where he composed ‘Chiare, fresche e dolci acque’ (Clear, fresh and sweet waters).as a base, we proceeded northwards on another beautiful tour with destination
We decided to proceed to Saint Remy de Provence to visit the places where Van Gogh spent his last months in the town’s psychiatric hospital.
On our way to this first stage we passed two places of great interest, the first, about 4 kilometres north east of Arles is the Abbey of Montmajour.
Abbey of Montmajour
The abbey of Montmajour has developed over the centuries, accompanying the history of Provence: at the beginning, a hermitage was built around the 11th pilgrimage point and also became the burial place of the Counts of Provence. In the 12th century it was enlarged with the addition of the monastery, then in the 14th century the beautiful watchtower was added.
It was an unexpected and instructive stop, we stopped for about an hour because our route to Saint Remì de Provence is still long.
Ticket for Montmajour Abbey
The entrance fee to Montmajour is 6 euros and is open every day.
Having left the abbey, we set off again on the D17 road and along it we arrived at another very important Provencal monument: Le Baux de Provence.
Le Baux de Provence
Arriving in the small village of Le Baux, one cannot help but notice the mighty ruined castle that dominates the valley.
We could not help but visit this place full of stories and legends:
The first we are told is that the lords of Le Baux were even the descendants of Balthazar, one of the Three Kings.
The descendants of the counts of Le Baux went far beyond the borders of Provence, from the princes of Orange and the viscounts of Marseilles to southern Italy such as the counts of Avellino, the last lords of Le Baux.
In the mid-1600s, it was assigned to the Grimaldis and Prince Albert of Monaco still holds the title of Marquis of Le Baux.
Le Baux also gives its name to the mineral Bauxite, which is very important for the extraction of aluminium discovered here in 1822 by the geologist Pierre Berthier.
As soon as you arrive in the village, you can see that tourism is the main resource today.
The well-kept village with its cobbled streets and many cafes and souvenir shops leads to the entrance of the castle.
The castle of Le Baux
The castle, destroyed by Cardinal Richelieu because it was the seat of a Protestant community, is today an important French monument that houses a history museum and numerous events as well as telling us about its vicissitudes.
Provence things to see – Saint Remì de Provence
Continuing our itinerary we arrived in Saint Remì de Provence where we decided to stay for the night in a magnificent chateau transformed into a bed and breakfast by a couple of wealthy English people.
Saint Remì de Provence where to sleep
It was a little difficult to find this Chateau nestled in the countryside near the village, but once through the gate, the spectacle is assured.
It showed itself to us in all its splendour: huge halls, rooms with period furnishings, a splendid library where I was able to pick up books from the late 18th century including Robespierre’s account of the third year of the French Revolution.
But the highlight was the huge garden with swimming pool and Jacuzzi.
Visit Saint Remì de Provence
We were out and about in the small town on Sunday and noticed a lot of movement in the main street. They were putting up long iron bulkheads and intrigued we asked the people who were working.
It was the weekly running of the Provençal bulls and riders. The local Paul Richard band started the show.
Bulls running through the streets were joined by horsemen trying to steer them towards the fences. Very nice to see.
Saint Remy is a very lively town especially on market days with its tree-lined avenues and the Republic Square. Nearby there are also the remains of a Roman town,
Van Gogh Saint Remy
The reason that prompted us to stop in Saint Remy de Provence was, as usual, to seek out the places where Van Gogh left his mark, first among them the Maison de santé Saint-Paul de Mausole or the psychiatric hospital where Vincent stayed for a year from 1889.
Inside and outside the hospital there are signs indicating the places where the painter painted his masterpieces such as “The Starry Night”, “The Cypresses” and “Irises”.
After our stay in Saint Remy de Provence we passed by Cavaillon famous for its melon production to Isle sur la Surge.
Isle sur la surge a green lung in a sunburnt land
We arrived in the fantastic village of Isle sur la Surge in the late morning and I must say that the spectacle is really exciting.
The flowing water was the predominant noise along with the chatter of the many tourists present and the French music coming from the many bistros present.
Isle sur la Sourgue is in fact one of the most beautiful villages in France and therefore much visited by tourists from France and elsewhere.
Going up the river Sourge, you arrive in Fontaine de Vaucluse which for us Italians represents an important historical-literary reference point, it is in fact the town where Petrarca lived part of his life, where he fell in love with Laura who he saw in a church in Avignon and who from 1340 to 1341 inspired the verses that would torment the lives of many Italian students: “Clear and fresh and sweet waters…”.
Indeed, this place inspires poetry at every turn with its bucolic landscape full of colourful flowers.
Our visit to Fountaine de Vaucluse took us to the exact spot where the Sourgue river originates, a destination of inspiration for the poet from Arezzo.
Avignon the city of Popes
Our tour took us to Avignon, the city known for hosting the papacy from 1316 to 1423 following Pope John XXII’s decision to make it his seat during the period known as the ‘Avignon Captivity’.
Basically, we visited the city that did not give me the same feeling as the others seen in Provence. The Palace of the Popes is truly imposing, but it has virtually no furnishings inside and failed to capture our interest and imagination.
Very characteristic to see is the bridge of Avignon, the Saint-Bénezet bridge of which today only 4 arches remain due to the violent flooding of the river.
Sur le pont d’Avignon, L’on y danse, l’on y danse, Sur le pont d’Avignon L’on y danse tout en rond.
We were only in Avignon for 3 hours precisely because we were not immediately enthusiastic about it.
3. Alpes de Haute Provence – Alpes de Haute Provence
The lavender route is still the most exciting in Provence. If you go to the region between June and August, when this magnificent spice blooms, there is a real possibility of being moved by a purple sea.
Actually, the harvest season starts in mid-July, so the period we always went to the region is from 20 June to 10 July precisely to fully appreciate the splendour of the lavender blossom.
Lavender in Provence
Provence Where to go to see the lavender blossom?
We left Arles as usual to head north to the Alpes de Haute Provence department to reach the lavender fields in Provence.
The purple sea of this beautiful aromatic herb is located between the Gordes area and the Verdon area.
As in all our travels, we cannot miss a visit to the lavender fields, an immense expanse that represents about 80% of world production.
The first stop on the lavender tour is the village of Gordes and the nearby abbey of Senanque, two places of incredible romanticism.
Gordes is a fantastic village perched on a hill that looks like a crib, this village is considered one of the most beautiful in France, thanks to an incredibly rich architectural and historical heritage that represents tradition in all its forms.
It has been the set of romantic films such as the latest ‘A Very Good Year’ with Russell Crow.
A few kilometres from Gordes, climbing a narrow mountain road, you reach the abbey of Senanque (READ THE ARTICLE) a jewel set in lavender.
Over the years, we have seen lavender plants planted and pruned because this fragrant medicinal herb has a life span of about 5-7 years.
Breathe deeply the emotions of this wonderful place and leave again to reach the Valensole plateau, but before reaching our destination, another unique experience awaits us.
The road to Valensole passes through the villages of Rustrel and Roussillon the Land of Ochre. This area based its economy on the sale of this pigment, which flourished until 1958, when the quarries were closed.
We are inside what is known as the Colorado Provençal (READ THE ARTICLE), passing through evocative landscapes where we move from shades of bright yellow that turn to orange and ochre red to then explode in the green of the pine forest where you can immerse yourself by choosing one of the walkways.
One of the most striking is the Fairy Chimneys, rock formations similar to those found in Colorado and the more famous Cappadocia in Turkey.
We finally arrived on the Valensole plateau (READ THE STORY) and the sight is one that brings tears to your eyes.
Gorge du Verdon
A few kilometres from Valensole, also in the Alpes de Haute-Provence department, is the Gorges du Verdon area (READ THE STORY)
From Valensole one arrives at the lake of Santa Croce. not to be missed in Provence. An artificial lake with turquoise waters that will impress you with its location and colours.
What to do in Provence
It is customary every time we go there to take a swim in the lake. The area is equipped for bathing and there are many canoe and paddleboat rentals to explore the gorges.
It is also an area where there are some campsites because ecotourism and sports tourism is highly developed.
The walls of the Verdon gorges are among the most important sites in France for sport climbing and canyoning and rafting are also highly developed.
We just stand in the cool waters of the lake.
Among the places to visit in Provence, very characteristic to see is the village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, a splendid village perched between two imposing rocky cliffs. crossed by a lively mountain stream.
In this village, you can breathe in a magical atmosphere as you wander through its small alleys and you can buy traditional faïences, the traditional glazed faience
Provence to see Maritime Alps and Côte d’Azur
Provence is also the sea and unforgettable places for those who love the 1960s. In fact, this region also includes the Côte d’Azur area.
On the way back, on each of our Provence tours we choose a different destination on the Côte d’Azur.
Nice, Cannes, Antibes and Saint Tropez are the towns and villages we visited on the Côte d’Azur.
One village that particularly impressed us, but is not by the sea, is Saint Paul de Vence, a small romantic hamlet where the likes of Matisse and Picasso made their place of tranquillity.
In Saint Paul, art takes centre stage.