I must say that visiting Provence has been the aim of my summer holidays for some years. One of the French regions most similar to my Tuscan and with a similar charm.
Trip to Provence
Provence is a place that has fascinated us so much that we have been there many times and this story of mine is based on a series of 5 trips made over 7 years that have allowed me to see a lot, but still not all of the region. The last trip dates back to this summer where Ornella and I took those few of our family who hadn’t been there yet to see lavender.
The first time I decided to visit the south of France for a tour of Provence was back in 2002. To impress Ornella, who would become my wife years later, I was looking for a place where we could make our first love getaway in great secrecy. A little “trip out of town” that would give us emotions and, why not, surprise her just enough. I searched a lot on the net for a similar place to visit on a weekend, but nothing that would convince me more than that in Italy with the time restrictions I had, until I found a picture of the Lavender blossoming in Valensole and decided that this was the place. I went deeper into the search and immediately associated it with our favourite painter: Van Gogh. Those were the places where he had expressed in my opinion the best painting and where in the village of Saint Remy de Provence he had died.
Provence, more precisely Provence – Alps – Cote d’Azur or PACA, is the region south of France on the border with Italy. Having crossed the border at Ventimiglia, we are officially in that region. It goes from the Alps to the Rhone which divides it from Occitania. To the north it borders the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.
Where is Provence
Provence is on the border with Italy and precisely with Liguria and Piedmont, so it is easy to reach especially from the coastal side with the motorway from Genoa to France. Although people often consider Provence the region of Arles, as soon as we cross the border we are already in the region.
Provence when to go
The best time to visit Provence is from late spring to the end of August to enjoy the colours and blooms. Even if the summer can be very hot, with temperatures always above 30 °C – we have found exceptionally even 46 °C – I recommend visiting the area from the 20th of June to the 31st of July because it will allow you to fully enjoy the lavender and all the traditional and bucolic festivals that accompany the harvest period, starting from the feast of Saint John on the 24th of June.
Looking at the Provence Map you can see how 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); Mouths of the Rhone (13, Bouches-du-Rhône); Varo (83, Var); Vaucluse (84) and also includes the Principality of Monaco.
Visit Provence by car
Visiting Provence by car is the best way, if not the only way, not to miss even one of its wonders.
Tour of Provence by car
Very often we have always been more than 6 people, so, for our tour of Provence by car, we opted to rent a 9-seater minibus DISCOVER HOW TO RENT A MACHINE. If you rent a minibus, make sure that the air conditioning system has a good distribution throughout the vehicle to avoid freezing in the front seats and still suffer 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.
This is how we have built our Provence itineraries over time
1. Bocche del Rodano – Bouches du Rhône
For our first Provence Route we left very early on Saturday morning in the direction of Aix en Provence. From Viareggio it is just 4 hours of travel and this allowed us to be in the middle of the morning at the local market in Aix which takes place on Saturday morning. A truly tres jolie experience, a really beautiful atmosphere and light were the setting for our escape. There were many stands of typical products, from cheeses to a whole series of handicrafts made with olive wood, to works of art and finally to products made from lavender.
The thing that impressed us the most and that continued to excite us even afterwards was the atmosphere created by the hidden little squares with huge trees, the cafés full of people having lunch listening to the numerous street artists singing traditional French songs from Edith Piaf to Charles Aznavour typical of almost all the Provence villages. A mood really made for lovers made to hit the senses. In about two hours you can walk through the old town and visit the cathedral, after which we headed to Arles, in my opinion the Queen of Provence.
Arles a city to remember
Among the cities of Provence, Arles is worth a visit. Arles, history and art in Provence, was described to me by the people I met. The city is located on the banks of the Rhone River and since ancient times has been a key point in the Roman expansion towards Spain. The Gauls in those places 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 colosseum so as to give this city periods of development and splendour. Since it became a Roman colony it was a place for the Legionaries of the VI Legio Ferrata on leave and one of the Emperor Constantine’s favourite residences.
Walking through the streets of Arles you can breathe the ancient and also the medieval history. In this city, in the cathedral of Saint Trophine, Frederick Barbarossa was crowned king of Arles.
Van Gogh in Arles
But one of the historical periods that excites us most was the stay of Vincent Van Gogh, who lived in the Provencal town since 1888. Van Gogh wanted to develop in the house that his brother Theo had rented to him in the Provencal town, “The Yellow House”, a place where Impressionist painters could work together, helped by the splendid light of Provence, and thus overcome the hegemony of Paris in the art of painting of the time.
The Yellow House no longer exists today, destroyed by German bombardments during the Second World War, but I assure you that being there gave us a really strong emotion. Another immense emotion we had while dining 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 Arles really nice. It was like being in a setting from the movie Mary Poppins. The rooms were not very large but breakfast in the garden among fragrant flowers and waiters in black jackets.
In two other trips we stayed at Mas Saint Florent, a beautiful villa with swimming pool in b&b formula. In the middle of nature just outside Arles. Very well kept rooms and an incredible friendliness from the owner. A truly top romantic spot
Arles is an excellent starting point to visit the nearby Camargue and Saintes Maries de la Mer (READ THE RACCONTO) which is only a few kilometres from the town. This location also inspires serenity and contact with nature, which is why we consider it to be truly romantic. Beaches that seem uncontaminated, nature unchallenged, but managed, the great herds of white horses galloping in the marshes have projected us into 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 in their migratory routes, but also to visit the villages and towns such as Saintes Maries de la Mer and Augues Mortes. The latter is a splendid walled city situated on the edge of the large ponds bordering the sea.
On our way back to Arles, we stopped in the city of Nimes, one of the most important and flourishing cities in Gaul in Roman times. Imposing is its well-preserved amphitheatre, which, as in these parts, is used as an arena for bullfighting and events.
In the same area another incredible testimony of the greatness of the Romans, the Ponte du Gard.
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 for its construction and this makes the work even more extraordinary. You pay a 5 euro ticket to enter the bridge area, but it is really worth it. The Gardon river near the bridge is used as a bathing area and since we found ourselves in the hottest time ever during the visit (temperatures of 46°C were reached) we took advantage of it too.
Still using Arles as a base, proceeding northwards we made another beautiful tuor with destination Avignon in the Vaucluse department, an area also loved by Petrarch where he composed “Clear, fresh and sweet waters”.
We decided to proceed to Saint Remy de Provence to visit the places where Van Gogh spent the last months in the psychiatric hospital of the town. To arrive in our first stop we passed in front of 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 first 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.
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
When you arrive in the small village of Le Baux, you cannot help but notice the mighty ruined castle that dominates the valley. We couldn’t 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 Marseille and southern Italy like the Counts of Avellino, the last lords of Le Baux. In the mid 1600s it was assigned to the Grimaldis and even Prince Albert of Monaco still boasts 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 today is the main resource. The well-kept village with cobbled streets and many clubs and souvenir shops lead 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.
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 bit difficult to find this Chateau immersed in the countryside near the village, but once past the gate the show is assured. It showed itself to us in all its splendour: huge lounges, rooms with period furnishings, a splendid library where I was able to take books from the end of the 18th century in my hands, including the report of the third year of the French Revolution signed by Robespierre.
But the highlight was the huge garden with swimming pool and Jacuzzi.
Visit Saint Remì de Provence
We found ourselves around the small village on Sunday and noticed a lot of movement in the main street. They were putting up long iron bulkheads and curiously we asked the people who were working. It was the weekly race of the Provencal bulls and riders. The local Paul Richard band started the show. Bulls running through the streets reached by the riders who were trying to direct them to the fences. Really 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 at Saint remy de Provence was, as usual, the search for the places where Van Gogh left his mark, first of all the Maison de santé Saint-Paul de Mausole, the psychiatric hospital where Vincent stayed for a year since 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 at the end of the morning and I must say that the show is really exciting. The flow of the water was the predominant noise along with the chatter of the many tourists present and the French music coming from the many bistros. Isle sur la Sourgue is in fact one of the most beautiful countries in France and for this reason very visited by French tourists and not.
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…”.
In fact this place inspires poetry at every corner with its bucolic landscape full of colourful flowers. Our visit to Fountaine de Vaucluse took us to the exact spot where the Sourgue river, the inspiration of the poet from Arezzo, rises.
Avignon the city of Popes
Our tour took us to Avignon, the city known for having hosted the papacy from 1316 to 1423 following Pope John XXII’s choice to make it its home during the period known as the “Avignonese Captivity”. In essence, we visited the city which did not give me the same sensations as the other views in Provence. The Palace of the Popes is truly impressive, but it has practically no furniture inside and has failed to arouse 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. In reality, the harvest season starts in mid-July, so the period in which we have always gone to the region goes from the 20th of June to the 10th of July just to fully appreciate the splendour of the lavender blossoming.
Lavender in Provence
We left as usual from Arles to head north to the department of Alpes de Haute-Provence to reach the lavender fields in Provence. The purple sea of this splendid aromatic herb lies 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 Senanque Abbey, 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 was the set of romantic films such as the latest “A Good Year” with Russel Crow.
Abbey of senanque
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 extirpated because this fragrant officinal 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 that leads us to Valensole passes through the villages of Rustrel and Roussillon the land of Ochre. This area based its economy precisely on the sale of this pigment which was very flourishing until 1958, when the quarries were closed.
We are inside what is called Colorado Provenzale (READ THE ARTICLE) crossing evocative landscapes where you go from bright yellow to orange and ochre red and then explode into the green of the pinewood where you can immerse yourself choosing one of the walkways. One of the most suggestive is that of the fairy chimneys, rock formations similar to those found in Colorado and the most famous in Cappadocia in Turkey.
We finally arrived on the Valensole plateau (READ THE RACCONTO) and the show is one that brings tears to your eyes.
The Gorges of the Verdon
From Valensole you reach the lake of Santa Croce, an artificial lake with turquoise waters. It is the custom every time we go there to take a swim in the lake. The area is equipped for bathing and there are many canoes and pedal boats for rent so that you can get into the gorges. It is an area where you can also find some campsites because ecotourism and sport tourism is very developed.
The walls of the Verdon gorges are among the most important sites in France for sport climbing and canyoning and rafting activities are also highly developed. We just stay immersed in the cool waters of the lake.
Very characteristic to see is the village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie beautiful village perched between two imposing rocky cliffs. crossed by a lively mountain stream.
In this country you can breathe a magical atmosphere through its small streets and you can buy the traditional faïences, the traditional enamelled majolica tiles.
4. The Provence of the Maritime Alps and the French Riviera
Provence is also sea and unforgettable places for those who love the 60s. In fact, this region also includes the Côte d’Azur area. On the way back, on each of our tours of Provence we choose a different destination on the Côte d’Azur each time. Nice, Cannes, Antibes, Saint Tropez and Nice are the towns and villages we have visited on the French Riviera.
A village that has particularly impressed us, but is not located on the sea, is Saint Paul de Vence, a small romantic village where artists of the calibre of Matisse and Picasso had made their place of tranquillity. In Saint Paul, art is the master.