A week in Provence – off the beaten track by our new regular contributor Beth Pinches.
For idyllic rural vistas, vineyards, sunflowers and ancient villages there is no better place than Provence in South Eastern France. It’s no surprise that the region has inspired more than it’s fair share of Artists, Poets and Writers. I have been fortunate enough to visit several times and I’d like to share some suggestions for day trips which encompass the most beautiful elements of the region and avoid the obvious tourist traps which can be overpriced and underwhelming!
For optimum enjoyment of the region it pays to hire a car and base yourself somewhere central, I recommend San Remy, a beautiful little town on the southern border of the Vaucluse province, or Sablet, a quaint hill village to the North.
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is an absolute gem, especially if you’re a Van Gogh geek like me! It’s the home of Cloitre San Michel, where Vincent spent some of his final years. Winding your way up the shady road from the town to the sanatorium you can see his influences everywhere in the intense colours and crisp light of the landscape and its perpetual motion in the Mistral Winds.
Once there you can wander through peaceful gardens, visit an illuminating exhibition on the history of psychiatric care in Europe and stand in the painter’s room listening to the breeze whispering through the olive branches. His presence here is much stronger than in better known Arles, which suffers from an over- saturation of tourists.
Rubbing shoulders with San Michel is Glanum, an impressive archaeological site that dates back to the first century BC. The ruins cover a large area of the hilltop and are excellently preserved.
Back in the town indulge in some shopping and typical Provancal food at the quirky ‘La Gousse d’Ail’ on Boulevard Marceau. Go for the lunch ‘Menu Du Jour’ and you can enjoy the best dishes for a fraction of the price charged in the evening, this is a good money saver across the whole region.
The Parc Naturel Regional Du Luberon
The Luberon is bursting with some of the most beautiful villages in France and in June/July the lavender is in bloom and permeates the air with its iconic scent.
The Luberon’s most revered towns are Gordes (pictured above) and Roussillon but I recommend a drive by on those; instead take the scenic route towards Apt and stop for lunch at the Cafe Clerici in Bonnieux. Sit out on the terrace for a truly breathtaking view and try their speciality Tarte Flambé. Afterwards walk it off by climbing the 86 steps to the 12th century Vielle Eglise via some charming shops in the historical centre.
Onwards to the larger town of Apt with it’s laid back vibe and great little bars. Close to Apt is the tiny village of Buoux, which is perched high on a cliff top and home to the ruins of a 13th Century Medieval fort.
Head homeward via Rousillon and Gordes, taking a small detour to Abbaye Senanque (pictured above) for a beautiful photo opportunity. If you still have some energy you may want to finish up with wine and tapas at Sous la Robe in the antique- laden L’Isle Sur -la-Sorgue.
You can easily wile away a day in the stunning fortified city of Avignon. From San Remy you can take a bus and avoid the horrendous traffic. This ancient city is dominated by the river and the enormous Palais des Papes. Year round the city has an awesome alternative feel but if you go in late July it is alive with artists as it hosts OFF, a European theatre festival to rival the Edinburgh Fringe. Music fills the air and the narrow streets are overtaken by elaborately costumed performers selling their shows. For lunch try Tartines at Ginette et Marcel in the bustling Place des Corps Saints.
If you’re based in San Remy I recommend stopping in Chateuneuf Du Pape for a Chevre Salad and a glass of the famous wine at La Mule Du Pape on your way north. The ruined Château is also worth a visit for it’s overwhelming size and glorious views of vineyards dropping away as far as the eye can see!
In Northern Vaucluse the landscape changes and strange rocky outcrops appear alongside rambling hilltop villages. The atmosphere is less polished than the Luberon and gives you a truer sense of rural life! During July the villages host numerous festivities and none can rival the tiny village of Sablet (pictured below). It was here I had the joy of witnessing the elderly residents of a local care home spontaneously waltzing in the central square.
Two kilometres away try exploring the ancient cobbled streets and panoramic views of the more opulent Seguret and taste the delicious violet ice cream from one of the artisan vendors. Nearby Vaison Les Romains is the home of extensive Roman ruins and Orange has a fabulous Amphitheatre to explore.
If you’re craving some wilderness drive out into the Drome province where winding roads ascend into fields upon fields of lavender, or head out beyond Arles to the extensive marshlands of The Carmargue where wild white horses roam freely across great open spaces and flamingos hang out in full view along with numerous other rare species of beast and bird.
From Roman ruins to contemporary restaurants, bustling cities to quaint villages, manicured vineyards to wild expanses of nature Provence really does have it all and if there is an artist in you at all, you’ll certainly find it here!
Written by regular contributor Beth Pinches.