Provence is one of the most magical regions in France. Being a land of lavender fields and olive groves, fragrant slopes and fertile valleys, dazzling colors and crystal light, no wonder it is highly praised for its enchanting gifts of nature. Provence is a blessed corner of the Earth, famous for its wines and its abundance of fruits and vegetables, its architecture inherited from Roman times, its annual calendar rich in holidays and festivals, its friendly people and its famous beaches. This explains why everyone from the ancient Romans to today’s movie stars are drawn to it. And not only movie stars, referring to myself, of course.
Description: Ptrovence (source of the pictures: Shutterstock.com);
Originally, Provence was a Greek colony, and later these lands were conquered by the Romans, who called them Province. Many amphitheatres and monuments have been preserved here since Roman times, mainly in Orange and Arles. During the Middle Ages, the popes established their headquarters here – in the city of Avignon. The great Cistercian abbeys bear witness to the less secular side of medieval Christianity. The area’s natural wonders are countless – from the Verdon gorge to the mysterious Vaucluse spring.
Description: village of Gordes;
Even those who have not set foot in Provence are imbued with its bright colors thanks to the artists who have worked in these places – Renoir, Picasso, Chagall and many others. The most strongly influenced by the Provençal landscape is undoubtedly Vincent van Gogh, who came to Arles in 1888 and for the next 2 years he painted feverishly, leaving behind 150 paintings.
We have been to Provence several times, during which we managed to visit quite a few inspiring places here, which we will share about.
The lavender fields of Provance
The first association of many when they hearing Provence is the vast fields of lavender. And this is completely understandable. The soothing, delicate scent and deep purple hue of lavender have enchanted people for centuries.
The lavender season in Provence is unfortunately not year-round. The best time to see the plants in bloom is from the last week of June to the beginning of August. Peak flowering is around mid-July – although this can vary from year to year depending on rainfall. In Provence, lavender fields are often found next door to sunny sunflower fields, which are also best enjoyed in July and August, so if you want the best of both worlds, then is the time to go.
Description: lavender fields in Provance;
One of the most photographed places with lavender fields is Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque. It is one of the three great Cistercian monasteries in Provence. If you step there, peace will come over you. The construction of the monastery buildings took hundreds of years. The foundations were laid in 1148, when the construction of the abbey church began. In 1178, when it was consecrated by the bishop of Cavaillon. At that time, however, only the choir was built. Work on the main ship began in 1180 and lasted until the beginning of the next century. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the monastic community flourished thanks to the generous donations of local lords. Added to the property were a mill, two barns, and extensive lands throughout Provence, reaching as far as Arles and Marseilles. In the 15th century, however, the abbey was beset by corruption, as a result of which it began to decline.
The abbey was partially destroyed during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century and sold after the start of the French Revolution. In 1854 a monastic community settled there again, only to be expelled according to the new laws on religion from 1903. In 1988. monks come here again. They now grow lavender and harvest honey to support their colony.
Description: Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque;
There are several guided tours of the abbey during the day – the only way to see it. They are in French, but a brochure, treanslatred to other labguages, will help you learn more about what you see there. The tour includes the five 12th century buildings – the church, the cloister, the dormitory, the prayer hall and the boiler room. Note that, like all Cistercian monasteries, there is no decoration to distract the monks. The church is unique in that it lacks a main portal and facade. Instead, it is entered through two small doors on the two side wings.
Many tourists, like us, visit the abbey for the beautiful lavender fields around it. Lavender blooms here from early June to late July.
Gordes – the hilltop village
The Luberon region is the heart of Provence. If the Luberon were a country, Gordes would definitely be its capital. Gordes is the Parthenon of Provence – an impressive city born of stone. iIt is no surprise that it is designated as one of the most beautiful in all of France. Its terraced layout impresses its visitors before they even reach it. But Gordes has a lot to show “inside too, through its narrow streets and beautiful arcades.
Majestically perched above the white cliffs that look out over the rolling farmland, Gordes is a strikingly beautiful town. It is the number one attraction in the Luberon, which is why the crowds of tourists are numerous during the summer months. It’s much quieter here in the spring, and it’s also the season when Gordes’ famous cherries bloom. Autumn weather is also suitable for visits. Then the city acquires a golden decoration due to the yellowing leaves of the trees.
Description: the streets of Gordes;
This strategically important location has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The Romans built a city here, and in the Middle Ages the inhabitants of the plain sought refuge behind its fortified walls. Gordes was never taken by the enemy, even during the religious wars. What harmed it most was the migration of people at the turn of the 20th century looking for work in the factories. Contemporary art comes to the rescue. Cubist artist André Lhote discovered the town in 1938, and then brought Chagall and other artists went to to see it, or to spend the summer here. But this paradise for artists soon came to an end – in 1944, German troops destroyed most of Gordes as a punitive measure after an attack by the Resistance. The monks of the nearby Sénanque Abbey prevented its complete destruction.
Description: a field near Gordes;
Although the city has been mostly rebuilt, it retains the charm of the old days. In the middle of the maze of cobbled streets are nestled beautifully restored houses, which today contain shops with the typical Provence goods and cafes where well-to-do visitors sip the local muscat.
The city is crowned with a Renaissance chateau /castle/, built on the site of a medieval fortress. The 12th century tower is the only memory of the old days. Three rows of Renaissance windows adorn the facades. To explore the castle, buy a ticket to the Pol Mara Musée, dedicated to the contemporary Flemish artist. The nearby Saint Fermin Church was built in the 18th century. The frescoes depict the Virgin Mary and a number of saints, including St. Fermin. Continue down the street and you’ll come out on the rue du Belvedere, which offers a magnificent view of the valley.
Roussillon and the Ochre trail
Roussillon is a small town in the Vaucluse department. The most striking thing about this city is its reddish-orange color against the background of the dark green hills. It is perched on the edge of a canyon rimmed in dramatic red. This is one of the richest ochre deposits in the world – when dug up, the soil here reveals 17 colors: violet, blood red, orange, yellow and all shades in between. The peculiarity of nature here is due to circumstances from 230 million years ago, when Provence was at the bottom of the sea. The iron-rich sand layered on top of it gets a bright ochre color when oxidized. The Romans used the copper-red clay for pottery glaze. In the 18th century, the people of Roussillon discovered how to mix the pigment with rubber to harden it. Thus, a whole new industry was born. That’s also where the red rubber seals on jars, bicycle tires, etc. come from. Production declined in the 1950s. and today only one company continues to operate.
In Roussillon you can visit the old ochre quarries, passing through the 1 km long. Sentier des Ocres – a mini-canyon with fantastic land formations standing out against the background of pine forests. Don’t wear white so you don’t get dirty. The town itself is also worth a walk through its narrow streets that wind between facades covered in flowers with its typical orange color.
Saint Remy and Arles – in the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh.
Saint-Rémy is a pretty market town nestled among vast wheat fields dotted with red poppies.
The Romans were the first to build a settlement in this place. The place was of great importance, as the Via Dolmitzia passed through here – the road that connected Italy with Spain. In the vicinity of today’s Saint-Remy, there are numerous remains from Roman times. South of the city is Glanum – one of the most famous ancient Roman cities in Europe. The archaeological complex consists of two parts – Les Antiques and Glanum. Archaeologists believe that the excavated part is only one sixth of the total area of the former city.
Description: Les Antiques /source of the picture: Shutterstock.com/;
One of the distinctive landmarks in Les Antiques is the Arc de Triomphe, erected during the time of Emperor Augustus. This arch marks the entrance to the city. It is decorated with bas-reliefs depicting Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. Here you can also see the best-preserved mausoleum from the time of Ancient Rome – Mausolee des Jules, dating from the period 30-20. BC It was built by a rich Roman family in honor of several of its members. It is decorated with bas-reliefs depicting military and hunting scenes. The more impressive part of the complex is Glanum. The urban plan applied by the Romans is typical for all their larger cities – lower, middle and upper city. In the lower town were the thermal baths and beautiful villas. In the middle there are the basilica and the temples. At the highest point there was a narrow fortification with walls for protection.
Saint Remy is closely related to Vincent Van Gogh. In 1888 he painted 150 of his paintings here. Here are the church and chapel of Saint Paul de Mausole. The artist voluntarily entered Saint Paul after cutting off his ear and stayed there from May 1889 until May 1890 This one year turns out to be the most exalted and fruitful period for him. It was then that Van Gogh created some of his most famous works – “Starry Night”, “Wheat Field with Cypresses”, “Olive Grove” and “Yellow Sky with Bright Sun”, all of them painted along the road that leads to the complex.
Like Arles, the other city in Provence where Van Gogh worked, Saint-Rémy also did not purchase any of his paintings during his lifetime. In order to “retaliate”, the two cities offer the so-called Van Gogh’s Paths. Following the trails, you can discover the locations of many of the famous artist’s paintings, each marked with a reproduction of the original painting. Information about the path, as well as its map, can be obtained from the Tourist Office of Saint-Rémy, located in Place Jean Jaurès.
The town is very attractive and has a typical Provençal look. The central part of Saint-Rémy abounds with plantation trees, sophisticated boutiques, old fountains and shady squares. Memorial plaques commemorate the historical landmarks, among which is the house of Nostradamus. The Alpilles Museum presents the natural beauties of the Alpilles, as well as those that are the work of man. The museum dedicated to Van Gogh features reproductions and various slide show presentations related to the artist.
If you visit Saint-Rémy on a Wednesday, you’ll hit the town’s market day. The market extends from the parking areas and squares around the northern and western parts of the city, enclosing its historic center. If you like crowds of people and lots of stalls, Wednesday is your day. Cafes and restaurants are crowded, but the atmosphere is worth it.
Arles is a city picturesquely situated on the banks of the Rhone River. The city has a rich and long history. Its inhabitants have always been proud of their Roman heritage, and quite rightly so. Arles was founded in the 6th century BC. from the Greeks, who give it the name of Taline. Soon after, it was conquered by the Celts, who renamed it Arelate. In 123 BC Arles falls under the rule of the Romans. Then it established itself as an important city, because of the artificial canal connecting it to the Mediterranean Sea. The city reached its peak in the 6th-5th century. BC, when the Roman emperors began to stay in it while they were on military campaigns.
Description: the Roman amphitheater /source of the picture: Shutterstock.com/;
The period around the 6th century, when the Muslim Saracens and Franks entered Provence, turned out to be difficult. In 855, the city became the capital of the Frankish kingdom of Arles, which included Burgundy and part of Provence, but was frequently attacked by Saracens and Vikings. In 888, Count Rudolph of Auxerre founded the kingdom of Bourgogne Transjurane (lit. “beyond the planed Jura”), which included western Switzerland (up to the Reuss, Valois, Geneva, Chablois and Bugis). In 933 Hugo of Arles (“Hugo de Provence”) surrendered his kingdom to Rudolph II, who united the two kingdoms into the new kingdom of Arles. In 1033, King Rudolph III bequeathed the kingdom to Emperor Konrad II. Although his successors considered themselves kings of Arles, few were those who were crowned in the cathedral.
Description: Republic square /source of the picture: Shutterstock.com/;
Most of the kingdom was gradually incorporated into the territory of France. During these troubled times, the amphitheater became a fortress with watchtowers erected in each of the four quadrants, and a miniature walled city was built inside the amphitheater. The population declined significantly from Roman times, with much of old Arles reduced to ruins.
In the 12th century, the city was important politically and economically, as the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was crowned in Arles in 1178. In the 12th century, Arles became a free city ruled by an elected podestat (lit. power, might, power), who appoints the consuls and other magistrates. Until the French Revolution of 1789, the status of the city was preserved.
Arles joined Provence in 1239, but was overshadowed again by Marseilles. In 1378, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV annexed the remnants of the Kingdom of Arles to the Dauphin of France (later King Charles VI of France). Thus the kingdom ceases to exist even on paper.
Description: the cafe where Vincen van Gogh used to drink hi coffee /source of the picture: Shutterstock.com/;
The fame of Arles is closely associated with the name of Vincent van Gogh. The first place that all tourists stop is Van Gogh’s cafe, where he stayed almost every day of his 2-year stay in the city. The famous artist came to Arles in February 1888. Here he created hundreds of paintings, including “The Night Cafe”, “The Yellow Room”, “The Arlesian” and many others. The last picture that van Gogh painted in Arles depicts the owner of the cafe – Madame Ginou. This painting was later sold for an impressive $40 million.
Arles is far from being limited to van Gogh. As you already understood, the city has a rich history, which is evidenced by numerous historical sights. A walk through the narrow cobbled streets of Arles is like walking back in time. You will imperceptibly find yourself in front of the majestic amphitheater, preserved from Roman times, which has become a symbol of the city. Today it holds 12 thousand spectators and is often used as a bullring. In Provence, the bullfight is different from that in Spain. Here the bulls are at rest and the whole spectacle demonstrates reverence and worship for the animals. The bulls are not killed. In the Middle Ages, the arena was used as a fortress and watchtower.
Description: the acropolis Alyscamps /source of the picture: Shutterstock.com/;
Near Arles, you can explore one of the largest early Christian acropolises – the “Elysian Fields”. It is so impressive that Dante himself quotes it in his “Inferno”. Its avenue of stone sarcophagi has been immortalized by both Van Gogh and Gauguin.
Avignon – The Papal City
Avignon is one of the major cities in Provence. It rises among ancient fortress walls by the Rhone River. At its heart is the Papal Palace, an opulent and majestic building that for a century was the seat of papal power. The presence of the popes in the city paved the way for a new era in culture and prosperous life, which continues to this day. They are the ones who, in their desire to maintain an extravagant and ostentatious lifestyle, brought to these lands the dessert grapes and melons and cultivated a different view of art, architecture and theater.
Description: the Papal palace in Avignon /picture source: Shutterstock.com/
In 1309 Clement V leaves Rome and moves the papal court to Avignon. King Philip IV of France persuaded him to move to Avignon. The city was not part of France at the time, but was under French domination. Thus began the period of the so-called Avignon captivity of the popes, which lasted until 1377. During this period, the Papacy was completely subordinated to the French kings, who dictated both the election of the popes and their policy. Losing their freedom and independence, the popes became vassals of the French kings, albeit placed in glamorous living conditions. In turn, the luxurious life of the Avignon popes, far from the evangelical requirements, gave rise to the indignation of the people. The magnificence of the court at Avignon is extraordinarily flamboyant. Some popes, such as Benedict XII or Urban V, have stricter morals, but the majority of them love luxury, especially Clement VI. The decoration of the palace of the popes, the way of life of the cardinals in Avignon created an atmosphere of extravagance that did not contribute to raising the authority of the popes. In 1367 Pope Urban V returns from Avignon to Rome.
The cuisine of Provence
In every town of Provence, the market stalls are filled with a variety of products. Provençal cuisine is essentially Mediterranean – a celebration of olives, garlic and tomatoes. It has three mandatory ingredients. Garlic is at the heart of many dishes, giving them a spicy and healthy start. Olive oil is revered almost as much as wine. And finally – the wild herbs of Provence – especially basil, thyme and rosemary – flavor all the dishes. Among the dominant vegetables are asparagus, zucchini, tomatoes and mushrooms. The ratatouille dish is an appetizing casserole with onions, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, green peppers, garlic and other spices. Stuffed vegetables are also very popular. The biggest delicacy is lamb roast with herbs. His subjects are rabbit and poultry.
Description: ratatouille /picture source: Shutterstock.com/;
Along the coast, among the favorite dishes is fresh fish – anchovy, cod, sea bass, etc. The undisputed queen of all seafood dishes is bouillabaisse, a classic thick stew that you’ll find all along the coast.
Provence is also famous for its fruit – Luberon cherries, Cavaillon melons, peaches, dessert grapes and gorgeous Marseille figs in late summer. The best place to find the specialties of the season is the local farmers’ markets, which are usually held once a week.
As for cheese, the strength of Provence is goat cheese. The most famous is “Bannon”. Picodon is a mild spicy goat cheese, while pelardon, similar in taste, is mature and firm.
The wines of Provence
Provence’s fertile soil and sunny climate are ideal conditions for growing vines. Provence is characterized by a typical Mediterranean climate with mild winters, little rainfall, hot summers with plenty of bright sunshine (about 3000 hours a year!), crystal blue skies and a constant breeze. The sapphire color of the sky is a gift from the northern mistral, which drives away clouds and dust and makes the air crystal clear. Most of the buildings, as well as the vineyards, are oriented to face south, turning their backs on the relentless wind that blows for most of the year. The same mistral contributes to the enviable health of the vines, drying the air and protecting against disease.
Description: local wine /picture source: Shutterstock.com/;
The most famous and expensive Provence rosé is “Tavel”, originating from the region 13 km. from Chateauneuf-du-Pap. Dry and dense, it is best while still young. Bandol are famous for their aromatic red wines made from murvedere – a blueberry-colored grape variety that must be aged for a minimum of 18 months in oak barrels.
Accomodation in Provence
During our trip, we stayed in two hotels:
- Hotel Toppin, located in central Cavaillon, in the Luberon National Park.
- ibis budget Marseille Vieux-Port, located in the heart of Marseille.
Book your stay in Provence here:
You can see more pictures from our trip in our Gallery: