Journey of Provence: The Villages, Part 2

Day 2

  • Les-Beaux-de-ProvenceWe drove south into the Bouches-du-Rhone region and as we wound through the beautiful rock landscape of the Alpilles hills across an opening you see Les-Beaux-de-Provence, one of France’s most visited tourist sites. Quite different than your typical Provence village, its perched atop a dramatically rocky plateau. The Châteaux des Baux castle sits atop the town (which you can visit), once home to one of the finest courts in medieval Provence. Surrounded by 10th century walls, no cars are allowed and the one main street is full of shops (we picked up some great olive oil as the area is known for it), galleries and restaurants. Don’t miss the cute Cathedral in town… one my favorites in Europe! Outside town is the Cathédrale d’Images, quite a ‘spectacular’, it puts on image shows in the quarry (interesting space and use of it but not my thing).
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape – We headed north past Avignon to this wine town and summer residence of the Pope. Pope Clement V, having moved the Papacy to Avignon (see Day 4), was succeeded by John XXII, who regularly drank the wines from the Châteaunef vineyards on the banks of the Rhône River. With his work to improve viticulture of the area, the wines came to be known as “Vin du Pape” and later Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  He is also responsible for the famous castle that stands as a symbol for the appellation and was the papal summer residence.
    • Just outside town you can visit the Musée Du Vin (Wine Museum). Housed in a rustic building it provides a great history of French and local wines and contains a cellar and tasting room. Worth the visit.
    • Vineyards and wineries abound in this area, which is part of the Côtes du Rhône, so stop in for a tasting. We spotted the Château des Fines Roches castle from the road and enjoyed a tasting of several of the wines from their vineyards.

Day 3

  • Aix-en-ProvenceRomans called it “Acquae Sextius”, which evolved to “Aix”, after the thermal springs which flow here. From the 12th-15th century it was the capital of independent Provence. It reminds me of a mini Paris (so is really a small city vs a village). In the 17th century its rampart were torn down and the famous Cours Mirabeau was built, a lovely avenue lined with giant plane trees, elegant town houses, lovely cafes and fountains.  The medieval old town features the gorgeous Cathédrale St-Saveur. Also Cezanne’s home town, you can visit his last studio. Don’t miss the Aix Market on Tuesday, Thursday & Saturday mornings. We had lunch at a great crêperie not far from the cathedral, Le Galion (11, rue Jacques de la Roque;
  • Ménerbes, outside town - On our way back through the Luberon Valley, we stopped at Domaine de la Citadelle vineyards and the Musée du Tire-Bouchon/the Corkscrew Museum just outside Ménerbes. The 1,000+ item corkscrew collection dating back to the 17th century drew us here and the added bonus was seeing their wine facilities now producing a “grand vin” that reflectes the quality of the Côtes du Luberon appellation.
  • Lourmarin – At the base of the Luberon Valley, sits Lourmarin, another of the “Seven Most Beautiful Villages in France.” We stopped in for a shopping stroll in the quaint center. British expatriate Peter Mayle who wrote, A Year in Provence, lives here.  Nice spot for dinner was Le Bistrot de Lourmarin (2, avenue Raoul Dautry; 04.90.682.974).

Day 4

  • AvignonOften called the capital of Provence and the City of Popes, Avignon is definitely bigger than a village but with great charm and highlights. It lies on the Rhône River surrounded by 4.5km of stone ramparts built in 1355.  Across the Rhône lies the Roman relic “Pont d’Avignon” legendary bridge and aqueduct that tells the city and river’s history. The key site is Palais des Papes, The Palace of the Popes. Sitting above town it was built in 1335 and is the biggest Gothic palace in the world. In 1309 Pope Clement V transferred the papacy here to escape Rome’s political strife and for 68 years nine Popes resided here. You can visit more than 25 of its rooms and La Bouteillerie to taste a selection of Rhône Valley wines. Don’t miss the Les Halles market Tuesday to Sunday from 6 a.m. And we stumbled up on a fabulous bistro around the corner from the Palace on Day 2 for dinner, La Fourchette, packed with locals (17 rue Racine, 04 90 85 20 93).
  • GordesOur final village stop was the hilltop village of Gordes, also one of the “Seven Most Beautiful Villages in France.” Clinging to the side of a Vaucluse plateau, Gordes’ quaint center features the Renaissance castle and church, a century old fountain and cobbled streets leading to amazing views. You can see and feel why it was a favorite of painter Chagal. We had dinner in the town center at Le Provençal, a cute local restaurant with yummy food. But first we fit in our spa afternoon.
    • For our spa experience, we spent many hours at La Bastide de Gordes & Spa, a luxury hotel perched in the heart of Gordes built in a 16th century rampart. A gorgeous hotel in itself, the Spa Sisley’s solarium has breathtaking views over the Luberon hills where we lounged away the afternoon in their comfy chairs after enjoying a great couples massage and relaxation in their hammam and pool.

Visit the gallery for more great photos of our Journey in Provence. See the next post for a great map of our Journey. Coming tomorrow: The Wine.

Journey of Provence: The Villages, Part 1

First decision in planning our trip…where to stay? I was looking for a quintessential Provençal farmhouse in the country yet central to all the villages we wanted to cover, mostly in the Vaucluse region. La Bastide de Voulonne was the answer.  Penny and Julie Hemery run this picturesque 18th century farmhouse in the Luberon (part of Vaucluse) just outside the village of Gordes.

We arrived late Saturday night by rental car after flying into Marseille but were greeted in their charming dining room with a yummy Provençal dinner… aubergine quiche salad, rack of lamb with roasted vegetables and scalloped potatoes, and chocolate orange cake for dessert! With 13 quaint spacious rooms, a swimming pool, gorgeous grounds and views, and a wonderful kitchen that serves up breakfast and dinner daily, it was a great base for our 4 day Village journey.

Day 1

  • Fontaine-de-Vaucluse: At the base of the 750 feet cliffs sits Europe’s most powerful spring pumping out water to create the Sourge River. Visiting in October, we were there to see the smooth green lake vs the gushing river. We strolled the path to the swallow-hole (no one is sure the exact source of the water) and stopped at a working paper mill along the way. Downstream is a quaint village for lunch or a drink.
  • L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge: One of the ‘musts’ in Provence is visiting the markets and you can literally hit different villages every day of the week to shop them. Sunday is the day for I’Isle-sur-la-Sourge. Originally a fishing village there are canals and waterwheels that once powered the textile industry.  Over the past 30 years its become an antiques town with huge antique markets Easter and mid-August. We had a ball wandering the vendors and streets (got some great placemats and pillow covers) then stopping for lunch along the river.
  • Ménerbes: Ranked as one of the ‘Seven Most Beautiful Villages in France’, Menérbes was our first official ‘perched village’ stop. Perched for safety in the past, it now makes them treasures dotting the landscape. If you’ve read A Year in Provence, it was based here. We had dinner at a lovely little corner restaurant, Le Galoubet (104, rue Marcellin Poncet,

Coming tomorrow: The Villages, Part 2. Visit the gallery for more great photos of our Journey in Provence.

Journey of Provence

Provence is France’s most popular holiday region. The Romans conquered this area in 2nd Century B.C. and named it Provincia, “the province”, thus the name Provence.  This vast region, officially called Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in southeastern France, is diverse and full of beauty captured by the painters it inspired like Cézanne, van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse.

Provence consists of the following départements (or areas) …

  • Vaucluse with Avignon, Luberon (Gordes, Lourmarin, Ménerbes), Châteauneuf-du-Pape
  • Bouches-du-Rhône at the southern end of the Rhone River with Arles, Marseilles, Aix-en-Provence
  • Alpes-de-Haute-Provence includes Sisteron and Gorges du Verdon (Europe’s Grand Canyon)
  • The Var & Provençal Coast includes Toulon and St-Tropez
  • Haute-Alpes is mountainous with the town of Gap
  • Alpes-Maritimes with Grasse, St-Paul-de-Vence and the French Riviera with Nice, Monaco and Cannes

Within the region there are boundless opportunities to explore…beaches, shopping, historical sites, wine, sports from hiking to boating, cities, casinos and even a national park.

And with all these options, it was hard to narrow down where to go last Autumn. I’d been to the Côte d’Azur before but dreamed of a holiday in Provence, sitting at a cafe in a Provençal village in the sunshine enjoying a local wine.  We decided to mix the classic Provence Villages with Wine, Spa and Coast.

Over the next few days I’ll take you along on our 8 day journey of Provence.