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; 04.86.91.20.52).
  • 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.