The Mistral winds. Lavender. Sunflowers. Blue skies. Wine. Food. The southern Rhône River valley has it all. This is Provence, and it’s hard not to love it here.
Three perfect days in Provence can be achieved easily by taking the high-speed train from Paris or Lyon to Avignon and renting a car. We made our home base Avignon choosing an AirBnB just Place de l’Horloge.
Others we know have chosen Arles. Avignon is a bigger town with a younger vibe because of the university. Arles is smaller, grittier, and older. Both have great food (discussed below) and perfect wine shops. Both have a history – Avignon being the residence of the papacy and Arles having the most well-preserved Roman ruins we have seen.
Day 1: Exploring Avignon
Avignon itself deserves a full day of touring. The fortified walls of the city are surrounded by green trees lining the walking path. The old city features cobblestone passageways and is topped by a park. The crown jewel is the Palais des Papes, which was the papal palace built here to rival the Vatican. One of the more interesting things to note on a walk about Avignon are the painted windows on old buildings, imagining people (or things) looking out onto the street below.
Marche les Halles d’Avignon is the indoor city market and a great place to pick up charcuterie or baked goods at the boulengerie for a lunch on the go. Alternatively, close by is Chez Lulu for a farm-fresh lunch and wine. Wine tasting can be had at Le Vin Devant Soi, which has a ton of local wine to try using a dispensary system. Pick your poison, the serving size, swipe the pre-paid card, and the glass of wine is yours. The staff is also very helpful in picking based upon taste. Finish the day eating modern, yet unmistakably French, cuisine in the open air courtyard of L’Essential.
Day 2: Pont du Gard, Les Baux-de-Provence, and Saint Remy de Provence
Day 2 is a driving day, taking us further afield from Avignon and into the Provençal countryside.
An hour’s drive to the west of Avignon is Pont du Gard.
Pont du Gard is probably the world’s best preserved major aqueduct. It is part of the Nimes aqueduct, which is a 50 kilometer system built in the first century (AD) to carry water from Uzes down to the large Roman colony at Nimes, which is otherwise surrounded by plains. Pont du Gard is impressive in its half-restored state, featuring three different tiers of archways crossing the Gardon River at a height of 160 feet. This can be a whole day unto itself: frolicking in the cold, clear river, hiking the surrounding hills, or playing aqueduct engineer in the accompanying museum.
The price of admission (which covers the parking lot fee) is well-worth it.
Off to lunch…
One of the most amazing meals of food we’ve had was lunch at Le Bistrot du Paradou in the small town of the same name. It was written-up in the NYTimes and Michelin guide for its renowned aioli. Situated on the main road, the patio is inviting where everyone feels personally welcomed by the staff. The menu is set at 53 Euro per person, including glass wine. Our menu was typical Provençal: tomato salad, snails, boiled farm root vegetables, olive oil and aioli, large cheese board, and myriad desserts.
From lunch, it’s an enjoyable 10-minute drive to Les Baux-de-Provence, a quaint hill-town filled with shopping and art galleries. Here, we parked at the bottom of the hill and climbed the stairs to burn off some of the aioli calories.
Just further up the road is Carrieres de Lumieres, a former limestone quarry made into an art installation.
It is an amazing site. When we were there, the installation featured three different shows. One cascaded light at the rhythm of the music against the white quarry walls to project some of Picasso’s most famous works. Having seen these paintings in a gallery previously and now seeing them contort and move lets you into the mind of the artist, who must have seen the same movement from his work.
Another show featured the Beatles’ song “all you need is love” and projected rainbows and other psychedelic patterns on the walls, ceiling, and floor.
Reminiscent of Artechouse in Washington, D.C., this felt way too hip to be in middle of Provence.
Our final stop on our tour de force further afield from Avignon is the small town of Saint-Remy-de-Provence, which is the town where Vincent Van Gogh self-admitted himself as a patient in the Saint-Paul asylum and painted many of his most famous works. Nearing dusk, the town glows and is a joy to meander.
Day 3: Arles, the Luberon hill towns of Gordes and Roussillon, and Abbaye Norte-Dame de Senanque
Saturday is market day in Arles, where the main street is closed to vehicular traffic and cheese mongers and purveyors of local fruit and vegetables, lavender in all forms, olive oil, and pottery set up shop.
Arles has some of the finest Roman architecture still standing today. It was also Van Gogh’s home for over a year where he painted, among other works, Cafe at Night. Arles embraces Van Gogh’s stay with a Van Gogh museum and easels dotted throughout the city to show Vincent’s view as he painted local scenes.
This is a quick detour for us to pick up provisions before heading to the hill towns of Gordes and Rousillon, about an hour drive outside of Arles. We ate market food and stopped for lunch at Cuisine de Comptoir, which served fresh gazpacho and open-faced sandwishes.
Gordes is more touristy than it’s worth, but the view of the magnificent hill town from a distance is remarkable. So too is a stop at the winery Domaine Chapelle Saint Heyries, where the owner and wine-maker pours the wine he and his late father made together. This was truly a moment of bliss, in which every French vocabulary word we knew was needed to be able to communicate since English was not an option.
Rousillon is so very different than anything we’ve seen before. While the remainder of the hill towns in Provence are built upon limestone, Rousillon has large ochre deposits in the clay surrounding the village. Ochres are pigments ranging from yellow/orange to red and the village takes its hue from the land its built upon. Also along the road to Rousillon is a small winery called Domaine du Tara, which pours tastings for free and sells award-winning wine unavailable in the U.S.
The benefit of traveling to Provence during the offseason (late August) is apparent in these pictures. While the skies remain blue, tourists are few. That said, the sunflowers have been burnt to a crisp by now and the lavender has been picked so the fields of gold and purple are not as vibrant as in June/July.
Our final stop takes us down a one-way winding cliff-side road to the beautiful Abbaye Notre-Dame de Senanque. The Abbaye closes early on the weekend, so it’s best to get there early to see inside. For us, the exterior with a glass of wine was the perfect end to our driving tour of the Luberon.
The final stop on our tour of Provence returned us to Arles for a 2 Michelin star dinner at L’Atelier Jean-Luc Rabanel just two blocks off the Place de la Republique. The dinner was superb – with modern dishes that all featured a theme of local ingredients meeting smoke. From the smoked tomato gazpacho to the salad of wild mushrooms with smoked ice cream to the torchon of beef cooked with cold smoke.
All said, this was a remarkable trip made perfect by the weather, the food and wine, and the experiences seeing things we’ve never seen before. Going back will be easy; leaving again will be harder.