The ultimate road trip around Provence

Provence is a picturesque region in France bursting with history, culture, cuisine and dazzling sights. Discover lavender fields, medieval hilltop villages, rolling valleys, vineyards and olive groves. This French province is sensational for explorers. The best way to experience it? A road trip.

Lavender fields © Valentin Pacaut - The Explorers
Lavender fields © Valentin Pacaut – The Explorers

Avignon to L’Isle sue la Sorgue

If there’s a French region made for postcards, Provence is it.

In the country’s southeast, it’s a dreamy union of hilltop villages and landscapes that alternate between eye-popping lavender fields and silvery olive groves. It’s easy to slip into a routine of savouring long, lazy lunches. Perhaps ratatouille and salade niçoise, followed by afternoon siestas enjoyed while being serenaded by a chorus of cicadas. Wine corks pop and chilled rosé is poured.

Locals make the most of balmy evenings and challenge each other to games of pétanque. On this visit, I’m taking a circular road trip from Avignon. Heading east to L’Isle sue la Sorgue and travelling clockwise around central Provence to savour some of its highlights.

Southern France © Michael Kroul on Unsplash

Avignon – the city of Popes

There’s a stillness that greets you when you walk the atmospheric stone streets of Avignon. It’s so astounding, it has been bestowed a UNESCO World Heritage listing.

It doesn’t matter how many times I visit the beautifully preserved Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), I always feel compelled to return. It is the largest medieval palace in the world, and the seat of western Christianity during the 14th century.

In the soft blush of sunset, I watch the last rays of the day dance over the arches of the pretty Pont d’Avignon, a bridge across the Rhone that has been destroyed and rebuilt a countless number of times.

L’Isle sur la Sorgue to Luberon

Half an hour’s drive west, L’Isle sur la Sorgue is lined with canals that still have waterwheels. These waterwheels once powered its silk and wool mills.

Plan to visit on a Sunday to browse its huge outdoor market, with stalls sagging under the weight of glossy fruit and vegetables as well as quirky treasures and tchotchkes. I sit down to lunch at one of the flower-bedecked riverside cafes, before exploring the many antiques shops and brocante dealers that now occupy the old mill buildings.

On the way out of town, I glimpse the source of the Sorgue River at the nearby Fontaine de Vaucluse. It’s clear and calm in summer and gushing with milky water in spring and autumn. It’s the largest natural spring in France.

Valley vistas and medieval villages

Heading west into the Luberon, my outlook is a patchwork of olive groves and lavender fields, spread across forested valleys. Backdropped by craggy limestone hills dotted with medieval villages, each more beautiful than the last.

I linger in Bonnieux and Gordes, with its conical borie huts, before moving on to Roussillon, where the buildings are constructed from local red ochre rock.

One of my favourite places to stay is the rustic cypress-lined estate of La Bastide de Marie outside Ménerbes. This village was made famous by Peter Mayle’s memoir, A Year in Provence.

Aix-en-Provence to Arles

Just an hour’s drive south of the Luberon is Aix-en-Provence. It’s known as the ‘City of Fountains’ for the dozens of water features that dot its plane-tree shaded squares. I arrive on market day and browse stalls stacked high with plump peaches, heirloom tomatoes, sunflowers and tubs of juicy black olives.

Lunch is alfresco in a cafe with bright blue shutters. The menu begins with omelette aux truffes and ends with calisson: diamond-shaped sweets made with almonds and candied melons, covered in icing.

On the outskirts of town, I love visiting Cézanne’s atelier. The setup is as though he just stepped outside to paint his beloved Montagne Sainte-Victoire.

An artist’s haven

Journeying west of Aix, Arles sits at the gateway to the Camargue, the Rhône delta that’s home to pink flamingos, white horses and black bulls. The spectacular first-century Roman amphitheatre is still used for concerts and sporting events, while the remains of the Roman forum are integrated into the lively street scene. This is where van Gogh painted Starry Night over the Rhône, and the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles features the work of contemporary artists inspired by the post-impressionist master.

Meanwhile, the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation LUMA is transforming the town’s old railyards into an edgy arts hub.

Frank Gehry-designed Fondation LUMA © Baptiste Buisson on Unsplash
Frank Gehry-designed Fondation LUMA © Baptiste Buisson on Unsplash

Les Alpilles to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

En route back to Avignon, I make my way through the rugged outcrops of Les Alpilles (the Little Alps), to stay at the luxe retreat of Baumaniere near the medieval village of Les Baux. The rooms here are fabulously French. My perch of choice is beside one of the three cobalt blue pools, laced with fragrant wisteria. It’s within easy reach of the impressive rock formations of Val d’Enfer, where Jean Cocteau set his 1960 film Testament of Orpheus.

Leaving my cocoon I make one last stop outside Saint-Rémy-de-Provence to visit Vincent van Gogh’s simple room at the asylum. He lived here for a year, during which he created the colour saturated paintings. Looking out his bedroom window has gone a long way to immortalising the incandescent beauty of Provence.

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