I was outside just now, watering our little herb box and ran my hands through the rosemary, the oregano, the thyme.
I took a deep breath.
And there it was; the smell of Provence.
If you plan to visit France, Provence is sure to feature on your must-see list. It conjures up visions of enjoying long, lazy lunches in the shade under deep blue skies. Tables laden with the best Provençal fare and a wine glass that never runs dry. Where the landscape rewards you with glimpses of beautiful lavender fields, olive groves and vineyards. And striking villages cling to the hilltops in such a remarkable way that it will force you to stop your car there and then to just take it all in.
Provence has so much to see and do and it can be quite difficult to decide on exactly which places to include in your itinerary. Hubby and I have been to Provence a few times now (not nearly enough!) and this post is our take on some of our favourite villages we have visited to date. Hopefully this will help you plan your next itinerary.
(Before I get stuck in, it is worth mentioning that both times we’ve visited Provence we used Avignon as our base. The city has a beautiful character about it, especially if you stay inside the old city walls. If you are a first timer in Provence I would totally recommend staying in Avignon and hiring a car to explore the countryside from there.)
So, on to Hubby and my top 5 villages in Provence!
Perched on top of red cliffs and surrounded by ochre quarries, Roussillon is one of the most beautiful villages of Provence. Painted with a pallet of burnt oranges, mustardy yellows and subtle reds it has a look that is unlike anything else in Provence. I recommend taking the time to just wander around the small side streets, popping in by the small shops lining the street and maybe picking up some pottery to take home a souvenir. The best part of doing this is that you will stumble upon picturesque squares and some unexpected spectacular views of the countryside stretching out below.
In the main square you will find restaurants with tables and umbrellas; perfect for enjoying that long lunch you’ve been dreaming about. Trust us, we know!
We visited Bonnieux early one morning. It’s predisposition to the sun meant that although the valley below was already bathed in early morning sunshine, much of the village was still in the shade and we could experience the town slowly waking up. There was the wonderful smell of coffee emanating from a small restaurant, which we found by following our noses up a steep, still shaded ally with blue shutters and potted plants outside front doors. We passed a home where no doubt the lunchtime stew was already on the stove, making our stomachs rumble. Luckily for us the local boulangerie was open and we made quick work of a freshly baked baguette and fougasse (I recommend the fig fougasse – it is to die for!) while we enjoyed the spectacular views towards Lacoste. All too soon we had to leave, but not before we bought some golden lavender honey to take home with us.
Although there are shops, restaurants and art galleries to visit, to me Bonnieux is not a tourist town. It is the real deal and it has authenticity to it that you must experience.
You must look carefully, else you might miss this little village that looks like it has been carved out of the rock, nestling on the side of the hilltop! While it is a bit more on the touristy side, we could not resist the beauty of medieval Les Baux-de-Provence. The village can only be reached on foot so be prepared for a bit of a climb to get there. Wandering around the cobbled streets and past beautifully restored stone buildings, we found many restaurants and tourist shops selling local Provençal souvenirs. There are also the ruins of Chateau des Baux to explore, as well as the church of Eglise St-Vincent.
Just outside the village you can also find the famous Carrieres de Lumieres. This former limestone quarry has been converted into a subterranean gallery of sorts, with stunning audio-visual displays. The theme changes often (hubby and I saw the “Giants of the Renaissance”) and it is quite a surreal experience to be totally immersed in art and emotive music. It’s a must do on our list!
Not on our to-do list initially, hubby and I decided to stop here on a whim after an acquaintance told me about it just before we left on holiday. What a surprise it was!
The centre of the town is built around the emerald green waters of the Sorgue river. That scene alone is already enough to make the visit worth it, but don’t stop there! Hubby and I decided to follow the trail that goes to the actual source of the Sorgue river. The walk is a bit steep but this perfect as it should not be walked in brisk pace by any means. The scenery is breathtaking. High stone cliffs covered in green on the opposite side of the river bank, walking with the sound of the river gushing as your soundtrack… but it’s the colour of the water that is mesmerizing. If we were to visit again I would pack a picnic with some lovely Provençal goodies so that we could sit down and soak it all in.
When we finally arrived at the chasm from where the water bubbles up, it was quiet and serene and it is almost impossible to fathom that it is actually the source of the river. There is a lovely old paper mill in town (Moulin a Papier Vallis Clausa) that is worth a visit. They have a beautiful moss covered water wheel that drives the mill, producing paper still using the same methods from the 15th century! This is a must see little village on my list – especially if you are a nature lover.
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (with a bit of a warning!)
A beautiful town with famous residents. It’s the birthplace of Nostradamus and the painter Van Gogh was treated in the Saint-Paul de Mausole. (He completed his famous Starry Night and Self-Portrait during his stay here!) Of all the villages mentioned, St-Rémy-de-Provence is by far the largest. It is a charming town with cobbled streets that opens up in shady squares. Dotted with beautiful fountains and many shops and restaurants it does have everything you’d expect from a Provençal town. There are also a lot of things to see and do around town; beautiful churches and art galleries and a surprising site was Glanum. You will find this 4th century Greco-Roman town with a stunning triumphal arch only a 15 minute walk from the centre of town.
But now, the small warning. Hubby and I went on a Wednesday, which is market day! And what a market it was! Everything and anything our little Provençal-inspired hearts could desire could be found there; bread, cheese, eggs, meats, olives, fresh fish, vegetables, fruit, linen, curtains, tablecloths! Each cobble street we turned there were more and more stalls. Truly an experience! But beware; if you don’t like large crowds and traffic jams, Wednesday is probably not the day to go. While we loved the market, we left exhausted from pushing through the crowds and a bit disappointed that we could not experience more of this town. But we’ll be back!
So, there you have it – Hubby and my recommendations for the top 5 must see villages in Provence. I have no doubt that we will be adding to and refining our list over time!
I would love to know if you’ve been and what you would add to the list, so leave a comment and let me know!