Long journeys are strange things: if we were always to continue in the same mind we are in at the end of a journey, we should never stir from the place we were then in.Marie de Rabutin-Chantal
May 2-11 2017
Following our stay in Catalonia, we headed north towards the Provence region of France. My brother and his wife headed back to the States while my parents would continue with us for the next couple of weeks. We picked up a car in Perpignan and began the drive to our first destination, Saint-Remy-de-Provence.
Saint-Remy is a small town located in the middle of western Provence, it would end up being the perfect base as we made day trips throughout the area. The town is home to the asylum that Vincent Van Gogh stayed, painting many of his most famous works, as well as the birthplace and home of the famous prophet and physician, Nostradamus.
Full of boutiques, cafes, gardens, and villas, the town was a perfect example of a traditional French city. It would end up being one of our favorite places in the region and we were happy to make the decision to base there instead of the much larger cities of Avignon or Arles. Plus, we had a free parking space to use during our stay, which is necessary if you don’t want to waste time looking for places to park in the crowded and narrow streets.
We would catch the weekly market our first morning in town, where we bought delicious cheeses, meats, and bread. In the afternoon, we made a visit to Saint Paul’s Monastery, made famous as the place where Van Gogh self-admitted himself into the asylum and spent just over a year, painting works such as the Starry Night and Irises. Afterwards, we went on a short but challenging hike to Lac Du Peiroou, a beautiful lake in the foothills of the Alpilles mountain range. Here we would enjoy the food we picked up at the market and have a nice picnic in the peaceful and calm natural surroundings.
Our first day trip would take us west and just out of the Provence region, to Pont du Gord and the town of Uzes. We would then take a different route back and make a stop in the beautiful Alpilles hilltop town of Les Baux, just south of Saint-Remy.
Pont du Gord is often considered one of the seven ancient wonders, being one of the best preserved Roman structures in the world. Built during the 1st century AD, Pont du Gord is a part of a massive 32 mile long viaduct, the huge structure built to cross a valley and wide river below. It was used as a foot bridge following the fall of the Roman Empire and thus more well-maintained throughout history than a lot of other Roman sites.
A little further down the road from Pont du Gord we made a stop in Uzes for lunch, the site where the ancient viaduct began as it carried water to Nimes. The present-day city retains the trace of its medieval walls as a circuit of boulevards. We enjoyed wandering the streets for a bit, checking out the three feudal towers, the Bermonde Tower, the Bishop Tower and the Royal Tower, before heading back towards Saint-Remy.
On our way from back from Uzes we made a detour to visit the town of Les Baux, often considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. The town is carved out of the hilltop, full of old winding streets, and offering wonderful views over the region. Above the town sits the remains of Chateau des Baux, a fortified castle built during the 10th century. The fortress and the small town it protects were ruled by the lords of Baux for five hundred years, in the thick of the ceaseless conflicts that ravaged Provence. Now it is a large plateau full of ruins, gardens, and some replicas of the weapons used during the medieval period, including catapults, a battering ram, and trebuchets.
The next day we would do another road trip, this time east into the heart of Provence, and visit some of the many villages of the Luberon and Vaucluse areas. This is the area that most people see in pictures and think of as Provence, fields of purple lavender in the late summer, and full of red poppies during our visit in the spring. Luberon is a mountain range that sits to the north, while Vaucluse is a range that sits to the south, with most of the villages located on the edges and inbetween.
Our first stop was L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a quaint town full of streams and canals, with many waterwheels found all throughout the town, many of them still turning, but not necessarily powering or connected to anything. This was the other town we had considered staying in besides Saint-Remy, and while we really enjoyed the unique atmosphere with all of the waterways, we were still happy with our decision as Saint-Remy had more to offer. L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue still made a great visit though, as we checked out some of the shops, strolled along some of the rivers and waterfalls, and picked up food to eat at our next stop of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse.
In Fontaine-de-Vaucluse we made a stop along the clear rushing river that flows to L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue, here we enjoyed another picnic in a nice little park, eating our meal at the water’s edge and watching ducks, ponies, and donkeys hanging out in the area. After our meal we got back on the road and continued further into the heart of Luberon.
Gordes was our next stop, one of the most famous towns in the region and another place, along with Les Baux, that is considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. Perched high above the valley below it is easy to see why. It wasn’t a huge town, but we were able to take some time to hike around the area snapping some pictures and check out some of the small boutiques in the narrow stone passageways and roads clinging to the mountain side. We also made a stop at the famous Notre-Dame de Senanque Abbey, an active monastery that is one of the most photographed sites in Provence.
We continued further, mostly driving for the rest of the day, enjoying the views out the window as we wandered through the narrow country roads connecting all of the small villages in the region. We would pass by large French villas, ride through dense and lush woods, and even make our way through a deep and winding gorge. We did make a couple of longer stops along the way, in the villages of Bonnieux and Menerbes, stretching our legs and walking around a bit soaking in the beautiful scenery from the hilltop towns. In Menerbes we had a fantastic meal for dinner before making the drive back to Saint-Remy.
The next day we decided to spend most of morning and afternoon just hanging out in Saint-Remy, still discovering new things throughout the town and surrounding area. We made a short drive in the evening crisscrossing the Alpilles and stopping in Maussane-les-Alpilles and Eygalières along the way. Both towns were no bigger than a few streets, but offered nice strolls as well as parks and central squares to hang out in. We also made a stop at a small winery we happened to pass, Mas de Gourgonnier, where we did a free tasting of some of the organic wines that they produced.
For our final roundtrip while in Saint-Remy, we headed north into the heart of the Rhone Wine Region. Being a Sunday a lot of the wineries were closed, but we still found a few co-ops that had tastings in the area, and the drive was spectacular as we stayed off the main roads and took the back routes exploring the area. The region is best known for there blends of red grenache and syrahs. We stopped in the town of Malaucene for lunch, and made a visit to Vaison-la-Romaine in the evening. What made Vaison-la-Romaine so unique was the possibility to see antique, medieval and modern towns all within the same environment, spanning 2,000 years of history. We especially enjoyed the views from high up within the medieval secition of the city.
On the seventh and last full day in Saint-Remy we again relaxed in town and got ready for our next destination, Aix-en-Provence. On our way to Aix the following morning, we took the scenic route along the way, stopping in the beautiful village of Lourmarin for some coffee, and then wandering some of the streets and art studios while my mom did some browsing at the boutiques. We then hopped back in the car and arrived in Aix-en-Provence a short drive later. We were only staying a couple of nights, but wanted to include Aix-en-Provence on our itinerary as we had heard many good things about the young and vibrant city.
Much larger than any of the towns we had visited thus far in France, the city had a very young vibe being host to numerous Universities. Known as the city of 1,000 fountains, there was a lot to explore. We checked out some of towns beautiful churches including the gothic Cathedral de Saint-Saveur, made a visit to the Museum Granet which featured European works from the early Renaissance through the early 20th century Modernists, and had some more delicious French meals during our stay. Our AirBnb was also extremely nice, with an awesome yard that we spent time in, soaking up the sun and relaxing in a hammock, a peaceful retreat from the vibrant city.
After 10 days between Saint-Remy and Aix, our time in western Provence would come to an end. Next we would leave for the other half of Provence, better known as the French Riviera, or the Cote d’Azur. We would be basing in the city of Nice, returning our car after a scenic drive along the coast, and using trains to get around instead. Our next 10 days in Nice would include a trip north into the French Alps, a visit to the Principality of Monaco, and a day trip across the border to see the Italian Riviera. You can read all about it in our next post.