Skip Paris and holiday in Provencal France
The south of France makes for a perfect weekend getaway from Paris
Great food, picturesque villages, bright blue skies and delicious wine, alongside the Mediterranean, and people who are famous around the world for their ‘art de vivre’, or art of living. That’s Provence for you.
Ideally, you would have to spend a whole month in this region in the south of France to claim you’ve visited Provence. But if you happen to be in Paris for business and are lucky enough to take a few extra days off, head down south and follow this guide.
Plan your trip in a way to ensure that you arrive in Avignon. You can reach the city by train, TGV (France’s intercity high-speed rail service) or bus.
The city was home to the catholic Popes in the Middle Ages. They built a magnificent palace for themselves, called the Palais des Papes. It’s so big you’ll know when you see it. Then, head to the world-famous Pont D’Avignon (also known as Pont Saint-Benezet), an old fortified bridge that used to cross the Rhone river. Floods destroyed it multiple times over the centuries, until finally men grew tired of rebuilding it. Today, only four arches remain, but it is still a great walk and a good viewpoint.
As the evening settles in, walk around the old city, enjoy a glass of rose at a little cafe, or have a pastis (anise-flavoured liqueur) and observe the people walking by. Then head out for dinner. If you feel like a relaxed and laid-back bistro, head to Le Barrio. For a more gourmet experience, head to Les 5 Sens, which serves superior French cuisine by Chef Thierry Baucher. If you don’t feel like sleeping right away, you can dance at L’esclave, a tiny and friendly nightclub in the city centre.
2. The Luberon
Rise and shine, it’s time to go to the heart of Provence — the Luberon. Because there is so much to see here, you will have to make some tough choices. The most important thing is to have a car to drive around. Public transport is terrible and while villages are within 10km of each other, it’s still too much to walk.
On your way from Avignon, stop by L’Isle-sur-Sorgue. This town is nicknamed ‘the Venice of Provence’ because of the canals that cut through the city, channelling water from the Sorgue river. Walk around the town, famous for its antique shops. The Sunday market is worth a visit, but be warned that the streets are overcrowded.
Follow the signs for Lagnes, then Cabrieres-d’Avignon, and finally Gordes. This route is beautiful; Gordes is considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. And while I’m not a fan of the tourist-centred village, it’s well worth a stop. Walk around the little streets and alleys bordered by stone houses and admire the view of the Luberon valley.
Next, head for the Luberon’s heart: Roussillon. Ideally, you should find accommodation in Roussillon, Saint-Saturnin-les-Apt or Apt. After check-in, head for a well-deserved lunch at the Restaurant La Fontaine in Villars or Le Piquebaure in Roussillon. Roussillon is known for its plunging red ochre cliffs. The legend goes that once a beautiful princess was tricked by her father into eating the heart of her lover. When she found out, she killed herself by jumping off the cliff. Since then, they’ve been coloured by the red of her blood and were carved by the depth of her love.
When in Roussillon, don’t forget to climb up to the very top of the village. Go as high as you can, it’s where the old village is.
Next you should head to the Falaise de Lioux, an impressive cliff at the bottom of which lies the little village of Lioux. If it gets late, drive through and find the road D60, then D493 towards Saint-Saturnin-les-Apt. This small back-country road is beautiful to drive on, with great views along the way. If you arrive in Saint-Saturnin before sunset, find a parking space and climb up to the castle. Watch the sunset from there, preferably with a bottle of wine. Glasses are optional, but you might want to have a corkscrew with you; and some saucisson, the local cold-meat sausage.
For dinner, you can try Le Carnot Set or Le Platane for Provencal cuisine, Chez Mon Cousin Alphonse for great pizzas, or L’Alhambra for North African cuisine (couscous is always a safe choice!). All these places are in Apt, the local town.
3. Going provencal
Wake up early and head to Saint-Saturnin-les-Apt for breakfast. This is my home-village, and also one of the cutest and most authentic Provencal villages around. Find the bakery Navarro on the Place Gambetta and ask for a croissant, a pain au chocolat and whatever else makes you drool. Buy a baguette too; it’s essential for your picnic later on. Go to the Spar just next door and buy some goat cheese too; add a few tomatoes and you are set for lunch. Alternatively, you can plan to have lunch at L’Estrade. But first things first: breakfast!
When you walk out, head right up the road to the Bar des Amis. Have a coffee there with your croissant and feel pure contentment. That’s how you live the Provencal way. Enjoy!
I know this is hard but it’s time to leave now. Follow signs for Roussillon, then turn left for Bonnieux and Lacoste. These two villages waged war with each other for years; one was Protestant, the other Catholic. But now there’s peace, and both are stunning typical Provencal villages.
Drive to Menerbe, then Oppede Le Vieux. The aim here is pretty much to get lost in the idyllic scenery, smells and sounds of the Luberon. Just follow your instincts.
For dinner, make a reservation at the Gustave in Coustellet. This place is a perfect mix of refined yet authentic and friendly French cuisine; the meat is sumptuous. If you feel like a post-dinner glass of wine, head to Roussillon, which is nice and cool at night. Just remember, driving around the Provencal roads at night can be a bit difficult, especially after a few drinks.
4. Staying back
What if you decide to settle here for longer? Because it really is paradise on earth! Here are a few things you should do if you have more time:
The markets — France is well known for the weekly local farmers’ markets. Check out those in Apt and Saint-Saturnin.
If you like nature and walking, here are a few trails you have to do — The Colorado Provencal is a wonder of nature, where the earth takes on a thousand ochre colours. Visit the Fort de Buoux, where you can go rock climbing as well. Walk up to the Mourre Negre, the summit of the Luberon Mountain. On a clear day, the 360-degree view lets you see from the Mediterranean to the Alps. Or even higher up, the Mont Ventoux. From June to early August, go see the blooming lavender fields of the Montagne de Lure.
Aix-en-Provence, also known as the City of Water, is a must-see if you have time. Marseille is more chaotic but if you give it time, the city has an undeniable charm.
If you want to see the Mediterranean Sea, head to the Calanque. These plunging cliffs fall straight into the sea, forming tiny but world-famous beaches. If you prefer large sandy beaches, try Sainte-Marie-de-la-Mer, in the Camargue region. Not really Provence anymore, but accessible in a day by car.
Near L’Isle-Sur-Sorgue is the little village of Fontaine-du-Vaucluse. It is located at the source of the Sorgue river, the fifth largest spring in the world. In spring, the winter waters overflow the fountain for a few weeks, cascading down the river. The spring was a place of religious worship; in the early 21st century, expeditions discovered thousands of Roman coins here.
More villages include Lourmarin, Cucuron and Ansouis, all south of the Luberon mountain.
— Thomas Widrow