Tucked into southeastern France along the Mediterranean Sea, Provence is every bit as dreamy as paintings and postcard images suggest with sun-dappled vineyards, olive groves, and pastel-hued architecture.
The “problem” with Provence is that there is more to see and do in the region than we could possibly tackle in the week we had allotted. For our first trip to the area, we decided to go classic. We based in Saint-Rémy, a town in western Provence in the shadow of the Apilles mountain range. Along with meandering drives through the countryside, including an impromptu stop at a hilltop village, we whiled away the languid days visiting the well-known cities of Arles, Aix-en-Provence, and Avignon.
Every one of these places deserves at least a couple of days, or maybe even a week or more, all on their own. But there are only so many hours in a day and only so many days in a year, even for perpetual travelers like us. So we ended up seeing them in a series of hit and run day trips. And while we can’t say we did any of these places justice, we saw enough of each to know that we need to return again to finish what we started.
Seeing Arles Through the Eyes of a “Madman”
We had seen Arles so often through the canvases of Vincent Van Gogh that it was a little shocking to see it without his post-Impressionist veneer. Certainly much has changed since the Dutch artist walked these same streets some 126 years ago, but following in his footsteps gave us a greater appreciation for the man’s vision.
Le Cafe le Soir (and at mid-day)
Many people consider the fifteen months that Van Gogh spent in Arles to be the most creative of his career. Certainly this period was among his most productive. He churned out 187 paintings, or nearly one every other day, while in Arles. And with each one he turned rather ordinary scenery into, well, works of art.
L’Escalier du Pont de Trinquetaille
La Nuit Étoilée (and at mid-day)
Storming the Stronghold of Les Baux
Once the home and fortress of mighty lords, Les Baux-de-Provence has now completely surrendered itself to tourism. The roughly 20 permanent residents remaining in old town are certainly outnumbered by the day trippers flooding in to visit the plentiful gift shops and cafes. Despite the chintz, Les Baux’s steep stone passageways, castle ruins, and totally cool medieval vibe make it a worthwhile detour from the larger cities in Provence. And at just 30 minutes outside of Arles, it’s a really easy detour too.
Visiting the Palace of the Popes in Avignon
Once the center of western Christianity, Avignon’s Palais des Papes is now a shade of its former self. While still one of the largest and most important Gothic buildings in Europe, it fell into disuse after the Papacy returned to Rome in the late 14th century.
Today, the glorious frescoes and furnishings that originally adorned its cavernous spaces are mostly lost to history. What’s left behind are the hulking alabaster bones of a once mighty dinosaur.
Every now and again, though, you can still spot a scrap of the original skin that covered this beast, reminding you of the power and the privilege that once breathed life into this place, but has long since departed.
Ending in Aix with Street Markets and Organ Music
Street markets are a way of life in France, and if you spend any time here you’re likely to encounter one or more. What’s a bit less ordinary is visiting a cathedral, like Saint-Sauveur d’Aix-en-Provence, and finding someone actually playing the gigantic pipe organ.