The best things to do in Provence | Travel
It’s a quintessential Provençal spectacle, but that doesn’t make the rows of lavender surrounding the 12th-century Cistercian Abbey of Sénanque any less striking (£7; senanque.fr). They bloom from mid-June, and if you arrive by the D177 from Gordes you will see the verdant landscape turn purple from above. There is also the contemplative beauty of the Harmas Jean-Henri Fabre, the former home and gardens of the 19th-century naturalist, where period rooms display fossils and shells, and the expansive garden teems with forsythias, photinias and pistachios (£5.80; harmasjeanhenrifabre.fr).
The village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is famous both for its theatrical setting in a limestone cliff above a gorge and for chef magnate Alain Ducasse’s restaurant with rooms, La Bastide de Moustiers. It is Provençal perfection, from the lavender and olive groves around the house to the ingredients on the plate – many of which grow in the restaurant’s garden. In the spring, local flavors can include asparagus from the Vaucluse with goat cheese curds, juicy fire-roasted lamb from nearby Sisteron and sweet wild strawberries from the Var (the B&B doubles from 228 £ main course is around £32; bastide-moustiers.com).
A red cliff at the Sentier des Ocres de Roussillon
The most unexpected landscapes
The Sentier des Ocres de Roussillon, a former ocher quarry in the Vaucluse, has a spectacular landscape that rivals even Colorado. A path leads visitors through stunning rock formations, the fiery pigments of which color the village perched above – vibrant dark pink and orange buildings amidst green vegetation. Just outside town, head to Ôkhra, an eco-museum in a 19th century ocher factory with color demonstrations and a large shop full of dye pots (£7.50, okhra.com) .
Gordes served as the setting for Ridley Scott’s A Good Year
The most charming village
With caramel houses adorning a cliff below a thousand-year-old castle and views across the valley framed by cypresses, you can’t get more quintessentially Provençal than Gordes. Ridley Scott thought so too: it was the setting for his gleefully cliché 2006 romantic comedy, A good year. And even today, its alleys and shady café terraces charm even more than Russell Crowe. Visitors can also explore underground in the Caves du Palais Saint-Firmin, an extensive system of medieval troglodyte tunnels that once housed the village’s olive oil mills and a bread oven (£5; caves-saint-firmin .com).
Flamingos in the Camargue
The most glorious birdlife
In the most southwestern part of Provence, at the mouth of the Rhône delta, lie the wild, marshy plains of the Camargue, where French cowboys called gardians herd the region’s famous black bulls. Drive between its brackish lagoons and rice paddies – or better yet, ride a horse through them (La Menade de Méjanes does morning excursions for £45 pp; mejanes-camargue.fr) – and you’ll see everything from flamingos to glossy ibises, to migrating species such as black storks and spoonbills. The ornithological park of Pont de Gau is crisscrossed with walks and attracts passerines, herons and birds of prey all year round (£6; parcornithologique.com).
Château Vignelaure in Rians
The best place for wine tasting
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the hilltop village that gave its name to some of France’s most expensive wines – and with tasting cellars on almost every lane, you can do it all on foot. But for the vineyards, you should head to the Aix-en-Provence region. In Rians, a 40-minute drive from the center of Aix, is Château Vignelaure with its tiered underground cellars and complex, bold reds (vignelaure.com). Or there’s Château La Coste in Puy-Sainte-Réparade, which does everything from tastings and strolls through its artwork-strewn vineyards, to lunch, dinner and nights in its ultra-chic hotel ( chateau-la-coste.com).
● The best vineyard hotels in France
● The most beautiful villages in France
Pont Saint-Bénézet in Avignon
The most photogenic city
Magnificent Avignon is the obvious choice, with its fortress-like Palais des Papes, the seat of 14th-century Christianity (£10; palais-des-papes.com) and its famous Pont Saint-Bénézet (£4; avignon- tourism .com). The spa town of Aix-en-Provence has a quieter beauty with neoclassical mansions interspersed with medieval townhouses and a trio of pretty fountains lining the Cours Mirabeau (Fontaine Moussue even spouts hot thermal water). You’ll want your camera ready on market day (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday), when food stalls flood the main squares and flower stalls adorn the Mossy Fountain with pretty petals.
The Roman amphitheater in Nîmes
Best for Roman history buffs
Arles has its arenas, and Vaison-la-Romaine has the remains of an entire Roman city, but Nîmes surmounts them with its Roman temple; Maison Carrée built at the end of the 1st century BC; and its Roman amphitheatre, more complete (although smaller) than the Colosseum in Rome (£8; arenes-nimes.com). The audio-guided tour of the arena takes around an hour and takes you through the galleries and stone benches to the top of the 24,000-seat stadium – a perfect introduction to the huge Roman Museum next door, where Exceptional artefacts and interactive exhibits whisk you back to the heyday of the arena (£7.50; museedelaromanite.fr).
The Calanque of En-Vau
The best beach
The city of Marseille, where boats pile up in its ancient harbor like unruly sardines, is more known for its street art than its beaches, and yet it is here, along its eastern coast, that you find some of the most beautiful places in Provence, the calanques – hidden coves, accessible only on foot or by boat. They are all picturesque, but the most beautiful is En-Vau – a grand cathedral of cliffs that plunge into turquoise waters before turning into a pebble beach. The area constitutes a national park, so access may be restricted in hot weather. To find out how to get there, go to marseille-tourisme.com.
Crillon le Brave is made up of buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries
The hotel with a view
You want a room with a view in Provence and Crillon le Brave delivers it to you. It is a magnificent stone retreat made up of 12 buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries, with linen-clad rooms, a swimming pool, a spa, food to write at home and a panoramic terrace overlooking Mont Ventoux (bedroom – only doubles from £300; crillonlebrave.com). Or try Château Nestuby, a working vineyard with five lovely bedrooms, many with hot tubs, each of which overlooks gently trestle vines (B&B doubles from £83; nestuby.com).
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