When the American traveler considers the South of France, Provence is often eclipsed by its glitzy neighbor, the Côte d’Azur. Think of Provence as the grand but creaky old house next door to the shiny new constructions. Carrying on with the metaphor, Provence may not keep his lawn perfectly manicured or fill his garage with the newest gadgets, but continues to carry on, cautiously modernizing as needed. Everyone who passes by will turn and marvel at this beautiful piece of the past, and hope it always stays standing. This is the Provence itinerary in the spirit of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, which turned 25 in 2015 and still resonates today.
Provence is wonderfully suited to a wide range of travelers: foodies, wine enthusiasts, cyclists, hikers, bon vivants, history buffs, art lovers and general romantics. It’s a region best tackled by car, whether going solo or with a guide, and some of the most rewarding moments are spent on the country roads, winding through orchards, lavender fields, and towns so tiny you find yourself wondering “where do the locals buy their groceries?” That is, of course, until you stumble upon their bountiful morning marché and realize these aren’t just groceries: they’re artisanal patés, local produce and freshly dug up truffles.
In crafting a weeklong itinerary through Provence, you’ll soon find that the permutations are endless. The region is sprawling and varied, from the active Var, to the bucolic Luberon, to the cities layered in history from the medieval to the days of Van Gogh and Cezanne. Whether as a couple or with the kids in tow, a great way to tackle a first trip through Provence is to have a taste of three iconic experiences: town, country and a bit of adventure, while leaving plenty of time for long, lingering lunches.
Avignon & Environs
Whether or not you’re beginning your trip with a few days in Paris, a simple way to dive into Provence is to take the 2.5 hour train from Paris to Avignon and pick up a rental car at the train station. As a pair or as a family, your first stop will be inside Avignon’s city ramparts at La Mirande, the beautifully repurposed former family palace nestled up to the Palais des Papes, which was the papal residence in the 14th century. During your stay, be sure to take advantage of the excellent cooking class (they offer children’s classes, too) that takes place in the property’s cozy kitchen.
Avignon is a charming and walkable town (one full day of touring is enough to get a good overview of the city) and is in a prime location for day trips to the villages outside of town that make Provence so special. Keep an eye on the market calendar and plan your day trips accordingly—the concierge can advise—as those are the best times to see a village come to life.
An easy day trip from Avignon is Châteauneuf du Pape, the star wine region of the Southern Rhone Valley. While you can certainly enjoy a day stepping into any cave marked with a degustation sign on your own, an insider guide will can open doors typically closed to the public, and a second guide can take the kids on a tour of the ruins, which are both historically significant and excellent for climbing.
If you find yourself in the area on a Thursday or a Sunday, take a drive to the town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue for their world-renowned antique market, ranging from proper antiques to wonderful French bric-a-brac.
A drive to the beautiful little town of St. Remy de Provence is also well worth the trip. The birthplace of Nostradamus and much later an inspiration for Van Gogh, St. Remy is now bustling with cafés, shopping and some great bistros. The superb archaeological site of Glanum, dating back to 6 B.C., is two kilometers away and showcases an ancient Roman town center, including your typical baths and a forum. Onward from St. Remy de Provence is the cultural city of Arles, slightly shabby but thoroughly endearing, where you can see the ancient ruins as well as the brand new Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, which pays homage to the artist’s time in Arles.
Arles & Environs
Moving on from Avignon, the path of the couples and the families will diverge. Families will go on south of Arles to the wonderful French dude ranch Le Mas de Peint for two nights, the perfect base for exploring the Camargue, a spirited and unique part of the region where white horses and inky black bulls dot the marshy landscape. Kids and their parents will enjoy jeep rides through the grounds, where they can spot flamingos and salt flats in a landscape that’s part Outer Banks, part Wuthering Heights. After busy days exploring, riding horses, and learning about the bulls with the French cowboys, return to Le Mas de Peint, where you will experience the warmth of a family-owned ranch—complete with swimming pool—and some of the best food in the region.
Couples will make the short but scenic drive eastward to Bastide de Gordes, reopening June 17, 2015 and, we think, worth the wait. The drive to Gordes brings you up and down some narrow winding roads through beautiful pastures that in June and July are smothered with lavender. Once you wind your way up to the top of the hill, the view of the hotel across the clearing built into the old medieval town is breathtaking, especially if you reach it just as the sun is setting.
Gordes is a small town with only 2,000 inhabitants, and due to its spot among Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, you will most likely hear some English being spoken at the morning market. Rest assured, that doesn’t make the market any less charming or the views of the countryside less spectacular. With a great location right in town, park the car and give it a rest while you explore the town on foot, enjoy the beautiful terrace, and relax at the pool and spa.
The Var Region
The final stop on your itinerary for both couples and families will be the geographically beautiful Var region. As you drive north, watch the landscape become mountainous and wild. A highlight of this region is the spectacular national park, the Gorges du Verdon, also known as the Grand Canyon of France. Here, you can choose to be as active as you would like (white water rafting, kayaking and rock climbing are among the activities on offer in the park), or spend your days visiting the famous towns of Tourrettes, Fayence and Callian or tasting wines in Bandol.
For families, La Bastide de Moustiers is a simple but sophisticated and incredibly charming property practically inside the national park. As a Maison Alain Ducasse, the food is fantastic and an important part of the experience – the terrace at lunch with views of the valley is positively dreamy – and children are invited to interact with the chefs and the staff as they pick vegetables and herbs for meals each day. The grounds are ample for children to run through and the pool is guaranteed to be a hit after a day of excursions in the Gorges.
Couples will wind their way to Domaine de la Baume, a dreamy country home with only 13 rooms, just 45 minutes from La Bastide de Moustiers (be sure to stop by for lunch!). This tastefully designed former home provides the perfect location for a few days living your French country home fantasy, whether it be on rambling walks through the countryside, riding on horseback, picnicking out in the grounds, or snuggled up with a book in one of several cozy and impeccably decorated living rooms. You can be perfectly content staying put for two to three days – it’s admittedly hard to leave – or you can get out and explore the beautiful Verdon Gorges. The town of Tourettes is a lovely place to visit particularly, as always, on market day.