The richest area of Provence, the Côte d’Azur apart, is the west. Most of the large-scale production of fruit, vegetables and wine is based here, in the low-lying plains beside the Rhône and the Durance rivers. The only heights are the rocky outbreaks of the Dentelles and the Alpilles, and the narrow east–west ridges of Mont Ventoux, the Luberon and Mont Ste-Victoire. The two dominant cities of inland Provence, Avignon and Aix, both have rich histories and stage lively contemporary festivals; Arles, Orange and Vaison-la-Romaine hold impressive Roman remains. Around the Rhône delta, the Camargue is a unique self-contained enclave, as different from the rest of Provence as it is from anywhere else in France.
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Thanks to its spectacular Roman theatre, the small town of Orange, west of the Rhône 20km north of Avignon, is famous out of all proportion to its size. Founded as Aurisio in 35 BC, it became associated with the fruit and colour in the eight century, when Charlemagne made it the seat of the counts of Orange, a title that passed to the Dutch crown in the sixteenth century.
The enormous wall of the Théâtre Antique dominates Orange’s medieval centre. Said to be the world’s best-preserved Roman theatre, it’s the only one with its stage wall still standing. Later a fort, slum and prison before its reconstruction in the nineteenth century, the Théâtre now hosts musical performances in summer and is also open as an archeological site. Spreading a colossal 36m high by 103m wide, its outer face resembles a monstrous prison wall, despite the ground-level archways leading into the backstage areas. The enormous stage, originally sheltered by a mighty awning, could accommodate throngs of performers, while the acoustics allowed a full audience to hear every word.
Though missing most of its original decoration, the inner side of the wall above the stage is extremely impressive. Below columned niches, now empty of their statues, a larger-than-life statue of Augustus, raising his arm in imperious fashion, looks down centre stage. Seating was allocated strictly by rank; an inscription “EQ Gradus III” (third row for knights) remains visible near the orchestra pit.
The Roman theatre is the one must-see attraction. Otherwise, with its medieval street plan, fountained squares, ancient porticoes and courtyards, and Thursday-morning market, Orange is attractive to stroll around, and makes a quiet base for exploring the region.
The large village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, between Avignon and Orange, takes its name from the summer palace of the Avignon popes. Its rich ruby-red wine ranks among the most renowned in France. Commercial activity centres on the main road that loops around Châteauneuf’s small central hill. Walk up from the busy little place du Portail, and you’re swiftly in a tangle of sleepy, verdant alleyways. A couple of intact castle walls still crown the top of the hill, but they simply define a hollow shell, freely accessible at all times.
During the first weekend of August, the Fête de la Véraison celebrates the ripening of the grapes, with free tasting stalls throughout the village, as well as parades, dances, and equestrian contests. At other times, free tastings are available all around the village. The best selection of wines is at La Maison des Vins, 8 rue du Maréchal Foch (vinadea.com).
The charming old town of Vaison-la-Romaine, 27km northeast of Orange, is divided into two distinct halves, connected by a single-arched Roman bridge across the River Ouvèze. Throughout its history, Vaison’s centre has shifted from one side to the other. Now known as the Haute Ville, and topped by a ruined twelfth-century castle, the steep, forbidding hill south of the river was the site of the original Celtic settlement. The Romans, however, built their homes on the flatter land north of the river. That’s now the modern town centre, so the medieval Haute Ville remains a self-contained and largely unspoiled village.
Mont Ventoux, whose outline repeatedly appears upon the horizon from the Rhône and Durance valleys, rises some 20km east of Vaison. White with snow, black with storm-cloud shadow or reflecting myriad shades of blue, the barren pebbles of the uppermost 300m are like a weathervane for all of western Provence. Winds can accelerate to 250km per hour around the meteorological, TV and military masts and dishes on the summit, but if you can stand still for a moment the view in all directions is unbelievable.
Long renowned as among the most fearsome challenges on the Tour de France, the climb up Mont Ventoux is attempted by hundreds of each day in summer.
The dreamy, little-changed community of St-Rémy-de-Provence, where Van Gogh painted some of his most lyrical works, nestles against the northern base of the Alpilles, 30km from either Arles or Avignon. St-Rémy is a beautiful spot, centring on a charmingly low-key old town, the Vieille Ville, an enchanting tangle of narrow lanes and ancient alleyways interspersed with peaceful little squares. Despite the presence of several boutiques and restaurants, it’s all surprisingly sleepy. There’s not even a café where you can sit and watch the world go by; instead virtually all the town’s commercial life takes place on the four busy boulevards that ring the entire ensemble.
Several exceptional sites and attractions lie within walking distance to the south: Van Gogh’s hospital of St-Paul-de-Mausole, a Roman arch, and the ruins of the ancient city of Glanum.
The distinctly unreal fortified village of Les Baux-de-Provence perches atop the Alpilles ridge, 15km northeast of Arles. The ruins of its eleventh-century castle merge almost imperceptibly into the plateau, whose rock is both foundation and part of the structure. The village itself, straggling over the hilltop just below, is a too-good-to-be-true collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century churches, chapels and mansions. To avoid the crowds of summer day-trippers, it’s best to turn up late in the day.
- The Camargue
- The Luberon