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.
Were it not for the great metropolis of Marseille, just 30km south, Aix-en-Provence would be the dominant city of central Provence. Historically, culturally and socially, the two cities are moons apart, and for visitors the tendency is to love one and hate the other. Aix is more immediately attractive, a stately and in parts pretty place that’s traditionally seen as conservative. The proudest moment in its history was its fifteenth-century heyday as an independent fiefdom under the beloved King René of Anjou, while in the nineteenth century it was home to close friends Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola. Today, the youth of Aix dress immaculately; hundreds of foreign students, particularly Americans, come to study here; and there’s a certain snobbishness, almost of Parisian proportions.
Known as Vieil Aix, the tangle of medieval lanes at the city’s heart is a great monument in its entirety, an enchanting ensemble that’s far more compelling than any individual building or museum it contains. With so many streets alive with people; so many tempting restaurants, cafés and shops; a fountained square to rest in every few minutes; and a backdrop of architectural treats from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it’s easy to while away days enjoying its pleasures. On Saturdays, and to a lesser extent on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the centre is taken up with some of the finest markets in Provence.
The undoubted highlight of Aix’s busy annual calendar is the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, dedicated to opera and classical music and held during the first three weeks of July. Tickets for major events cost anything from €20 to as much as €240, and go on sale in February, either online (festival-aix.com), from the box office on place de l’Archevêché, or at FNAC stores.
With its sun-kissed golden stone, small-town feel and splendid setting on the east bank of the Rhône, Arles ranks high among southern France’s loveliest cities. It’s also one of the oldest, with the extraordinary Roman amphitheatre at its heart, Les Arènes, simply the most famous of several magnificent monuments. Originally a Celtic settlement, Arles later became the Roman capital of Gaul, Britain and Spain. For centuries, the port of Arles prospered from trade up the Rhône, especially when enemies blockaded its eternal rival, Marseille. Decline set in with the arrival of the railways, however, and the town where Van Gogh spent a lonely and miserable period in the late nineteenth century was itself inward-looking and depressed.
Thankfully, however, Arles today is pleasantly laidback – at its liveliest on Saturdays, when Camargue farmers come in for the weekly market – and a delightful place simply to stroll around. Its compact central core, tucked into a ninety-degree curve in the river, is small enough to cross on foot in a few minutes. While ancient ruins are scattered everywhere, the heart of the Roman city, the place du Forum, remains the hub of popular life. Medieval Arles, on the other hand, is centred on what’s now the place de la République, the pedestrianized site of both the Cathédrale St-Trophime and the hôtel de ville. The one area where the city’s former walls have survived lies to the east, in a quiet and attractive little corner. Sadly, the riverfront, once teeming with bars and bistros, was heavily damaged during World War II.
Bullfighting comes in two styles in Arles and the Camargue. In the local courses camarguaises, held at fêtes from late spring to early autumn (the most prestigious of which is Arles’ Cocarde d’Or, on the first Monday in July), razeteurs pluck ribbons and cockades tied to the bulls’ horns, cutting them free with special barbed gloves. In this gentler bullfight, people are rarely injured and the bulls are not killed.
More popular, however, are the brutal Spanish-style corridas (late April, early July & Sept at Arles), consisting of a strict ritual leading to the all-but-inevitable death of the bull. After its entry into the ring, the bull is subjected to the bandilleros who stick decorated barbs in its back, the picadors, who lance it from horseback, and finally, the torero, who endeavours to lead the bull through a graceful series of movements before killing it with a single sword stroke to the heart. In one corrida six bulls are killed by three toreros, for whom injuries (sometimes fatal) are not uncommon.
While outsiders may disapprove, tauromachie (as it's known hereabouts) has a long history here, and offers a rare opportunity to join in local life. It’s also a great way to experience Arles’ Roman arena in use. Assorted bullfighting events are staged at Les Arènes between Easter and October each year, including non-fatal courses camarguaises at 5.30pm each Wednesday & Friday from early July until late August, and Spanish-style corridas in late April, early July and September. Tickets cost from €11 for the courses camarguaises up to €99 for a prime spot at a corrida; for more informaiton, see arenes-arles.com.
On February 21, 1888, Vincent van Gogh arrived in Arles from Paris, to be greeted by snow and a bitter Mistral wind. Within a year, he painted such canvases as The Sunflowers, Van Gogh’s Chair, The Red Vines and The Sower. He always lived near the station, staying first at the Hotel Carrel, 30 rue de la Cavalarie, then the Café de la Gare, and finally the so-called “Yellow House”, at 2 place Lamartine.
Van Gogh found few kindred souls in Arles, but managed to persuade Paul Gauguin to join him in October. Their relationship soured when the November weather forced them to spend more time indoors. Precisely what transpired on December 23, 1888 may never be known. According to Gauguin, Van Gogh, feeling threatened by his friend’s possible departure, attacked first Gauguin and then himself. He cut off the lower part of his left ear, wrapped it in newspaper, and handed it to a prostitute. Gauguin duly left Arles, and although Vincent’s wound soon healed, his mental health swiftly deteriorated. In response to a petition from thirty of his neighbours, he was packed off to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital, from where he moved on to St-Rémy.
None of Van Gogh’s paintings remains in Arles, and the Yellow House was destroyed by World War II bombing. Vestiges of the city that he knew survive, however. Behind the Réattu museum, lanterns line the river wall where he’d wander, wearing candles on his hat, watching the night-time light: The Starry Night shows the Rhône at Arles, while the distinctive Pont Langlois drawbridge survives on the southern edge of town. The Hôtel-Dieu hospital itself, on rue du Président-Wilson, is now the Espace Van Gogh, housing a bookshop and a salon de thé.
The Fondation Vincent van Gogh runs a gallery at 33 rue du Dr-Fanton. It owns no works by Van Gogh, however; instead, changing exhibitions by contemporary artists explore themes associated with the celebrated artist.
Capital of the Catholic Church during the early Middle Ages and for centuries a major artistic centre, Avignon remains an unmissable destination. During the Festival d’Avignon in July, it becomes the place to be in Provence.
Low medieval walls still encircle Avignon’s old centre, as it nestles up against a ninety-degree bend in the Rhône river. Their gates and towers restored, the ramparts dramatically mark the historic core off from the formless sprawl of the modern city beyond. Despite their menacing crenellations, however, they were never a formidable defence. The major monuments occupy a compact quarter up against the river, just beyond the principal place de l’Horloge, at the northern end of rue de la République, the chief axis of the old town.
Avignon can be dauntingly crowded, and stiflingly hot, in summer. But it’s worth persevering, not simply for the colossal Palais des Papes, home to the medieval popes, and its fine crop of museums and ancient churches, but also the sheer life and energy that throbs through its lanes and alleyways.
Starting in the second week in July, the three-week Festival d’Avignon focuses especially on theatre, while also featuring classical music, dance, lectures and exhibitions. The city’s great buildings make a spectacular backdrop to performances, while its streets throng with bright-eyed performers promoting their shows. Everywhere stays open late, and everything from accommodation to obscure fringe events gets booked up very quickly; doing anything normal becomes virtually impossible.
Founded in 1947 by actor-director Jean Vilar, the festival hosts theatre companies from across Europe. While big-name directors draw the largest crowds to the main venue, the Cour d’Honneur in the Palais des Papes, lesser-known troupes and directors also stage new works, and the festival spotlights a different culture each year.
The main festival programme is usually available from the second week in May; tickets go on sale around mid-June. The fringe Festival Off adds an additional element of craziness and magic, with innovative, obscure and bizarre performances in more than a hundred venues. A Carte Public Adhérent available online for €16, gives thirty percent off all shows.
The first pope to come to Avignon, Clement V, was invited by the astute King Philippe le Bel in 1309, ostensibly to protect him from impending anarchy in Rome. In reality, Philip saw a chance to extend his power by keeping the pope in Provence, during what came to be known as the Church’s “Babylonian captivity”. Clement’s successor, Jean XXII, who had previously been bishop of Avignon, re-installed himself happily in the episcopal palace. The next Supreme Pontiff, Benedict XII, acceded in 1334; accepting the impossibility of returning to Rome, he replaced the bishop’s palace with an austere fortress, now known as the Vieux Palais.
Though Gregory XI finally moved the Holy See back to Rome in 1378, this didn’t mark the end of the papacy here. After Gregory’s death in Rome, dissident local cardinals elected their own pope in Avignon, provoking the Western Schism, a ruthless struggle for control of the Church’s wealth. That lasted until Benedict XIII – now officially deemed to have been an antipope – fled into self-exile near Valencia in 1409. It was Benedict who built Avignon’s walls in 1403, when under siege by French forces loyal to Rome. Avignon itself remained papal property until the Revolution.
As home to one of Europe’s richest courts, fourteenth-century Avignon attracted princes, dignitaries, poets and raiders, who arrived to beg from, rob, extort and entertain the popes. According to Petrarch, the overcrowded, plague-ridden papal entourage was “a sewer where all the filth of the universe has gathered”.
Spreading across the Rhône delta, and defined by the Petit Rhône to the west, the Grand Rhône to the east, and the Mediterranean to the south, the drained, ditched and protected land known as the Camargue is utterly distinct from the rest of Provence. With land, lagoon and sea sharing the same horizontal plain, its shimmering horizons appear infinite.
The whole of the Camargue is a Parc Naturel Régional, which sets out to balance tourism, agriculture, industry and hunting against the indigenous ecosystems. When the Romans arrived, the northern part of the Camargue was a forest; they felled the trees to build ships, then grew wheat. These days, especially since the northern marshes were drained and re-irrigated after World War II, the main crop is rice.
The Camargue is split into two separate sections by the large Étang du Vaccarès, a lagoon that’s out of bounds to visitors. Most people focus their attention on the western Camargue, home to the sizeable town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and also commercial attractions such as wildlife parks and activity operators. It is possible, however, to take a quick look at both the western and eastern halves of the Camargue within a single day.
The Camargue is a treasure trove of bird and animal species, both wild and domestic. Its most famous denizens are its bulls and the white horses, both of which roam in semi-liberty. Born dark brown or black, the Camargue horse turns white in around its fourth year.
An estimated 2500 of the region’s gardians or herdsmen – ten percent of them women – remain active. A hardy bunch, they play a major role in preserving Camarguais traditions. Their traditional homes, or cabanes, are thatched, windowless one-storey structures, with bulls’ horns over the door to ward off evil spirits. Throughout the summer, the gardians are kept busy, with spectacles involving bulls and horses in every village arena; winter is a good deal harder.
Camargue wildlife ranges from wild boars, beavers and badgers, tree frogs, water snakes and pond turtles, to marsh and seabirds and birds of prey. The best season for birdwatching lasts from April to June. Of the region’s fifty thousand or so flamingos, ten thousand remain in winter (Oct–March), when the rest migrate to Africa.
Constructed in the nineteenth century to stop the incursions of sea water that precluded agriculture in the southern Camargue, the low-lying sea dyke known as the Digue à la Mer stretches across the mouth of the Rhône. Hiking the rough, narrow track along the top is a wonderful wilderness experience, with open water to either side, flamingos and other birds flying overhead, and the wind roaring in your ears.
While the dyke itself is roughly 12km long, connecting trails at either end make it possible to walk the whole way between Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and Salin-de-Giraud. The entire 31km route takes around six hours, with no facilities en route, so most visitors content themselves with an out-and-back round-trip from one end or the other. The Phare de Gacholle lighthouse in the middle, open as an information centre on summer weekends, makes an obvious turn-around point.
If you’re coming from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, simply head 1km east of town, staying close to the sea; the trail starts from the Plage de l’Est, where drivers pay an admission fee. Coming from Salin-de-Giraud, you can park beside the Étang de Fangassier at trailheads either 7km west or 13km northwest of town.
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.
Most of Villeneuve’s restaurants are special-treat places for day-trippers from Avignon, though there is a handful of pleasant little cafés on place Jean-Jaurès where you can enjoy a simple snack with your drink.
The 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 crowds of summer day-trippers, it’s best to turn up late in the day.
East of Avignon and north of Aix, the beautiful wine-growing, lavender-carpeted valley of the Luberon has long been a favoured escape for well-heeled Parisian, Dutch and British visitors, not to mention artists. The Luberon’s northern face is damper and more alpine in character than the Mediterranean-scented southern slopes, and gets extremely cold in winter. It’s almost all wooded, except for the summer sheep pastures at the top, and there’s just one main route across, the Combe de Lourmarin. One sizeable town, likeable Apt, and countless small villages – like Saignon, Bonnieux and Gordes, among others – cling stubbornly to the Luberon foothills. With their impossibly narrow cobbled streets, tumbledown houses strewn with flowers, and sun-baked places, they make wonderful days out and even better places to stay.
Aiming to conserve the natural fauna and flora, and limit development, the Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon covers much of the Luberon. It’s administered by the Maison du Parc, 60 place Jean-Jaurès in Apt. Under the rubric Le Luberon à Vélo, assorted hotels, campsites and cycle hire and repair shops jointly promote cycle tourism throughout the region.
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.
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 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 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 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, empty of their statues, a larger-than-life representation of Augustus, 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 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 boutiques, restaurants, and a couple of cafés, the core remains surprisingly sleepy; 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 ancient Glanum. St-Rémy is also famous as the birthplace of sixteenth-century astrologer Nostradamus.
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.