Postcards from 5 Days in Provence

In the dark, cold days of winter I find myself dreaming of late summer in Provence.  This region of southern France exudes warmth just by its very existence – stony villages surrounded by rolling green fields, markets bursting with colorful just-picked produce and the occasional cat lazily basking in the late afternoon sun (a prerequisite for any proper Provençal farmhouse or B&B).

Paris will always have my heart, but like many artists, writers and travelers before me, I yearned to discover a very different part of France.  And while my visit only allowed for a sampling of all that Provence has to offer, it was clear as to why the region continues to be a draw for those seeking relaxation, respite and a chance to recharge from the demands of daily life elsewhere.  Read on for a look at how I spent 5 days in Provence.

Day 1
We arrived in France at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris where we connected to the fast TGV train to Provence.  What I love about CDG is that the railway station in Terminal 2 has connections to both the regional RER B train to Paris and SNCF trains to other destinations around France.  While there’s a direct TGV route between the airport and Avignon where we were staying, the schedule didn’t match up with our flight arrival time so a quicker option for us was to take the TGV to the Nîmes Pont-du-Gard train station (not to be confused with the main train station in Nîmes or the Pont do Gard aqueduct – more on that later).  We arrived just minutes before the Enterprise car rental agency closed for the day and from here drove about 45 minutes to Avignon through a sleepy little village of window-shuttered houses surrounded by patches of verdant vegetation and a multi-generational family of goats crossing the occasional roundabout.  If this wasn’t the perfect introduction to Provence I don’t know would be.

It’s also important to note Avignon has 2 train stations, the Gare d’Avignon Centre just outside of the city walls, which services routes throughout the region including a short, twice hourly shuttle train to the Gare d’Avignon TGV a little further out.  We found driving in Provence to generally be very easy, and since we had a rental car we only relied on the trains to get to and from Paris.

Our final destination of the day was Les Jardins de Baracane, a lovely 5-room B&B in the southern part of Avignon near the Porte Saint Michel, where we received a warm greeting by our host Olivier.  He guided us into a private parking garage, then led us down a non-descript street to the entrance of the B&B and finally to the property’s namesake garden – a hidden oasis within the stone walls of the city with lush trees and plants that framed the garden’s gravel paths, bistro tables and a relaxing plunge pool, all watched over by the B&B’s personable gray cat, Minette.  Here he offered us a coffee as he took time to acquaint us to the city and surrounding region before leading us to our room.  Due to a last minute cancellation by another B&B that was sold, we were lucky enough to book the small Majorelle room on the first floor, which was thoughtfully decorated and offered a cheery and comfortable refuge during our stay, including beautiful views overlooking the garden.

After a quick refresh we walked for about 35 minutes across the Rhône River to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon where we had a dinner reservation at Bambino (35 Avenue Gabriel Péri).  Draped in grape vines, the restaurant’s long covered patio filled up quickly.  A large chalkboard menu was walked to each newly-seated table by the restaurant’s warm staff, which led us to start with aperitifs and an antipasti board featuring mortadella, artichokes, red peppers, stuffed sundried tomatoes and bread.  Then arrived our wood-fired pizza topped with ham and arugula over a thin and perfectly crispy crust.  I always say that pizza and a good night’s sleep is one of the best cures for jetlag and it hasn’t been proven wrong yet.

Day 2
Recharged and ready to go, we began our first full day in Provence with the most beautiful breakfast in our B&B’s garden.  Olivier had prepared a small buffet of ripe stone fruit, supple figs and sugar-sweet grapes along with a small selection of locally sourced cheeses, meats, pastries and bread, all at the peak of freshness.  We helped ourselves to coffee and juice and settled into a table in the garden as Minette sat nearby with a watchful eye in the hope that we might share a bite with her.

Our first destination was Les Baux, a medieval hilltop village crowned by castle ruins about a 40-minute drive from Avignon.  We found paid parking on the major street just west of the town’s medieval walls and climbed up its winding lanes dotted with cafes and touristy shops to reach the Château des Baux.  This 11th century château is both carved into and on top of the rocky terrain of the Alpilles mountains and is a lasting symbol of Les Baux’s powerhouse past.  While little remains today, the audio guide app did a good job of narrating our journey as we explored the site, reconstructing the castle and a portrait of daily life in our minds.

Next we headed down and walked about 15 minutes from the foot of town to Carrières de Lumières, a multimedia art show in a former rock quarry.  The large cool, dark space is brought to life with an immersive floor-to-ceiling sound and light show, with colorful imagery choreographed to music swirling around its visitors.  The show is about 40 minutes in length before it repeats and subject matter can range from a specific artists’ works to a depiction of Venice when we were there.  The show can feel a bit slow at times but the space has multiple levels that makes it nice to move around and experience it from different perspectives.  If you plan to visit both the Château des Baux and Carrières de Lumières, then the combo ticket will be worth your while (we choose a timed entry for the château in the morning followed by a visit to the Carrières de Lumières in the afternoon).

On our drive back to Avignon we made another stop just outside of Saint-Rémy to visit the Saint-Paul de Mausole, a psychiatric asylum where Vincent Van Gogh was a patient after infamously cutting off his ear.  He spent only about a year here before his death in 1890, yet it’s perhaps one of the most significant locations in the painter’s life where he created an astounding 143 paintings, including some of his most iconic works featuring the likes of bright sunflowers, rolling wheat fields, twisted olives trees and starry nights.  Visitors can tour a portion of the hospital including a reconstruction of Van Gogh’s room and the gardens where he once painted, with examples of his work displayed throughout.  It was fascinating to think about how it’s been more than 130 years since Van Gogh was here and how much has changed since then yet how much has stayed the same.

Van Gogh’s painting entitled The Olive Trees inspired us to end our day with a hike to the Le Rocher des Deux Trous (The Rock with Two Holes) high atop the Alpilles mountains.  Speaking of things that have changed, the rock that Van Gogh once painted is no longer visible from the ground, now overgrown with thick vegetation, but can be seen via 4.3-mile round trip hike from the hospital.  The trail has a steep incline on the ascent, which was intensified thanks to the heat of the late afternoon sun, but a more gradual decline.  There are some markings along the way but the trail can be confusing at times to it’s important to have a good map.  When we reached the aforementioned rock at the top, we were pleased to find that no one else was around, providing us an opportunity to sit and take in the view of the surrounding area.

By the time we returned to our hotel and freshened up we found that many restaurants were already closing for the night.  It was surprising to me just how sleepy Avignon was in the evenings of the tail end of summer, so in our own exhaustion we decided to head to a Carrefour grocery store to assemble a makeshift dinner of bread, cheese and a pre-made salad before calling it a night.

Day 3
After breakfast the next morning we set out for what would end up being my favorite day in Provence.  That wasn’t much of a surprise since I had been dreaming of visiting Pont du Gard for years.  This magnificent 1st century Roman bridge was once part of an aqueduct system to deliver water to Nîmes, the then capital of the Roman province in southern France.  It’s also no surprise that Pont du Gard has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site as it is an example of some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the world.

After a 30-minue drive from Avignon, we parked on the Rive Gauche/Left Bank side and opted for a guided tour that would allow us access to the 3rd level where could walk through the narrow channel where water once flowed, emerging on the other side of the Gardon River.  Afterwards we had the opportunity to explore the site on our own, admiring the arches and architectural innovation of the towering bridge from various vantage points, which you can read more about in my post Visiting the Pont du Gard Aqueduct in France.

Naturally we next headed to the city of Nîmes, which is home to an equally magnificent 1st century Roman arena that some may say rivals that of the Colosseum in Rome.  Despite its smaller size, the Arènes de Nîmes is remarkably well preserved and is still in use today.  We basically had the entire arena to ourselves, enabling us to explore its various levels and nooks and crannies without the type of crowds that have become characteristic of a visit to the Colosseum.

The afternoon heat had been brutal, so afterwards we sought refuge across the street at the Musée de la Romanité.  This impressive museum chronicles the 2,000-year-old history of Nîmes and the indelible mark that the Romans left on the city.  As someone who loves Roman history and architecture, I was engrossed in every detail on display and every word to be read.  The museum also has a beautiful rooftop garden that offers incredible views of the adjacent arena.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on a whirlwind tour around the city to visit other top sites, which you can read about in my post Top 5 Things to See in Nîmes, France.  As the sun began to set, we decided to grab a casual dinner at Café Olive (22 Boulevard Victor Hugo) on one of the major tree-lined streets in Nîmes.  It was a relaxing place for a burger and salad (and did not require a reservation despite the ever-growing crowd that kept the sole waiter on his toes) before heading back to Avignon.

Day 4
One thing that’s quintessential of Provence is its open-air markets.  On any given day you can find a town or village somewhere in the region hosting colorful stalls overflowing with produce, cheese, meat, textiles and other locally-produced goods throughout its main square and streets.  It was Tuesday, so we drove an hour north to Vaison-la-Romaine to partake in its market day.

As expected, it was nearly impossible to find parking but we were lucky to find a spot on a side street just north of the town center.  The market here dates back to a papal decree made in 1483 and can host up to 450 vendors, which was bustling to say the least as we made our way past gorgeous produce, scrumptious olives, cheese and sausage, plants and herbs, leather goods and linens and lavender just about everything.  It was a feast for all the senses to browse the offerings of each stall while doing a little shopping and tasting along the way.  Markets usually start in the morning and taper off as midday approaches and vendor supply dwindles so it’s best to arrive early.

After we had our market fill we spent some time exploring the rest of Vaison-la-Romaine, which is divided into a “modern” lower town (Ville-Basse) with Roman ruins and a medieval hill town (Ville-Haute) across the river with adorable winding streets leading up to the ruins of a castle high above.

It was much too hot for the hike we had originally planned in the area so instead we headed back towards Avignon to visit the Saint-André fort and abbey.  Strategically located across the Rhône River in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, an area that once served as the border dividing the kingdom of France on one side and that of Provence on the other, both sites share the same entrance and are covered by the Vaucluse Provence Pass.  We began at the 14th century fortress where we were able to walk along and on top of the castle walls, see defensive features like lateral arrow loops as well as the rooms where soldiers played games and prisoners were held.  This castle on a hill remains a symbol of royal power even years after its last use, plus the views back towards Avignon were incredible.

Next we headed to the adjacent abbey where we spent time exploring the gorgeous gardens.  The idyllic space was lush with plants and trees lining pebbly paths, where ponds overflowing with lily pads led to a vine covered pergola then to an olive tree grove growing among remains of the former abbey, plus more viewpoints from the garden’s terraces.  It’s worth noting that we had trouble finding parking near the sights but found a free lot with ample spaces just past the roundabout at Avenue Charles de Gaulle, which was about a 10-minute walk to the entrance through town.

For dinner we headed back across the river to Restaurant Le Bercail (162 Chemin des Canotiers) on the Ile de la Barthelasse.  The main draw for Le Bercail is its location along the Rhône, with waterfront tables offering diners atmospheric views of Avignon’s Palace of the Popes and Saint Benezet Bridge twinkling in the evening light.  On the other hand, we found the service to be friendly yet dreadfully slow, intensified even more by our hunger.  More than 30 minutes had passed before we were even greeted at our table.  We might have left sooner had we not found ourselves with a lack of other options, especially given how late it was in the evening.  We started with white wine and the Italienne salad, a large plate of greens with fresh and sundried tomatoes, olives, mozzarella and ham.  It was both beautiful and filling and perfect for two people to share as we waited for our Végétarienne pizza, which was topped with arugula, red bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini and artichokes – many of the same ingredients we had seen throughout the market earlier in the day.  All in all, the meal was worth the wait in the end.

Day 5
We found driving around Provence to be relatively easy, especially with the assistance of GPS and easy to understand automated toll booths on major roads, and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to take in the picturesque landscape at our own pace as we traveled from place to place.  Provence extends an open invitation to slow down and enjoy all that the countryside has to offer, something we found hard to do at times with so much richness to be uncovered.  Despite the benefits of unrestrained mobility, we decided to return our rental car the previous afternoon so we could spend our last day exploring some of the most notable sights in our home base of Avignon.

Our day began early with some edible souvenir shopping at Le Halles, the city’s famed indoor food market, before heading to the Palace of the Popes.  We also discovered another fun place to shop was the streets surrounding Place du Change, just steps from the main square Place de l’Horloge, where you’ll find everything from clothing boutiques to confectionery shops.

Avignon’s history is largely rooted in the fact that it was once home to a second, rivalry papacy from 1309 to 1377.  What made our visit to the 14th century palace especially engaging was an interactive VR device called a “Histopad” that brought the otherwise barren rooms back to life, transporting visitors to the spaces as they once were.  The experience also included a sort of treasure hunt of items to virtually find in each room, as well as a series of models that showed the palace’s expansion over time and a fun gift shop to round out the visit.

Afterwards we strung together a handful of other sites including the 12th century Avignon Cathedral, Jardin du Rocher des Domes hilltop park and finally the Saint Benezet Bridge (also known as the Pont d’Avignon), a medieval bridge that originally connected Avignon with the Philippe-le-Bel Tower in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon of aforementioned strategic importance.  Today the bridge seems to disappear into the Rhone as only 4 of the original 22 arches remain, marking an abrupt stop in the middle of the river.  Note that there’s a combo ticket that covers the Palace of the Popes, its gardens and the Saint Benezet Bridge, plus these sites are also included with the Vaucluse Provence Pass mentioned earlier.  In terms of other river crossings, there’s a free 5-minute ferry that runs between Avignon and the Ile de la Barthelasse, however it was not operational during our visit.

The afternoon heat had caught up with once again so we indulged in a glacée at La Princiere (23 Place des Corps Saints), recommended to us by Olivier.  Our cones topped with strawberry and thyme sorbet and chocolate noir sorbet, respectively, were both flavorful and the perfectly cool and sweet treat that we needed.  The forecast for the day originally called for rain, which never did come so we took advantage of the warmer temperatures and spent the remainder of the afternoon back at our B&B, poolside with sketchbooks in hand to capture some of the beautiful details of the garden.

Up until now we had felt slightly underwhelmed with our dining experiences in Provence but the last night changed all of that.  We serendipitously stumbled upon Le Vintage (10 Rue Galante), a contemporary bistro tucked into a pocket of a side street.  Despite not having a reservation we were warmly greeted and seated at an outdoor table already buzzing with just the right amount of fellow diners.  I was dreaming of a meal that was bursting with Provençal market bounty and little did we know that we found just that.  After browsing the menu we decided to order two large salads, accompanied by hearty bread and a pichet of white wine.  The chicken Caesar was nothing like the American interpretation of the salad, rather the lettuce was topped with chunks of cheese, cherry tomatoes, tiny croutons and the most delicious cereal-breaded chicken.  Moreover, the salad of the day both caught my eye and won my heart – a leafy bed of greens, large wedges of sweet cantaloupe, heirloom tomatoes, grilled eggplant, artichokes, cucumbers, red currents and to top it all off, chèvre chaud over thin toasted bread.  Yes, THIS salad single-handedly delivered on a version of Provence I had been dreaming of.  And even in its simplicity the meal was the perfect ending to our time in Provence.


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