THE REST OF FRANCE: Provence
Is a book, not a blog entry.
So let’s tackle in small doses.
If you’ve never been outside of Paris, go to Provence first over Loire, Burgundy, Alsace, Bordeaux, Normandy, Nice, and Marseille. Those are all unbelievable, but go to Provence. Period.
The beauty and beast of French trains. When they work, you get off your plane at CDG, walk a short distance, and get on a very nice, very fast TGV to Avignon. Two-and-half hours later, you’re drinking wine in the sunshine.
If they’re on strike, find a great hotel in Paris and change your plans. When it’s good, it’s great. When they’re on strike, it’s disaster. (Or, our recent favorite is to fly to Marseille and enjoy the short drive through the countryside).
Medium-sized city, jam packed with historical significance. It was once the seat of the Roman Catholic Church papacy, and it’s filled with Roman baths and significant architecture. Great city as a jumping off point for Provence, so stay for two nights. It’s an easy-to-navigate and walkable city.
From Avignon, there are a great many options (especially for wine aficionados). Here are few initial choices:
Choice #1: St. Remy/Les Baux
Straight south of Avignon
The countryside is a bit more dramatic, especially Les Baux, which looks like it literally springs out of a rocky outcrop. One of the most uniquely beautiful villages in France.
Highlights and hotels:
The landscapes around here inspired Van Gogh, there’s even an tour of the hospital he stayed at in St. Remy.
Choice #2: The hilltop towns (A personal favorite and almost annual trip)
The ideal way to approach the hilltop towns and why we love this area:
Flight to CDG, train to Avignon, car rental at the Gare in Avignon (small and super easy to navigate). Drive 25 minutes to a small area between Goult, Rousillon, and Gargas. Arrive at La Coquillade, a hotel property on the top of a hill. Have lunch on the patio or by the pool and this view of the Luberon Valley.
After a wine-fueled lunch and check in to your room, walk about 100 meters to the on-site BMC bike shop. Get your bike (that you pre-rented), go for a short ride to either Bonnieux or Roussillon (less than 10 km), walk the town, see the views, and get a croissant or sundae. Ride back to the hotel in time for a shower and dinner on the terrace.
It’s the best way to arrive and fight jet lag at the same time.
The hilltop towns, by bike or car (you know our preference) are not to be missed in your life. Rousillon with its ocher cliffs, Bonnieux with its markets, charm, and church on the high point of town, Menerbes for its ancient streets, and Lacoste for its cobblestone streets where time stands still (from the 9th century) and the home of Marquis de Sade.
Pont Julien is in the midst of them all. It remains one of the oldest standing examples of a working 1st-century B.C. Roman bridge. It’s short hop from Lacoste or Bonnieux. The greatest experience is bicycling downhill from Bonnieux, crossing Pont Julien, and heading the 1 km back to the hotel La Coquillade with your bike.
Or further north:
A little further north is Mont Ventoux (outside of Bedoin), the giant of Provence. Drive to the top, and imagine cycling to the top. Better yet, bicycle to the top. The pros do it in about an hour or less. Mere mortals? Well, ours was close to 4 hours. Just like a marathon.
Before or after Ventoux, visit the gorges of La Nesque, outside of Sault. Beautiful drive, amazing bicycle ride.
Once you’ve done all or part of the above, you’ll understand why Provence, especially this little slice, is a must.