After a lingering winter season, the easiest way to improve one’s disposition is to travel toward blue skies and a sun-blessed climate. From Dijon and then going south on A-31-E17→A6-E15→A7-E15 (passing Lyon), one of the most splendid regions in France emerges in the horizon: Provence, “toujours Provence (Always Provence/Peter Mayle) …” In Provence everything exudes natural beauty coupled with a native environment rich in regional tastes, bright sceneries and stimulating fragrances. It’s irresistible!
In ancient times, the area was a province of the Roman Empire. As result, the name “Provence” endured virtually intact throughout the centuries. Unsurprisingly, Rome’s historical testament has been permanently interwoven within the region’s landscape. Hence, Provence should be visited unhurriedly and with a flexible itinerary since there is so much to be absorbed.
I usually try to visit Provence during the spring and summer seasons. My last itinerary started at the city of Orange, a Roman colony founded around 35 BC by soldiers of Caesar’s Second Gallic regiment. In the city center, the Théâtre Antique d’Orange/Ancient Theatre of Orange stands majestically. Built during the 1st century AD, this Roman monument is astonishingly well-preserved and climbing through its semi-circled arena is a notable exercise even as the statue of the Roman emperor observes and guards its realm. A tribute to Roman ingenuity was the removable head of the statue: it changed with each succeeding Roman emperor. During the summer, dramatic performances can be enjoyed as the theater presents an opera festival, the Chorégies d’Orange. Meanwhile, among trendy local restaurants, the statue of a prominent crusader knight stands alone bearing witness of another time. For history lovers, a rather interesting monument is the Arc de triomphe d’Orange/Triumphal Arch of Orange. Conceivably built during the reign of Augustus (27 BC – AD 14), this monument is fascinating because it chronicles via engravings, prominent military and navel battles scenes including Roman victories over: the Gaul region in France and the Germanic tribes in the Rhineland. Indeed, a fine historical account!
After, spending a couple of days in Orange, my next stop was the amazing walled city of the popes: Avignon. Yes, there was a period in history, from 1309 -1378, when the papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon. Clement V, a French pope was elected in 1305 and decided not to move to Rome. Thus, he moved his papal court to Avignon in 1309. Although Avignon did not belong to France at that time, a total of seven French popes reigned in Avignon (about 67 years) whilst remaining under complete subservience to the ambitious French crown. Finally in 1376, Gregory XI moved his court to Rome ending the Avignon papacy. The papal palace is an epic bastion having an imposing presence even from afar. This fortress is the largest Gothic palace from the Middle Ages as it comprises two major segments: the Palais Vieux (Old Palace) and Palais Neuf (New Palace). Tours can be scheduled with multilingual guides or with an audio-tour device included in the price of admissions. Another interesting site is the Pont Saint-Bénézet/Pont d’Avignon (the Avignon Bridge), a 12th century structure which was for many seasons the only bridge over the Rhône River south to Lyon. However, the arches collapsed frequently when the Rhône flooded or when the city came under siege. Thus, the rebuilding of the bridge stopped around the 17th century and today, only 4 arches remain. However, the bridge as one of Avignon’s landmarks holds the central theme of a popular song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon”: “Sur le Pont d’Avignon; L’on y danse, l’on y danse; Sur le Pont d’Avignon; L’on y danse tous en rond (On the bridge of Avignon, We all dance there, we all dance there, On the bridge of Avignon, We all dance there in a ring).
In the summer, Avignon becomes the center of artistic expression as it sponsors the Festival d’Avignon/Avignon Festival. For nearly 3 weeks, theatrical performances command the city while musicians and other gifted performers adorn its streets. The productions commence at the center court of the papal palace and extend to unique performance venues within the city’s walls. Not far from Avignon (about 35 min), there is an ancient structure that should not be missed: the Pont du Gard (Guard Bridge). Built in the 1st century, this 50 km long (31 miles) Roman Aqueduct Bridge, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1985. The Pont du Gard was created to carry water from the springs near the village of Uzès to the Roman colony of Nemausus, Nîmes. The structure was built with aqueduct stones weighing up to 6 tons which were bonded together with iron clamps. Every day until the 4th century (lesser amount up to the 6th century), the Pont du Gard delivered around 44 million gallons of water to the citizens of Nîmes. After, it suffered accumulating mineral deposits due to the lack of maintenance and eventually the flow of water was obstructed. The bridge has a wonderful museum with all its history plus you can hike, cycle and stroll through the park and its grand surroundings.
Last July, after losing myself in the hindmost roads of Provence, I finally ended up in an unfamiliar town. As I open my car door, I became mystified by a subtle fruity fragrance arising from the center of town. Walking towards “the source,” I found a town decorated with melon signs, melon arrangements, melon tastings, melon pastries and melon “everything.” It was the famous melon festival in the Melon capital of France, Cavaillon! The warm sun and rich terrain of Provence ensures that the melons from this area have an exquisite taste and aroma. As a matter of fact, a local anecdote recounts this story: “In 1864, a new library at Cavaillon asked a group of French authors to donate some of their works to the library’s collection. Alexander Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Queen Margot, Twenty years after, etc.),responded by donating 194 of his published works. He also promised to send subsequent works on one condition: Cavaillon should send him 12 of these succulent melons every a year. The town honored his request and Alexandre Dumas received his beloved ‘melons de Cavaillon’ every summer until his death.”
Going back to the main road, I followed a country road leading to a village nestled in the Alpilles mountains and listed as “one of the most beautiful villages in France,” les Baux-de-Provence. At first sight, the ruins of a castle parade on the mountain’s ridge. After, curiosity intensifies as the climb to its gates progresses. Traces of civilization in this area date back to 6000 BC and during the Middle Ages, the lords of Baux pursued the control of this entire region. Later, the troops of Cardinal Richelieu’s besiege the city as rebels sought refuge within its walls. Afterwards, the town and nobility title was presented to Hercule Grimaldi by King Louis XIII in gratitude for services rendered to the French Crown. Hercule’s title of Marquis des Baux has been passed down through the Grimaldi’s dynasty and currently, the title holder is Prince Albert of Monaco. In addition to its great historical past, the town is charming with its narrow cobblestone streets, coffee shops providing great views of the valley below, attractive shops, historical churches that give the impression of a beautiful unhurried life. During the summer months, you may also enjoy the rhythmic chant of the “cigales (cicadas)” in the afternoon. This singing insect signifies happiness in Provence and is often represented in local pottery and textiles. Thus, les Baux-de-Provence is always a delightful village to visit whenever I am in the region.
My next stop is usually the city of Arles. The city of Arles has as appealing history as the vibrant colors of its residences, windowpanes and rooftops. The Romans for instance had their eyes on Arles when it was the Greek colony Arelete. However, it was Julius Caesar that made Arles a prosperous port town and trade route on the Rhône River, rivalled only by Marseilles. Once the railroad arrived, its efficacy declined and the town suffered a depression. Yet, this unusual setting welcomed in 1888 Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch post-impressionist painter. One of his most prolific artistic periods came to pass in Arles where his creativity depicted scenes in and around the city with raw beauty and bold colors. The visitor’s center in Arles has a walking tour map showing the places where most likely the painter placed his easels to create his masterpieces. Arles has an impressive Roman amphitheater, Les Arènes, which can be seen in the movie Ronin, with Robert De Niro and Jean Reno. The theater stages different events throughout the year including the férias with bullfights.
On a normal week day, Arles may appear subdued. Still, on Saturday mornings, Market day (also on Wednesday but smaller), the city creates a vibrant and unforgettable atmosphere. This market runs for more than 2 km along the Boulevard of Lices while extending through smaller streets in the south border of the old city of Arles. When I walk through this market, I usually vow never to enter a supermarket again. Farmers and vendors all around the city welcome you with broad smiles, samples and great expertise about their products comprising of: a variety of seasonal fruits, olives and olive oils, cheese & meats, incredible spices, breads, sweets, honey, ceramics, wooden kitchenware & knives, perfumed soaps & oils from Provence’s flowers, clothing and so much more. An amusing fact is that in the market, you will often hear the Occitan dialect language spoken in Provence: the Provençal. Perhaps it is a concoction of Catalan, Italian, Spanish, French and Provence’s inherent flavor. Though I cannot exactly define it, my ears thoroughly enjoy its intensity and melodious resonances. In Arles, there is an inscription by Frederic Mistral using the Provençal language. This well-known Provençal writer-poet devoted his life to defend Provence’s language and culture. Moreover, he wrote the lyrics of Provence’s anthem: Coupo Santo (holy cup). Additionally, the region has a well-developed viticulture with one of my favorite’s wines being the Provençal Rosé paired beautifully with the Banon cheese from Provence. This age-old cheese recipe goes back to Gallo-Roman times consisting mainly of goat’s milk with a touch of cow’s milk. The cheese matures for two weeks followed by a dip in a local eau-de-vie (marc), then wrapped in boiled and sterilized (water & vinegar) chestnut leafs, and ultimately tied with raffia or straw. This process creates a creamy cheese with a slight chestnut scent. A delicious flavor indeed!
From Arles, I suggest a drive to the Grand Canyon of France: Les Gorges du Verdon. This river canyon possessing an astonishing turquoise hue is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe as it cuts through the gorge for about 25 km. The area of the canyon between Castellane and Moustiers Sainte Marie is particularly amazing due to its huge drop and dramatic views of the valley. There are many activities facilitating the exploration of this marvelous ecological wonder including: hiking, kayaking, canoeing, rock-climbing, paragliding, horseback-riding, fishing and fly-fishing. The visit to the Gorges of Verdon is a breathtaking experience that should be included in the Provence’s itinerary especially during the warmer months.
Lastly, whenever I think of Provence, I imagine sweet-scented fields embraced with violet-blue lavender tufts, speckled with orange poppies accents and even bright yellow sunflowers. Lavender has been a cherished plant since ancient Egypt. The Romans brought it to the region and soon fields of lavender covered the area. Monasteries planted lavender in their medicinal gardens since the plant was used to aid relaxation, headaches, insomnia and a state of well-being. Today, the fragrant plant is use for massages because it provides a calming-effect via oils in aromatherapy. It can be added to herbal teas in hot or cold infusions. Their glorious bloom can be seen from June through August cresting in July. Their trail can be followed in the “lavender road “on the Plateau of Claparèdes, with lavender fields and dry-stone wall houses “bories,” perfect for panoramic photographs. Then, on to the Luberon valley where you can stop at the Musée de la Lavande (Lavender Museum) in the heart of the Luberon Regional Natural Park where the history of the lavender industry in Provence is conveyed in an appealing manner.
The sheer diversity of sites, terrains and historical destinations make Provence an exquisite region to be uncovered. In my opinion, the best way to experience Provence is to rent a residence for a few weeks and then spend time exploring different villages and natural wonders. Day-trips crisscrossing themes and directions can be an original way to encounter the fullness of local culture, language, flavors, backdrops and natural ecosystem.