Famed for never-ending fields of lavender and a slow, rosé-tinted pace of life, Provence is a long-established go-to destination for a relaxed summer break. Chic hotels nestle amid olive groves or cling to vertiginous cliffs overlooking the glittering Mediterranean. In short, there’s something to suit everyone. For a touch of culture, there are the three As to explore (Aix, Arles and Avignon); the artistic legacy of Van Gogh and Cezanne; Roman monuments a plenty; and the awe-inspiring Palais des Papes.
WHERE TO VISIT & WHAT TO SEE
With its vineyards, olive groves and lavender fields, the expanse of countryside from the eastern bank of the Rhone heading towards the Riviera coast is a summer playground for Parisians. The Luberon area, just to the north of Aix en Provence, stands out for its collection of almost impossibly picturesque villages. Here are the places to tick off your list...
Gordes is hewn into a cliffside. Viewed from afar in the summer sun, the rocks and houses shimmer and dissolve into each other, in a manner reminiscent of an impressionist painting. The surrounding countryside boasts some of the top hotels in Provence, offering indulgent terraces, infinity pools, and views south over the rolling Luberon hills.
Roussillon is famed for its ochre red soil. According to local legend, a jilted lover cast herself from the cliff on which the village is built, staining the soil all around with blood. Macabre stories aside, an early morning visit to Roussillon and short walk along the ochre footpath, is an out-of-this-world experience.
Lourmarin in southern Luberon is a quintessentially beautiful Provençal village. Over the years it has been home to celebrated authors such as Henri Bosco, Albert Camus and Peter Mayle. The village continues to be a magnet for in-the-know second-home owners, lured by the café society and year-round bustle.
The Provence coast stretches from the delta of the Rhone river just south of Avignon to the city of Toulon. Unlike the Côte d’Azur (to the east of Toulon), it remains resolutely French and, as a result, relatively unknown to Brits. Yet it is home to some of the most beautiful bays and beaches on the French Mediterranean. The areas not to miss are Cassis, Bandol and Les Calanques.
Cassis has more than a passing resemblance to St Tropez. Pretty pastel-coloured houses form a half moon around the port, while shops and restaurants line the seafront. Order bouillabaisse, a fish soup and local speciality, then sit back and enjoy the show. For swimming, the best beach is Plage Bestouan, which is a short walk around the headland.
Bandol is famed for its wine, particularly its reds and rosés. The town itself is attractive and animated, with multiple picture-perfect beaches such as the Plage Renécros. The water is a brilliant turquoise and the sand golden under feet – it’s best admired from the sun loungers of one of the three beach clubs discreetly interspersed along the seafront. Our favourite is the one at Thalazur Hotel.
Les Calanques are a series of rocky coves cut into the cliffs. They are renowned throughout France as one of the most unspoilt stretches of coast in the country. Access is largely on foot or by boat (from Cassis or Marseille). The adventurous can hire kayaks, while those wedded to their cars can journey to Calanque Mejean and Calanque Niolon, to the west of Marseille, both of which host secluded restaurants with sea views.
Aix en Provence, Arles and Avignon are the main cities of Provence, and each has a distinct vibe.
Aix is known as the ‘Paris of the south’ and is unashamedly chic. Its central street, the Cours Mirabeau, is reminiscent of both Les Ramblas in Barcelona and the Champs Elysées in Paris. It is a people-watching paradise, lined with cafés and presided over by centuries-old plane trees. There’s culture of course – the Musée Granet and Cezanne’s atelier – but many simply get lost in the pleasures of meandering the streets of the old town.
Arles offers a delightfully curious mixture of hedonistic modernism and unrivalled Roman heritage. Visit during festival season, which runs from Easter to autumn, and you’ll find a raucous city overflowing with pop-up bars and live bands. Watching over the action is a glinting new marvel: a Frank Gehry skyscraper. This is the symbol of the avant-garde Luma Arles project and sits in stark contrast with the more traditional sights.
Avignon is the first stop for many who head to Provence, thanks to the direct Eurostar from London. It’s renowned for the Pont d’Avignon, which stretches halfway across the Rhone. Since construction in 1177, every century or so the arches were washed away by floodwaters, but that hasn’t stopped it becoming a popular picturesque spot for a sunset kiss. The Palais des Papes is the other must-see attraction.
WHAT TO DO
Many tourists in Provence are content to just sit back and admire the view. The more energetic hire an e-bike and pedal serenely through the countryside. Kayaking down rivers such as the Sorgue and along the coast is also popular.
On market mornings, the hustle, bustle, and good-natured heckling between traders is a show not to miss. The village streets become the stage and the traders provide the dressing with their multicoloured parasols and array of vibrant produce.
Vineyard hopping is also popular. Think of the activity as the Provençal equivalent of a pub crawl. Jump in the car (with a designated driver of course) or take an e-bike and head from vineyard to vineyard. Almost anywhere is good, but for the best reds head just north of Avignon to villages such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Rasteau. For rosé, head to the Var countryside, which is home to stellar names such as Whispering Angel near Frejus, and Domaine Mirabeau just outside St Tropez.
WHERE TO STAY
Domaine de Fontenille
Set in exquisite parkland in southern Luberon, this 19-bedroom hotel is an excellent choice for exploring the Luberon Nature Park and south towards Aix en Provence and the coast. The hotel produces its own organic wine and has a wellness center, as well as a Michelin-starred restaurant. There’s a boho vibe with an in-house art gallery, and paintings and photos hanging in every bedroom. The bistro on the expansive terrace overlooking the garden serves ‘re-imagined’ tapas and is not to be missed.
Hotel Roches Blanches
A five-minute walk from the centre of Cassis, sitting on its eponymous Roches Blanches (‘white rocks’) this hotel has seaside glamour in spades. The active can take advantage of exclusive guided access to the Calanques Nature Park for a hike or even rock climbing. The more relaxed can admire the view of the highest sea-cliff in Europe from the hotel pool, or indulge in some pampering in the Sisley spa.
In 2018 Le Parisien named Maison d’Aix the most romantic hotel in France. The amorous history of the building began with a certain Madame Reboule who owned the house at the turn of the 20th century. She was notorious for her celebrity lovers and the hotel’s current owner riff on this theme, naming its four rooms the Corset, the Secret Garden, the Love Suite and Le Chambre d’Henriette. It’s a great address for honeymooners and for those after a romantic city break as a couple.
Mas de Carassins
The ever-popular Mas de Carassins basks in the sunshine just outside the town of St Remy de Provence. The converted farmhouse is full of Provençal character and has a wonderful mature garden dotted with olive trees. There’s a dreamy pool to lounge alongside and the hotel restaurant, La Table d’Yvan, is one of the best in the region. It’s a great base for exploring Avignon, Arles and the Les Alpilles countryside.
Renting a villa is one of the most popular accommodation choices for visiting Provence, and there are thousands of options. To narrow down your choices and provide an assurance of quality, operators such as Only Provence maintain a carefully curated list of villas. Top picks for the summer 2020 season include: Mas des Cigales near Bonnieux in the Luberon; and Mas des Cavaliers in the charming village of Eygalieres, a short drive from Arles and Avignon.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
La Petite Maison is a local institution. Run by much-loved chef Eric Sapet the restaurant offers a gastronomic menu with wine for €100. Despite the serious food on offer, Eric ensures a convivial atmosphere in the restaurant, passing from table to table and often pausing to have a drink with diners.
Table de Nans
Seaside dining does not get any better than this: a pine-fringed terrace, views from every table of the glittering sea below, and dishes to make even the most demanding diner swoon with pleasure. The restaurant earned a Michelin star just one year after opening, thanks to chef and local boy Nans Gaillard.
Restaurant Dan B
In his restaurant perched on the Ventabren hillside just outside Aix, chef Dan Bessoudo creates some of the most colourful and tasty dishes in Provence. At times food and art seem to merge, but any guilt about tucking in is quickly assuaged by the full-bodied flavours. Plates here are licked clean. Dessert is a speciality.
Numero 9 remains the best restaurant in Lourmarin. Its lunchtime menus, particularly on market morning, are not to missed. For €34 diners can enjoy a high-quality three-course meal sitting in the shade of the village’s stone walls next to a trickling fountain. Everybody leaves with a broad smile on their face.
Carré du Palais
Restaurants next to major tourist sights are invariably a disappointment. The Carré du Palais is a joyful exception to the rule. The terrace of the restaurant leads directly onto the courtyard in front of the Palais des Papes, allowing diners the chance to admire the 14th-century gothic palace. The food is good value and there’s an extensive wine list.
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