Touring the South of France: The Hills of Provence
Paris is a hop, skip and train ride away from many fabulous destinations within France for a day or weekend trip. The south of France has always been one of my favorites. It has an almost mythical quality, with its far-reaching history, generations-old food and wine culture and picture-perfect beauty.
On one of my first trips to France, I set aside a week to leave Paris and explore the south. There was so much to see that I ran at a breakneck pace from the hilltop towns of the Luberon to the vineyards of the Côtes du Rhône and back down to the pristine beaches of the French Riviera. Each town was more beautiful than the last, but with barely enough time for a picture and a glass of wine at the dozens of stops, I felt like I missed soaking in the serene village charm.
After I moved to Paris, I was barely unpacked before I was planning my next trip to Provence. Instead of a different hotel every night, I thought I’d pick just one place to stay—in a smaller town so I could settle into the slower rhythm of village life. I also wanted a central location for an interesting day trip, and naturally there had to be some good restaurants in the area. The town that ended up hitting all the marks for me was les Baux de Provence.
My dad jumped at the chance to join me for a preplanned travel adventure. We grabbed the train from Gare de Lyon for a two-and-a-half-hour TGV ride to Avignon, where we picked up a rental car and even snuck in a self-guided tour of the Pope’s Palace before driving the 18 miles to les Baux.
As the car wound through the picturesque roads and up the steep hill to les Baux, a smile crossed my face as I watched all the tourist buses heading out of town, leaving behind the quiet I was looking for, complete with the stunning Alpilles as our backdrop.
We stayed at a Relais & Châteaux property, l’Oustau de Baumanière, which sits at the basin of the immense cliffs. Lucky for us, it was also the first day of beautiful spring weather, providing us with the opportunity to dine on the hotel’s large tree-covered patio our first evening. The sun was setting as we chose our bubbles from the champagne cart and began our wonderful tasting menu, which included seared foie gras, a fresh seafood stew and warm, succulent chicken. Extensive cheese and dessert carts helped close out our evening, and put us right to bed.
In the morning, the mountains called our names so we hiked up the hundreds of steps from our hotel to the cobblestoned streets of the tiny town of les Baux. There were many beautiful overlooks where we could take in the expansive valley views over Arles and the Camarague while simultaneously catching our breath.
At the top, galleries were intermingled with souvenir shops, medieval churches and museums. We rented a portable audio guide from the tourist office, which gave us an informative tour of the city, as well as extensive information about the historic castle on top. You can spend a few hours wandering the expansive château grounds and taking in the panoramic views.
After all the hiking and sightseeing, we retired to our hotel for a massage and drink on the patio. It was hard not to eat another wonderful meal in the same tranquil spot again, but we managed to stumble a few feet down the road to la Riboto de Taven, a charming B and B that also takes visitors with reservations for dinner. The inn’s owner greeted us and served us a market-fresh, leisurely three-course dinner in a cool, stone room with high ceilings and a black-and-white checkered floor. We were starting to fall into the trance of small-town life, with its warm hospitality and gentle pace.
The next day was Sunday—market day in l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, less than an hour’s drive from les Baux. We had heard that the crowds and parking can turn fierce as the day rolls on, so we got an early start. We had no issues with either at our 9 a.m. arrival time, but things were definitely picking up by the time we left. We were treated to much more than a food market, though the fruit and vegetable stands did tempt us with their bright colors of fresh produce. There was also a large selection of antique furniture, dishes, posters and books.
The market snakes through most of the town, alongside meandering canals and working water wheels. Despite all the nice-looking food, it was a challenge to find something to eat for breakfast, as many restaurants weren’t open yet or don’t open at all on Sundays. We ended up with a croissant and coffee at a café, which was enough to get us to our next destination.
We could spot Roussillon in the distance, with the region’s distinct red color emanating from the mountains and buildings. The color comes from ocher deposits in the soil, and it makes a striking backdrop for many photos. We wandered through a few shops and through the 11th-century church of Saint-Michel, but there’s not much to do here except admire the view, so we admired and then continued with our day’s discoveries.
Gordes, yet another beautiful stone town in which to walk and climb, isn’t far down the road. There’s an abbey built in 1148 that’s worth a look, and we found a nice perch there to enjoy lunch, people-watch and admire the view.
On our way back to les Baux, we made our final stop for the day in Saint-Rémy de Provence, a charming, slightly larger town with pedestrian-only streets and decent shopping. I found a fabulous large-brimmed, black-dotted straw hat for my next dress-up day at the horse races, but I showed restraint by not making any clothing purchases, though there are some nice, upscale boutiques in which to browse.
We enjoyed our final dinner in Saint-Rémy on the quaint patio of la Maison Jaune, a Michelin-starred restaurant. While admiring the centuries-old church from the balcony, we feasted on garden-fresh dishes like a unique cold berry soup, grilled artichokes with spinach cakes and an interesting pairing of large cooked shrimp with spiced chorizo. Luckily we didn’t have far to drive back to our hotel, where we sat under the stars, admiring our last glimpse of the cliffs.
In the morning, we sat on the hotel’s patio, savoring our farewell breakfast under the Alpilles and discussing an even longer trip for the next time, as there’s still more to see—more places with patios like this where we can sit serenely and soak it all in.
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