I have a theory for why it has taken me so long to make my first ever trip to Provence: I never read A Year in Provence. I was at university when the autobiographical account of well-to-do Brits relocating to the French countryside became a smash hit. Almost overnight it was responsible for a huge surge in interest in Provence. Not to mention a mini-exodus of those who could afford a second home in the Provencal countryside.
The fervour that accompanied the book made it seem a bit light and frothy. But it also spawned a thousand newspaper and glossy magazine travel articles that embedded a lasting desire to visit this region of exquisite food, lavender fields, Roman ruins, historic towns, and sublime landscapes (made famous by artists including Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne) in my consciousness.
The boom in tourism and second homes continues to this day, and I did catch myself occasionally wishing that I’d had the sense to read the book and visit thirty years ago. Still, if there is one upside to a pandemic, it is that tourist footfall in most of the places we visited was light. Pre-pandemic, France received the most tourist visits of any country on earth, Provence its third most visited region.
If it’s an itch that has taken a while to scratch, our first encounter with this beguiling region has only whetted our appetite to make the long trip from Brussels again. I’ve always been aware of Avignon. It has a unique history as the 14th century home of the Papacy and its role in the Great Schism. We based ourselves in a garden apartment in a residential neighbourhood just outside Avignon’s magnificent medieval walls.
To get there in one go seemed ambitious. Going south we stopped in sleepy Chalon-sur-Saône, spread out along the broad River Saône. While not a place to delay you too long, it is both pretty and home to a museum celebrating the work of Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce. The achievements of the man often credited as the inventor of photography went largely unrecognised in his lifetime, the museum puts the record straight.
On the return journey we stopped in nearby Macon, a strangely subdued Burgundian town at the heart of one of France’s most famous wine regions. Still, Macon has a history dating back two millennia and managed to serve up one of the best meals of our trip, all washed down with delicious and (very) local wines. Macon would make a good base for exploring the region.
Avignon itself makes a good base for a first visit to Provence. It’s a shame that many people pass through on a day trip, because it has an abundance of history, coupled with a lively atmosphere, good museums and fantastic food. Plus, it’s only a short distance by train to a number of fascinating and historic towns, and a short drive into the Provencal countryside.
One reason this region is so iconic is down to one man: Vincent van Gogh. Plenty of other great artists have painted the same landscape and cityscapes, but none with the power of van Gogh. Whether the courtyard of the Hôtel-Dieu in gorgeous Arles or the Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole near Saint-Rémy, it’s a shock to see scenes that inspired works you’re more likely to encounter in the Orsay in Paris.
We spent a day in Arles retracing van Gogh’s footsteps and being amazed by the magnificent remains of the Roman Empire, the well preserved amphitheatre and theatre. Arles is not unique in this, at Saint-Rémy there are more Roman ruins, while the Roman theatre in Orange is one of the finest anywhere in the world. We visited Orange and the legendary Châteauneuf-du-Pape on our way back north.
Before that, we spent a few days marauding around the countryside south and east of Avignon and still barely dipped our toes in the glories of this region. We visited the magnificent medieval fortress town of Château des Baux-de-Provence, ate a delicious lunch in the historic village of Roussillon, joined hordes of other tourists at the weekly market in Gordes, and took in the sweeping views from the hilltop church of Bonnieux.
They say Provence’s popularity with artists is due to the quality of the light, and it was the light we sought. Our days were sun drenched even in early October. It won’t be long before we return for another dose of Provencal life.