After you have thoroughly explored the French Riviera, it is time to move east.. to Provence. You almost can’t even say the name without whiffing lavender and slipping into a hazy dream in which you are languishing at an old farmhouse or castle hotel, slowly sipping rose.. perhaps with a crusty baguette and some local olive oil.. The rose begins to work its way through your limbs, relaxing you, and making you slip even further into your French dream.. Could you stay here? Buy an old farmhouse? Fix it up and rent it out? Live here forever? Lavender? Wine?
No? Just me? Okay then. But really.. Provence is so brilliant that it inspired an entire art movement. Impressionist painters such as Cezanne, Monet, and Renoir were inspired by the rolling hills, medieval villages perched high atop hills, and the lavender that blankets the terroir in the summer. Books have been written about it, see “A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle.
Of course, the lavender blooms from June to August, and that is when the grapes grow as well, but I loved the time I just spent here getting to know the area better at the end of March. Crisp mornings, beautiful sunny afternoons, and mainly locals milling around the villages. As my fantastic driver-guide Franck and I drove from the Riviera west towards Provence, I noticed several picture-perfect farmhouses flanked by tall cypress trees, and I must have been staring hard, because Franck laughed casually, “Those are our ranches.” I’m sorry, but when I’m driving down I-35 in Texas, our “ranches” do not look like they came directly out of a European storybook. I kept staring, and as we continued on approximately two hours past Nice, I began to see stone villages sitting on the tippy tops of hills in the distance.. and more cypress trees.. and I knew that I was in the heart of the Luberon. The Luberon is mostly a French regional national park which sits north of Aix-en-Provence and contains the prettiest crowning hilltop towns and rolling hills. Vineyards and lavender fields randomly blanket large fields in between.
This is the area in which I was able to explore better, winding our way through several towns before ending up in Aix-en-Provence. (Hopefully you have already read about my journey on the Cote d’Azur in my blog French Riviera + Provence (1 of 2).)
Gordes is known as a chic village within the Luberon and is loaded with medieval charm. It is officially listed as “one of the most beautiful villages in France.” Of course it is capped off with a fortified castle and narrow alleys contain shops and restaurants. Even better, a gorgeous Virtuoso and Leading Hotels of the World property, La Bastide de Gordes, sits within the town as well and the views over the surrounding park are to die for.
Also, don’t miss a visit to the nearby Abbaye de Senanque while in Gordes! It is a short drive, or hike if you wish, down to the working Cistercian abbey that is the iconic image of Provence. You know the one- gorgeous abbey, thick fields of lavender just in front, cypress trees reaching for the sky on the left side.. I was so happy I got to see it, even if the lavender was not in bloom. (And I would like to thank the famous mistral winds for my amazing hair day.)
From Gordes and the Abbaye, we continued on to Roussillon, known for the nearby ochre quarries which lend the town’s buildings their reddish hues. This little town seems completely untouched by time, and is a photographer’s dream. So.many.colors. I loved it!
From Roussillon, we drove just above Bonnieux, before stopping in Lourmarin for a stroll and some shopping, and then arrived at Chateau La Coste for a bit of wine tasting.
And finally, you are just around the corner from Aix-en-Provence! A quaint town it is not, Aix is a bustling university city filled with a charm of its own, mostly the energy of the young population. Students and fun-lovers of all ages spill out of cafes and mingle in shops on the Cours Mirabeau and the surrounding alleys. I really love the lively energy of this city! Virtuoso property Villa Gallici sits just on the edge of town, if you are looking for an elegant 5* property with a pretty terrace and picturesque outdoor pool just enough out of the busy street action.
If you are craving a quaint seaside town a little closer to Provence and the Luberon, look no further than Cassis. The old fishing port located just east of Marseilles was built on the ruins of a medieval castle and has all the colorful charm of a Provencial village. Pastel cafes and shops line the harbor, as do fishing boats and those hawking tours to the nearby Calanques, steep inlets carved into the limestone which are generally reached only by boat or steep hikes.
The drive between the Nice area and Aix-en-Provence or the Luberon is over two, to maybe three, hours. Some great ways to break up the drive include visits to wineries such as Chateau Sainte Roseline, or the American Rhone Cemetery in Draguignan to soak up some touching WWII stories and history from the amazing guides. This cemetery contains graves and a memorial for over 800 American soldiers who lost their lives in WWII in or around the Rhone Valley. It is a beautiful and moving site, and extremely well kept.
And just like that, we had made our way back to Nice and my amazing week in France drew to a close. Of course, depending on your interests, there are so many ways to tailor a trip to the south of France! Rent a villa in Provence for a week and day-trip from there, split a stay between the coast and Provence, hop between towns on the Riviera for a laid-back beachy holiday.. Alternately, there are great river cruises on the Rhone River which visit the fantastic wine regions of Beaujolais and Cotes du Rhone, as well as the towns of Avignon and Arles.
Please ask me how to plan your perfect holiday in the south of France by filling out my contact form on the “Set Sail” tab above. Merci beaucoup!