Our Guide to Provence

Photo: Villeneuve-les-Avignon, by Oliver Fly

Provence is a corner of the world that first grew very dear to our family as we began renting homes across the region more than a decade ago. Over the summers as the children were growing up, we rented many homes in various villages, starting with a crumbly little cottage atop a vineyard and ultimately ending with the large farmhouse outside Avignon that we would purchase and renovate to become our own.

There’s something about Provence – the way time slows down and draws you to appreciate life’s simple pleasures. There is as much to see and do as you’d like, but above all we recommend doing nothing but enjoying the delicious food the region is known for, and relaxing by the pool to the tune of the cicadas.

While we only wish we could host everyone at Le Mas des Poiriers, for those we cannot accommodate we have put together a comprehensive list of our favorite villages, sights, hotels and restaurants that we have come across throughout our journeys in Provence. Should you choose to visit the region, we are certain you will love these special places as much as we do.

Our favorite villages:

Avignon

Photo: View of Avignon from the Rhone, by Oliver Fly

Avignon is near and dear to our hearts as it is the closest town to our home at Le Mas des Poiriers. Avignon is not the countryside Provencal town you may imagine, rather a bustling city with a Medieval past and historic architecture. As the second-most visited city in France, it is not to be missed.

For those coming from Paris, we recommend taking the TGV straight into Avignon, renting a car from there, and doing some sightseeing in the old city before continuing on with your Provence experience.

Photo: Avignon, by Oliver Fly

Most important to note is the Palais des Papes, which served as the Papal center of the Catholic Church for seven Papacies and home to the Pope from 1305 to 1378. It is a must-see for any first-time visitor.

Photo: La Mirande’s interior, by Nadia Meli

La Mirande, a charming hotel that sits adjacent to the palace, lives in the building that once housed the Cardinals when Avignon was the epicenter of Catholicism. It has recently been restored to perfection and provided much inspiration during our own renovation and design process for Le Mas des Poiriers. Every corner is covered in traditional French wallpapers and fabrics. Enjoy a cup of tea in the parlor or lunch on the patio to finish off your visit to the city of Avignon.

Gordes

Photo: Gordes, by Bruno Rezza

Gordes is widely known to be the most beautiful and picturesque village in Provence. Formed fully out of limestone drawn from the hill on which it is built, it is quite a sight to behold. Don’t forget to pause for an iconic photo opportunity as you approach by car. We recommend wandering the town as you will inevitably be led to stunning views over the Luberon valley in every direction.

Photo: Samantha and Peter overlooking the Luberon from Gordes

For lunch or dinner, make a reservation in advance at Bastide de Gordes (a favorite of ours!) to dine at one of their patio restaurants with unforgettable views.

On your way out, don’t miss the Abbaye de Senanque nestled in the foothills of Gordes. A medieval abbey that is still functioning today producing honey, the stone structure is set amid vibrant lavender fields. The lavender blooms peak during June and July but the rows and abbey are beautiful any time of year.

Photo: Abbaye de Senanque at the base of Gordes, by Samantha Varvel

Isle sur la Sorgue

Isle sur la Sorgue is the centre of antique furniture and vintage finds. We sourced much of the antiques at Le Mas des Poiriers from the many vendors in this town. Antique stores are open Friday through Sunday, with a market taking place on Sunday mornings for smaller items, including antique table linens and china.

We recommend lunch at Jardin du Quai, a charming restaurant set in a little courtyard amongst the antique stores. They prepare a set multi-course menu every day and it’s always fresh and delicious.

St. Remy

St. Remy is known to be a favorite town in Provence among Americans. It hosts one of the largest and most famous produce markets in the region on Wednesdays (do be warned, it can get very busy and parking is difficult to find on market days). You will find some lovely shopping in St. Remy – we recommend the beautiful Souleiado shop for traditional patterned Provencal table linens and clothing. For lunch, try the charming Chateau des Alpilles on the outskirts of town.

Les Baux

A medieval castle / fortress atop a hill, Les Baux boasts sweeping views over endless olive groves as well as family-friendly activities for children to enjoy — from petting farm animals to reenactments of canon firings. The approach by car is stunning, making it even more worth the trip.

To make a day out of it, we love the Carrieres des Lumieres for a unique show of art and lights inside a former marble quarry / cave. For Michelin-star dining at the base of the hill, we recommend L’Ousteau de Baumaniere in their garden restaurant or their more casual La Cabra d’Or on the patio.

Eygalieres

This is a little town that we are especially fond of after renting a home there for a full month one summer. While small, it is particularly charming and offers a slightly more high-end market on Fridays for those who want the experience with less of a crowd. Book a table at Maison Hache for a delicious lunch right on the main market street.

Luberon Villages: Lacoste, Menerbes, Bonnieux, Venasque

The tiny hilltop villages of the Luberon are known to be the most charming and beautiful of Provence. Spend a day exploring Lacoste, Menerbes, Bonnieux and Venasque. A drive through these towns would pair nicely with lunch at the lovely Bastide de Marie amid its bountiful rose gardens.

Photo: Maggie in Bonnieux

Aix-en-Provence

After Avignon, Aix-en-Provence is the second largest city in the Provence region. With beautiful moss-covered fountains sprinkled throughout its main streets, it offers high-end shops and bakeries for those seeking a day on the town. Enjoy a tarte Tropezienne at the famous patisserie Maison Weibel or pop into one of the many brasseries or pizzerias scattered throughout this charming city.

Our favorite sights and activities:

Pont du Gard

Photo: Aerial view of Pont du Gard, by Samantha Varvel

Pont du Gard is one of the largest and best-preserved Roman aqueducts in the world. Not only is it an amazing historical structure (UNESCO World Heritage site), but it is also known to locals as a fun swimming spot – the boys in our family love jumping off the base of the bridge into the river below! Pack your own picnic or grab lunch at one of the cafes on site.

The Calanques de Cassis

Photo: Calanque de Port Pin, by Samantha Varvel

Directly south, where Provence meets the sea, you will find one of the most beautiful natural parks in France. Between Marseille and Cassis lies a stretch of “Calanques,” or inlets of turquoise water between limestone canyons. This area offers incredible hiking opportunities with breathtaking views of crystal-clear sea (and plenty of opportunities to take a dip).

For those who want to see the Calanques but prefer to skip the hike, we have booked private boat tours through Bleu Evasion, which makes for a very fun day at sea.

The Lavender Fields of Valensole

Photo: Lavender fields of Valensole, by Samantha Varvel

Very popular on Instagram, the rolling lavender fields of Valensole are indeed otherworldly. We will warn that the drive is quite far from the main areas of Provence, and the town of Valensole does not have much to offer aside from some dirt roads and lavender fields. But for those willing to trek for that quintessential Provencal view – it may be worth your while! You’ll never forget the divine smell of lavender filling the air for miles around you. Keep in mind that the lavender is in bloom from late June to mid-August.

Classic Car Rentals

Photo: Lineup of vintage convertibles rented for a driving tour with Provence Classics

If you’re looking for a unique experience and are a fan of classic cars, we can’t recommend our friends at Provence Classics enough. A family-run business started by a British family relocated to Provence, they will organize a picturesque driving tour or road rally for you in one of their pristine classic convertibles. You’ll feel like Grace Kelly for the day, rolling in style through the South of France (don’t forget the silk scarf to cover your hair!)

A day trip to the beach (Club 55)

Photo: the family at Club 55, St. Tropez (missing a few!)

While the Cote d’Azur deserves a guide all to itself (in the works!), should you desire to get a taste of the French Riviera’s glamour for just a day during your visit to Provence, we’d recommend our favorite beach destination – Club 55. An iconic venue in and of itself, be sure to make a reservation in advance for a bed on the beach and reservation at one of their two seatings for lunch at their restaurant. While the décor is extremely laidback (in the most chic French way possible), no doubt you will have a celebrity sighting or two. And be sure to check out their beach shop for a block-printed sarong or chic coverup!

Photo: paddle boarding at Club 55, St. Tropez

The Markets of Provence

Photo: At the market in Eygalieres

Visiting a market is an essential part of the Provence experience. From produce to spices, soaps and straw hats, there is something for everyone. Each town holds its market every week on a different day, and we have listed our favorites below. Keep in mind that the markets run from 8 a.m. to noon. Bring a big basket, or buy one while you’re there!

  • Gordes: Tuesdays
  • St. Remy: Wednesdays
  • Eygalieres: Fridays
  • Bonnieux: Fridays
  • Isle-sur-la-Sorgue: Sundays (for antiques)

History of the Region: Roman Architecture and Impressionist Artists

For the history buffs, Provence has much to offer. As the region was once under Roman rule (known as Gaul), it is dotted with some of the most impressive Roman architecture remaining in the world. Two coliseums can be found in Arles and Nimes and an ancient Roman Amphitheatre in Orange. For those interested, you can find live bull fights seasonally in Nimes and Arles. Nimes is also home to the Maison Carree — one of the best preserved Roman temples in existence and a landmark structure in art history.

Of course the region is also known for its importance among Impressionist artists, namely Cezanne and Van Gogh. Van Gogh spent the last years of his life in Arles and St. Remy, and some of his most beautiful and famous artworks were inspired by the area. There are plenty of tours available tracing his life in Provence for those interested.

Our favorite hotels:

Photo: La Mirande, Nadia Meli

While we recommend renting your own villa for a true Provence summer experience, should you choose to stay in a hotel, we have put together a list of our favorites in the region:

  • La Mirande – Avignon
    • A former Cardinal’s home, the La Mirande sits directly next to the Palace of the Popes and retains much of its original charm. Lovingly restored by the current owners, you will find each room uniquely decorated with traditional French fabrics and finishes. We recommend requesting a room with a view of the Palace. Our favorites are rooms 20, 22, 25 and 30, though they are all exquisite.
  • Bastide de Gordes – Gordes
    • A beautiful hotel overlooking the Luberon Valley. Their pool and lawn set on the hillside of Gordes is particularly stunning. Enjoy their fabulous spa and dine in one of their three beautiful restaurants.
  • Baumaniere – Les Baux
    • Set at the base of the Les Baux hilltop village with views to the rocky Petite Alpilles mountains, the Baumaniere hotel is charming and comfortable.
  • Le Prieure – Villeneuve-les-Avignon
    • In the heart of the charming forted village of Villeneuve-les-Avignon, Le Prieure sits adjacent to the beautiful Collegiale Notre Dame Church.
  • Bastide de Marie – Luberon
    • A newer boutique hotel set in the countryside of the Luberon amongst lovely vineyards. Known for its rose gardens and vine-covered charm.

Our favorite restaurants:

Photo: Le Prieure, by Oliver Fly
  • La Mirande – *Michelin Star (Avignon)
    • Fantastic food in a charming setting. Dine in their garden in the summer with a view of the palace or in the dining room with a roaring fire in the winter. Their New Year’s Eve celebration dinner with dancing is a favorite of our family.
  • Le Prieure – *Michelin Star (Villeneuve-les-Avignon)
    • Some of our favorite food in Provence enjoyed in a relaxed garden setting.
  • Bastide de Gordes – L’Orangerie (Gordes)
    • A fabulous view over the Luberon Valley. Sit under the many plane trees for shade at lunchtime.
  • Bastide de Gordes – Clover Gordes (Gordes)
    • Jean-Francois Piege of Clover Paris fame opened this lovely restaurant in Provence with a view over the Luberon Valley from the patio.
  • L’Ousteau de Baumaniere – ***Michelin Star (Les Baux)
    • Spectacular food in a beautiful setting. Sit on their garden patio with a view to the magnificent Les Baux hilltop village.
  • La Cabro d’Or (Les Baux)
    • The casual sister restaurant to L’Ousteau de Baumaniere enjoys the same view of Les Baux in a more casual setting.
  • Francis Mallman at Chateau La Coste (Luberon)
    • The famed Argentinian chef has come to Provence cooking his spectacular dishes in a charming setting.