Several years ago, when I still thought of European travel as a distant, unattainable dream, I read Peter Mayle’s bestselling book “A Year in Provence.” Mr. Mayle made the people, the food and the scenery sound utterly charming and irresistible. “Someday,” I thought, “I’ll go to Provence.”
Provence is not a city but a region in the south of France that includes several small towns and cities, and is famous for its fields of lavender, connections to legendary painters, food and wine. When I was ready to leave Spain and began researching destinations in France for the next leg of my journey, I came across photos of Provence, and remembered my dream to visit. As this year is all about making my various long-held travel dreams come true, I researched the best cities to visit and booked a few nights at a hostel in Avignon, with plans to visit Arles and Aix-en-Provence, as well.
Avignon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated alongside the Rhone river, and its historic center is still surrounded by a stone wall. In the middle of the city is a beautiful square where the Palais des Papas and adjacent cathedral feature prominently. The town is filled with quaint sidewalk cafes, small museums, galleries, shops selling postcards and dishtowels printed with images of lavender, and a beautiful public park. Here are my thoughts and recommendations on what to do and what to skip in Avignon.
Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes): Perhaps because I’m not Catholic, I found the Palace of the Popes underwhelming, given the 14 Euro entry fee. It’s a large building, but most of the rooms are unfurnished. It’s undoubtably Avignon’s main attraction, but I don’t think there’s much to see inside.
St. Benezet Bridge: I spent a couple of extra Euros on my entry ticket to Pope’s Palace to include an audio tour of the nearby Benezet bridge. This little attraction was a complete surprise, as I really enjoyed it! It’s a 12th century bridge ruin that stretches just part way across the river. The bridge is said to have been built by the mysterious St. Benezet, who received a message from God to build a small bridge across the river. People laughed and said he was crazy, but he built the bridge anyway. This is apparently just a legend, but I found the story charming nonetheless.
The St. Benezet Bridge museum and tour includes a fascinating video and exhibit about the work that has been done by teams of engineers, archeologists and others to identify how the bridge was originally constructed and how it transformed over centuries.
Avignon Public Park: This park is located on a high hill adjacent to Palace des Papes. It offers stunning views of the river and the town below, with many overlooks as well as grassy, shaded areas and park benches perfect for afternoon naps. I would definitely recommend a visit to the park, if only for the views.
Shopping/Dining: I found it very easy to get lost in Avignon’s winding streets, which are filled with quaint shops and cafes. Once, I was just around the corner from my hostel but didn’t recognize the street. I ended up making a wrong turn and wandering around the city for an hour before finally finding my way.
It was an hour well spent, though, as Avignon is a lovely city in which to get lost. Locals advised me that any cafe you might choose to visit will likely be very good. The French, of course, are passionate about food.
While staying in Avignon, I took a day trip to the nearby town of Arles (note: the ‘s’ is silent), another UNESCO site. I arrived on market day and found the downtown streets packed with vendors selling fresh seafood, breads, olives and other foods as well as clothing and flea market items.
I visited the Tourist Information Center to pick up a map and recommendations on the key sites to visit. While there, I purchased a one-day city pass, which allowed me to visit several museums and attractions at a discount off of regular admission prices. The pass was well worth it, and I had an absolutely wonderful day exploring the attractions before heading back to Avignon that evening. Here’s what I saw in Arle.
L’Espace Van Gogh: This building was formerly Hotel Dieu, the hospital where Van Gogh was treated after cutting off a portion of his ear in 1888. He used the time during his hospital stay to paint the interior courtyard garden, which is still lovely today. Entry is free.
Church of St. Trophime Cloister: This cloister was mainly constructed in the 12th Century and features columns covered in ornate carvings illustrating Biblical stories and local legends. The attraction is small but includes an interesting short film about the building’s history.
Roman Theater: It was surprising to me how many Roman ruins exist in Arles. A theater was built on this site in the 1st Century B.C. and originally held 10,000 people. Only a few portions of the theater are original, but it interesting to explore the site and consider what it would have been like. It now features a modern stage and lighting, allowing the space to be used and not only treated like a museum.
Roman Amphitheater: Now used for bullfights, this amphitheater was constructed in 90 A.D. for Gladiator fights and other mass attractions. It was built to seat 20,000 people and is Arles’s main attraction today.
The Cryptoporticus: These huge underground passageways were built in 30 B.C. as the foundations for the Roman forum. The space is very dark, wet, and, when I visited, eerily quiet. I walked to the end of the first corridor, took a few pictures and then high-tailed it back up the stairs.
Throughout the city of Arles, there are mock easels displaying copies of Van Gogh’s paintings, showing where he painted several of his famous works. It was so exciting to me to stand where he stood, and to view how the scene had changed (or remained the same!).
This quintessential French street is situated opposite the amphitheater and was also feature in one of Van Gogh’s works.
After a few days in Avignon, I took a bus to Aix-en-Provence. This beautiful city, with its fountains, its outdoor markets, and its wealth of site connected to the painter Paul Cezanne, may have been my favorite of the three Provencal cities I visited.
In addition to the features listed above, this city has a wonderful Tourist Information Center. I arrived in Aix-en-Provence without a place to stay for the night, and no real plan on how to find one. This is typically a situation that I go out of my way to avoid. But I learned two late that hostels were not nearly as plentiful in this city as in other cities I’d visited, and those I was able to find were already booked. I had hoped to arrange accommodation on the bus to Aix-en-Provence, but ended up on a bus that did not have wifi. When I finally arrived in downtown Aix-en-Provence, my 65-liter backpack strapped to my back, a big messenger bag over my shoulder and another bag in one hand, I tried not to panic. I turned the corner from the bus station and considered stopping into the low-end motels to ask about a room. Then, on my left a few yards ahead, I saw it…the Tourist Information Center.
The nice white-haired Frenchman behind the desk marked “Accommodation” suddenly became my savior. When I asked about booking a room, he informed me that the cheapest room currently available in the city was 65 Euros a night. Though out of my price range, I was prepared to pay whatever it would cost for a decent bed.
“But…” he said, “there is a hostel just outside of town. We don’t handle their bookings, but I will call them if you’d like. I’m sure they will have room for you.”
This was a hostel that did not show up on any of my online searches. They did have room for me, at 24 Euros a night. I hopped on a local bus and was never more grateful to drop off all my luggage and sit on my dorm room bed. I scheduled a three-night stay. Thank you, dear Tourist Accommodation Desk Man!
Once I settled in, here are the things I saw and did in Aix-en-Provence.
Outdoor Markets: Aix-en-Provence is home to several specialty outdoor markets that take place a few times a week. While I was there, the fruit and vegetable market, flower market, textile market and others were going on throughout the city. I have enjoyed several markets in the United States that were patterned after French markets. Here I was at a “real” French market, and I was thrilled. I wandered for hours through though the market stalls, admiring gorgeous flowers displayed in big plastic buckets and selecting fresh foods for a makeshift picnic lunch.
Shopping/Dining: The shops in Aix-en-Provence were particularly charming, their storefronts featuring fresh nougat, chocolates, soaps, perfumes and lavender everything. Patisseries displayed tempting French pastries, and wine and espresso (two of my favorite things in the world) could be procured from any number of sidewalk cafes. I soon realized I was walking through my own little French heaven.
Cezanne Historical Sites: Another unique and exciting element of Aix-en-Provence is its connection to the painter Paul Cezanne, one of its native sons. A brochure available from that fantastic Tourist Information Center includes a map of Cezanne sites, including his birthplace, his primary school, and the church where he was married, all of which are still standing. It was exciting to walk in the footsteps of history. Interestingly, Cezanne’s work was much derided in his hometown while he was alive. Today, numerous businesses in the city, from restaurants to a movie theater, bear his name.
Bastide du Jas de Bouffan: This is the country house where Cezanne grew up. While the house is still in the process of restoration, the tour includes a fascinating multimedia presentation and a guided tour around the garden, where participants can see where Cezanne painted some of his famous works and learn more about the transformation of his artistic style. My guide for this tour was fantastic, and the grounds are really interesting to see.
In summary, my visit to Provence met and even exceeded the expectations I had built in my mind after reading Peter Mayle’s bestseller. The week I spent in the cities of Avignon, Arles and Aix-en-Provence was one of the highlights of my trip thus far. If you get the chance, I encourage you to visit Provence.
I’m confident that I will be back.