1705 | Provence

Impossibly beautiful hill-top villages, dotting a beguiling landscape under vast perfect skies

Yet again a tour born of our family holiday! Ten years ago Sofia and I took the family camping to Skye and along the west coast of Scotland, and the successful series of Highlands & Islands tours was established. Last summer - summer 2015 - the six of us spent two glorious weeks camping in Provence, ending up in Cucuron for a week's exploration of the Luberon. By mid-week Sofia and I were checking out house prices in local estate agents' windows!

We loved it, and now we want to show you what we found: beguiling landscapes and an early-evening light that's hard to describe; narrow-laned hill-top villages, asleep in the mid-day sun; warm and welcoming people, serving wonderful food and fantastic local wines; history, heritage, art and culture by the bucketful; and the markets - who can forget the sights and the smells, the noise and the hussle and bustle, and the sheer over-exuberance and abundance of a Provençal market? 

Some of Europe's earliest known peoples made this coastal strip their home; as did the Celts by around 900BC; followed by Greek colonists by about 600 BC. The Romans conquered at the end of the 2nd century BC and it became their first 'overseas' province - hence Provence. It became a largely semi-independent state thoughout much of the early medieval period, not fully intergrating with the rest of France until 1486 . . . 

I shall stop there, but for those of you, who, like me, enjoy their history, you may care to start here and here.

The Luberon & the tour
Sticking to our guiding principles, Provence is far too large to see all but a small part of it well, so we have chosen to settle for the week in Lourmarin, a beautiful village in the Luberon. From here we can explore the Luberon and its villages and countryside, and strike out further afield, for days out to Nîmes, Aix-en-Provence and beyond.

We may see a little lavender, but it's too early in the season to expect vast swathes of it in full bloom, and nor will we see sunflowers stretching across the horizon, but we should catch the cherry, almond and peach tree blossoms, and it should be peak-season for poppies, wild flowers and butterflies throughout the Luberon.

We will explore the gardens and villages of the Luberon, and the local, and sometimes lesser known and quirky attractions; the Roman heritage of Nîmes, including its aqueduct at Pont du Gard; something of the life and works of both Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh; the infirmary in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and the ancient Alpille village of Les Baux-de-Provence; the historic capital of Provence, Aix-en-Provence and its markets; and, of course, Provence's food, its wine and its culture.

It is in the Luberon that much of the two award-winning 1980s films, Jean de Florette and its sequel Manon des Source, were set and it is here, too, that Peter Mayle settled and wrote his widely-acclaimed 1989 book, A Year in Provence.

Getting to Provence
We have written a short guide on getting to Provence, and that is here

Sleeping & Eating
We spend the entire week at the charming, well-appointed and superbly located Le Moulin de Lourmarin, a former olive oil mill in the centre of Lourmarin, itself one of the most beautiful villages in the Luberon.

We dine in, at our hotel, on three or four evenings and dine out on the remaining evenings, both in Lourmarin itself, which has an array of excellent eateries, and in the surrounding villages. 

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At a glance
Garden & sightseeing tour
Gardens & attractions:
the heritage of Roman Nîmes
Maximum group size 15
Chateau Val Joanis
walking tour of Aix-en-Provence
8-days/7-nights in one hotel
Pont du Gard aqueduct
Luberon villages & countryside
Village-based location
2 private gardens
Saint-Paul de Mausole
Wonderful food
Abbaye de Valsaintes
Fully escorted
Day 1 | Thursday, 25 May

Meeting, Aix, Cézanne, Markets & Les Milles - a busy day relaxing!

We will meet you after breakfast at Marseilles Provence Airport or from early trains into Aix-en-Provence TGV railway station or in Aix-en-Provence itself. Please see Joining Instructions and my notes below.

Once we are all together, we will start our tour of Provence with a two-hour walking tour of Aix-en-Provence and orient ourselves to this famous, elegant and historic city. It is Market Day, one of three weekly market days, and our guide will introduce us to the rich history and heritage of Aix. A City Tourist Pass, which provides unlimited access to Aix's principal attractions, is included, as is a simple lunch, after which we suggest that everyone enjoys some free time to explore the city independently, and at our own pace.

Late in the afternoon we will rendezvous for a brief but moving visit to nearby Camp des Milles, a permanent memorial to those who were interned during WW2 and to those who were transported to concentration camps.

From Aix it is about a 40-minute drive to Lourmarin and our hotel, Le Moulin de Lourmarin, where we will arrive in good time to settle in, and enjoy dinner in their dining room.

Today's total driving is about 80 miles/130 km

NB. We presume that you will arrive in Provence on Wednesday, 24 May, or earlier, but if you are arriving today, no matter, we will arrange to meet you from either the airport or the railway station or in Aix.

Thursday, 25 May
Walking into Lourmarin
Day 2 | Friday, 26 May

A quieter day, closer to home

Today is all about exploring the local area, and it starts outside our front door with Lourmarin's weekly market. We will have most of the morning in Lourmarin, time enough to see the market and explore some more of the village - or have a jolly good lie-in, because you're shattered from travelling!

We then depart to Chateau Val Joanisa winery just west of the town of Pertuis. Its wines are classified AOC Côtes du Luberon and its gardens are listed as a Remarkable Garden of France. The Chateau is built on the site of an ancient Roman villa, whose stones decorate the garden, and the house is decorated with the coat of arms of Jean de Joanis, secretary to King Louis III of Naples.

Depending upon time, we will repair for lunch to either Ansouis or nearby Pertuis, before visiting Le Pavillon de Galon for a private guided tour of their exquisite garden, and a refreshing glass of Provençal rosé.

Le Pavillon is within walking distance of Cucuron, where we can enjoy an early-evening stroll, before dinner at Restaurant l'Etang overlooking Cucuron's unusual, medieval village pond.

We are about ten minutes from Lourmarin.

Today's total driving is about 30 miles/50 km

Friday, 26 May
Summer evening market by the village pond, Cucuron
Day 3 | Saturday, 27 May

The Alpilles, Saint-Rémy, van Goch and le Jardin de l'Alchimiste

We start the day with a brief guided tour of Les Baux-de-Provence, an ancient town perched high in the Alpilles. With commanding views over Arles and the Camargue, a rich history and an impressive range of historic buildings, it is little wonder that Les Baux-de-Provence is widely considered one of France's most attractive towns - and its 2 million annual visitors think so too!

Late in the morning we drive north to Saint-Rémy de Provence for lunch and to visit Saint-Paul de Mausole, the monastery and psychiatric institute, to which Vincent van Goch admitted himself in May 1889. Saint-Paul de Mausole is still a psychiatric institution, but parts are open to the public, and from the top of the stairs we will see the wheat field that van Gogh painted during his confinement.

Our final visit is to Le Jardin de l'Alchimiste, another 'Jardin Remarquable', created in 1995 when
 Marie and Alain de Larouzière, who had just bought the house, decided to create a temporary garden on some adjoining land. The garden, today, is inspired - amongst other things - by alchemical symbolism.

We will dine in nearby Eygalières, some 45 minutes from home.

Today's total driving is about 80 miles/130 km

Saturday, 27 May
Van Goch's room at Saint-Paul de Mausole
Day 4 | Sunday, 28 May

"All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education . . .

. . . wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?" Asked Reg in Monty Python's film,  A Life of Brian.

We'll see what the Romans did for us, firstly in Nîmes and then at the Pont du Gard - without doubt, this day is devoted to Rome and all things Roman.

We start the day in Nîmes, with a quick coffee and an introduction to the city from our guide, who will then provide guided visits to the two central historical attractions - the Roman Arena, the best-preserved amphitheatre  in the Roman world, and The Maison Carée, the only fully-preserved temple of the ancient world.  As with our visit to Aix-en-Provence, we will provide a multi-attraction ticket and a simple lunch after our guided tour and, again like Aix, we can then explore some of the other attractions individually, at our own pace. Of particular note are the Jardins de la Fontaine, the Temple de Diane, in the gardens, and the Tour Magne, at the far end of the gardens.

Late in the afternoon we visit the spectacular Pont du Gard, some 30-minutes north of Nîmes, to see, not just the superb aqueduct, but the fascinating museum, describing the brilliant engineering of both the aqueduct and the water supply that it carried.

We return to Lourmarin for a late dinner.

Today's total driving is about 150 miles/240 km

Sunday, 28 May
Admiring the arches of the Pont du Gard
Day 5 | Monday, 29 May

Another day close to home in the Luberon hills and villages

Our day starts with a drive north, over the Luberon hills to Bonnieux, stopping first, to visit an unusual cluster of stone-built enclosures and primitive buildings, known as l'Enclos des Bories.

Our morning continues in Bonnieux, where we visit Le Jardin de la Louve, another 'Jardin Remarquable', for a private guided tour of this beautiful garden. Created in 1986 by Nicole de Vésian, a textile designer for Hermès, the garden is laid out on a series of terraces designed to harmonise with the surrounding landscape. Remarkably, on approaching the age of eighty, Nicole sold the garden in 1996 to art collector Judith Pillsbury and began a new garden above the village! Judith preserved the original design until she sold it to the present owner, Sylvie Verger-Lanel, in 2014.

We will stay in Bonnieux for lunch and a stroll around, and then set off to explore other nearby villages - notably Lacoste, one time home of the Marquis de Sade, and Ménerbes, and others as time and our fancy dictate.

We return to Lourmarin, for dinner in one of the village's restaurants.

Today's total driving is about 60 miles/100 km

Monday, 29 May
One of the many winery co-operatives
Day 6 | Tuesday, 30 May

From the gentility of the Luberon to lands of vastness and deepness

We leave the Luberon behind, as we follow the Durance river eastwards, towards the town of Valensole, and the Valensole Plateau, an enormous expanse of some 800 km² dedicated to lavender, cereal production and almonds - all at almost 600m above sea level! It is impressive, to say the least, and our best chance to see some early-blooming lavender, and we'll stop along the way to sample local produce, including their delicious honey.

We continue to Moustiers Sainte-Marie, for lunch and an extensive exploration of this wonderful Provençal town, famous for the Legend of the Star, for its ceramics and for the views from the Chapel Notre-Dame de Beauvoir - and the 262 stone steps to reach it. But it's worth it!

Skirting the vast Lac de Sainte-Croix, an artificial lake, created in the early 1970s by the French energy company, EDF, for a hydro-electric power scheme, we venture into
 the Gorges du Verdon, Europe's largest - certainly deepest - canyon, for a brief tour of the nearest part of it, before turning westward, to visit the excellent Museum of Prehistory, in Quinson.

From Quinson, we head home, stopping for dinner en route to Lourmarin.

Today's total driving is about 150 miles/240 km

Tuesday, 30 May
Moustiers Sainte-Marie
Day 7 | Wednesday, 31 May

An Abbey, a Priory and Ethnobotany!

Our last full day of the tour is largely spent visiting two gardens, firstly the Abbaye de Valsaintes, formerly the Cistercian Abbey of Valsaintes. The abbey was inhabited from the 12th century until the French Revolution and sits atop a 600m sandstone outcrop in the middle of a vast natural bowl, the Vallée de l'Absinthe (wormwood valley). Between 1996 and 2000, they planted some 600 roses, selecting the most resistant of them during dry spells between 2004 and 2008, leaving some 400 hardy roses we see today.

We will stop between the two gardens for lunch at one of the local villages.

The second garden, Salagon, musée et jardins, is another former monastic building, although this time a former priory, which sets out to study and explain e
thnobotany, the area of ethnology that studies the relationship between people and the plants around them, from the most practical uses (medicine, food, making tools, etc) through to the most symbolic ones (predicting the future, worshipping gods, etc).

We return to Lourmarin for and end-of-tour dinner at our hotel.

Today's total driving is about 100 miles/160 km

Wednesday, 31 May
Village fountain at Le Barroux
Day 8 | Thursday, 1 June

One last morning in paradise, and fond farewells

We expect today to be one of shuttle journeys to Aix-en-Provence TGV railway station and Marseille Provence Airport, transferring you to the station or airport for your onward or homeward journey. Meanwhile, we plan to enjoy the day in Lourmarin, walking across to the Villa Medicis de Provence and finding those corners of the village that we haven't explored during the week, and making those final purchases because there is room in your bag!

As with the first day, our plans we become clearer, once we know everyones' travel arrangements. If you are staying on, in France, and don't need to return to Marseilles Provence Airport or Aix-en-Provence TGV railway station, then please let us know your onward travel plans, so that we may assist you in getting to your next destination.

Today's total driving is about 50 miles/80 km

Thursday, 1 June
The entrance to Les Gorges du Verdon
General Notes

During our tours, we endeavour to be as faithful to our itineraries as possible, but sometimes changes do occur, either necessarily or unavoidably.

Need some help?
We have prepared some helpful information - under 'Essential Information', and this information is designed to enhance your holiday. The pages are, 'An Introduction', 'Additional Information', 'Booking and Paying' and 'Travel Information'.

The tour area map
Click on the Google map of the tour area, and it will open in a new window. The various tour locations are marked GREEN (for gardens), ORANGE (for other attractions), RED (for pubs, hotels and restaurants) and BLUE (for transport) - and click on these markers for more information.

Tour Information
25 May - 01 Jun
8 days
29 880,00
Single person suplement:
5 760,00

We have booked the ten 'Charming' rooms - see here - but there is the opportunity to upgrade to either a 'Superior' room or a 'Suite', should you wish to.

Limited - Provence
We will meet you in the morning of Thursday, 25 May at an agreed central meeting point at Marseilles Provence Airport or off the early arriving trains into Aix-en-Provence TGV railway station (pre-10:30) or in Aix-en-Provence itself.

Once we know the travel arrangements of each member of the group, we will be able to refine our plans accordingly.
Whilst there are no specific notes, per se, I would kindly remind potential customers of this tour that there will be a decent amount of walking in both Nîmes and Aix-en-Provence, and it may well be considerably hotter than we would ordinarily expect it to be in Britain, at the same time of year.
Click to see where we visit