1903 – Provence
AT A GLANCE
Like so many tours before, our first tour to Provence, in May 2017, was born of a family holiday, when the six of us spent two glorious weeks in summer 2015 camping in Provence, ending up outside Cucuron for a week's exploration of the Luberon. By mid-week Sofia and I were glued to the local estate agents' windows! We fell in love with the Luberon, 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 who can forget the sights and the smells, the noise and the hustle and bustle, and the sheer abundance of a Provençal market?
Some of Europe's earliest known peoples made this coastal strip their home, as did the Celts by around 900 BC, and the Greek colonists by about 600 BC. The Romans conquered at the end of the 2nd-century BC, it becoming their first overseas province, hence the name 'Provence'. It became a largely semi-independent state throughout much of the early medieval period, not fully integrating with the rest of France until 1486... but I shall stop there, but for those of you who, like me, enjoy their history, the Wikipedia entry is here.
Today, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (PACA) is one of 18 administrative regions of France, roughly coterminous with the historic province of Provence, comprising six departments: Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Alpes-Maritimes, Bouches-du-Rhône, Hautes-Alpes, Var and Vaucluse.
Provence is too large to see – or even attempt to see – in one visit, so we have chosen to concentrate on The Luberon, an east-west range of limestone hills in the heart of Provence, from where we may venture out, into the rest of Provence, and retreat back to our splendid hotel in the delightful village of Lourmarin.
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 wrote his widely-acclaimed 1989 book, A Year in Provence.
This tour is unashamedly self-indulgent in its exploration of all that Provence has to offer, and especially that which excites the senses. We will explore gardens and villages in the Luberon, visit wineries, caves and co-operatives; visit olive growers and their mills; and, on the back roads, visit some of the lesser known and more quirky attractions.
We will explore with our guide the architectural delights of Avignon, its Papal palace and ancient bridge and, on our own, the town itself, likewise the historic capital of Provence, Aix-en-Provence and its markets. We will visit the Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard, see something of the life and work of Vincent van Gogh at the infirmary in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and photograph the ancient Alpille village of Les Baux-de-Provence.
We will do a great deal, though unhurriedly and at not too fast a pace.
The average May temperature for Aix is 18°C/64°F, with a range of 13-22℃/55-72℉.
Getting to Provence
We will update our short guide to Getting to Provence, and link it to this site shortly.
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 four evenings and dine out on the remaining three, once at the excellent Chez Laurent, in Eygalières, once returning to Lourmarin or in Lourmarin itself, and once nearby, at either Le P'tit Resto, in Vaugines, or Le Grain de Sel, in Ansouis.
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Please note that this itinerary is indicative of the planned programme
6-13 May 2019 | 8 days
DAY 1 - MON, 6 MAY
Our plan is to meet you, late morning, at Marseilles Provence Airport or from early trains into Aix-en-Provence TGV railway station or in Aix-en-Provence itself and, once we are all together, enjoy an early, light lunch.
After lunch, we will start our tour with a guided walking tour of Aix-en-Provence, and orient ourselves to this famous, elegant and historic city. Hopefully, we will be able to retain the services of Frédéric Paul, our guide last May, who, the night before we met him, won the Best Guide of Aix Award! Not bad, given that Sofia had chosen him because he was the most handsome! Frédéric will introduce us to the rich history and heritage of Aix, and you will have a City Tourist Pass, which provides unlimited access to Aix's principal attractions, allowing Frédéric to guide you in some places, and you to explore the city independently, after the tour.
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 driving is about 50 miles/80 km
DAY 2 - TUE, 7 MAY
We start the day with a scenic drive to Saint-Rémy de Provence, for a stroll around this historic market town and to visit Saint-Paul de Mausole, the monastery and psychiatric institute, to which Vincent van Gogh 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 now-famous wheat field that van Gogh painted during his confinement.
We return to the town centre for lunch, before crossing the magnificent Alpilles, to Les Baux-de-Provence, for an afternoon visit to the Carrières de Lumières, an extraordinary multi-media show, created in 1976, in which large images, of the art of famous artists, are projected onto the stone walls of the huge underground galleries.
We will stop in the Alpilles hills, for photographs of Les Baux-de-Provence, but we don't plan on visiting the fortified hill-top village, unless it is quiet! Finally, on our circular drive, we stop briefly at the Roman remains of the Barbegal Aquedect, which, not only supplied fresh water to Arles, some 12km away, but powered a massive series of sixteen mills.
We dine at Chez Laurent, in nearby Eygalières, some 45 minutes from home.
Today's driving is about 100 miles/160 km
DAY 3 - WED, 8 MAY
Today is all about exploring the local area, starting outside our front door with Lourmarin's weekly market and time, too, to explore some more of the village, before visiting the local (and excellent) Château Fontvert.
We then depart to Chateau Val Joanis, a 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 Ansouis before visiting Château d'Ansouis for their 3pm tour, and visit the neighbouring village of Cucuron, for 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 driving is about 30 miles/50 km
DAY 4 - THU, 9 MAY
We start the day, slightly earlier than usual, with a drive to the Pont du Gard, some 30-minutes north of Nîmes, to visit the spectacular aqueduct and its fascinating museum, which tells the story of both aqueduct and the water it carried to the people of Nîmes.
After lunch, at Pont du Gard, we drive to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one of the most evocotive of all French place names, and a town steeped in history. Its ruined medieval castle, built for Pope John XXII in the 14th century, sits high above the town, dominating the landscape, a landscape where, seemingly, all the cultivable land is planted with grapevines. It is, of course, famous for the red wine, produced only from grapes grown in the surrounding fields, and we learn something of this at our first visit, to the excellent museum at Brotte winemakers.
There will be plenty of time too, to explore the town and even make some purchases, before we return to Lourmarin for dinner.
Today's driving is about 130 miles/210 km
DAY 5 - FRI, 10 MAY
We spend today in the peaceful surroundings of the quieter, more rural eastern part of the Luberon, away from the traffic and bustle of the Rhone valley, 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, and leaving the 400, or so, hardy roses we see today.
We will stop in Banon, for lunch and a brief exploration of this remarkable village, famous the world over for its goats cheese; its book shop, Librairie le Bleuet; and its sausages. The second garden, Musée et Jardins, Salagon is another former monastic building, although this time a former priory, which sets out to study and explain ethnobotany, the study of the interrelationship between people and plants, historically and cross-culturally (particularly the role of plants in human culture and practices, how humans have used and modified plants).
We return to Lourmarin for dinner, via a scenic drive around the eastern end of the Luberon hills.
Today's driving is about 130 miles/210 km
DAY 6 - SAT, 11 MAY
We spend the day in Avignon, where, with the services of a private guide, we will enjoy an unhurried private tour of the Palais des Papes, visit the Pont Saint-Bénézet and, independently, explore the town.
The Palais des Papes is one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe. Once a fortress and palace, it is actually two buildings, the old palace of Benedict XII, which sits on the impregnable rock of Doms, and the new palace of Clement VI, the most extravagant of the Avignon popes, which, together, form the largest Gothic building of the Middle Ages, the papal residence and the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century. Despite it serving as the seat of two anti-popes and many cardinals, the palace became obsolete when the papacy returned to Rome, and it lost much of its former glory, becoming a barracks and a prison in Napoleonic France. Finally vacated in 1906, it has been under constant restoration ever since, and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
After visiting Pont Saint-Bénézet, the famous medieval bridge, built between 1177 and 1185, and spanning, or almost spanning, the Rhône between Villeneuve-lès-Avignon and Avignon, we will have the rest of the day at leisure, exploring this wonderful historic city and, as we did in Aix, we will purchase an Avignon Pass for everyone.
Dinner will be en route home to Lourmarin.
Today's driving is about 100 miles/160 km
DAY 7 - SUN, 12 MAY
Our day starts with a drive north, over the Luberon hills to Bonnieux, to 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, Gordes, for the photographs, and, if time allows, the ochre village of Roussillon.
We return to Lourmarin, for dinner in one of the village's restaurants.
Today's driving is about 60 miles/100 km
DAY 8 - MON, 13 MAY
There is no great plan for today, as we expect to be taking you to Aix-en-Provence TGV railway station, or Marseille Provence Airport, or other destination for your onward or homeward journey.
Meanwhile, those of you who have the morning in Lourmarin, should visit Villa Medicis de Provence and find those corners of the village that you didn't get to during the week, to say nothing of those last-minute purchases, if there is still room in your bag!
As with the first day, our plans we become clearer, once we know everyone's 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 driving is about 50 miles/80 km
We will endeavour to be as faithful to the published itinerary as possible, but sometimes changes do occur, either necessarily or unavoidably.