Author: Ipsita Barua, Travel Editor
The smell of lavender in the air. Quaint hillside villages and idyllic lanes. Beautiful gardens and thick olive groves. Fine wine. Provence evokes poetry and romance. No wonder Van Gogh chose this region to stay for a couple of years and produced some of his greatest masterpieces here, including the Starry Night. While most tourists flock to the glossy, glitzy beaches of Nice and Cannes, the real sensory delights of Provence lie inland in the lesser-known towns and villages where you will find breathtaking vistas, authentic Provençal cuisine and the peace and tranquility you seek while taking a break from the chaos of daily life.
The show-stopper of Provence is undoubtedly the sweeping lavender fields that make a brief appearance from the last week of June to the beginning of August (mostly). We went on a road trip through Provence and visited some pretty little villages during the lavender season. Renting a car gives you the flexibility to drive through some of the most gorgeous landscapes of the region and discover hidden gems along the way.
This is a 5-day itinerary but could easily be extended if you fancy a particular town and wish to linger longer. Because once you’re there, you’ll quickly realize it’s never enough.
We rented a car and drove for around 3 hours from Nice to the charming commune of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, our base for 5 nights and a population of not more than 600. It is built around a spring in a valley at the foot of the Vaucluse Mountains and named after the spring, the source of the River Sorgue. This little place is a welcome sight for the weary traveller. We leisurely walked along the river, past the old paper mill, all the way to the deep blue grotto. No hurried sightseeing, no jostling tourists and no tourist traps.
We chose to have a riverside picnic, carefully marking the restaurants along the banks for an indulgent meal the next day. In the evening, the cute, tiny town square hosted a live music event and midway through it, we were dancing on table tops with the locals and eating homemade ice-cream. Yes, that kind of a place!
Stayed at: Hotel du Poète a cozy boutique hotel built on the old mill
Refreshed and recharged, we decided to drive down to see the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct that crosses the River Gardon in the south of France. Located near the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard, the bridge is part of the Nîmes aqueduct, a 50-kilometer system built in the first century AD to carry water from a spring at Uzès to the Roman colony of Nemausus (Nîmes). We drove about an hour and briefly stopped at Avignon, known as the gateway to Provence and a great city of art and culture. The Pont du Gard is not just about the history and exceptional architectural wonder. It is also a site where you can discover nature trails, visit the museum or cinema or simply chill by the river with the aqueduct right in front.
In a dilemma on whether we should include another village or drive back to base, we decided on the latter because the midday sun during those months can easily sap all your energy. Back in town, we feasted on delicious local trout and Provencal-style pigeon confit in a little family-run restaurant by the river. Très bien!
After a hearty breakfast we drove past fragrant lavender and sunny sunflower fields to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a village built in the 14th century for Pope John XXII, the second of the popes who resided in Avignon. The commune is famous for the production of red wine and almost all the cultivable land is planted with grapevines. The sight of the village, set on a hill surrounded by grapevines is absolutely magical. We walked through the hilly lanes, hopped from cellar to cellar, spoke at length with winegrowers and spent far more on the reds than planned!
Recommended by one of the local cellar owners, we decided to go for an indulgent meal and wine tasting at Chateau des Fines Roches a 19th-century castle converted into a luxury hotel. The beautiful terrace restaurant offers a splendid view of Mont Ventoux mountains of the Gard, surrounded by cypress trees and vineyards and is the perfect setting for a fine French wine-and-dine.
Gordes rises like a magical mirage from the depths of fields and forests. You simply can’t miss this sight! This hilltop village features stone buildings built against the base of the cliffs, the highlight being the 12th-century castle, made of a beige stone that glows orange in the morning sun. We wandered the streets, browsed the local boutiques and ate a family-run restaurant that offered super local food along with a side of splendid views.
For dessert, we drove a few kilometres to the famous L’Art Glacier in Luberon, which offers more than 60 flavours of homemade ice creams and sorbets from the most classical -chocolate, vanilla, peach …- to the most original such as lily of the valley, sichuan pepper or gingerbread, on their beautiful panoramic terrasse with breathtaking views of the countryside.
I had planned the last day entirely to take screensaver-worthy photos of the lavender fields. Although we had passed by many of those, I wanted a spectacular backdrop, like the ones you see in guidebooks. So, we headed to Sénanque Abbey, a Cistercian abbey that comes up in all French lavender photo searches. It didn’t disappoint. The rows of rows of purple prettiness in front of the abbey literally take your breath away! And there’s more to do here than taking photos.
The resident monks grow lavender and tend honey bees for their livelihood. We took a guided tour to see their way of life, preserved from the early centuries to this day and visited the dormitories, church, and the cloisters. Check their seasonal opening and closing times before you plan a visit.
After a glorious 5 days, it was time to move on. But we were satiated with the best Provence had to offer and were utterly happy with our choice of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse as our base. You can also choose to stay in any of the villages listed in our itinerary and you’ll be just as charmed. Provence is pure love. C’est beau!
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