Visiting Provence, France Without a Vehicle
Of course, everyone’s heard of it…the very name conjures up images of romance, fine wines, delicious food….all things French….and tourists flock here in droves each year. Yet, no-one seems to mention that it’s almost impossible to explore Provence without a car. Bus services are limited, trains only serve larger centres. This, we discover to our dismay upon arriving in the ancient walled city of Avignon.
Fortunately, we stumble upon ‘Provence-Reservation,’ which offers very affordable private and group tours of the area. So, joining six other eager travellers we clamber into a Mercedes van for what is optimistically advertised as an ‘All Provence in One Day’ tour.
The Pont Du Gard, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, is the first stop. If you’ve never seen Roman ruins of gargantuan proportions, this aqueduct definitely has the ‘wow’ factor. Towering above the landscape, it’s the highest Roman structure in the world after the Coliseum in Rome. Standing underneath its enormous arches you can almost hear the footsteps of Roman centurions echoing above.
From here, the road meanders upwards through vineyards, orchards and olive groves towards medieval hilltop villages. Modern civilisation seems to have overlooked the next stops, the villages of Les Baux and Gordes. Narrow, cobbled paths wind their way past tiny stone row houses. Pastel coloured window shutters provide the perfect backdrop for overflowing flower boxes of brilliant red geraniums. Souvenir stores are cluttered with baskets of lavender and vibrant, multi-coloured Provencal tablecloths. Olive shops display local olive oils in every shaped bottle imaginable and offer free dégustations, or tastings.
Wrenching ourselves away from these Provencal delights, we head off past seas of lavender fields and cypress hedgerows to St. Remy-de-Provence, while our guide recounts stories of Nostradamus, one of the village’s most famous sons. St. Remy boasts an impressive resume of former residents. Van Gogh painted ‘Starry Night’ here. Rumour has it that it was the ferocious, local Mistral wind that drove him insane. Albert Schweitzer was imprisoned here during the First World War. Today is Wednesday, market day as it has been for centuries. Tourists and local shoppers alike jostle each other to buy fresh produce. Mouth watering aromas of regional cheeses, freshly baked baguettes and strawberries waft enticingly through the air and we return to the van laden with scrumptious delights.
In unison, the group gasps at the breathtaking sight ahead. It’s Roussillon, our next destination. It stands in glorious technicolor like a cardboard cut out against the deep blue, late afternoon sky. Every building is ablaze in flamboyant shades of red, orange, pink and yellow ochre. The effect is mesmerizing. Legend tells that Archangel Gabriel fought and killed a band of fallen angels here, their blood staining the earth red. Whatever the origins, due to the ochre, Roussillon is one of France’s prettiest villages. It’s intoxicating standing here; being part of a landscape that has changed little over the centuries. But, reality sets in; it’s time to move on. So, with a sigh of regret and a mental promise to return one day, we head back to the van.
Our guide is talking excitedly about the next stop, the Musée de la Lavende at Coustellet. If you like all things lavender, welcome to lavender heaven. The sweet scent fills the air. Tempting lavender perfumes, handcreams, teas and cookies spill over the store countertops. They come with promises to cure headaches, nausea and laryngitis, as well as keeping scorpions at bay. This, we all choose to believe as there is not a scorpion in sight. And, after wandering around in the hot afternoon sun, we find it particularly difficult to resist the delicious lavender ice cream.
It is a thoroughly contented group which arrives back in Avignon ten hours later- heads filled with delectable sights, tastes and images of this picturesque corner of France. And, ok, ‘Provence-Reservation’ hadn’t really been exaggerating. We certainly feel like we’ve seen all of Provence in one day.