Provence: Roman Ruins, Van Gogh, and Wine

Provence
Rousillon – the pink city

A Week in Spectacular Provence, France

By Sam Sarkar

A world away from the hustle and bustle of Paris is the charming region of Provence in Southern France. I have been fascinated with the area ever since reading Peter Mayle’s books more than 30 years ago, but even after many trips to France, my wife and I never made it until late October, 2023.

This trip proved to be even better than we had imagined with beautiful scenery, friendly locals, gorgeous villages, historical artifacts and outstanding wines. Here is what we did.

Train from Paris:

We took a taxi from Paris Orly airport, where we had flown in from the US, to the Gare de Lyon train station. Our TGV train to Avignon was not for another two hours and we spent the time enjoying an early dinner. There are many choices to eat and drink in the station as well as nearby. The train tickets have to be purchased in advance online, as seats sell out and prices go up, the longer you wait. Oh, and you also have to be very sure you board the car where your reserved seats are located.

Palace of the Popes, Avignon
Palace of the Popes, Avignon

We dozed off on the super comfortable seats as the train made the quiet and smooth journey of around 440 miles (700 Km) in just over 2 hours. When we stepped out of the modern station, it was after 9 PM and pitch dark. The taxi stand was empty but had a telephone number on a posted sign, which we called and a taxi appeared within 15 minutes. We were at our AirBNB within the walled city in 20 minutes, where our hostess was waiting to greet us.

Avignon:

We explored Avignon the next morning. The city was the center of Christianity for a hundred years in the 1300’s, and home to 7 popes, before moving back to Vatican City. The city, surrounded by stone walls, is walkable, with narrow cobblestone streets that wind through medieval buildings, housing modern shops, cafes and restaurants, with apartments above.

The Palace of the Popes, Avignon
The Palace of the Popes, Avignon

The imposing and fortress-like Palace of the Popes overlooks a magnificent square that is surrounded by the Cathedral and the Petit Palais. After touring the Papal Palace, we had lunch at an outdoor cafe and then walked outside the walls to see the famous St. Benezet Bridge (Pont d’Avignon), almost 850 years old and immortalized in the popular 15th century song ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’.

Only a 100 yard section and four arches survive, as the rest were destroyed in a series of floods but walking on the bridge over the Rhone is still an unforgettable experience. The palace tickets include walking on the bridge.

Les Halles food market, Avignon - a great place to shop and eat
Les Halles food market, Avignon – a great place to shop and eat

After dark, the city turns magical as all the buildings and walls are lit up, and the bars and restaurants fill up with people, though in late October, only the locals were present.

The best place to eat in the city is at the Michelin starred restaurant within the 5-star La Mirande Hotel and it is worth the splurge, for the beautiful decor and stellar food. But there are many good choices that include the Les Halles food market and surrounding area, which offer several moderately priced restaurants. Our favorites in the city were the modern chef driven E.A.T. and L’Epicerie.

The Pont-du-Gard
The Pont-du-Gard

Driving to Pont du Gard and Nimes:

The next morning we walked to the Centre-Ville station and boarded a local train to the TGV station, a 6 minute ride, and picked up our rental car. We then drove west to Pont du Gard, a pleasant 30 minute (15 mile) drive on single lane highways. We parked on the left bank, bought tickets and toured the impressive museum, before walking the short trail to the aqueduct.

This is the world’s 2nd tallest surviving Roman structure (the Colosseum in Rome is slightly taller), and is spectacular. This incredible feat of Roman engineering was built to carry water to Nimes. The fact that it was built over 2100 years ago is unbelievable. It is well preserved and walking on the lower bridge offers beautiful views of the Gardon river and surrounding wooded areas. There are several accessible hiking trails.

Roman Amphitheater, Nimes
Roman Amphitheater, Nimes

Nimes:

We then drove on to the town of Nimes (15 miles). The drive was easy and enjoyable with light traffic and delightful scenery, though it took a while to get used to the roundabouts which came after every mile or so. We parked in the underground lot at the city center.

A short walk past beautiful statues, gushing fountains and lovely tree lined streets and we were at the 1900 year old well preserved and still in use Amphitheater, a smaller replica of the Colosseum. We bought tickets and took a tour. It was Sunday and we had a late, leisurely lunch at a nearby sidewalk cafe and watched well dressed locals walk by, pushing strollers and holding children.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Wine tasting:

That night, we were rudely awakened by flashes of lightning and loud thunder followed by pouring rain. The skies did not let up, when we woke up in the morning, but we decided to head to Chateauneuf-du-Pape (12 miles) as per our plans anyway. ‘The Pope’s New Castle’ has its own AOC and has been producing highly prized wines since the 1300’s.

We drove slowly through empty streets flooded with several inches of water. Magically the rain let up, the sun peeked through the clouds and even a rainbow appeared just as we reached the outskirts of town..

Wine tasting in Cotes-du-Rhone
Wine tasting in Cotes-du-Rhone

We stopped at the first winery by the road, attracted by the ‘Degustation’ (Tasting) sign. We entered a small tasting room in a rustic, family owned vineyard. This was just the beginning of a day of wine tasting in beautiful wineries and tasting rooms.

All tastings in France are free and in the offseason, no reservations were necessary and we were the only people in all but one winery that we visited. The winemakers are eager to share their wines and have many great stories to tell. One winemaker proudly revealed to us that she had been on France’s Olympic gymnastics team and showed us pictures.

Grenache is the principal grape in this region of the Rhone Valley and all the wines we had, both white and red were excellent. The reds, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre were bold, full bodied with notes of fruits and herbs, while the whites were fruity with a hint of minerality.

We drove through town to the ruins of the Pope’s ‘new’ castle, from where the panoramic views are sensational. Back in town, we headed to the center and parked. We had lunch at the only restaurant that was open: ‘La Mule du Pape’, with eclectic food and friendly service.

Notable wineries that we visited were: Bouachon, Mousset Barrot, Clos des Papes and Beaucastel.  All the wines we tasted were spectacular and we ended up buying several cases of wine that were to be shipped to our home in the US.

Van Gogh's 'Café Terrace at Night' - on a cloudy day
Van Gogh’s ‘Café Terrace at Night’ – on a cloudy day

On the Van Gogh trail:

The following day was cloudy, cold and drizzling and we decided to take a break from wine and head to Arles (24 miles south). I have been fascinated by Vincent Van Gogh ever since I saw a photograph of his painting – ‘Sunflowers’, as a child.

I have visited the museum in Amsterdam and seen his paintings in other museums, but I could not pass up the opportunity to see the place where he spent the last 2 years of his life and painted over 200 masterpieces. We parked in a lot next to the river and started walking the ‘Van Gogh trail’.

The city has set up the trail to capitalize on his popularity and has put up a few ‘easels’ (metal panels) which depict his painting with the subject in the background. Unfortunately, it was not as fascinating as we thought it would be. The first easel was ‘The Yellow House’, right across the parking lot, but the house itself had been destroyed in the 2nd World War and only the taller building behind stands today.

The next easel was a bigger disappointment. The Rhone river looked ugly from that vantage point and one would have to fire up their imagination to visualize the painting ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’. We saw about 5 easels before giving up. The ‘Cafe Terrace at Night’ restaurant exists but was closed, so we had a forgettable lunch next door.

However, it felt good knowing that we walked in Van Gogh’s footsteps and saw what he saw, which made us appreciate his genius even more. The rest of Arles was surprisingly impressive. The city center is car free and a pleasure to walk. The 2000 year old Roman Arena is still in use today as an amphitheater. The Forum ruins are fascinating as are the surrounding quaint and delightful neighborhoods.

Vineyard off the scenic Cotes-du-Rhone wine route
Vineyard off the scenic Cotes-du-Rhone wine route

Cotes du Rhone and more Wine tasting:

The following morning, we resumed our wine tasting, by driving along the scenic ‘Cotes du Rhone’ wine road. After driving 30 miles north, we reached Seguret, a picturesque village in the foothills and then drove up a narrow road to the ‘Domaine de Mourchon’ winery.

We took a tour of the vineyard and winery and tasted their best wines. Following the recommendation of the winemaker, we drove on past the winery and through some of the most gorgeous scenery that we have ever seen. Rolling green hills covered with vineyards against the backdrop of stunning snow-clad Mont Ventoux.

The cobblestone streets of beautiful Seguret
The cobblestone streets of beautiful Seguret

Next stop was sleepy Crestet, a splendid stone village built along the hillside and a steep climb from the parking lot. We had the place to ourselves and did not encounter anyone else, as we walked through the sheer stone walkways and steps, past medieval stone houses, churches and water cisterns.

The silence was only broken by our footsteps and the occasional ringing of church bells. It was like stepping back in time. We found a cafe at the top, where we had coffee on the terrace with beautiful views of the surrounding countryside.

We passed by many wine tasting rooms and small family owned wineries. Most restaurants were closed, but the wineries were open. The reds, whites and rosés were all very good and affordable. We found a small cafe open near the village of Gigondas and had a late lunch.

The town of Gordes from a viewpoint on the road into town
The town of Gordes from a viewpoint on the road into town

The stone villages of Luberon:

The following day we headed to the hill towns of Luberon. This is Peter Mayle country, and anyone who has read his books will sense instant familiarity. This area lies about 30 miles east and is filled with historic stone villages. We started near Gordes.

The town is filled with white buildings that sit dramatically on top of stone cliffs. The turret of the chateau and the church spire and bell dominate the skyline. The best views of Gordes are from the road that winds up the hill into the town. We stopped for photos and then entered the town and parked.

Artist selling her artwork on Market Day in Gordes
Artist selling her artwork on Market Day in Gordes

We walked to the center and around the Chateau. It was market day and people from nearby villages had set up tables that sold everything from home-made soaps and tablecloths to fresh food and artwork. We befriended an artist, who had spent a year in Santa Barbara, California and spoke excellent English. We had a delicious lunch in an outdoor cafe, enjoying the glorious sunshine.

The town of Rousillon sits on Ochre cliffs
The town of Roussillon sits on Ochre cliffs

Next stop was the colorful town of Roussillon. The town rises above orange-red cliffs and sits atop one of the world’s largest ochre deposits. All the buildings are reddish brown. Again, parking was easy in a lot in the center, guided by a friendly local cop. We hiked the ochre trail around the colored cliffs, and window shopped in the little central square near the church.

Ruins of the famous St. Benzenet bridge, Avignon
Ruins of the famous St. Benzenet bridge, Avignon

End of the trip:

On our last day we headed south on the freeway through Aix-en-Provence, a very busy and congested city to the coast near Marseilles to catch a glimpse of the  Mediterranean Sea. After a leisurely afternoon at a secluded beach, we drove back to Avignon.

The next morning we boarded the TGV to Paris early in the morning after dropping off the rental car. It had snowed overnight and the hills had turned white and sparkled under sunny skies, as the train rushed towards busy Paris from where we would fly out that afternoon.

If you plan to visit:

If you plan to visit, the best time is in the shoulder season, avoiding the crowded summer months. Though many places are closed, the complete lack of tourists lets you experience it like a local. Using Avignon as a base and renting a car lets you explore the region at your own pace. The roads are excellent and parking is plentiful. And almost everyone speaks good English.

There are around 20 daily trains each way between Paris and Avignon. The fastest train takes about 2 hours and 20 minutes. Buy your TGV train tickets well in advance (SNCF.com/fr). In Avignon, make sure to stay inside the walled city.

Sam Sakar

 

Sam Sarkar is a physician who would rather travel, write, cook and eat. His work has been published in the LA Times, Medical Economics, Physician’s Money Digest, LA Physician, GoNomad and other magazines. He has a cooking channel on YouTube: youtube.com/@booeats. When not on the move, he lives in Long Beach, California.

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