The path from Provence to the South of France is well-worn and there’s a reason why; it’s a perfect way to experience some of the country’s best scenery – rural, coastal and most of all, authentic. The small towns and cities that populate these regions each have their own personality and style. Villeneuve-les-Avignon is the sweet hamlet just over the bridge from Avignon. In the height of summer, it’s blissfully quiet and resembles nothing of its bigger, medieval sister. Further south, Aix-en-Provence, the halfway point between Provence and the South, is a laid-back city where lots of international students come for a semester abroad, and its connections to Cezanne are present in the high-standard museums and several sites that were important to him. Nice and Cannes are distinctly different, the former famed for its role as the capital of the Cote d’Azur and Nicoise cuisine, and the latter with its reputation as the capital of glitz, glamour and superyachts.
My best picks are broken up into two posts – Provence and Cote d’Azur. They include activities, experiences and restaurants that won’t necessarily be found in guidebooks but will make for a very memorable trip.
Most trips to Provence begin in Avignon. Ours was no different. What was different, though, was our self-guided e-bike tour of the city. A bike tour is a quintessential way to see Provence, but we didn’t have time for the traditional three-day minimum sojourn. It can be difficult to find a company that provides such a short bike tour, but we rented e-bikes from Daytour, located on Isle Barthelasse, just over the bridge and within walking distance from Avignon. There are good bike paths and we found a route just within the city walls that gave us a glimpse of the tree-lined residential areas we’d never have seen otherwise.
There’s a reason most visitors put the Palais des Papes at the top of the list. The impressive example of Gothic medieval architecture served as the papal residence and seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century. Histopads (tablets) are available to create a virtual reality experience transporting visitors back in time and illuminating what may have taken place behind the palace walls.
A rainy late afternoon was the perfect opportunity to explore the vineyards of St. Remy de Provence, a short drive from Avignon. Quite by accident, we wound up at Domaine Milan, where we met Theo, who, along with his father, Henri, produces elegant, organic wines. The convivial atmosphere of the tasting room made this one of the most memorable stops on our journey. Though it was past closing time, we were encouraged to linger and explore the range of red, white and orange wines, some with labels painted by a local artist. The hardest part was selecting which ones to take home.
As night falls, crowds gather in the main squares. Place Didier is nestled in the old town, with the Grand Café Barretta as its anchor. The original restaurant was established in the late 18th century, serving the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was brought back to life in 2018 and attracts locals and tourists seated al fresco, sipping Negroni’s and glasses of Aperol Spritz. It is everything you want in a place on a warm summer’s evening – lively and buzzy, with good food. There’s soft, wobbly burratta that arrives with a beautiful skinless tomato, and classics like entrecote, along with nougat glace, a Provencale dessert of ice cream with dried fruits and nuts.
This small, manageable city is a good stop along the route to the South, either for a day or a more relaxed overnight. If you visit to pay homage to Van Gough, who spent time in and around Aix, check museum open days and hours in advance. The Aix City Pass provides good value for more than one museum visit. We missed the art, as the Musée Granet, with its collection of sculpture and paintings was closed, but discovered a fascinating, little known, yet important, historical site and museum. A short drive to the outskirts of Aix led us to Camp des Milles, a former French internment and deportation camp opened in September 1939, in a tile factory near the village of Les Milles. The building is vast, and the only one of its kind in France open to the public. Camp des Milles only opened to visitors in 2012, and sadly, has not received as much publicity as it should. The audio guide provides insightful commentary about the history of France during WWII, and the backdrop against which Jews and other minority members of society were sent here as a holding space before being sent on to concentration camps. We spent more time here than we expected and found the exhibits engaging and enlightening.
Just off Cours Mirabeau, the main boulevard in Aix, sits La Fromagerie du Passage, a wine and cheese bar (and shop) with a case full of about 80 cheeses, as well as dried meats. Bottles of their 150 different wines line the wall. Upstairs, diners sit under a covered roof terrace, choosing from a menu that’s half mixed cheese platters paired with local wines and half à la carte dishes. We savoured a truffle cheese platter served with a white Burgundy and truffle honey so special we had to buy a small jar. We also devoured a hearty bavette steak smothered in caramelised shallots and Munster cheese over crispy roasted potatoes. The mains were so good, the only thing I remember about dessert is that it had chocolate and caramel and was quickly finished.
Amy Guttman is a freelance journalist and broadcaster based in London regularly reporting for PBS Newshour, BBC and Forbes, focusing on current affairs and entrepreneurship.
Photographs courtesy of Avignon Tourisme and Aix-en-Provence Tourisme