Although just a relatively short distance inland, the glorious hills, quiet paths and back roads in the heart of rural Provence are as far removed from the glitz and glamour of the French Riviera as it is possible to imagine. Here, the quintessentially French idea of terroir – whereby nuanced flavours reflect the land from which they came – rules the roost. Fragrances of lavender, rosemary and wild thyme pervade the air, while a deliciously simple cuisine, featuring plump red tomatoes and creamy goat’s cheese, seduces the palate. Equally beguiling is the unique quality of the light: great Roman monuments and exquisite hill-top villages, suffused with that warm Provençal glow, are a sight to behold. So travel slowly through this timeless countryside as you sample the fruits and flavours of the land and bask in its radiant beauty.
Read on to discover more of what rural Provence has to offer...
Uzès & The Uzège
Uzès, ‘the first Duchy of France’, is a very special little town, renowned for its graceful Renaissance architecture, a reminder of the days when it was an important trading centre – especially for silk, linen and, bizarrely, liquorice. Nowadays it draws on the surrounding agricultural region (the Uzège) for a bountiful harvest of olives, peaches, apricots and asparagus – as well as grapes from the many vineyards. Take in the Ducal Palace, elegant squares shaded by 60-foot plane trees, and, if you’re here on a Wednesday or Saturday, one of the great markets of France.
Roman Provence & the Pont Du Gard
Two thousand years ago, Provence was part of Gaul, and the Romans left behind a rich legacy of monuments and buildings – not to mention some of France's first vineyards. Admire the splendid amphitheatres in Nîmes and Arles, but don’t miss the magnificent Pont du Gard aqueduct: for compagnons, the travelling stonemasons who were apprenticed to master craftsmen before the time of the French Revolution, the ‘Pont’ became the symbolic end of their travels, and if you look closely, you will find their initials and personal symbols – a kind of ancient graffiti – carved into the stonework.
Hotel Du Poète
This converted 19th-century watermill sits in perfect harmony with its surroundings on the banks of the River Sorgue, right in the heart of picturesque Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. It’s the perfect base for forays into the surrounding garrigue, or for a drive to Mont Ventoux or the nearby ‘island city’ of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, famous for its brocante (bric-a-brac and antiques). However, you will want to spend just as much time in the serene garden with its small bridges and fig trees: relax by the pool or in the outdoor hot-tub, or find a shady corner with a favourite book.
Should you be anywhere near the handsome hill-top town of Forcalquier on a Monday, then it behoves you to visit the lively and colourful weekly market (yes, you absolutely must!). The same goes for any number of other towns in the region on their designated market day. Here is Provençal life laid out before you: there are cheeses, meats, fruit, vegetables, clothes, crafts and antiques; sacks of the ubiquitous Herbes de Provence; and terraces crowded with coffee, beer and Pastis-sipping locals. These occasions are wonderful for shoppers and photographers alike.
Art & Light in Les Baux-De-Provence
The special quality of Provençal light has provided inspiration for countless artists over the years – Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne and of course Van Gogh, to name but a few. But a visual feast that will surpass even the expectations of the most seasoned art lover is the quite astonishing Carrières des Lumières (‘Quarry of Light’) at Les Baux-de-Provence. The former quarry’s subterranean stone walls, floors and ceilings have been transformed into a gigantic canvas using 70 video projectors – ethereal beauty on a grand scale that might just be the greatest son-et-lumière show on Earth.
The Ochre Cliffs of Roussillon
Like many of the villages perchés in this corner of France, Roussillon is achingly beautiful. But more arresting, even, than its eye-pleasing huddle of buildings set against the pine forests of the Luberon massif is its unique palette of colour – 17 different shades, to be precise, ranging from yellow through to deep red, that radiate from the walls and roofs of houses built on the largest ochre deposits in the world. A stroll through the cliffs along the Sentier des Ocres is the best way to admire these vivid rock formations up close – a surreal and impressive sight.
The Luberon's Villages Perchés
Meandering from one gorgeous hill-top village to another is one of the pleasures of travelling in Provence. The view is one thing – houses of honey-coloured stone winding around steep slopes like a serpent – but arriving there is another: poking around a maze of ancient cobbled streets and alleyways; seeking out the perfect little restaurant or boutique. The Luberon is heaven for lovers of such places: there’s gorgeous Gordes, beautiful Bonnieux, and simply exquisite Saignon, with its tinkling fountain and perfect little café, Chez Christine, just a few steps down from the church.
La Campagne Berne
Eric and Bruno Delætre-Boulanger, owners of La Campagne Berne guesthouse, are not just wonderful hosts – they are people you will never forget. Despite the idyllic location, amid rolling, golden Provençal hills, it’s the combination of Eric’s congenial hospitality and Bruno’s fabulous cooking (he rustles up one mouth-watering dish after another from the freshest of local ingredients) that will be your abiding memory of this ravishingly attractive home-from-home close to the small market town of Forcalquier.
Cheese fiends and bookworms – behold the village of Banon! Not only is it home to Le Bleuet, a fabulous bookshop aiming to hold France’s largest collection of reading matter amid its labyrinth of shelving, alcoves and reading rooms (it’s already in sixth place); it is also where you will find the aptly named Super Banon fromagerie, purveyors of the renowned local goat’s cheese. Carefully hand-wrapped in chestnut leaves which, once unfurled, yield an enticing aroma and an even more intense flavour, these discs of artisan delight go perfectly with a hunk of French bread, a glass of rosé and a generous dose of Provençal sunshine.