Stretching languidly from the Alps down to the azure Mediterranean, this region in southeastern France boasts mountains, thermal waters, the Riviera and fields of lavender. Home to potters, painters, merchants and movie stars, it’s the perfect fall travel destination. Join us as we explore this sunny corner of the world to idle in country manors, wander through medieval villages, hunt for Provençal treasures and forage for black truffles.
Nice – Scenic Rail Journey
Gateway to the Riviera, the balmy town of Nice makes a great jumping-off point for scenic coastal journeys. The century-old Train des Pignes (named “Pine Train” because pinecones along the route were once used to start its steam engines) chugs four times daily from Nice into the Mediterranean hinterland, crossing 93 miles (151 km) of Provençal mountain scenery. The three-hour journey (if you don’t get off en route) travels over bridges and viaducts, through tunnels and along the Var River, passing small rural villages. Get an early start if you want to hop off anywhere or dip into the thermal baths at the end in Dignes-les-Bains. For more time to explore, spend the night in Dignes. If time is short, just ride from Nice to the lovely village of Entrevaux (1 1/2 hours). This medieval classic contains three drawbridges and winding, narrow streets where you can stroll at your leisure. Stop at a café for lunch and walk up to the citadel perched high on the hill. On Sundays between May and October, rail enthusiasts can also take the heritage steam train that travels along part of the same route (from Puget-Theniers to Annot). You can purchase rail tickets for the Train des Pignes in Nice at Gare du Chemin de Fer de Provence on the day of travel, but book in advance for the popular steam train.
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence – Of Romans, Prophets & Painters
The Roman ruins that lie within walking distance of the charming Saint-Rémy are among the most important in France. Built around a sacred spring, the well-preserved archaeological site of Glanum features the remains of a thriving colony that dates back to the 6th century. Walk the ancient Roman streets among former temples, residential quarters, public baths, a basilica, mausoleum, forum and a mostly intact triumphal arch. You can wander freely or take a guided tour from the tourist office to learn more about the settlement.
Ruins are just one component of the town’s fascinating history. Saint-Rémy was also the birthplace of Michel de Nostredame (a.k.a. Nostradamus), the famous 16th-century French pharmacist and prophetic author, whose house still stands today. In 1889, Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh arrived on the scene to check himself into Saint-Paul de Mausole, a monastery and psychiatric hospital that’s still in operation. In treatment for his numerous mental ailments, van Gogh found artistic inspiration in the clinic, garden and surrounding countryside. He produced more than 150 paintings here, including The Starry Night, which was the view from his bedroom window. You can see his reconstructed room and the cloister’s serene central garden, and amble along a self-guided walk through town, following 20 large-scale reproductions of his most famous work. The lively town square boasts a great collection of restaurants, cafés, galleries, boutiques and festivals. On Wednesdays, be sure to visit the fantastic Provençal market for linens, lavender and a vast array of local food and crafts.
Moustiers-Sainte-Marie – Follow the Star
Clinging 328 ft. (100 meters) up the side of a limestone cliff, the beautiful medieval town of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie (or simply Moustiers) is filled with red-tiled roofs, narrow streets, small squares, drinking fountains fed by the local spring and over 20,000 olive trees. Fields of lavender and the plunging Verdon Gorge—Europe’s deepest canyon—mark the town’s stunning surroundings. A golden star suspended on a 442-ft. chain between rock ledges above the town provides a sense of mystery. Some say a knight returning from the Crusades hung it there as an homage to the Virgin Mary to fulfill a promise he made, a story popularized by French poet Frédéric Mistral.
In addition to the area’s bounty of outdoor adventure that includes hiking and gorge navigating, the town itself is a delight for wandering. Visit the Faience Museum to learn about Moustier’s heralded tradition of pottery making and its role as porcelain supplier to the royal court of Louis XIV—France’s vaunted Sun King (1643–1715). Then stop into the workshops and galleries to view or obtain a piece of the ceramic art. For a great view, climb the 262 steps of the stone stairway to the alpine chapel of Notre-Dame de Beauvoir. There, you can walk the 14 Stations of the Cross erected in 1860. On Friday mornings, visit the village market to taste Moustiers’ edible delicacies that include truffles, olive oil and lavender honey.
L’Isle sur la Sorgue – The Antique Capital of Provence
Outside of Paris, the largest French marché aux puces (flea market) takes place in . Often called “The Venice of Provence,” this island city has picturesque winding canals that meander between narrow streets filled with 18th-century architecture and shaded eateries. Still-functioning waterwheels once brought economic prosperity for textile and paper mills, and allowed merchants to build splendid estates and mansions around town. However, it is the antique markets that serve as the city’s crown jewels. Billed as the third most important European center for antiques (after London and Paris), L’Isle sur la Sorgue and its markets glimmer with glassware, silverware, jewelry, stone carvings and an amazing array of Provençal souvenirs. The two renowned international antique fairs, staged at Easter and August 15 (the national Assumption of Mary holiday), draw over 500 antique dealers. If you miss either, there are approx. 300 antique peddlers and second-hand shops in town to explore. Art galleries and home décor shops also keep things interesting, along with twice-weekly Provençal markets that take place in the old town on Sundays and Thursdays. In addition to antiques, the vast Sunday market is a great place to stock up on local cheese, olives, sausages and baked goods, as well as soap, oils, linens, tablecloths, pottery, dresses and shoes.
Once you’ve had your fill of shopping, drop into Patisserie Leyris on rue Carnot for delectable artisanal baked treats. Chocolates, cupcakes, croissants and pastries greet you with magnificent aromas—pick up a few to enjoy on a riverbank picnic. At the end of the day, dine in one of the area’s charming waterfront restaurants.
Digne-les-Bains – In the Footsteps of Warriors & Women
The N95 national highway from the French Riviera to Grenoble is officially designated Route Napoléon. It follows the route Napoléon Bonaparte took in 1815 on his six-day march from exile in the hopes of overthrowing Louis XVIII. Along the way, he made a lunch stop in a medieval town called Digne-les-Bains. Today, thermal baths are one of Digne’s main attractions—les-Bains (the baths) in French place names usually indicates a spa town with thermal waters. The Bléone River and surrounding forested mountains provide scenic beauty, while Boulevard Gassendi, a long main street completely shaded by grand plane trees, makes it easy to imagine Napoléon enjoying lunch there. Digne also lies at the center of a principal lavender growing region, which results in fantastic fields of purple during the blooming season in late June to July.
Stay at the small Hotel Pension Villa Gaia (1.9 miles/3 km outside of town) for warm and rustic Provençal hospitality. Nearby, you can visit the Maison Alexandra David-Neel, a house/museum that provides a fascinating look at the life of the pioneering French author, feminist and adventurer Alexandra David-Neel (1868–1969). Leaving an opera career behind, she set out to such exotic places as Tibet, China and India in the early 1900s. Influencing writers like Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg, this amazing woman renewed her passport so she could travel at 100 years of age. Gain insight into her remarkable life and studies of Eastern philosophy, theosophy, spirituality, mysticism and Tibetan culture as you walk through her former residence, the “fortress of meditation,” where she penned most of her work.
Avignon – Top-Flight French Gastronomy
The medieval city of Avignon is known for its splendidly preserved historic center, which includes the 12th-century Avignon Bridge and the fantastic 14th-century Pope’s Palace—the papal residence built for the one-time seat of Western Christianity. Avignon’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is just one reason to see it. Another is the food. Several excellent eateries populate this ancient setting, which provides a romantic illuminated backdrop when the sun goes down. Cross the river to the small, historic village of Villeneuve-les-Avignon, and you’ll find the luxury hotel Le Prieuré, an excellent choice for al fresco dining. The hotel restaurant prepares fabulous cuisine with the finest ingredients delivered by local producers. On a warm sunny day, you can dine on the garden terrace perfumed by roses and wisteria. Indoors and out, top-class waiters and sommeliers help create a formal, elegant experience worthy of the restaurant’s Michelin star rating (if you’re looking for value, try the fixed-price lunch menu). You can also stay overnight—the elegant 14th-century building blends the modern trimmings of a luxury hotel with the low-key ambience of Provence.
Oak Groves in Provence – In Search of Black Diamonds
From November to March, parts of Provence become the territory of hunters—truffle hunters, that is. Described as “the diamonds of the kitchen,” black truffles (a type of pungent and earthy fungus) are one of the region’s big draws. Because 1 lb. of black truffles can fetch up to $1,200, truffle hunting is serious business. Jealously guarded trails, secretive plots, stolen dogs and tales of plunder and poaching contribute to the intrigue of these enigmatic mushrooms. Since truffles grow completely underground, it makes them almost impossible to find. Traditionally, truffle seekers headed out with a pig to help sniff out the elusive fungi, which grow at the base of wild oaks. But since pigs are more likely to eat the truffles after finding them, many people now use dogs instead. With a small rake and basket in hand, hunters follow their animals until a truffle is detected. Then they carefully rake the soil to find the edible treasure.
Truffle-hunting excursions are a great way to get into the spirit of Provence. Look for farms, B&Bs like Les Ursulines (a former convent), hotels and tour companies that offer day or weekend forays—often on private grounds or truffle plantations. During the season, you’ll also find special meals and wine pairings, cooking classes and markets that feature truffles.
Stay in a Bastide
The manors and country houses of Provence are a big part of the region’s romance. Known as bastides (not to be confused with the medieval planned towns of the same name), these 17th- and 18th-century houses are emblematic of the idyll for which Provence is known. Multi-level stone houses with tiled roofs and colored shutters stand on shaded grounds with gravel walkways and peaceful gardens that create the splendor of French country living.
The grand bastides around Aix-en-Provence were once occupied by nobles and politicians during the hot summers. Surrounded by classical gardens, terraces and fountains, many of these bastides were outfitted for grand living. You can view some of these on guided tours organized by the tourist office. Pavillon de la Torse, —just a 15-minute walk from Aix—allows guests to stay overnight. Further afield, you can find bastides surrounded by hills and vineyards, or near smaller, quieter villages. Many have been lovingly restored and welcome guests. Try one like Hotel La Bastide de Boulbon; a charming country village sets the stage for the manor’s stellar setting, with remarkable gardens and a pool among 200-year-old trees, and al-fresco candlelit dinners on the stone terrace. Others, like Bastide Voulonne, offer truffle hunting in season. If you prefer being on your own, you can also rent a bastide. Many other appealing options give you more reason to plan a second trip.
Travel Tips: Provence
This charismatic region has enchanted scores of artists and caused many travelers to linger for months at a time. Even if you can’t spend a year in Provence, you can still revel in its unforgettable beauty and flavor. Read these tips for helpful hints on how to get the most out of your time in this idyllic corner of France.
When to Go
September and October bring fall colors to the Provençal countryside, while hotels, B&Bs and roads become less crowded (once the summer tourists have departed). Great weather combined with moderate temperatures make autumn the perfect season for walking, biking and sightseeing. The wine harvest begins in September at the same time that village feasts and markets provide great foraging opportunities. November marks both the olive harvest and the onset of truffle-hunting season, which means the famous mushrooms will soon appear on menus and in markets.
The Michelin Star
More than 75 Provence restaurants have earned Michelin stars. Plan your trip so you can visit a few to taste the best of France.
Michelin awards excellence based on a three-star system:
- 1 = Very good food; a good place to stop
- 2 = Excellent food; worthy of a detour
- 3 = Exceptional food; merits a special journey
Across a broad range of budgets and styles, stars are earned solely by what’s on the plate—food quality, consistency, technique mastery and value for money. Under a cloak of anonymity, unannounced reviewers test meals and make repeated evaluations to ensure reliability. Earning a star is seen as one of the highest honors in the industry.
Slow is Good
French cuisine is meant to be savored. Rushing through mealtimes is seen as uncouth (or, at the very least, American), and good service doesn’t necessarily mean it will be fast. A multiple-course dinner can last two hours or more. Even paying the bill may take 15 minutes. It’s just part of the French way of lingering over a meal—even more so in Provence where life is slower and the harvest superb. When planning your daily itinerary, factor in longer times and later meals (many restaurants open for dinner at 7:30 or 8 p.m.). You can also adopt the lifestyle of the locals, who tend to go out for lunch when prices are more affordable. One way to save time and money during the day is to buy food at local markets and have a picnic in a scenic spot. There’s nothing like a fresh-baked baguette for a real taste of France.
Rent a Car
To fully experience the glory of Provence, plan to rent a car while you’re there (unless you’re riding the rails). Having your own wheels will give you the flexibility to go where you want when you want—and to stop for photos, a market or a hidden gem you spot along the way. GPS and Michelin’s orange regional maps are best for navigating (pick up #527 Provence-Alps-French Riviera). You can get a GPS device with your rental car, or bring one from home loaded with European maps.
Watch speed limits, even if French drivers are zooming past. Foreign/rental cars are often tagged by speed cameras, and tickets may follow you home, even for minor infractions (such as driving 4 miles over the speed limit). The Michelin website provides an overview of the area’s gas stations, car parks, restaurants, hotels, weather and traffic.
Handmade in Provence
Provençal artisans create world-famous crafts that include candles, fabric, soap, leather, pottery and santons (clay figurines for Christmas creches). This region is also well-known for its edible products such as lavender, honey, wine, herbs and olives. Visit the sources of these products to add homegrown flavor to the souvenirs and gifts you take home. Provence artisans are often found in small villages with charming appeal—a lavender distillery in Nyons, a textile manufacturer in Saint-Etienne-du-Grès or pottery at Atelier Soleil in the town of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie.
The Most Beautiful French Towns
In 1982, Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (The Most Beautiful Towns of France) was established to protect and promote the outstanding heritage of French villages. This independent, non-profit association has a mission to “reconcile villages with the future and to restore life around the fountain or in the square shaded by hundred-year-old lime and plane trees.” In essence, the organization works to preserve the marvelous French feeling of these towns and avoid a theme-park mentality or “rural exodus.” To win a spot on this list, a town must submit to a thorough evaluation process. To date, the association has honored 157 villages on its list, including 15 in Provence.
Climate & Clothing
Autumn in Provence is marked by gorgeous sunshine and bright blue skies. It also rains this time of year, so be prepared (the good news is the rain doesn’t last long). Indian summers are common in September and October. Temperatures average around the low- to mid-70s, dropping to the 60s in November. It’s a good idea to pack T-shirts, blouses, shorts, capris and skirts for the day, and long pants, long-sleeved shirts and light sweaters for evening.
Provence is not formal—one very smart-casual outfit will do the job. Dress modestly in small villages. In the upcountry hills, rain and clouds appear many afternoons, and cooler evenings and mornings are the norm. Take a jacket] or coat, and don’t forget an umbrella and walking shoes. For nicer outings, choose wedges instead of heels.