One of my goals for 2020 was to stand in a field of flowers. Specifically, a field of flowers in Provence. I can now say that my 2020 is over as I accomplished this goal with three delightful artist friends, Sarah, Madeleine, and Hope. We hopped, skipped, sketched, squealed, clicked, and skinny-dipped (some of us) our way through Les Alpilles, the Luberon, and the Verdon the first week of July — just in time before the harvest. While the things to do in Provence, France are numerous, this post will focus on the region known as Les Alpilles.
Provence has been a far-off dream for a while…the dry, desert landscapes, olive groves and lavender fields for miles and seemingly around every corner of the winding mountain roads. I had tossed around the idea for months, before nearly throwing the towel on it during the quarantine.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” I told Sarah during one of our weekly phone calls. Slumping against the stone cottage in Normandy, sitting on the stoop, and watching the light fade, it seemed that there would be endless sunsets before we could venture out.
“I just want to go home. Things probably won’t even be open.”
That’s the realist in me. Sarah came through, however, in typical dreamer fashion, and said, “IT’S GOING TO HAPPEN.” So, a few weeks ago, still fresh out of quarantine and dreaming about one last jaunt before heading back to California, I pulled out all the stops as an Enneagram 2w1 (this is the 1 coming out, mind you), and in a flurry of research pulled together an itinerary and the Airbnbs for a whirlwind six-day road trip.
What to Do in Les Alpilles, Provence: Isle-sur-la-Sorgue to Les Baux de Provence and Van Gogh’s Winery
[Summary of things to do in Provence, France: Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Pont du Garde, Les Baux de Provence]
From Paris we took the “Autoroute du Soleil,” stopping in a village called Semur en Auxois for lunch. We joke that it’s a magical town because the roads are one way leading up to it, and as you crest you can see it rising on the hill. As you leave, however, it is tucked into the mountains, and you never see it again. We crossed the stream and quaint bridge, parking Bert the Bullet (Sarah’s silver Volvo) by the water and setting out a picnic of French potato salad, sourdough (our latest obsession), cheese (could you expect anything else?), plump blueberries, and other fixings now far from memory. We of course spent some time wandering and photographing, winding our way through the cobblestone streets that really ought to be called lanes, and parading as evident tourists to a local café.
I chose Isle-sur-la-Sorgue as our base for two nights. It sits at the gateway of the Alpilles and Luberon mountain ranges. The evening was warm and bordering between arid and humid. As Sarah squeezed Bert the Bullet down seemingly impossibly narrow streets, we squealed and had heart and star eyes for this pastel southern market town reputed for its brocantes. After hauling our luggage inside a cute, ground-floor apartment in the town center, we took a look around, cameras in hand.
Something I love about France is that the towns, cities, and even villages do color really well. It always feels pleasing to look out, whether a deep blue door or coral façade catches the eye. I shot a lot of Portra 800.
The following day, we started out at the market, which is GINORMOUS and covers all of the center of town, or so it felt. Random, but you must see the bank on the canal. It’s a bank to behold, a temple to money, and very magnificent. (It’s also nice to walk on the canal. Isle-sur-la-Sorgue doesn’t have a reputation for being a “little Venice” for nothing!) We picked up lunch fixings, ate, and then where en route to our first Provençal stop: Les Baux de Provence.
Sarah enjoys the art of wine, and a spontaneous stop was on the itinerary for a tasting. (Spontaneous as in, we will stop if we see something interesting, itinerary as in, we factored in time for this stop.) Just a few kilometres out from the village, we happened upon Le Mas de la Dame, and made a quick turn right. The vines stretch in an orderly fashion across the landscape, with the mountains gently sloping in the distance, the shales reminding me of Half Dome. The day was hot, the sun beating down, and a crisp and cool rosé seemed to be in order (we walked away with four bottles). I think one of the best delights was learning that van Gogh had painted this exact winery/olive grove.
Sweating slightly (although for me, that’s probably an understatement), we piled back into Bert and wound our way up to Les Baux. Something signature about Provence is the hilltop villages, and Les Baux definitely offers a great vantage point of the valley of the Alpilles.
We hiked, clicked, and admired our way up the hilly, pedestrian-only streets, and in true Hope fashion, tumbled into a free little museum featuring the life and work of a well-known engraver and printer named Louis Jou. Amongst the imposing printing presses, books, and tools was an amazing view through the windows and a delightful older woman who welcomed us. She was thrilled when hope showed her how to take pictures on her iPad of the studio, and in turn, she showed us photographs of her family. This post as docent was not her career…rather, she spent most of her life as a goat farmer, making cheeses and other products. She showed us her goats by name, as well as her son who took up the profession in the Pyrenees.
Thirty minutes (approximately) and several postcards later, we continued up the hill towards the chateau, stopping in both the church and chapel (which had an amazing mural) before reaching the summit. The wind was strong in an Elizabeth-Bennett-looking-pensively-off-the-cliffs-of-England strong, and I held onto my hat (also made others hold it) as I snapped away at the landscape below. The chateau requires a ticket, but the hilltop view does not. Just waltz right by.
After we were satisfied by our doodling and photo-ing, we got on our way to see some olive groves. The groves didn’t quite materialise as we had imagined, but sitting in yet another church, scrolling on Google Maps trying to get a sense of where we were, we realised that we were not far from Nîmes and the Pont du Gard.
The Pont du Gard has been on my art history bucket list for six years, so when our eyes lit up, we decided that it was happening. Some twisty roads, a broken roundabout, goats, bridge, and U-turn later, we made it and like, holy cow! The Pont du Gard a Roman aqueduct crossing the Gardon river and is a perfect place for a dunk after a day in the sun. I did not dip, but I did click. My art history nerd self is very pleased. The sunset was brilliant and a reminder that sometimes the unplanned is delightful.
Things to Do in Provence, France: Les Alpilles
There are so many things to do in Provence, France, that one trip is not enough! I’d go back in an instant, but for now, here’s a list of everything I did in Les Alpilles.
- Swimming at Pont du Gard, an incredibly well-preserved Roman aqueduct.
- Les Baux de Provence—make sure to visit Les Carrières de Lumière and the atelier of Louis Jou.
- Pick up some wine at Le Mas de la Dame—reputed to be so beautiful that Van Gogh stopped to paint the scenery.
- Stay in Îsle-sur-la-Sorge, a small town famous for its flea markets and river—it’s known as the Little Venice of the South.
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