Have you ever fallen in love with a place you have yet to visit? Did you have a vivid vision of how it would look and smell? Did you know, for as long as you could remember, that it was your must-see destination? And when you finally went to visit, did your dream come true? This is my dream of Provence in southeastern France.
Fulfilled: My Dream of Provence
I had dreamed of going to Provence for a long time. I was fascinated with pictures of lavender fields and the romantic vibe of the southeastern region of France. I had everything planned in my head for years. It was supposed to be a happy trip, a continuation of my good life. Unfortunately, there was another scenario written for me. I went to Provence not to celebrate, but to heal and gain strength to start over.
Provence welcomed me with the warmth of its sun, hugs of its meadows, earthy smells, and gentle loving breezes. It filled my eyes with colorful flowers, deep canyons, blue water, and yellow sunsets. Centuries old architecture and little villages clinging to the cliffs showed me the power of survival.
Provence fulfilled my dream. I felt happy there, even though I arrived with a wounded soul.
When to Visit Provence
I selected the last two weeks of June, the beginning of the lavender blossom. It is a perfect time to see not only lavender fields, but also the beautiful spring meadows. And at the end of the trip – acres of sunflowers! There was sunshine every day with temperatures around 80 F. The few days above 90 F did not spoil anything. I think they actually accelerated the blossoms of sunflowers.
(Check out another European destination perfect to visit in June – famous Zakynthos, Greece.)
Provence is located in the south of France. Bordered on the west by the Rhône River, it stretches about 150 miles to the Italian border in the east, and from the Mont Ventoux in the north to the Mediterranean coast. The area of Provence is 12,124 square miles. Marseilles, Aix-en-Provence, Avignon and Arles are major cities. The region is characterized by an extreme diversity between sea and mountain with high alpine peaks.
I started my trip in Nice, moved about two hours to the north, and then traveled west almost parallel to the Mediterranean Sea. My last stop was Marseille.
Highlights of Provence
Provence is not meant to be rushed through. Its charm and natural beauty invite you to take it slowly. Having a list of places to visit is important, but you also need time for the unexpected. With every turn, you can stumble upon something that will take your breath away.
I gave myself a lot of time to explore. I covered no more than 100 miles a day, taking frequent stops along the way. Roads are narrow and often steep, so you will be moving slowly whether you want to or not.
Roads are in very good shape but moving across Provence can be challenging. Typical intersections are replaced with roundabouts – very confusing to American visitors. Another challenge: GPS never shuts up telling you what to do on every street corner.
I flew into Nice and spent three nights on the French Rivera. From there, I headed north towards rural Provence and this is when my dream vacation started.
Easily accessible from The Cote D’Azur, Eze is a dramatic village perched on the cliff above the sea, delivering outstanding beauty. Narrow flower-framed streets lead to an 18th century church and Jardin Exotigue – beautiful gardens built around the ruins of a 14th century castle. It is a steep climb to get the top, but you will be awarded with stunning views in every direction.
Provence is known for its perfume industry, so you should visit at least one perfumery. In Grasse, you will find many of them, like Fragonard, Molinard and Galmar, where you can take a tour and of course do some shopping . Tours are also available at Musee International de la Parfumerie.
Gorges du Verdon, the Grand Canyon of Europe
For some reason, this jewel of Provence is virtually unknown. I hope it will stay this way for those who visit in search of outstanding scenery and tranquility. Roads along the canyon offer continuous spectacular views. There is only one hotel located on the edge of the canyon – Hotel du Grand Canyon du Verdon. It is in need of major renovation but the view is breathtaking!
The area along the canyon is not famous for lavender, but to my surprise, on the north end, I found my first lavender field. I could not ask for anything more – almost purple flowers highlighted with yellow bushes and overlooking the blue lake. Spectacular sight!
Fontaine de Valucluse
If I had to stay in only one place in Provence, Fontaine de Valucluse would be my choice. Centrally located, this is a great base for day trips around the region. But the location is secondary to its charm. Framed by mountains and a beautiful green stream, the inviting village is lined with shops and cafes.
Also, I would chose to stay in Bastide de la Lezardiere, a picture perfect Provencal accommodation — as if taken straight from my dream of Provence. Renovated just a few years ago, experience a perfect mix of irresistible charm and modern conveniences. A nice large pool overlooks the property and the mountains. Sunset from there is incredible!
Abbaye de Senanque
This is a symbol of Provence appearing on book covers, postcards, and travel guides. The beautifully sited abbey is surrounded by a sea of lavender. Founded in 1148, today it is home of Cistercian monks. Visit in the morning for the best light. The main field is fenced, but you can still get a great picture. Walk up to the stone wall and look over it.
The deep ochre stone used in the construction of this hilltop village makes it look warm and inviting. Find the charm of an old architecture combined with a natural beauty of the red rocks cliffs. Right from the main square, step onto well maintained hiking trails leading to the orange, yellow, and red canyon. Just beautiful!
Arles is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town dates back to the 7th century BC. It features major Roman sites, such as the Arena and the Theater, integrated into the buildings of the town.
Arles is also famous for Vincent van Gogh who spent 15 months there, from February 1888 to May 1889, during the zenith in the development of his art. The Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles opened in 2014 to showcase his work and promote contemporary artists.
The walled city of Avignon is one of France’s top tourist destinations and home to great museums and beautiful architecture. Popes’ Palace is the most famous landmark in Avignon. Catholic popes lived and operated out of there between 1309 and 1377. Avignon is full of history, life, art, and music.
This little seaside resort sheltered by huge cliffs has so much charm you would want to stay there forever. It is a wonderful place to stroll and watch colorful boat reflecting in the water. It is still an operating fishing village so fresh seafood is served in numerous waterfront restaurants. People watching is excellent there.
Cassis is so beautiful it feels like it was put together by a painter. Flowers are everywhere! Full of tourists, it still feels very local. Market days are Wednesday and Friday and are popular with locals and tourists alike. At night, French men occupy a specially designed little square to play boccie ball. Streets and cafes are full of people until late into the night.
Cassis is also famous for Calanques – limestone cliffs jutting into the sea, with narrow ravines between them. Numerous cruises are available to see them from the water. You can also approach them on foot. There are miles of hiking trails from Cassis all the way to Marseilles.
Despite all the warnings, I did not find Provence to be very expensive, but I only spent on food and excursions. I used 30,000 United frequent flyer miles for my flights, and for my lodging I used a combination of miles, points, and cash back.
During my visit, I touched only the surface of what Provence has to offer. I have no doubt in my mind that I will return there. My goal is to visit when I retire and stay for a few months. Many traditional houses are available for a short term rent at reasonable prices. Until then, my dream of Provence continues.