The ancient city of Avignon and the beautiful landscapes of Vaucluse make Provence one of the most amazing places to visit in the whole of Europe never mind France. It is truly stunning and in our tourist guide to Avignon and the Vaucluse in Provence we want to try and bring you some of the flavour of this magical place.
Let’s begin in Avignon.
Avignon, with a population in excess of 180,000, has all the major commerce, its own airport, TGV links, and sits (almost) on the motorway network. Its renown is largely based on the fact that during the 14th century the Papacy was domiciled here.
The Palais des Papes to this day remains a magnificent building adjoined by other equally stunning architectural monuments and gardens.
Few could deny that Avignon is a magnificent, thriving and popular city, and worthy of its status as a World Heritage Site.
Less than 3 hours from Paris, 1 hour from Lyon and just 30 minutes from Marseille by TGV, Avignon has plentiful possibilities for sightseeing, activities and events, and a bounty of attractive shops.
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You can discover Provençal cooking, local specialities and, of course, the Côtes du Rhône wines.
All the beauty of Provence is on your doorstep. Villages perched high up in the Luberon and the Alpilles, the Camargue, and Roman towns.
Delight in lavender fields on the plateaux of Vaucluse, the jagged peaks of the Dentelles de Montmirail, foothills of Provence’s highest peak, the punishing Mont Ventoux, an infamous feature on the Tour de France cycle race.
Things to do in Avignon
There is a mystique about Avignon, what academics would call a place-myth. Its antiquity, its history and heritage is well documented, but there is no synergy here. Avignon is not greater than the sum of its parts…but you wouldn’t want to miss it.
Even so, its parts are well worth exploring, and anyone visiting Provence would be doing themselves an injustice if they didn’t spend at least a day here.
Start at the southern ramparts, and walk up the main street, flanked by shops, hotels and chic restaurants, as well as some un-chic ones.
Cross the main square in front of the Palais des Papes to access the Rocher des Doms (see below), and to onto the ramparts and a visit to a legendary bridge.
For some the capital of Christendom in the Middle Ages, this sun-blessed town retains the indelible hallmark of its complex calling.
Visit the Palais des Papes, the Saint-Benezet bridge, and the so-called Pont d’Avignon of worldwide musical fame celebrated in song. Even the town ramparts comprise an extraordinary litany of monuments acclaimed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites.
In addition, dozens of churches and chapels, all remains of a past rich in history give the city an inimitable atmosphere.
Birthplace of the prestigious festival of contemporary theatre, European Capital of Culture in 2000, the town has many museums, an opera house-theatre, an exhibition hall and a congress centre with installations at the cutting edge of technology.
The town of Avignon
The central core, protected by a ring of ramparts, is today a lively art and cultural centre, and for almost 70 years, this was the Papal seat. That aspect is less appealing for many than the fundamental history and development of what is a very old town.
The modern town is a powerful cultural centre, with events almost every week founded on the prestigious annual Festival. Since 2013, the Palais des Papes has been summertime host to a fabulous Avignon Light Show – Les Luminessences d’Avignon – which offers shows in English.
Sending a probing, but somewhat amputated finger in the energetic waters of the Rhone, the Pont St Bénézet is accessed via the ramparts for a fee, combined ticket with the Palais des Papes.
There must be no child in France, and possibly throughout western Europe, who doesn’t know the song ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon’, although some historians argue that it was originally ‘Sous le pont’, meaning that rather than being ‘on’ the bridge, they were ‘under’ it.
Worth a visit in the hope of a little tranquillity is the Rocher des Doms, a well-laid out garden on a rocky outcrop overlooking the river, and with a lovely view over the surrounding countryside.
Tourist guide to Avignon and the Vaucluse in Provence
As this is a tourist guide to Avignon and the Vaucluse let’s go beyond Avignon and into Vaucluse.
Provence the home of authors and beauty
The Provence that so enthralled author Peter Mayle, and which encouraged him to put his love of the region into print, is alive and well, and this part of rural France is every bit as stunning as ever it was.
Within this adorable region, the landscapes of the Vaucluse are as beautiful and beguiling as elsewhere.
But what most takes first-time visitors by surprise, perhaps more so than anything else, is the mesmerising luminosity of the light; small wonder that so many artists found it appealing.
You have only to sit peaceably on some bar terrace in one of the mountain villages, perhaps savouring an inexpensive Cotes de Ventoux, and take in the light, especially as the sun goes down, and you will understand; it is not something you can imagine.
And with the light come the palpable aromas of Provence, heady scented, wafting on a breeze. Enjoy the perfumes of lavender and the herby tang of the garrigue; there’s fruit there, too, the smell of olives and the vine for which this wine region of France is renowned.
To make matters even more irresistible, there is the landscape itself, a most exquisite canvas of green oak woodland and glaring limestone rising steadily to and dominated by the breezy heights of Mont Ventoux (a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve). The whole dotted with innumerable villages of simple design and rustic fascination.
What makes this region such an attraction is that there is so little with which to find fault, and probably less than that.
Of course, that is a rose-coloured spectacle view; winters here can be ferociously cold and draughty, whenever the Mistral decides to put on a show, while fighting ‘Madame’ for the last baguette at the boulangerie could be one hazard too far.
Where is the Vaucluse in France?
Defining the Vaucluse, geographically at least, defeats many people, French included. It is roughly synonymous with Provence, but not entirely so.
Nor is the situation helped by the fact that from the limestone summit of Mont Ventoux you gaze across a complicated spread of sub-regions: westwards across the crinkly Dentelles de Montmirail into Haut Vaucluse, south to the Vaucluse plateau and over the Monts de Vaucluse to the Lubéron.
While the must visit villages of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and Saumane-de-Vaucluse lie within the Pays des Sorgues.
If the region has to have a boundary, then on the east and south it is the Durance river and on the west, the Rhône.
Within this framework lie no fewer than 151 towns and villages, the largest of which are Avignon and Carpentras (don’t pronounce the ‘s’, unless it’s on Gigondas).
Places to visit in the Vaucluse
Carpentras and the surrounding countryside of the Vaucluse that holds especial appeal, and is promoted as the ‘Porte de Ventoux’.
This is the land of lavender, wine and gourmandise, with weekly markets somewhere on every day of the week selling fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, olive oil, honey, clothes and fabrics, the largest, arguably in Vaison-la-Romaine.
Few of the towns and villages don’t have a market at all, that at Sault boasts a market dating from 1515, and the whole mildly chaotic caravan of consumables is supported by town-edge supermarkets.
A predominance of upland and mountains, steep sided and cloaked in trees, means that most settlements are shoe-horned into river valleys.
A a few villages perchés do occupy isolated hill tops, notably Venasques and Gordes, and less well known along the Toulourenc valley on the north-eastern side of Mont Ventoux.
At the northern edge of the Vaucluse, Vaison-la-Romaine, built along the Ouvèze river, is an superb small town, a place of considerable antiquity, being more than 2,000 years old.
Its assembly of historical ruins, important Romanesque architecture and strategic position combine to make this an important and most satisfying place.
The modern town is built on top of parts of the oldest town, while, confusingly the Haute Ville across the river with its chateau and network of narrow cobbled streets, is often referred to as the Old Town.
Come here on a Tuesday and your French market day experience will be like no other. There is evident wealth about Vaison, based on a thriving wine production industry, along with fruit, honey, truffles and lavender.
The beautiful village of Séguret
South of Vaison you run down a delightful string of villages, each producing their own wines, and each with its own characteristics. Séguret is one of the most beautiful of all French villages and renowned for its very narrow streets and ancient lavoirs.
Séguret is also famous for the manufacture of brightly painted miniature dolls made in clay, known as santons, most of religious or pastoral significance.
Continuing southwards you reach more small villages famed for their wine: Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Beaumes de Venise, the last producing a sweet wine from Muscat grapes.
The Monts de Vaucluse
The Monts de Vaucluse form a magnificent scrubby, woody, karstic barrier, a kind of massive sleeping policeman between the Gorges de la Nesque to the north and the Calavon to the south.
The Nesque rises on the slopes of Mont Ventoux and on its way to meet the Sorgues near Pernes-les-Fontaines fashions a stunning gorge through the limestone rocks of the Vaucluse plateau. The scenery is splendid: a meandering river, scrubby garrigue, and oak forest above which rise the white limestone crests so typical of the area.
But nothing quite prepares you for the gorges itself, a dramatic water-fashioned ravine of considerable depth across which an ingenious road traces a terraced route.
Venasque in the Vaucluse
The village of Venasque must have seemed impregnable to any invading forces. It’s perched at the top of sheer cliffs, and today it is considered to be typical of the villages of Comtat Venaissin, to which it has given its name.
The village, which has acquired a reputation for growing cherries, is listed in the Historical Register as vernacular in architectural style, which effectively means that any restoration must be carried out consistent with maintaining the original character.
Much the same might be said of Gordes, the buildings of which rise crazily, stacked like boxes, above the Imergue valley. The Romans found this site of strategic importance, too, and later the village developed during the 11th century.
But for Gordes it was not all sweetness and light. The Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Wars of Religion all impacted on this near citadel, but by the 18th and 19th centuries the village had recovered sufficiently to support a number of small cottage industries of cobblers, tanners, silk weavers and olive oil producers.
The village of Roussillon
East of Gordes, another hill-top village, Roussillon, is renowned for the varied ochre colours of its rocks, which feature in many of its houses and other buildings.
Ochre from the Vaucluse is of such a quality that it has made France one of the major producers of the pigment in the world. Roussillon is an agreeable place, its main street rising to a cluster of restaurants and bars.
In Roussillon artwork and the production of pottery, both of which have a vibrancy of colour that is even more intense than that normally associated with Provence, has a strong place here.
Aix-en-Provence is the ancient capital of old Provence, and this 17th-century character still permeates the narrow street and alleyways as much as the splendid main street, the Cours Mirabeau, where noblemen formerly set up house.
This was local-born artist Cézanne’s favoured haunt, and where he had a studio, against the backdrop of Mont Sainte Victoire.
Today, an outdoor museum has been created in a quarry that the artist often used for inspiration. Not surprisingly, the town has become something of a city of the arts, and the newer part of the town is expanding rapidly and attracting more residents.
Fountains splash along the Cours Mirabeau, and here, in Les Deux Garcons, Cézanne would meet Emile Zola for coffee and conversation.
The Atelier Paul Cézanne is an obligatory visit for lovers of his work. This was Cézanne’s last studio, an evocative place filled with memorabilia – easel, brushes and pots used by Cézanne – and, if you can feel it, the intimate spirit of a great artist.
The Tapestry Museum (Musée des Tapisseries) is also renowned, and well worth a visit. Children will love the Natural History Museum: its collections total 376.000 specimens. The museum is however best known for its palaeontological collections, primarily dinosaurs.
A short drive to the south of Aix, the rather industrial town of Gardanne, is the only village ever painted by Cézanne.
He lived in Gardanne, with his wife and son, where he found some respite from the irritation his father found with his domestic liaison, which for many years was outside marriage.
His apartment in the centre of town today overlooks the lively market, and it was here and in the surrounding countryside that he painted in an innovative and rectangular style that led later artistic authorities to decide that ‘Cubism’ was born in Gardanne.
Jas de Bouffa – home of Cézanne
It was into the early 19th-century world of a commercial Provençal family that Paul Cezanne was born. But of his birthplace, along the Rue de l’Opéra in Aix, only the façade now remains.
His father was a successful hat maker, his ‘Chaponnerie’, or hat factory, still stands, adjacent to Les Deux Garcons, at 55 Cours Mirabeau.
Later, Cézanne’s father became a banker, urging his son to study law. But it was not the legal profession that inspired Cézanne. He wanted to paint.
In 1859, Cezanne’s father bought the Jas de Bouffan, a bastide, or country house, on the outskirts of Aix, formerly the house of the Governor of Provence.
It is even now a fine house in the middle of rows of plane and chestnut trees – a scene Cézanne represented in Chestnut Tree alley in the Jas de Bouffan. For forty years, off and on, this was Cézanne’s home, a beautiful building of simple design on the top floor of which Cézanne had an atelier, his studio, facing north towards the centre of the city.
It is remarkably small, you expect something much more grand. But it is nonetheless inspiring to stand in it.
You can look through the windows at the rows of trees on which Cézanne himself gazed, realising that this is where Cézanne worked on many of his great works, although his particular passion, and ultimately the case of his death, was to paint out of doors.
The future of Jas de Bouffan is uncertain; political and financial divides haggle to find an acceptable plan for the house, while conservationists pray that common sense will prevail and the house used in some way to pay homage to Cezanne.
It remains in a poor state of repair and the only room you could enter, when we visited in 2011, was the dilapidated salon (there are plans to restore more of the Jas).
Because of this, you are not allowed to wander round on your own but must go on a guided visit, most of which takes place in the surrounding gardens.
Paul Cézanne – famous son of Aix
Poets, writers and painters such as Cezanne have long celebrated the beauties of Provence, its balmy climate, a rich diversity of landscapes from the undulating hillsides of luxuriant vegetation, known locally as garrigue, to the sweeping coastline of the Mediterranean.
But it is the region’s ephemeral light that has most beguiled creative people, drawing renowned artists – Joseph Vernet, Emile Loubon and Vincent van Gogh – to visit the region in an endeavour to capture the fleeting qualities of light and colour.
Walkers at the foot of Saint-Victoire mountain, whose highest point reaches 1011 metres at the Pic des Mouches. The mountain is now famous throughout the world as one of the favourite subjects of the artist Paul Cézanne, who painted it many times.
This was his native region, and he remained deeply attached to it throughout his life, himself motivating early 20th-century painters such as André Derain, Georges Braque and Raoul Dufy to visit Provence and to experiment with the new ideas that were to become known as ‘Fauvism’ and ‘Cubism’.
For art lovers, it is fascinating to realise that this atmospheric region around Marseille and Aix-en-Provence was the setting for the pioneering brush strokes of ‘Modern’ painting.
These and other artists have contributed to the far-reaching renown of Provence by painting scenes like the town of Aix (Cezanne’s birthplace), Sainte-Victoire mountain, and Arles.
La Ciotat, Cassis, and l’Estaque, then a small industrial harbour north of Marseille, and today a tranquil settlement dependent on the sea for its livelihood were also much loved by Cezanne.
It was in l’Estaque, which he visited on no fewer than five occasions between 1870 (the time of the Franco-Prussian War) and 1886, that Cezanne began an artistic love affair with his home region, a passionate involvement with town, village and countryside.
From this ‘marriage’ arose a unique body of artistic creation, one that has had a profound influence on artists ever since. It was as if the artist’s communion with nature somehow found a passage to another dimension, a breakthrough in ideas that was as startling as it was innovative.