Having established my land legs in Paris these past few months, I have started to think about the other regions of France. The weather is consistently improving and venturing further into France seems ideal. For all of Paris’ joys, a break for fresh air and country vistas is irresistible. My mind buzzes with thoughts of what is waiting…
Recently, some Minneapolis friends traveled to France and we connected in Paris and made our way south to Provence. We had a few days of exploring the region and in particular, the towns of Arles, Les Baux and Avignon. The weather could not have been better for our excursions. Each of these areas is special with unique attributes and attractions, but they all have a medieval history.
We stayed in Arles which was a central location in the region, but also a scenic town to enjoy and explore. Our first morning we did a walking tour straight from the Rick Steve’s France guidebook. It was a comprehensive tour through town and took a few hours to complete. Several attractions like the amphitheater/coliseum, the ancient outdoor Roman theater and the Cloisters were worth paying admission to see up close.
Arles was a beloved spot for Van Gogh and the city has permanent easels set up in specific locations to mark a spot of significance in Van Gogh’s life and works. It’s also the town where he was first admitted into a hospital for his depression (more recently re-diagnosed as bipolar disorder). As a side note, I had the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. It was a fantastic collection of his life works, but touring the city of Arles brought relevance and sympathy to his paintings.
Late in the afternoon, we headed to the hillside town of Les Baux. There is a climb to get to the pedestrian passageways of Les Baux and I started to think this visit might be best in the morning on fresh legs. Nonetheless, the town is ancient (first inhabitants traced back to 6000 BC) and beautiful.
Today, Les Baux is a tourist town with very few permanent residents. The medieval Chateau des Baux is an incredible site to walk. It is mostly in ruins, but I could get a very clear picture of life in the Middle Ages at the Chateau and what it took to defend the land and property. Les Baux was a constant site of military attack because it has such a prominent position on a rock outcropping over looking the rich land of Provence.
Avignon was our final town to tour in Provence. It is a walled city, much like the other towns, but the wall is very well preserved. Once you enter the town, it is charming, walkable and perhaps a little more commercial than I would have expected. Shops, restaurants and a carousel or two line most of the streets and open squares.
Avignon’s main attraction was Le Palais des Papes. This was the home of multiple Popes and a seat of Christianity in the 14th century*. Pope Clement V moved the papacy to Avignon when violence was taking over Rome at the turn of the century. The palace eventually became obsolete when the church moved the Papacy and its operations back to Rome, much to the objection of the court of France. The palace is expertly preserved and an important example of Gothic architecture. Le Palais des Papes is a registered UNESCO world heritage site. One final note, not to be missed are the papal gardens just beside the palace. The gardens offer a new perspective on the palace and beautiful views over the hills and valleys of Provence.
There is so much more of Provence to see! I am hoping to return, perhaps in the fall, although the thought of missing the fields of lavender might have me back in the middle of summer…
*Papal information pulled from Wikipedia “Palais des Papes”.