Step through the airy villa doors into dreamy Provence, the land of purple fields, grenache grapes and the Mistral wind – and the perfect escape for a long weekend away from busy London…
Iv’e wanted to see Provence for as long as I can remember, so when I found myself with a few extra days off in June, it was the first place to come to mind. The lavender season generally runs from mid June until early August, so to be safe, I booked for the last weekend in June. To visit the area, it’s ideal to base yourself in a town or village, and hit the sites from there. Fortunately, Provence is dotted with tonnes of picturesque medieval villages and hamlets. One such medieval town is Avignon.
Avignon makes for a great base in Provence. Nestled along the Rhône river, it’s not only beautiful, but culture-rich and packed with history. In the 14th century it became home to the Catholic Popes – thus the region’s famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine (the name literally translates as the new castle of the pope, but more on those delicious wines later). Reaching Avignon from London was super easy. We flew into the nearby Nimes (worth a look around, in and of itself) took a quick shuttle to the city train station and then purchased two train tickets to Avignon. With three glorious days ahead of us, we got settled into our lovely Airbnb, a converted 18th-century flat, and hit the town.
1. Quench the heat with a glass of cold Provence rosé
If you’re visiting Provence in lavender season expect a lot of heat. It takes a lot of gorgeous weather to grow all that lavender, so expect long, cloudless days with high temperatures. I’m not normally much of a rosé drinker, but when in Rome (or, in this case, the other Papal capital – Avignon), do as the locals do! And when it’s 35C, there is nothing more refreshing! We enjoyed the bottle above in the village of Gigondas, known for its beautiful rosé and other Cote de Rhône tipple. But, you really don’t have to travel far from wherever you happen to be based in Provence — you can get a refreshing glass at just about any bistro or outdoor café, and, because it’s produced locally, the cost can’t be beat.
Grabbing a glass at a nearby cafe was literally the first thing we did after getting settled in our Airbnb!
2. Explore the Palais des Papes – a medieval Gothic masterpiece
Between 1309 and 1376, the Papacy moved to Avignon! During that period, seven popes reigned from their gothic chateau, the Palais des Papes. Part fortress, part palace, you can explore this gothic masterpiece from the outside for free, including its breathtaking gardens, views over the river, and the massive, imposing walls of the palace itself. To this day, it is considered one of the most impressive and important examples of medieval Gothic architecture in Europe. On a hot day, definitely bring some water — access to many parts of the palace grounds are at the top of a steep walk.
3. Soak up the Provencal markets – with flowers, cheese, antiques
The Provence region is dotted with countless village markets, replete with flowers, antiques, local delicacies, and handmade linens. I didn’t buy much (aside from some delicious fruits, olives, and cheese!), but if you’re looking for some authentic and beautiful souvenirs, be sure to bring some cash.
Just look at these spectacular artichoke flowers!
4. Search for Avignon’s amazing Trompe D’Oeil murals
Avignon itself is beautiful, and comes with just about everything you’d expect from a Provencal town – but I was surprised to discover all of the city’s hidden trompe d’oeil paintings! Trompe d’oeil means ‘trick of the eye’, and that’s exactly what these small murals do! They tend to be painted right into windows themselves, making it look as though the city’s residents are peering out into the streets below. Keep an eye out of these artistic surprises when you explore the town. You’d be surprised how often they pop up!
5. Go on a delicious Côte du Rhônes wine tour
No trip to Avignon is complete without a visit to the area’s beautiful vineyards! Côtes du Rhône wines are absolutely delicious, and, when compared to their Bordeaux counterparts, really well priced! There are lots of great tours available from Avignon itself, or you can rent a car and head out on your own. That said, I found booking a tour really helpful, as nothing beats the knowledge and enthusiasm of a local wine lover. Between our different tours, we tasted lots of reds, whites, and rosés, from Gigondas to Chateauneuf-du-Pape!
6. Drink Chateauneuf-du-Pape in a Medieval cave cellar
Speaking of which…no visit to Provence is complete without enjoying one of its most famous wines, Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Hands down, the highlight of our wine tasting trip was drinking five different Chateauneuf-du-Papes in an underground, medieval, cave cellar — Les Caves Saint Charles! A Master Somelier guided us through a candlelit tasting, right beneath the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape itself. As he takes you through each wine, be prepared to enjoy all the subtle differences of each bottle and share your thoughts with the group! You can even buy a case of your favourite right then and there.
7. Visit the purple lavender fields!
Let’s be honest – the lavender fields are what brought me to Provence in the first place, and I can guarantee they do not disapoint! Again, I recommend a tour for this, the probable highlight of your time in Avignon! From the Sénanque Abbey (still run by two monks), to the vast fields of purple and gold, there are few things as visually and aromatically stunning as a trip to Provence’s lavender fields – and having a local guide you through the many twists and turns of the regions ensures you actually get to soak up the highlights.
The Lavender Museum, though interesting, is one part of your lavender tour I’d forgo. Many of the tours will recommend you pop in for a visit, but I would say it’s the only part that feels a bit like a tourist-trap. Our driver only popped in for a few minutes, but mentioned that many tours stop for over an hour…
If you’re dreaming of a trip to the area’s lavender fields, aim for late June to mid July. The season officially runs from mid June to early August, but aim for somewhere in the middle if you don’t want to be disappointed. The areas is absolutely scorching, so make sure you pack a hat and sunglasses.
8. Soak up the region’s other gorgeous flora
There’s more to Provence’s breathtaking floral landscape than lavender! Every wall and pathway is bursting with brilliant flora, twisting its way through the ancient stone. If you’re a flower-lover, there’s no shortage of beautiful petals to soak up!
9. Visit some of the quaint and quintessential Provence villages
Not only is Avignon stunning in and of itself, but it’s also the perfect gateway to countless other villages and towns dotted throughout the French countryside. From the quaint to the sublime, there’s a town for every taste – and best of all, they all tend to have a handful of their own fantastic vineyards along with them!
There’s the awe-inspiring hilltop village of Gordes…get ready for some epic panoramic shots!
Or Roussillon, with it’s famous rust-coloured streets and brightly painted shutters…
Then there’s the quaint Gigondas, known for its fresh and floral rosés. This was the most picturesque of the bunch! Just ambling along, you can’t help but feel as though you’ve been transported into another time…or the opening scene in Beauty and the Beast!
And, of course, if you’re making a day of visiting Provencal towns, you can’t miss Chateauneuf du Pape! This little village overlooks one of the worlds most famous wine regions, and you can even get a glimpse of the famed castle remains!