Odds are that when I say Provence, images of idyllic French countryside, ancient hill-top villages, and incredible food come immediately to mind. This was certainly my vision, when I started tripping this popular tourist destination in France. The actual region of Provence is quite large, taking up the southeast corner of the country. Its western boundaries start at the Rhône river and the ancient Roman outposts of Arles, Avignon, and Orange, and extend all the way to the Italian border in the east. Marseille (France’s second largest city) and the French Riviera, are both located within Provence’s boundaries. It turns out that the Provençal images I had in my imagination are usually associated with the Luberon in Provence, a smaller area located north of Marseille.
The Luberon in Provence is where you’ll find the highest concentration of breathtaking hilltop villages dotting idyllic countryside. This is the area made famous in Peter Mayle’s book (and movie) – A Year in Provence. And so, the Luberon in Provence became the centerpiece of our trip to the South of France.
The Luberon in Provence is split in half by a series of east-west mountain ranges. The valleys on either side of this range feature a high concentration of stunning hill-top towns like Gordes in the north and Lourmarin in the south, and picturesque countryside everywhere you look. And because the Luberon is centrally located in western Provence, it’s easy to explore other great sites in the area, including the aforementioned ancient Roman outposts along the Rhône River, and the Mediterranean coast to the south.
We traveled to the Luberon in Provence for my 50th birthday a few years ago. I figured if there was anywhere in the world I could turn 50, this seemed like the perfect place. The idea of a travel blog hadn’t even entered my mind then. I would have taken food pictures if it had. But, since current times are forcing more travel reflection than actual travel, I will share the pictures I do have, along with my itinerary from this beautiful part of the world.
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Day 1 – Lourmarin in the Southern Luberon
We flew into Marseille. As France’s second largest city and as a city situated on the Mediterranean, it’s worthy of exploration itself. However, we only had 1 week to spend in Provence, and there was so much to see! We could not fit any time to properly explore Marseille into this trip.
We rented a car from the airport and drove north, 1.5 hours to the southern Luberon town of Lourmarin. As we began to spot the first picturesque southern Luberon hill towns along the route, we knew that this would be a special trip.
Lourmarin was the hub for our exploration of the Luberon in Provence and surrounding areas. It’s on several “Most Beautiful Villages in France” lists, and it provided a perfect central location for all the sightseeing that was to follow. Plus it was here in Lourmarin where I found the perfect place to stay – Les Mas de Foncaudette. This Bed and Breakfast is in a restored 16th century stone farmhouse, surrounded by vineyards and fig trees. It’s located in the countryside just a few kilometers from town. The hosts were very nice and the breakfast in the courtyard each morning was superb.
After checking into our lodging late in the afternoon, we drove straight into town, where we ate dinner at a sidewalk cafe and then wandered the quaint streets of Lourmarin at dusk.
Day 2 – Arles and Les Baux-de-Provence
Our first destination this day was Arles, located at the far western edge of Provence, situated along the Rhône river. It takes just a little over an hour to drive there from Lourmarin.
Arles is old. It was once a Phoenician trading port and later became a provincial capital of the Roman Empire in 123 BC. It’s now a charming city with narrow alleys, public squares, and great food. But its remaining Roman monuments are the star attractions here. These include a well-preserved Amphitheater (think round like Rome’s coliseum) and the remains of a Roman Theater (think semicircle). Events are still held regularly at the Ampitheater. An event was in session at the time of our visit, so unfortunately, we couldn’t enter. It was still an impressive structure to witness from the outside.
A short 30 minute drive from Arles is the town of Les Baux-de-Provence. Like Lourmarin, this small village is another that’s often included on the lists of Most Beautiful in France. It’s located high on a rocky plateau in a mountainous area. One of the highlights of this town is the Chateau des Baux. This is the remains of the 11th century fortress that once protected the residents. The Chateau is located on the wind swept edge of the village with commanding views to the south and east – marrauders had no chance of approaching this town unannounced. Scattered around the grounds are an impressive array of medieval weaponry.
On our way back to Lourmarin, we drove through the town of St-Remy-De-Provence. This is where Van Gogh painted one of his most famous works – The Starry Night. He was in a lunatic asylum at the time….
Day 3 – Avignon and the northern Luberon
Our morning destination was the town of Avignon – another ancient Roman city that sits on the far western edge of Provence on the Rhône river. It’s an hour drive from Lourmarin. The major attraction here is the Popes Palace or Palais Des Papes.
In the 14th century, the Roman Catholic papacy relocated from Rome to Avignon, where it stayed for 70 years. 7 different popes officiated the affairs of the church from the Palace. The Palace is considered one of the most important medieval Gothic structures in Europe, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We spent several hours touring the Palace and walking out onto the nearby and equally famous Pont D’Avignon Bridge. This oft-photographed bridge dates to 1236. Only 4 stone arches (out of the original 22) remain, so the bridge extends only partially out into the Rhône.
After lunch at a pleasant street-side cafe in Avignon, we headed northeast, and spent the afternoon driving through the northern Luberon valley, where some of the Provance’s most picturesque hill towns are found.
Gordes, located 40 minutes from Avignon, was the first stop. Nothing quite prepares you for the approach to Gordes. As we turned off the main road from Avignon and started a gentle climb, I could see the road signs indicating Gordes was approaching. But we didn’t see it from afar. We turned a corner, and suddenly it appeared in all its glory, just across a narrow valley. Truly breathtaking! We parked the car right there and found a spot to just sit and stare at Gordes for about an hour. Ultimately, we drove through its narrow streets as we headed on to the next town. Because we spent so much time just staring at it, we found ourselves pressed for time, and didn’t get out of the car to explore.
Next, we drove across the valley to Bonnieux, spotting the towns of Rousillon and Lacoste as we drove along through this incredibly picturesque area of the northern Luberon in Provence. We did stop, park, wander and photograph Bonnieux for awhile. From Bonnieux, it’s just a 20 minute drive across the Luberon mountains to Lourmarin. We arrived back to our lodging at dusk, after quite a day of sites.
Day 4 – A Food Tour in Aix-En-Provence
Provence is renowned for its cuisine, which features the high quality local ingredients of the region. Since I consider eating great food to be one of the great joys of traveling, exploring this part of Provencal life was essential. I’m a big fan of food tours, and our focus for Day 4 was a food tour in the city of Aix-en-Provence – one of the larger cities in the area and only 40 minutes from Lourmarin. Aix-en-Provence is known for its sprawling farmer’s market, featuring hundreds of stalls that occupy many of the main squares in the town’s center.
On our food tour, booked with a company called Tastes of Provence, we spent the morning exploring the market with our guide, tasting many of the best foods the market had to offer. We also stopped in several local shops for tastings of French pastries and macaroons. The tour concluded with a goat cheese and rose wine tasting at our guide’s professional kitchen.
I have another blog post that covers this tour in more detail, along with some of my other favorite Local Tours around the world.
After our tour, we spent several more hours wandering the streets of Aix-En-Provence, finally eating a late lunch street side. Incidentally, one of my favorite things about many parts of Europe, including France, is the penchant for outdoor eating. Mrs. Thorough Tripper and I are often frustrated by the general lack of such tradition in the United States, where outdoor tables often seem more of an afterthought. I can think of only one meal during this trip to Provence where we ate inside the restaurant. We would always find more tables outside the restaurant than inside, and seldom saw anyone sitting at those indoor tables. Outside dining adds so much more to the experience, especially when located in the scenic streets and alleyways of Provence.
Day 5 – The Southern Luberon and the Best Meal of My Life (so far)
This day was my birthday. It was a big one – my 50th! Our focus this day was on my birthday lunch at La Petite Maison de Cucaron – a Michelin-starred restaurant in the nearby town of Cucaron. Eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant in a 1000 year old Luberon hill-top town in Provence France for my 50th birthday. Yep…pretty cool!
I wish I could show you pictures and tell you exactly everything I ate for what is still the greatest meal of my life. And if I had been blogging then, I certainly would have recorded every detail. But at the time, I was too intimidated by the surroundings to take pictures (we were the only tourists with 4 other tables of locals). And since the menu was in French, I couldn’t tell you exactly everything I ate anyway. We ordered the prix fixe lunch with a set menu and so we ate what we were served. (I remember we used Google Translate to figure out some of it). But every single course of this 5 course lunch was remarkable. Beautifully presented and so so good.
With a lunch as the centerpiece of the day, we spent some time before and after lunch exploring the nearby hill-top towns in the southern Luberon. Cucaron is a beautiful town. We visited its small church on one end, and then made our way to the remains of what was once its castle on the other end. Here we climbed to the top of the only remaining castle tower, and took in the views across the entirety of Cucaron. The town also features a large rectangle man-made pond that occupies much of the main square and originally dates to the 14th century.
We also spent time this day briefly exploring the nearby towns of Lauris and Cadenet. But honestly, after you’ve hit a few of these small Luberon towns, they all start to look a bit the same, so we didn’t spend a lot of time in either. Instead, we ended our touring early and made it a point to relax for a few hours back at the beautiful grounds of Les Mas de Foncaudette.
We ended this day with a simple birthday dinner in the property courtyard with local wine (a birthday gift from our host), goat cheese, tapenade, and bread purchased at the local market.
Day 6 and 7 – Cassis
Since the southern border of Provence is the Mediterranean Sea, I wanted to spend some time in a quaint French seaside village. We ended our trip to Provence in Cassis. Located 75 minutes south of Lourmarin, and only 50 minutes east of the Marseille Airport, it made perfect geographic sense. It also happens to be the quintessential Mediterranean seaside village with a small town center, a small harbor, great seafood, and lodging with views out across the Mediterranean.
We stayed at the Hotel De La Plange Mahagony. I chose this hotel because it sits directly across from a small rocky beach and offers rooms with balconies facing the sea. We also had great views of Cap Canaille – the highest sea cliff in France. We were able to leave our car in hotel’s nearby parking lot for our entire stay, walking back and forth the short distance to town.
Once we arrived, we couldn’t help but spend the afternoon just lounging about on our balcony. The views were spectacular. The weather was perfect. And it was nice to just simply relax and enjoy the ocean air. Walking into town for dinner capped off our day
On our second day in Cassis, we spent time in the morning exploring the shops in town, and also happened upon the weekly farmer’s market.
The afternoon was for exploring The Calanques. The coastal area west of Cassis is famous for its calanques – narrow steep-walled inlets formed along the limestone cliffs that make up the coastline of this area. In fact, most of the coast line between Marseille and Cassis is designated as a National Park. Hiking into these inlets from Cassis is an option, but we chose to explore the calanques by boat. Several tours leave the harbor in Cassis every day. The tour length and cost is determined by the number of calanques visited.
After our afternoon ocean adventure, we left Cassis and drove through the outskirts of Marseille to the airport, spending the night in a nearby hotel given our very early flight home the next day.
Our trip to the Luberon in Provence and surrounding areas was everything I had hoped for my 50th birthday. The idyllic French countryside I had imagined, Mediterranean seaside relaxation, and great Provençal food!