The Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) is one of the largest Gothic buildings in all of Europe and was classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995. Avignon became the residence of the Popes in 1309 during the period of the Avignon Papacy. It was then expanded and grew to occupy an area of 11,000 m² (2.6 acres). The papacy spent a large amount of money on the building during construction. The interiors are no less grand than the exteriors; the rooms were luxuriously decorated with expensive frescos, tapestries, paintings, sculptures and wooden ceilings.
The palais deteriorated for the next couple of hundred years despite restoration efforts and was then sacked during the Revolutionary period. The Palais was eventually taken over by the Napoleonic government for military use during which time it further deteriorated. It finally became a national museum in 1906, and most of the Palais is now open to the public.
Perched between the magnificent UNESCO-listed Palais des Papes and the hilltop Rocher des Doms, the Avignon Cathedral (Cathedrale Notre-Dame des Doms) is somewhat eclipsed by its neighboring tourist magnets. While the Cathedral’s comparatively demure façade fails to incite the same gasps as the castle-like Palais, its iconic bell tower, capped with a 4.5-tonne gold statue of the Virgin Mary, still demands attention from the passing crowds. The cathedral has a history dating back to the 12th century, but the majority of the present-day building dates from the 15th and 17th centuries. Most notable are the richly decorated Romanesque-style interiors, where highlights include a 12th century marble throne, a beautiful gilded organ and a chapel dedicated to John XXII, housing an array of artifacts and religious icons.
The 12th-century Sénanque Abbey, which to this day is the home and worshiping place of Cistercian monks, has no great history. There are no iconic frescoes or statues to see, and while pretty, it isn't especially notable architecturally. So why is it on every visitor's must-see list when visiting Provence?
One word: lavender. The monks here grow, harvest and process lavender from the surrounding fields, which means that come June visitors have a front-row seat to one of the most gorgeous photo ops of all time. Whether passing by in a car or stopping to smell the flowers, the Sénanque Abbey, near Gordes, is a summertime treat.
When you stand at the precipice of the precariously perched Gordes in Provence and look into the valley below, you'll see a road leading away towards Apt. See it? That road is thousands of years old, built by the Romans. So in case the town itself doesn't knock your socks off – and if it doesn't, check your pulse – then the sight of that road should make you realize just how much history there is in this area of France. And the history of Gordes doesn't stop with the Romans; from fortifications against Arabs in the first millennium to the 12th century Sénanque Abbey surrounded by lavender to its eventual addition as a French royal provence in the Middle Ages and a Resistance stronghold during WWII, this is not your run-of-the-mill charming village.
The Lavender Museum in Coustellet is at the farm where this brilliantly colored, fragrant plant is grown, harvested and processed into all kinds of products. But far from being a factory or simply a museum, it's a family-run business dating back five generations, and the pride in their work is immediately apparent to visitors.
Included in the museum is a large collection of vintage distilling machines and other implements used as far back as the 17th century; this was the hobby of one of the Lincelé sons. There is also a film about the distilling process and guided tours as well. It's a wonderful, in-depth look at how lavender is used, and even better, it's open even when the fields are not in bloom!
Visitors to Provence understandably concentrate on Avignon, Arles, and the charming towns, villages and vineyards in the region. And if you stick to that, you'll have a great time! But just as understandable is that while beautiful, these towns can all seem to blend together after a while. If that's the case, then you should head to the Camargue.
Located in the southwest corner of Provence, the Camargue is a stretch of wetlands that also include salt fields and rice paddies as well as vineyards. The main town and jumping-off point for exploring the Camargue is Aigues-Mortes, a medieval walled town that is a great lunchtime spot – and you'll want to fuel up, as the Camargue is largely untouched.
Although it is protected land, there are pockets of population that tend to the lands and work hard to protect its pristine geographical features. These include the famous wild horses of the Camargue, white horses largely allowed to roam free, although French cowboys.
The Pont du Gard is a 50 kilometer (31 miles) aqueduct that stretches between Uzès and Nîmes. It is located in Vers-Pont-du-Gard commune in the South of France, and UNESCO made the aqueduct a World Heritage Site in 1985.
The famous aqueduct was constructed by the Roman Empire in the mid first century, before the dawn of the Christian era. The bridge is almost 50 meters high (164 feet) and has 3 levels, the longest being 275 meters (902 feet). Its first level carries a road and its third level carries a water conduit.
The Pont du Gard is currently one of the most visited attractions in all of France.
It's a history that stretches back to pre-Roman times, with various evidence of Bronze Age settlements. But with the Romans came more permanent colonization; soldiers were often given tracts of land in the area as payment for battles. The original Roman gates are still there, as is the Colosseum-style arena. Check the city's entertainment schedule before visiting, and catch a concert inside – something you can't do in Rome!
Throughout the city are various ruins that have been preserved as best as possible, but the jewel of Nimes is without a doubt the temple Maison Carrée. Built just before the turn of the millennium, its near-perfect condition makes it one of the finest examples of Roman architecture found anywhere in the world. Thomas Jefferson was so taken with it, in fact, that he has the statehouse in Virginia built in its likeness!
Today Nimes is a fairly large and bustling city, with great restaurants and gorgeous parks and other public green spaces.
Surrounded by golden beaches in the spot where the Rhône River meets the Mediterranean Sea sits the whitewashed town of Saintes Maries de la Mer. As the capital of the Camargue region in the south of France, Saintes-Maries is a popular summertime destination made famous by the imposing Church of the Saintes Maries de la Mer. Built as both fortress and refuge between the ninth and 12th century, its grand Romanesque steeple can be seen from miles away.
A 20th-century literary and artistic haven beloved by the likes of Hemingway and Picasso, Saintes-Maries has seen everyone from the Romans to the Vikings, Van Gogh to Bob Dylan. Today its narrow, winding streets and lively French restaurants bustle with summertime action.
Orange is a town in the Provence region of France with a mainly agricultural economy. The famous town is known because the Romans left their mark there; Orange is often cited as having the most impressive Roman architecture still standing in Europe.
The town’s Roman theatre and Triumphal Arch of Orange and surroundings were classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981. In addition, the town’s Museum holds the largest marble cadastral Roman maps ever discovered. Orange’s lovely cobblestoned pedestrian roads, plazas, and fountains make it a charming place to visit.
Les Baux-de-Provence is a charming town in the Provence region, and whose name refers to its location: in Provençal, a baou is a rocky spur. Baux-de-Provence has a fantastic position amidst the Alpilles mountains, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful villages in France.
The stunning location is set atop a rocky formation complete with a ruined vast fortress. Baux-de-Provence has a rich history: in the middle ages, Cardinal Richelieu ordered the demolition of the castle because the village housed protestant rebels. The village is also the site where the aluminium ore Bauxite which was first discovered in 1821 by geologist Pierre Berthier, and as such the ore bears its name.
Less than a half-hour from Avignon, it's a popular stop on Provence wine tasting tours, and rightly so. But there is so much more to this town than the (delicious!) fruit of its labors.
As its name suggests - “pape” is French for “pope” - the part of papal history that takes place in France includes Chateauneuf-du-Pape. As you may know, Avignon was home to the papacy, but when it came to wine, the town wasn't so blessed. Popes had to look elsewhere for their favorite libation, and looked to the area today known as Chateauneuf-du-Pape – named as such because of the new castle (chateauneuf) built by Pope John XXII.
It is from this castle that you get amazing views of the vineyards and neighboring villages. Also of note is the town's beautifully preserved medieval architecture, most of which today is home to various wine stores and tasting rooms.
The lands on either side of the Rhone River in western Provence have some of the most fertile terroir in France, giving rise to the prestige of the Rhone Valley Region of over 1,000 vineyards. If you're visiting France and want to explore a wine region that also has plenty of history and beautiful villages to boot, then you want to come to the Rhone Valley.
Because the long region runs north to south along the river's path, there are two separate sub-regions. The northern of the two are greatly affected by the Massif Central mountain range, and this the soil is tougher and the temperature swings are greater from season to season. The southern sub-region, on the other hand, is generally more mild throughout the year, but daily temperature swings are a factor in the terroir; its pebbly soil helps to retain the heat of the day to protect the vines at night.
The Eglise St-Trophime is a masterpiece of 12th-century Romanesque architecture in the Provençal city of Arles, which is located on the banks of the River Rhône and on the doorstep of the wild, marshy Camargue. Along with the city’s many Roman remains, the church was UNESCO World Heritage-listed in 1981; it was constructed from pale-hued stone in the 11th and 12th centuries and dedicated to Trophime, who was an early bishop of Arles and later its patron saint.
Its magnificent, colonnaded Romanesque portal was restored in the late 20th century; its carvings depict the Last Judgment, with Christ overseeing anguished sinners being dragged down into Hell and the righteous ascending to Heaven. Statues of lions, the Apostles and other saints guard the entrance to the church, which is austere and symmetrical on the inside.
Provence’s oldest abbey was founded in the 10th century by Benedictine monks and built on what was then a swampy island in the middle of the River Rhône north-east of the UNESCO-listed city of Arles.
The monks of Montmajour enjoyed several centuries of wealth, with the abbey thriving thanks to pilgrims who visited to see a fragment of the True Cross displayed in the Chapel of the Holy Cross. By the end of the 14th century, plague and the Hundred Years War affected the fortunes of the monastery; a defensive watchtower and fortified walls were added but it fell into disrepute. In 1639 its fortunes were briefly revived by an influx of new monks but the French Revolution in the 1790s saw Montmajour abandoned and derelict.
In the Petite Camargue region in southern France, the best way to see the medieval town of Aigues-Mortes is from its medieval ramparts. On a wander atop the city walls, you can see right across the ancient town, once filled with knights and crusaders during the 12th-century reign of Louis IX. Saint Louis ordered the ramparts so that his French kingdom could have a Mediterranean marina that would give them passage to the Middle East. Make sure to check out the famous Constance Tower while you’re in town. Built under the orders of Louis in 1242, it’s the most impressive of the 20 imposing towers dotted around the city walls.
Down at street level, a stroll along Aigues-Mortes' lively medieval streets is a popular pastime. While you’re here, try the local Fougasse pastry, which can be savory or sweetened with sugar and orange blossom. If you walk 15 minutes away from town, you'll run into the local salt works, a major part of the town's history, and their pink salt lakes.
Aigues-Mortes is about an hour south of Avignon in the heart of the marshy Camargue, a delightful walled town that was fortified in the 13th century by King Louis IX; it is now on the Canal Rhône-Sète although back in medieval times it was a strategic seaport on the Rhône delta. The creamy-stoned Gothic Church of Our Lady of the Sablon stands over the labyrinth of cobbled streets, built in the early years of the 13th century, and it was from here that Louis IX set out on his crusade to the Holy Land in 1248.
Notre-Dame-des-Sablons has a turbulent history; starting life as a Catholic church, it was sacked by the Protestants in 1575 and the bell tower then collapsed in 1634, rendering the building unusable for almost a century. It was renovated between 1738 and 1744, and during the French Revolution in the 1790s was used as a barracks and salt depository.