There is so much to see and do in the Vaucluse (and further afield in Provence) that if you spent 10 years here you’d still find something different and new to do each week. But since your time here is limited, we’ve put together a must-see list for you. Don’t worry, even if you manage to do only three of these outings, you’ll have seen plenty … and there’s always next time!
1. Roussillon, Gordes and the Senanque Abbey
Start your day with a visit to the exquisite Abbey de Senanque, a 12th century Cistercian abbey nestled between hills and surrounded by brilliant fields of summer lavender – one of the most iconic places in Provence.
Then head to the nearby tiered village of Gordes, which sits spectacularly on the white rock face of the Vaucluse plateau where in the early evenings the village is theatrically lit by the setting sun, turning the stone buildings a shimmering gold. Take your time meandering through the village discovering the myriad market stalls (Wednesdays) or shops offering everything from delicious cheeses and fresh produce to handmade pottery and silk scarves.
After lunch, take the winding road south towards Roussillon, famed for its distinctive red-ochre coloured hills. This mesmerising hilltop village is a show-stopper. Walk through the picturesque hills along the ochre trails and later explore the lovely village and its many boutiques and galleries.
2. St Rémy market, Van Gogh and Carrieres de Lumieres
Go to the Wednesday morning market in St Rémy-de-Provence, stroll along the boulevards under shade of century-old plane trees to discover squares and fountains, and through narrow streets lined with attractive boutiques and galleries that make the town’s historic centre so lively. Nostradamus was born here in 1503; the house, tucked away down a narrow side-street, bears a plaque.
Visit the Monastère Saint-Paul de Mausole where Vincent van Gogh was hospitalised for two years for a nervous breakdown and where he painted some of his masterpieces (and the same little field of lavender 16 times).
Across the road is the vast Glanum Roman archeological site and a perfume museum.
Head now to Les Baux-de-Provence, a village named after its location, a bauc being a rocky spur, and for the aluminium ore (bauxite) discovered there in 1821. The steep cobbled lanes are a maze of wonderful boutiques, galleries, architecture and views to be discovered before you come to the ruined castle at the top. Lunch in one of the lovely restaurants with a view out over the plains.
Next, walk 600m downhill to the famous Carrieres de Lumieres. This could possibly be the highlight of your week – it’s a gigantic spectacle of images painted by the grand masters displayed on the inner walls of the cavernous disused bauxite quarry, set to music. Simply amazing! Allow at least an hour here, if not more. You’ll be mesmerised.
3. Lourmarin, Ansouis, Cucoron and Vaugines
Spend a couple of hours in the morning exploring the narrow little streets of Lourmarin. Walk the short distance to the Château de Lourmarin, a handsome 16th century castle, part of which is open to the public. It’s well worth a visit to see the furnished apartments, magnificent stairway and library of 28,000 books.
Head to Ansouis a few minutes away, where little has changed in centuries; the part-fortified village has justifiably earned its place among the Most Beautiful Villages of France). Ramparts, watchtowers and gateways surround the old centre and the medieval Château d’Ansouis. Pop into an oddball museum, the Musée Extraordinaire, founded by Provençal painter and diver Georges Mazoyer, whose passion for the sea shows in the fossil exhibits and oceanic art.
Cucuron, 2km further east, is the starting point for walks up Mourre Nègre (1,125m), the highest hill in the Lubéron range. Maps are available from the tourist office. Cucuron is a charming, typically Provençal village whose main talking point is the made-famous-by-Hollywood pond with its lovely shady trees. But the old town, surrounded by 13th century ramparts, has a wealth of ancient towers, hotels and town houses, as well as a church that features a historical organ.
Visit the parochial Romano-Gothic church of Notre-Dame-de-Beaulieu dominating the village; the olive oil press (housed in a grotto under the city walls), which has been pressing local olives for the past four centuries; and the Museum Marc-Deydier, showcasing regional archaeological discoveries and ethnographic artefacts.
Finally, on your way back to Lourmarin, pop into Vaugines, where you can see the Capitainerie (a superb Renaissance town house), the Romanesque church of Saint-Barthélemy dating from 1004, and the ancient chapel of the Abbey of Psalmody (rebuilt in the 13th century).
This beautiful town, a must for any world traveller, is defined by a stately avenue lined with beautiful plane trees and dotted with grand 17th century mansions, ancient fountains and marvellous architecture. Aix is an enclave of bourgeois-bohemian chic dubbed ‘the Paris of the South’.
There are wonderful streets to explore north of Cours Mirabeau, which houses the Cathedral and two other churches. You should also see the Hotel de Ville, clock tower and university – all built in beautiful yellow stone. Markets are Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Eat at the oldest café in the South of France, Les Deux Garcons.
No matter which lane you venture down, the discoveries will all be charming. Spend a couple of hours at the wonderful Musée Granet on Place Saint Jean de Malte, and then drive up to the Atelier de Cezanne, where local painter Paul Cezanne lived.3
5. Avignon and Châteauneuf du Pape
Head to Avignon, the gateway to Provence. It is colourful, culturally rich, full of artistic, architectural and gourmet pleasures – circled by 4.3km of superbly preserved stone ramparts. Inside the ancient city walls are broad, tree-lined streets and intriguing passageways leading to picturesque squares, shops, galleries, churches and museums. Take a mini-train ride around the city and have lunch in the bustling main square, Place de l’Horloge.
Avignon was the seat of papal power for 70 years, which has left a treasure trove of magnificent art and architecture, none grander than the Palais de Papes. Another famous landmark is the 12th century bridge, Pont Saint-Benezet (or Pont d’Avignon). It was an important strategic crossing between Lyon and the Mediterranean Sea but frequently collapsed and had to be reconstructed; today only a few of the original 22 arches remain.
After lunch, head north of the city. A ruined mediaeval castle sits atop the village of Châteauneuf du Pape. It was built in the 14th century for Pope John XXII, the second of the popes who resided in Avignon. The area is famous for the production of red wine and almost all the cultivable land is planted with grapevines.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a famous French wine Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) located around the village and in the neighboring villages of Bédarrides, Courthézon and Sorgues between Avignon and Orange and covers slightly more than 3,200 hectares or 7,900 acres (32km2). Over 110,000 hectolitres of wine a year are produced here.
6. Isle-sur-la-Sorgue antique market and Fontaine de Vaucluse
Flowing canals encircle the ancient and prosperous town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, famous for its antique market – the largest outside of Paris. Every Sunday this extensive display of antiques and bric-a-brac attracts buyers from all over the world. It gets very busy, especially in summer, so go early to secure parking.
Stalls scattered throughout the village sell everything from local produce to typical Provence-style wares – bright tablecloths, candles, soaps etc. Have lunch at a restaurant alongside the flowing river in the heart of this truly lovely village. Look out for the pretty old waterwheels scattered around town, some of which still turn.
Travel the short distance to beautiful Fontaine de Vaucluse, a medieval village tucked in a valley of the Plateau de Vaucluse. This ancient town at the base of high rocky cliffs features a deep pool of seemingly still water that is actually a fully-fledged river. In the rainy season the spring produces water at an amazing 200 cubic meters per second, making it one of the most powerful resurgent springs in the world. As recently as 1985, a small robot submarine went to a depth of 315m but could not locate the bottom.
7. Lubéron Hilltop villages
Drive to Bonnieux, a hilltop village with a fantastic view of the petit Lubéron and over the plateaus of the Monts de Vaucluse. Visit the bakery museum; the old 13th century church with its combination of Romanesque and Gothic styles; the ruins of 12th century towers and ramparts; Hôtel de Rouville, a beautiful 18th century residence; the Philippe tower; and the outstanding Louve gardens (classified Jardin Remarquable).
You might also want to go via Pont Julien, 5km to the north, a stonework or opus quadratum bridge built during the early Roman Empire (27BC to 14AD).
On the Claparèdes plateau area there are also plenty of bories to see. These drystone-wall huts that dot the landscape were built by 19th century fieldworkers to use as shelter. They make for very pretty pictures. If you feel energetic, stop for a walk in the 250-hectare Cedar Forest, which has wonderful marked shaded hiking and biking paths. Take a picnic – but no fires!
Head on down to the cobbled village of Lacoste, famous for the château that was once home to the Marquis de Sade and is now owned by fashion icon Pierre Cardin, who also owns many other properties in the village. Neabry Menerbes (made famous in Peter Mayle’s best-selling A Year in Provence) is a lovely jumble of ancient medieval towers, churches and stone streets. At one end is the Citadelle, a miniature fortress dating from the 16th century, and at the other end is the cemetery along with Château du Castellet, where the painter Nicolas de Stael once lived. There are photo opportunities everywhere, including views of other hilltop villages, like Gordes.
End the day in Oppède Le Vieux, and wander around the old village where you can see: the ruins of the castle; the parochial Romanesque church of Notre-Dame-d’Alidon (12th and 16th century); a Romanesque cross in front of the church; the 19th century chapel of Saint-Laurent with its bell tower-arcade; the Romanesque chapel of Saint-Antonin-des-Pénitents-Blancs with its small 17th century bell tower; and ancient wash houses, medieval and Renaissance town houses. You’ll need good walking shoes for this outing!
8. Gorge du Verdon
About a two-hour drive from Lourmarin is the Gorge du Verdon, one of Europe’s most beautiful river canyons and really worth the trip. At about 25km long and up to 700m deep, it was formed by the Verdon River, which was named for its startling turquoise-green colour. The most impressive part lies between Castellane and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, where the river has cut a ravine through the limestone mass. At the end of the canyon, the Verdon River flows into the artificial lake of Sainte-Croix-du-Verdon. It’s very popular with tourists, climbers and kayakers, so start out early. Perhaps take a packed lunch with you and picnic alongside the water.
9. Cassis and the calanques
One of the most seductive resorts on the Provence coast, Cassis (90min from Lourmarin) boasts a stunning location, a lovely harbour, a sprinkling of beaches, exceptional wines and, despite summer crowds, an intimate, small-town feel.
Most visitors make a beeline for the colourful harbour to enjoy a small morning fish market, or to hop on a boat tour of the Calanques, which are limestone cliffs that plunge into the Mediterranean and connect Marseille to Cassis with almost 20km of marked trails. Boat trips range from 45-90min long and you should buy tickets at the port 30min before indicated departure times. Magical and enchanting coves along the coast are a paradise for scuba diving, climbing, and the discovery of local fauna and flora (gear up with proper hiking shoes if you’re planning to walk in the reserve).
Alternatively, take the petit train touristique to the Presqu’Ile (peninsula), or sit in one of the inviting bars and restaurants lining the sun-drenched (and sometimes windy) quai Jean-Jacques Barthélémy and the quai des Baux. There is no busy road running along the coast, which makes strolling, eating and drinking there an exceptionally pleasant experience.
At sundown, sip on a kir, the champagne cocktail of crème de cassis, the sweet, dark red liqueur made from blackcurrants that (although not originating in the town of Cassis) is a favourite drink of the fictional detective Hercule Poirot. Très French!
10. Arles and the Camargue
Arles is a charming city on the Rhône River famed for inspiring the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, who stayed here with his friend Paul Gaugain. The Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral (1830–1914) was born near Arles, and Pablo Picasso, a lover of bull fights, was inspired by this local tradition to do two paintings and 57 drawings. Arles is also a center for photography; each summer the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie brings many visitors.
Once a provincial capital of ancient Rome, Arles is known for many remains from that era. Today (in addition to plays and concerts) the ferias or bull runs and bull fights are still held in the amphitheatre (12,000 seats), the scene of Roman games in the first century.
See houses and private mansions of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Cloister of St. Trophime, the Hôtel de Ville, and the shaded terraces of the Place des Lices. The arena, amphitheater, Alyscamps burial ground, Roman baths of Constantin, Musée de l’Arles Antique (sarcophagi), and Musée du Riz (rice museum) are all worth seeing – ask for a multi-site ticket for discounted entry.
Arles is the gateway to the Camargue, Western Europe’s largest river delta, which covers over 900km2. It’s a wild landscape of red salt lagoons teeming with flamingoes, reedy marshes and rice paddies, herds of wild white Camargue horses and farms where the Gardiens (Europe’s only cowboys) raise fighting black bulls for the bullrings of Languedoc and Spain. However you decide to do it (on horseback or not), the Camargue will be one of your most memorable experiences.