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Friday, 01 May 2020

The Fifteen Best Villages, Cities & Towns in Provence - Page 2

Written by Russ Firlik & Emily Firlik
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Rasteau has been awarded the “cru” quality for their red wines. The medieval past is so present in this peaceful village of 800 people which is built on a rocky spur with exceptional vistas. The very old cobbled streets, narrow lanes, fortified walls, a 10th century, yes - a 900 ’s chapel, a Romanesque church from the 1100’s, and views of the Dentelles and Mont Ventoux.

Having a cafe creme in the middle of a square and mindfully listening makes one very appreciative and grateful for the serenity and the opportunity to listen to the sounds of the village: children playing at recess, birds chirping, clock in the clock tower actually ticking, people talking and car tires crunching on the stone lane leading to the square. The steep walk up to the top of the village to hopefully get inside the 12th century church was not disappointing - the exterior and views were worth the walk.



Thirty km from Sablet is Avignon, the heartbeat of Provence. Known for its religion, art, and cultural history, this is the princess of all Provence. It rises above the Rhone River and is imposing with medieval ramparts, fine 14-16c houses, and the golden angel on top of the cathedral. Towering above all else is the Popes’ Palace, the finest gothic building in Provence and the largest Gothic structure in Europe. The Catholic Church constructed this fortified palace between 1334 and 1364. It was one of the largest and most important buildings in Europe.

Today, Avignon is famous for its theatre festivals, cultural exhibits, and its university. We returned many times to take in the Musée Angladon, Musée du Petit Palais, Musee Calvet, the Fondation Angladon-Dubrujeaud, and a lovely walk around the narrow lanes with expensive shops and shoe stores. In addition, there are many churches dating from the 9th century. Avignon is always busy, as it should be.



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Between Nimes and Avignon lays the elegant town of Uzes (Pop. 8,990) in the province of Languedoc. It is here nine years ago that we spend a glorious three months just a few kms from Uzes in the village of San Quentin de la Poterie. San Quentin had been a potter’s commune for many years, and remains a wonderful artist colony. Since we were here nine years ago they have really “done-up” this village: more restaurants and cafes, a larger supermarket, more parking, more craftspeople, shops and many pottery ateliers. A very pleasant village. Prosperity has certainly come to San Quentin de la Poterie.

Uzes is a medieval town with a maze of small lanes, alleys and a 17-18th c mansion. The Place aux Herbes is where we would go each Saturday to attend the huge and very varied open market. We have never seen anything to compare to Uzes’ market. Along the Place aux Herbes lays many cafes and restaurants. We had a hearty lunch at Terroirs, where we would eat after visiting the market. There is a (14th c) castle, a gothic church with superb stained glass windows dating back to the 1600’s. The Saint-Theodorit, a Norman - Romanesque Cathedral, and is attached to the Fenestrelle Tower, which is the sole example in all of France of a cylindrical bell tower! What an engineering masterpiece! Every building in Uzes is made of pale and porous limestone resulting, over hundreds of years, in the lovely “Cotswold-like” honey color. We spend the entire day wandering the narrow lanes where we lived in San Quentin and Uzes. On the return trip to Sablet we spotted off the road an ancient church that got our attention - In Saint-Victor-la-Coste, it turns out that this church was dated to the 7th century and pagan in origin. One can never enter these pre-Christian churches in France; however, in Italy one could!



Venasque, officially, is one of 10 of the “most beautiful Provence villages.” The “top ten” are pretty much universally accepted as the best. No argument here! Since most of the Provencal villages required fortified defensive positions for thousands of years, Venasque was built into the cliff which towers above the valley. The Baptistry is one of France’s oldest religious buildings; it was originally built in the 6th century as a pagan temple, and was used and restored during the Roman occupation. The big stone blocks of the base are evidence of a pagan temple. The Roman columns and capitals are present as well; most interesting to note is the fragment of the sarcophagus made of white marble dates back to 420 AD. The marble font dates back to the 4th and 5th centuries. The 11th century Church of Notre Dame is connected to the Baptistry.

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The town (pop. 6200) is a striking example of Roman urban planning. Large limestone slabs were set in place for chariots and a sewer ran under the pavement. The Main Street runs north-east and south-west - the Cardo and Decumanus, respectively. At their meeting point lays the (forum) shops, restaurants, bakeries and cafes. Vaison is built along the River Ouveze, a tributary of the Rhone River. Vaison has vast fields of Roman monuments, a Romanesque cathedral/cloister, a first century Roman bridge still used today, and the upper town (haute Ville) has a 14th century castle. Rarely did we find a town that offers such a complete archaeological and harmonious whole.

The upper town has architecture from the middle ages with steeply sloping streets (using stones from the ancient Roman town), a maze of alleyways, and carefully restored creamy stone houses roofed with Roman style tiles. A very steep path without steps leads to the 12th century castle that sits on a rock above the upper town. The church dates from the 1400’s. There are spectacular views over the town and of Mont Ventoux.

The Roman Monuments: I mentioned before that the ancient town is spread over 37 acres, all within the Viason town center. The dating goes back to the 1st century BCE, and continues into the 2nd century ACE. The remains of baths, a forum, public promenade, public garden, a domus belonging to a wealthy Viason family are evident.

The Roman Museum was well represented with artifacts: coins, statues, theater masks, pottery, Roman writings, a peacock mosaic, columns and capitals: Nicely laid out with the use of natural light as opposed to the other lighting options.

The Roman Theater is dated 20 ACE, evident to the finding of a marble statue of Emperor Tiberius. Typical of Roman theater locations, built along the hillside and holding an audience of 5,000. Today the theater is used to house festivals, operas and other entertainments. Certainly not as grand as the theater in Orange (holding 9,000), but built along the hillside. The entire theater is carved out of rock - steps, benches and stage pits.



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Roussillon, pop. 1350, is number three-of-ten of the “most beautiful villages in France.” Roussillon (ochre-land) is situated in the heart of one of the biggest ochre deposits in the world. It is famous for its magnificent red cliffs and quarries. Shades of earth such as such as red, yellow and brown form a striking contrast with the dark green pine trees and bright and vivid blue sky. Ochre is still mined today, and is the last quarry of its kind in Europe. Upon entering the village you are emotionally seduced by the ochre facades, light yellow to dark red painted doors and shutters. There were interesting art galleries, several potters ateliers, and a couple of fine, expensive restaurants. We stopped for a spot of lunch at La Sirmonde, a good value for the euros.

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Last modified on Friday, 01 May 2020

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