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Friday, 01 May 2020

The Fifteen Best Villages, Cities & Towns in Provence

Written by Russ Firlik & Emily Firlik
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We lived in the village of Sablet for two months which turned out to be the best location for us to explore Provence and Languedoc in southern France. We visited 56 villages, cities & towns and these were our favorite places:

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Châteauneuf du Pape

The village, population 2,200, spreads down the hill from the 14th century chateau, along narrow streets lined with wine shops and cellars. A beautiful village center. All around are vineyards, many carpeted with large, round stones, found on the Rhone river beds. The stones soak up the sun during the day and reflect back at night to warm the vines of those grapes. We stopped for a cafe creme on the Place de la Fontaine, where there are a couple of cafes and boulangeries, before a short walk uphill to find the summer papal palace from the 1300's.

Although the winds were fierce (40-45 miles per hour at the top), the views from the chateau looking towards the city of Avignon were stunning, and one can see glimpses of the Rhone River in the far distance. It is these kinds of days that remind us how very fortunate we are to be able to experience this. We shall always be thankful for our good fortune, which, for us, is a combination of preparation meeting opportunities.

 

Monteux - Mazon- Beaumes de Venise

Monteux: The 60 km winds have calmed down and the sun is bright. Off to explore two 'unknown' non-tourist locations (Monteux and Mazon), and the very famous village of Beaumes de Venise. Sometimes we don’t actually have a defined destination, but have some idea what direction to head. Monteux, because it is near the large city of Carpentras (pop. 31,000) and has a castle, towers from the 1300’s, ramparts, and historic gates, sounded like a destination. It turned out that it was a very artsy town with many ateliers, art galleries and wonderful painted building walls! On the right side of the church was the dungeon of the Chateau de Monteux, erected in the 12th century. The major employment in Monteux is the manufacturing of fireworks – number one in all of France. A very pleasant square, meant really for small children, was artfully decorated.

Mazon: After a very tasty cafe creme, we set off some 15 km to the village of Mazan. This little town (pop. 5,200) is nestled at the foot of mont Ventoux. This town produces the famous Cotes du Mont Ventoux wine. Once again, these medieval towns/villages all have ramparts, castles and fortifications from that warrior-like era. They also all have Romanesque churches with massively thick walls, round arches, study pillars, barrel vaults and large towers. It is not true that once you have seen one Romanesque church, you have seen them all. There are always some variations in building materials, tower design, placements, window decorations, and some have stained glass windows while others don't.

Beaumes de Venise, pop. 2,200. This is on the “wine trail,” at the foot of the Dentelles Mountains. The village sits in the plateau and has numerous caves and a 400 year old fountain located on the Rue de la Republique. The parish church is from the 1500s, (the transition from Romanesque to Gothic) and the 9th century chapel is meshed into the plateau. We had a lovely lunch with “pub-like” food, but much better! Furthermore, the reason Beaumes de Venise is famous is for its fortified wine with worldwide reputation, Muscat. Its quality is due to its soil composition and protection from the mistral (winds), which is perfectly suitable to produce Muscat. It has terraced vineyards supported by the walls of the plateau. This wine is governed by the AOC regulations of at least 15% sugar and 5-10% alcohol. We tasted many varieties, and my wife Emily decided on the three she liked: one rose, one white and one black. The first of many tastings, and as you know, one can just spit the taste wine in a container so one can still drive safely.

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Gigonda

Gigonda is a small village of only 700 people. Not all villages have cafes located on their squares, if they even have a square, and you must search to find one. In Gigondas Place Gabriel Andeol there were three cafes and six restaurants around the Place Gabriel. The number of restaurants is due to its tourists and wine trade. Next to the 11th century St. Catherine’s Church there were 19 monumental sculptures – the work of contemporary artists. The village is renowned for its “cru” status red wines. Gigonda and Vacqueyras are the only “cru” status vineyards in this region. Although, Chateauneuf du Pape is regarded as being the best and oldest.

 

Vacqueyras

Not far from Gigonda is the village of Vacqueyras - pop. 1,200. The village center is smaller than the center village of Gigonda. Once again the “required” historical context is maintained: 12th century bell/watchtower, ageless doors/window frames, the Romanesque church of St. Barthelemy, and the fountains. However, this particular fountain has a unique history - the bust of the famous troubadour, Raimbaut (1180-1207), was born in Vacqueyras. A troubadour was a composer and performer of lyric poetry, ballads and songs during the High Middle Ages (1100-1300). Their social influence was unprecedented in the history of medieval poetry. Raimbaut's bust is represented with dignity and reverence. Here we also find a sundial, not with a one stroke indicator, but a two stroker, with the inscriptions half in Latin and half in Provencal writings.

Of course the views were spectacular. The old saying: “Once you have seen the geometric configured vineyards, the mountains, the cliffs, the Cypress trees, the array of wild floors colors, the villages built on cliffs, the church bell towers standing on top of the villages, and castle ruins on top of a cliff - they all look the same!”

This is not true that once you have seen one village or landscape view of Provence that you have seen them all!


Rasteau

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.

 

Avignon

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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Uzes

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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

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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Vaison-la-Romaine

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.

 

Roussillon

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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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Ménerbes

After driving through a massive Cedar forest we arrived at another impressive village, Ménerbes, with an ancient history and terrific views of the Coulon valley. Like most of these Provencal villages, Ménerbes is perched high up the Luberon’s north face. A nicely preserved 14th c church greets you as you enter the village square. The 13th century fortress has preserved part of its defenses with its corner towers. Also praised as “one of the ten most beautiful villages in France.”

 

Séguret

Séguret lies at the foot of a hill topped by the ruins of its feudal (13th c) chateau. It is one of the official "most beautiful villages in France", and absolutely deserves this distinction. As soon as you arrive, you are impressed by the charm of this village, with its typical Provencal atmosphere and medieval character. Parking was not an issue, but required a couple of hundred meters of walking to the village. As you stroll through the streets of the village, you begin to admire the historical treasures at each step: the Reynier gate, the 14th century belfry, the beautiful 10th century Saint-Denis church, the Rue des Poternes lined with ancient houses, and the Huguenots' gate, which still has its two ironbound wooden shutters.

From the church square, looking over the ramparts, we had a very nice view of the landscape surrounding the village; in particular our neighboring village of Sablet. We had coffee at Cote Terrasse with its splendid view.

Séguret is not just a fine place, it also produces an excellent "appellation controlee" wine: Côtes du Rhône Séguret. They are successfully continuing a wine-making tradition dating back several centuries.

This listed picturesque site is beautiful, well maintained, and has been tastefully restored... the only downside, I suspect, would be the hordes of tourists during the season; luckily, there were not many tourists visiting while we were there.

Séguret’s Top of the Chart Hits: (1). Sainte Thecle Chapel, (2). Reynier Gate (12th century), (3). 14th century Belfry, (4). 10th - 11th and 12th century Saint-Denis church, (5). Rue des Poternes, (6) Huguenots' Gate, (7) the Mascarons fountain (17th century).

Just another remarkable and quintessential Provencal village. Truly a top ten contender!

 

Crestet

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A twenty minute drive from Sablet lies a little village, Crestet, (pop. 500) perched on the crest of the Dentelles de Montmirail mountain range. We parked at the car park and climbed the many narrow steps onto the small lanes where we found many Renaissance houses beautifully restored with gorgeous honey colored limestone. A climb to the top revealed a castle dated from the 800’s with magnificent panoramic views of the mountains towards Mont Ventoux. A further walk around reveals the 11th century St. Sauven Church, and the 7th c Notre-Dame de Prebauon Chapel with their original frescos. Top this off with a fountain dating from the late 1700’s. Probably the most “perfect” Provencal village we have experienced.

The Abbey of St. Madeleine, nearby in Le Barroux, is a peaceful stop along the way. In this extraordinary traditional Benedictine monastery are 60 monks who live and work. The monastery has its own mill to produce olive oil. The monks produce lavender, wine, honey and bake their own bread. Their shop sold all the above - and the bread rolls were still warm from the oven. The monks offer spiritual retreats and have a hotel as well. 

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We had originally expected to visit between 35-40 villages/towns/cities in Provence, and had extensively researched everything that was significant to experience those 35-40.

The actual total of “officially visited” villages/towns/cities visited was 56 within those 61 days in France. Several villages/towns/cities were repeat visits, but were only counted as one visit.

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Note: these are not just pass through visits: To be an “Official Visit” we had to stop, park, and visit a historical or architectural site, go to a cafe or restaurant, or simply stroll in the peaceful loveliness of the villages or towns.


©Russ Firlik & Emily Firlik

Part one: Slow-Travel in Provence: The Farmers Markets, Wine Culture and the Special Village of Sablet was in our March-April issue.

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Last modified on Friday, 01 May 2020