Every country becomes synonymous with its capital city. France, to outsiders, is particularly prey to the totalising stereotype that all of its 643-odd square kilometres can be distilled into the icons found in Paris, be it the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Notre-Dame de Paris, or the Arc de Triomphe (even in spite of recent events). On our recent trip to France, a guide spoke a phrase that stuck — “Paris may be beautiful, but Paris is not all of France, and all of France is not Paris”.
Paris offers a brand of cosmopolitan beauty that lures visitors by the hordes to its sprawling, eclectic neighbourhoods, but for a broader perspective on what the nation has to offer, Provence is where you need to be. This expansive stretch of Southern France is home to the famed Côte d’Azur, is bordered by the mountainous stretches of the Alps, and flanked by the Mediterranean sea. Many know of Provence because of the Riviera, or picturesque pockets like Nice and Grasse that lie within, but the region’s true draw is that it offers a microcosm of the best in France.
Nature is ever-present, from the scenic landscapes that shift from lengthy lavender fields to lush mountain ridges all in the span of a drive from town to town. At every turn of the head, historic architecture stand as testaments to the nation’s tumultuous past and present, allowing visitors to tread paths walked by the ancient Greeks, Van Gogh, Cézanne, a lineage of popes, and so on. Food and wine is as much a matter of pride for Provence as it is anywhere else in France, but the people in the region take great pride in the provenance of its agriculture, so local produce is consistently championed.
The next time you plan to visit France for a holiday, carve out a week or more to explore Provence. We’ve done the legwork with Atout France and the Provence Tourism Board to bring you this guide on where to go and what to see in this multi-faceted region that promises to renew your ideas of the country as a whole.
Situated in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence area, Forcalquier checks all the boxes when you think of an enchanting Provençal sleeper town. Nestled by the Lure and Luberon mountain range, this compact town sees architecture from the 12th to 16th-century share space with art galleries, studios, and modern sculptures, as Forcalquier now operates as an artistic commune, of sorts.
Visitors there must brave the hike to the top of the town to La Citadelle, where you get an uninterrupted, panoramic view of the city, as well as its surrounding mountains, at an altitude just a little over 550 metres. The stairs you have to climb are well worth it.
It is best to visit the town on Monday, where the morning market takes place, imbuing the city square with life as the stalls unfold throughout the city’s narrow avenues. After the market, pay a visit to the Artemisia Museum, an interactive space that charts the history of perfumery, cosmetics and distillation in Provence — the hotbed of botanicals for the nation.
Where to stay
Les Couvent des Minimes, a short drive from Forcalquier, is a resort that occupies the grounds of a former convent. The space has undergone a complete overhaul, with an unexpectedly contemporary interior outfitted in bright hues. Carve out a couple of nights to fully enjoy what this hotel has to offer, from the verdant gardens flanking the hotel well worth a morning walk, its numerous swimming pools, and the flagship L’Occitane spa within.
Luberon is a cluster of mountain ranges where a number of France’s quaintest hilltop settlements reside, with Gordes being the main draw, given that it was dubbed one of the most beautiful villages. Many visitors tend to stick to exploring the centre of Gordes, where the castle lies, but the real appeal of the city comes from taking a stroll through its snaking alleys down to the valley, where there was formerly a river. Have a guide with you from the local office before you embark, as they can explain the history of Gordes, how the town fully utilised its unique geography to flourish in antiquity and point out details like the old worker’s quarters, tannery and the like that you’d otherwise miss.
To really experience Luberon at its best, we recommend you rent a car easily venture around its numerous communes, vineyards and more. Instead of your standard SUV, consider renting a 2cv, a traditional French car that’s a good time guised as a four-wheel manual drive. Cruise around Luberon with the top-down, and make a road trip out of your day.
Where to stay
Bories are traditional stone huts found across the Provence region, and you’ll spot your fair share around Gordes. Though most of these are no longer occupied, one particular hut has become integrated into Les Bories, a five-star resort in Gordes. This pristine hotel is situated on an eight-hectare estate, with spacious rooms and balconies that offer an unobstructed view of the Luberon valley. Also within the hotel is a Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant which serves dishes that take a modern approach to Provençal ingredients, with unexpectedly Asian elements. Adjacent to the restaurant is the old-stone bories, which now functions as the breakfast room.
Avignon was formerly the residence of the Catholic popes during the 14th-century and that heritage still reinforces the city’s historical relevance till this day in the form of the Palais des Papes.
The commanding castle has been reformed into a tourist destination, where guests can walk through all the chambers and halls occupied by seven generations of popes. To facilitate the experience, the Palais now has interactive tablets equipped with augmented reality software, allowing guests to scan the different rooms and watch as they transform on the screen into renderings of what it may have looked like in the past. Not only is it more interesting than reading pamphlets, the software also offers visual nuggets that surprise. For example, the popes used to flaunt their wealth by serving obscene amounts of poultry to their guests, with peacock as a popular choice.
An annual highlight for the city is the Avignon Festival, an arts, culture and theatre fiesta that lasts nearly a month, with close to a thousand plays being staged during. Typically held in July, the festival draws quite a crowd and for good reason, given as some of the biggest theatre names from across the globe perform then.
Where to stay
Hotel d’Europe flaunts an extremely convenient location near the centre of Avignon, so a bulk of the city’s sights are within walkable distance. This five-star establishment is one of the oldest hotels in France and has seen a star-studded clientele that ranges from Victor Hugo to Edith Piaf.
When you look at Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, you are looking at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The Dutch painter spent a year institutionalised at the Saint Paul Mausoleum in the town, and it is there that he produced a staggering number of notable works, including that iconic painting. The asylum is now one of the landmarks you cannot miss in the endearing town of Saint-Rémy. Within its quarters, you get a peek into the lives of the inhabitants when the mausoleum was a functioning asylum, complete with a perspective on the archaic treatments they used to “cure” mental illness.
Saint-Rèmy as a whole is marked by riveting remnants of the past, although not all are bleak. The small town was home to the astrologer, Nostradamus, and a short drive away from Glanum, an excavated Gaulish-Roman city dating back to the 2nd century BC that is well worth a walking tour as you get to tangibly see and touch artefacts that have withstood the ravages of time remarkably.
Where to stay
Hotel Gounod pairs convenience with an eclectic, charming decor that will make you feel right at home. This boutique hotel is comfortably modern, and a stone’s throw away from the main square of Saint-Rémy to facilitate exploration.
Best time to go
April to June is the ideal period to travel to Provence. It is spring, transitioning to summer, so you have warm sun, cool weather and long days that advocate exploration. It is also the off-peak period, as the July to August stretch tends to be saturated with tourists looking for a summer vacation.
How to get there
A direct flight from Singapore to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport on AirFrance will take you approximately 13 hours, so we advise getting on a red-eye there. At Charles de Gaulle, you can take a domestic flight to Marseille Airport, which is just shy of two hours. The cities on the list are conveniently accessible by car, or by bus and train.