Provence Villages Not to Miss
for an authentic experience and a breath of fresh air…
There are many Provence villages not to miss. I have a highlighted a few here that standout for their authentic side (less touristy) and offer beautiful views and peaceful gardens.
I have designed a tour taking you to these less touristy places along with some of the more popular “must sees”. The tour also takes you to three different mountainous areas: The Luberon, Mont Ventoux and Les Alpilles.
You might have heard of the Luberon if you have read A Year In Provence by Peter Mayle. You may be familiar with the Mont Ventoux if you follow the Tour de France. And for Les Alpilles, the lowest in elevation, the name may sound familiar if you have researched the Provencal Transhumance (the migration of sheep from Provence to the Alpes for summer grazing).
The wide open spaces of Provence are abundant and also alluring, especially during spring when wild flowers and roses are beckoning their portrait. Imagine standing at the top of the Mont Ventoux for a 360° view of Provence. Explore Provence villages tucked away in the more remote part of the countryside. Immerse yourself in activities bringing you closer to the local, artisan way of life in Provence.
Visualize now, experience later…
Provence is best known for its Mediterranean climate: Aleppo pine trees opening up like an umbrella, scrublands abundantly filled with rosemary and thyme, limestone cliffs falling to the valleys or the sea. However, Provence is more than this too. Let me take you to the back side of the highest mountain in Provence, The Mont Ventoux at 1912 m (6269 ft), where the climate remains a bit cooler and the flora is adapted to an alpine influence.
Here there sits a tiny village called Brantes with no more than 83 inhabitants and very far removed from the popular tourist destinations welcoming tour buses. Brantes sits suspended with an impressive view of north side of the Mont Ventoux. The abruptness of the north side doesn’t allow for a road, only a few trails crisscrossing up for the avid hiker. Here the snow can stay until early spring.
Brantes is a Medieval village with houses built into the rocky slope. The serenity one finds in this village with the juxtaposing mountains and the river valley below leaves a lasting impression. Nature rules here but that is not to say that man never sought to coincide as the 12th century chapel, Saint John the Baptist, attests. The first recorded name of Brantes (Brantulis) is from 1073. At the top there are a few remains of the Medieval feudal castle that belonged to the powerful family Les Baux (the same family from the village Les Baux de Provence – they had about 70 fortress castles in the south!).
1958 was a big turning point for the village. The villagers finally had running water in their homes. Yes, it wasn’t until then that the « Lavandières » no longer had to walk down to the community wash basin with their clothes basket (or donkey pulled cart) for their weekly washing.
What I love most about Brantes is the way everything melts together. The cobblestone lanes reaching out to the horizon, the jagged rooftops floating in the sky, plants and flowers climbing up the facades, the backdrop of the north Ventoux ridge, a valley away, but feeling as though your arm can reach out to touch it.
There’s a nice botanical path to hike where you can discover the aroma and medicinal plants that grow in the area.
Le Mont Ventoux
The Mont Ventoux is the highest point in Provence. No, it is not a village but it’s a destination you don’t want to miss. You may have already seen the Mont Ventoux and its treacherous climb if you watch the Tour de France. It has been included as one of the stages 16 times. The first time it was included was in 1958 – the last time 2016. An ambitious cycler dreams of this climb due to the continuous steep gradient in so few kilometers to reach the summit.
While the fame of the Mont Ventoux today may be connected to cycling, there is a lot more to tell about this impressive mountain. We can speculate that the name came from the Celtic tongue, VINTUR, which referred to the summit as a divinity. One can imagine the locals climbing to render worship to the god. Around 1500 AD, a local bishop built a small chapel at the summit, ruined a few times and replaced, you can still make a stop here for some refuge.
In 1879 a road was built and a weather station established. From just about anywhere in Provence, you can see the Mont Ventoux and make out the « steeple » at the top – now a radio relay station.
One of the nicknames to the mountain is « the eye » as it always seems to have a watch over you wherever you go in Provence. It is easily noticeable because you think you see a mountain covered with snow. However, what you are seeing is a flat limestone covering illuminated by the rays of the sun. The Mont Ventoux vicinity is a protected territory, awarded the status MAB (Man and Biosphere) in 1990 by the UNESCO. This means that there is a continual effort for sustainable development and preserving nature.
Driving to the top of the Mont Ventoux is more than a drive. It’s an experience. You leave village life behind, you come to a lunar clearing after the woods, the views circle around you and when you step out into the fresh air you immediately feel how high you have climbed…high altitude mountain air even during the heat of summer. The culmination is when you spot a mountain flower that you have never seen before (The Ventoux is home to over 400 floristic plants).
Travel with me to one of the oldest Medieval castles in Provence. Simiane-le-Rotonde’s fortress castle is superbly unique with its round, dome-like Roman art donjon, mentioned as early as 1031. The views from this hilltop village take you down to the valley where mixed farming (fields of lavender, spelt, chickpeas, and prairies for the sheep) creates a patchwork of textures and colours. Then let your eye go out to the eastern horizon where the Alpes, on a clear day, display their jagged peaks.
As you walk the cobblestone lanes you’ll notice some remarkable architecture from the 16th to 18th centuries. It’s hard to imagine today a place so far removed from the developed infrastructure in lower Provence could have been the home to the aristocracy and noblemen…mais tout s’explique.
This area in Provence had everything needed for the production of glassware (forests for the combustible, and sandstone and limestone for the raw materials). Provence’s proximity to Italy, and Provence’s beloved King René (who lost his ruling powers in Naples and then came to reside in Aix-en-Provence) brought the Italian savoir-faire of glassware to Simiane with the migration of a family from Naples. For four centuries, the village employed many artisans (tile making and cloth weaving also flourished) and attracted doctors and lawyers.
The treasures in Simiane go beyond those found in the village. Just a few kilometers across the valley is a remarkable garden rich in beauty and history. This is a place where you can easily transport yourself in time and feel the power of natural forces. A sundial from prehistoric times can still be seen carved into a rock. You will notice some egg-like formations in the sandstone that gave the belief that the goddess of fertility laid her eggs here.
Later, in the 12th century, twelve Cistercian monks came to live in this sacred spot and in 1660 they founded their abbey – which lasted until the French Revolution (1789).
Many Provence villages are built on a hilltop – you may be happy to know that this is not one. The oldest part of the village sits on a mound, where you have remains of the 11th century watchtower. The climb to the watchtower, converted in the 17th century to a clocktower, is nothing more than a few lanes crisscrossing up.
Lourmarin sits at the foot of the Luberon Mountain chain. When taking a picture of the village you have the fullness of the mountain filling the foreground of your picture. The passage way over the mountain starts in Lourmarin and winds through the geological crack dividing the « Little Luberon » and « Large Luberon ». In fact, this gorge has always been the crossing place and considered the most dangerous passage way in Provence. Trade to and from Marseille had to cross over the Luberon and the natural caves along the route were too good of a hiding place to not be used by bandits.
What I love most about Lourmarin is the way it is laid out with space and light between the historical treasures. The village, its Renaissance castle, and the early 19th century Protestant Temple are separated from each other by a prairie, private gardens, olive groves, and a soccer field. A stroll in Lourmarin is a perfect weave of nature, monuments, open spaces, and quality boutiques for the shopper.
The attractiveness of Lourmarin as a place to live has brought some interesting anecdotes to tell. Albert Camus purchased a house here 1958 after winning the Nobel Prize for literature (1957 – The Plague). He didn’t care for celebrity life in Paris and picked Lourmarin for the quieter life he was seeking. He spent his last two years of life in this village before dying in car accident on his way up to Paris for business.
In more recent times, Peter Mayle, author of many books on Provence including « A Year in Provence » (1989), chose the Lourmarin area for his second home in Provence. He too became quite the celebrity and did not enjoy finding his fans in his Provencal home garden. After a short period of living in the USA to escape the fame, he came back to what he could not resist; the Provencal way of life. But this time in a secret spot near Lourmarin.
Provence villages could be on your itinerary for over a week. Even if you had two weeks to spend in Provence, you still wouldn’t run out of villages to visit. However, the best vacations offer a taste of different atmospheres. so I’ll take you now to one of my favorite small towns located next to the Alpilles mountains.
Les Alpilles, like the Ventoux and the Luberon, run east-west and are characterized by limestone up-thrusts that slowly formed with the Iberian Peninsula pushing against the south-western side of France, about 100 million years ago. Saint-Remy-de-Provence, or as the locals say, Saint Remy, is at the base of a very long and jagged limestone deposit that looks more like dragon teeth that fell from the sky rather than layers of earth pushed up to the sky.
The town, laid out in a circle and surrounded by tall plane trees, offers a pleasant pedestrian only area for exploring the heritage and visiting the shops. There are a couple of squares where you can sit to relax and perhaps also enjoy a glass of wine from one of the nearby wine territories: IGP Les Alpilles (Indication Geography Protection) or AOP (Appelation Origin Protected) Les Baux-de-Provence.
You’ll see more locals here going about their day. It’s a popular meeting place between friends for lunch or dinner, parents are dropping off or picking up their kids from school, and French shoppers who don’t want to tackle city shopping in Avignon or Aix often choose Saint Remy for their shopping pleasures.
Just above the town center is a magical spot for getting lost in the canvases of Van Gogh. Many of his most well known paintings were from the year he spent in the Saint Remy asylum. Unlike other patients at the asylum, Van Gogh was allowed to venture a few times beyond the protective walls. Have you ever noticed the steeple in Starry Night? Remember his series of olive trees and the jagged mountains in the background? The sensory world of Van Gogh will surround you like his circular brush strokes in his paintings while you meander the landscapes.
I hope my words have transported you to these Provence villages, perhaps, even given you a sensation that you set foot for some brief miraculous moment. Until spring next year, you can imagine the smells, sounds, colors, and tastes as a way to prepare your sensory experience. Let the Provencal journey can begin today.
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