What to see in Les Baux

IMG_5757On my final day in Provence, I headed to another hill town, Les Baux. Again, I took the bus from Avignon, passing St. Remy and continuing along narrow switch-back roads until being dropped at the foot of Les Baux. The ore bauxite, used to make aluminumwas first mined in the town, which gave the mineral its name.

IMG_5758It was a medieval stronghold, crowned with a fortress. You can visit the ruins. The princes of Baux claimed to be descendants of Balthasar, the name given to one of the magi who followed the star to Bethlehem, and you will see carvings in stone that refer to the wise man. After the fall of the princes, the town was given to Monégasque royal family: one of Prince Albert’s titles is the Marquis of Baux. The town is, however, administered by France.

IMG_5759There are layers and layers of history here. Early inhabitants tunneled into the rock face to make their homes, and even an ancient chapel. For a time, during the wars of religion, Les Baux became a Protestant stronghold. The ruins of one house have the Latin inscription Post tenebras lux 1571 (After darkness, light 1571), which was a motto of Calvinists. A rather different message is conveyed by the carving of a woman’s face and a basket of flowers. This was the Middle Ages way of identifying a brothel!

IMG_5188.JPGToday, the town depends heavily on tourism for its survival. The bauxite ore has long been exhausted. Les Baux reminded me a bit of Niagara Falls, all touristy shops and restaurants. You can also buy olive oil made from local olives and wine from local grapes. In fact, I sat in the shade of one of those olive trees while I waited for the bus to take me back to Avignon along those twisty little roads.

IMG_5710Markets of Provence: Food, Antiques, Crafts, and More


Posted in Travel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

What to see in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue: Part 2

IMG_5048In my last post, I wrote about visiting the antique dealers in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on a Saturday. I returned the following day for its famous market. It was packed! A woman wedged in behind me kept muttering imprecations against touristes as she was trying to buy her groceries.

IMG_5738There are several parts to the market. First, there is the brocante or flea-market style vendors of vintage goods. These were certainly far less costly than the precious objects I saw the day before at the antique dealers. Their stalls are along the main street, right where the bus from Avignon dropped me off.

IMG_5739Then, in the main square near the church, are most of the food vendors, although I sampled some delectable local Cavaillon melon at a vendor along the river.

IMG_5740Then, on my way to get lunch, I came across the floating market. This is a feature of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on Sundays in August, and it was one of the most entertaining things I saw this summer in France. Merchants, usually in folkloric costumes, had filled their flat-bottomed boats with merchandise and punted around the river basin from client to client. There were goats, chickens, fruits and vegetables, flowers, even newspapers on offer. A beauty queen and two “security officers” added to the spectacle, and when an occasional boat tipped, it was all part of the fun.

IMG_5742.JPGWhen the show was over, I went for lunch at the same place I had discovered the day before, Jouvaud, a marvelous bakery, tea room, and gift shop. The specialties of the house are flaky pastry tarts, both sweet and savory. They are about two feet long, and they just cut a portion for each customer. The savory tart that I tried was re-heated and  heaped with eggplant, zucchini, and peppers. The fruit tarts were so good! I tried a different one each of the three times I went in the shop. My favorite was the one with several red fruits, including raspberries, strawberries, and red currants. If Jouvaud was in my town, I’d have a serious addiction.

All in all, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was my favorite place on this trip to the south of France. Lots to see, lots to do, and lots to eat.

IMG_5710Markets of France: Food, Antiques, and More



Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

What to see in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue: Part One

IMG_5047A visit to this pretty little town was one of my chief motivations for visiting this part of France. L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is known as “The Venice of Provence” because of the way it is encircled by the river that gave the town its name. The water also powered the wheels that powered the many factories that made this such a prosperous town that is was able to support two market days a week instead of the typical single day. The open-air Sunday market that still takes place today dates to the end of the 16th century.

IMG_5062The other reason for L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue’s immense popularity is antiques. There are seven multi-dealer “villages” filled with antique dealers, many if whom had really high-end merchandise. In mid-August, there is a very important antique fair with about three times as many vendors. Along with Paris’ flea markets and London’s Portobello Road, this is the most significant antique fair in Europe. I decided on a two-day trip to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue: on Saturday, I visited the antique dealers and on Sunday, I visited the open-air markets. In this post, I’ll just talk about Saturday.

IMG_5053Peter Mayle, author of several amusing books about his adventures fixing up a house  in Provence, famously quipped “You can get anything in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue but a bargain.” There may have bargains to be found, but they weren’t on the items that caught my eye. A mere €5000 separated me from a gorgeous traveling clock adorned with cherubs in its original case and for a further €1800 I could have had a stunning rock crystal vase with ormolu mounts. Unfortunately, all shops were clear that photos were not permitted, so I can’t share these lovelies with you.

IMG_5074The best purchase that I did make was at La Boutique de Francine  (20 Avenue Julien Guigue), a shop filled with stacks and stacks of antique linens beautifully embroidered for a long ago trousseau. I frankly wasn’t in the market for lots of ironing, no matter how intricate the needlework. In a basket in the second room, however, there were lavender sachets made of vintage linens. They were about the size of a brick; the center panel was an embroidered initial cut from a piece that was too damaged to be used whole, and the side panels were a pretty print. They were absolutely stuffed with lavender. There was a beautiful “E” for my mother’s first name that came home with me. I only wish I had bought more of them.

IMG_5710 Markets of Provence: Food, Antiques, Crafts, and More


Posted in Fashion, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

What to see in Gordes

IMG_5095Next in my list of places to visit in Provence was Gordes, one of the best known hilltop villages in the region, and one of the most beautiful in France. It was a little harder to get to; I took one bus from Avignon to Maubec and then had a half-hour wait to transfer to a different line to get to Gordes. Maubec has some cute shops and a small restaurant right in front of the bus stop, so it wasn’t an unpleasant wait.

IMG_5098The site has been occupied since prehistoric times due to its great strategic importance as a gateway to the Calavon valley. It was a fortified city in the Roman period. An imposing château that dominates the village dates from the 10th century and was remodeled during the Renaissance. Many artists have lived in the village of Gordes, such as Marc Chagall and photographer Willy Ronis, and they contributed to its reputation for rugged beauty.

IMG_5104During the Second World War, the village of Gordes was an active resistance center against the German occupiers. It was bombed on August 22, 1944 and a dozen houses were dynamited in reprisal for the death of a German soldier, killed by resistance fighters.

img_5105.jpgToday, the town is also famous for its proximity to the Abbey of Sénanque. You may have seen pictures of the stone monastery surrounded by fields of lavender. The lavender season was already finished in the sizzling heat of early August, but a kind police officer pointed out that there were a few sprigs of lavender in front of the police station. I was surprised that they had hung on! I had originally planned to visit in June, before my summer job started, and then I would have seen those magnificent fields. Maybe another year.

Next up, what to see in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

IMG_5710Markets of Provence: Food, Antiques, Crafts, and More



Posted in Travel | Tagged , | Leave a comment

What to see in Saint-Rémy

IMG_4853.JPGI had heard a lot about market day in Saint-Rémy, so it was high on my list of places to visit while I was in Provence. I traveled there by bus from Avignon, which brought me right into the heart of the market. It was packed! It was overwhelming! There were so many vendors and so many shoppers that it was tough to move about. I did do a little shopping, especially for fragrant lavender,  before making my way out of the throngs and to the Tourism Office. There, the very helpful woman gave me some ideas of sights to see that would be less crowded.

My first stop was les Antiques, the oldest Roman triumphal arch in France and a perfectly preserved mausoleum. They marked the entrance to Glanum, a fortified town on the Via Domitia, the Roman road that connected Gaul to Italy. I had hoped to also visit Glanum, but the heat was so intense at over 100 degrees Farenheit (or 40 degrees Celsius) that I just couldn’t face exploring stone ruins without a scrap of shade. So it was off to lunch.

IMG_5351.JPGOn my way to les Antiques, I had noticed Villa Glanum, an inn and restaurant. They had salads on the menu, and that was exactly what I was in the mood for. I opted for roasted beet and sweet potato, with a big wedge of feta, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette. It was delicious and just what I needed to continue my explorations.

IMG_5707Basically opposite the inn was the entrance to Saint-Paul de Mausole, the asylum where Vincent van Gogh was treated for a year. The route from Saint-Rémy to the rest home is dotted with reproductions of van Gogh’s works in the places where he painted them. It was quite inspiring to look at gnarled old olive trees and wonder if they were exactly the same ones the artist had painted. Inside the rest home, I saw the cloister of the former monastery where van Gogh and other patients were free to wander as well as the artist’s tiny, cell-like room. I could see why he felt cured after a year of this peaceful, simple life and why he was able to paint some of his most famous works, including The Starry Night.

IMG_5708.JPGThe woman in the Tourism Office had suggested some particularly photogenic spots in town, and now that the market was wrapping up, I was able to actually see the ancient stone buildings. Saint-Rémy is the birthplace of Nostradamus, author of that book of mysterious predictions from the sixteenth century, and there is a fountain in his honor. After a pleasant wander through the little streets, I took the bus back to Avignon and my blessedly air conditioned hotel.

IMG_5710Markets of Provence: Foods, Antiques, Crafts, and More


Posted in Fashion, Travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What to see in Avignon

IMG_5147In my prior post, I mentioned that I used Avignon as a base to visit other towns in the region, but I passed pleasant hours walking its medieval streets. Here are some of the places I think are worth a visit:

IMG_5181Palais des Papes – In the fourteenth century, the papacy was itinerant, moving from one papal holding to the next. When a French pope was elected, he decided to set up his residence in Avignon. Seven popes called this palace home, often expanding it to suit their needs. Some of the dimensions of the rooms were astounding – 150 feet long with no supporting beams. The Palais was decorated with frescoes painted by the Italian artist Matteo Giovannetti, many of which have been restored over the past 100 years, but there is still much to do. I bought a twin ticket that also allowed me to visit the famous bridge in town. I recommend the audio guide to get the most out of your visit.

IMG_5176Pont Saint-Bénézet – More familiarly known as le Pont d’Avignon, all that is left of the famous bridge are four arches of the original twenty-two. The bridge was built in the twelfth century, but it was already in ruins four hundred years ago. The Rhône river was prone to flooding, which changed the topography of the riverbed and weakened the footings. In addition, a mini ice-age in the late Middle Ages caused blocks of ice to form that battered the footings to dust. You can also visit the tiny chapel to Saint Nicolas that obstructs most of one end of the bridge. Here’s a much more complete account, recently published by a regular reader of my blog.

IMG_5663Rue des Teinturiers – Between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, this street was the hub for a vibrant textile industry. The power of the Sorgue river turned waterwheels that powered the mills. Today, four still remain of the original twenty-three. But you can also find the remains of an ancient church, the still active Grey Penitents’ Chapel, and a gothic house, complete with gargoyles and turrets. That’s a lot for one street!

IMG_5662Square Agricol Perdiguier – The prettiest little park in Avignon is located right next to the Tourism Office. Vestiges of a gothic cloister are highlighted by abundant flowers. Right across the road is the Brasserie du théâtre where I had my morning coffee and croissant most days. Looking at this beautiful garden was a good way to start the day or spend a few minutes on my way back to my hotel in the evening.

IMG_5710Markets of Provence: Food, Antiques, Crafts, and More


Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Sur le pont d’Avignon

IMG_5016Sur le pont d’Avignon / On y danse, on y danse / Sur le pont d’Avignon / On y danse tous en rond. (Loosely translated as  “On the bridge of Avignon, we’re all dancing, we’re all dancing. On the brudge of Avignon, we’re all dancing round and round.”)

This is one of the first French songs I ever learned, maybe from school, maybe from television. And from it, I decided to visit this small, ancient city in Provence, to use it as a base to visit other towns in the region. In this post, I’ll give you some recommendations for Avignon, and then I’ll tell you about the other places I visited.

IMG_5342Hotel d’Europe 12 place Crillon – This is probably the swankiest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. It is centrally located, just inside the city walls and near the major tourist attractions. My room was unusually large for a European hotel with an elegant, marble-clad bath.There were pretty antiques, a shady courtyard, and good service. Since it was HOT when I visited, I was glad of the air conditioning, but I also sppreciated other little luxuries, like high quality linens and Hermès toiletries.

IMG_5286La Cour d’honneur 58 rue Joseph Vernet – I tried a few different restaurants in town, but I came back to this one four times. They had a great prix fixe menu of appetizer or main course or main course and dessert for 26€. I liked each thing I ordered, but the shrimp and scallops were particularly good.

La Brasserie du théâtre 36 cours Jean Jaurès – Breakfast at my hotel was very expensive (22€ or US$26), so most days I got a light breakfast of coffee, croissant and juice at a pleasant restaurant near the train and bus stations for under 6€. There were plenty of options, and service was quick and cheerful.

PEM Avignon 5 avenue Monclar – The bus station, or gare routière, is right next to the train station, just outside the city walls. For most places I wanted to visit, the buses offered more frequent routes at tiny prices (2€ to 7€). The drivers even made suggestions about better ways to make connections or made sure that I got off at the right stop. It was also a much better way to see the endlessly changing scenery of Provence.

Next up, what to see in Avignon.




Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments