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Where to go for a Taste Tour of Provence

Punita Malhotra

Contributor

The Luberon Valley of Provence is a picture of dream-like rural landscapes. Known as the Garden of France for a wide variety of fresh produce like veggies, fruits, herbs, wine, olives and truffle, this slice of paradise in the southern part of the country ends up being ignored by Paris-obsessed tourists. Here, scenic roads wind through rocky outcrops and blue skies play second fiddle to fragrant lavender fields. From beautifully rural Plus Beaux Villages de France to historically rich Roman towns, Provence is a surprising mix of landscape, character and architecture. Here are five places to fulfil five fantasies.

Uzes for foodies

The high-speed TGV train from Paris takes you to Avignon in under 3 hours, from where Uzes is less than an hour’s drive. It is a divine drive through quintessentially Provencal countryside, overflowing with farms and fields. Uzes ‘done right’ simply involves getting lost in pretty streets and taking a historic walking tour to explore the 12th-century Duchy (castle), medieval gardens, Cathedral and a Pisa-lookalike, the Fenestrelle Tower. 

But the real draw of the town is gastronomy. Fantasies of a leisurely, authentic French meal come alive easily in one of the traditional bistros. Whether it is family cooking, elegant fine-dining, drinks at the Place aux Herbes or a casual bite, Uzes is a pure delight for fans of French food. If you happen to be there on a Wednesday or Saturday, indulge your inner chef instincts by shopping for cheese, charcuterie, artisan bread, wine, olive oil or honey at the local markets.

As for delicacy-diggers, there’s nothing better than the partaking in the Uzes Truffles festival of January.

Spice market in Uzes

Credit: Marc Lechanteur

Nimes for history buffs

25 kilometres away, lies a textile centre rooted in the bygone middle ages. Chew on its little-known slice of history. Surprise! Nimes was known for producing a special blue cotton cloth, ‘de Nimes’, which became popularised by Levi Strauss later as ’denim’.

The more popular references to the town are historically tinged. Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar’s stamp is all over this retirement home for veteran soldiers. Fountains, baths, churches and grand Roman buildings are scattered around. Square House (Maison Carree) and Temple of Diana will woo lovers of history. The piece de resistance is the best-preserved colosseum in the world, dating 1st-century AD. This 24,000 seater masterpiece still hosts two annual bullfights during the Feria de Nîmes and its two museums offer an interesting showcase of paraphernalia, costumes and films on the subject.

A bonus find is Pont du Gard, the world’s most impressive stone aqueduct, located 30 km away at the Gardon River Valley, now a UNESCO heritage site. Admirers of Roman engineering prowess, don’t miss the three-tier stunner that supplied 40 million gallons of water to Nimes.

Aerial view of ancient roman amphitheatre in Nimes

Credit: WindVector

Arles for art aficionados

40 kilometres from Nimes, at the town of Arles, you can walk in the footsteps of the legendary master, Van Gogh. This is where he lived for a year and was inspired to create more than 300 artworks in his inimitable style. You can recognise scenes from his canvases, popping with bold colours and dynamic brushstrokes, everywhere.

Particularly worth mentioning spots are the local cafe at Place du Forum (‘Cafe Terrace at Night’), the hospital where he was treated after cutting off part of his left ear (‘Courtyard of the Hospital at Arles’) and the riverside (‘Starry Night Over the Rhone’).

Take it up a notch and consider visiting the nearby town of Saint-Rémy, where he spent his last depressing year in confinement at the psychiatric establishment of Saint Paul of Mausole Monastery. Comparing copies of his famous paintings on display to the surrounding landscapes, fields, flowering trees and wheat fields, it is easy to understand why the Provencal light and scenes played such a significant role in Van Gogh’s creative pursuits.

Streetside brasseries in Arles

Credit: wjarek

Les Baux for architecture fans

Barely 20 kilometres away, lies a reconstructed city carved out and over a 600-foot-high rock, attracting 1.5 million tourists a year. This 12th-century regional powerhouse was destroyed by Louis XIII in the 17th-century.

400 locals live inside these 18 square kilometres of steep cobbled streets lined with stone houses. Each of the 22 listed monuments of Les Baux is worth your time, especially Citadelle des Baux, the ruined castle on the upper part of town. Commanding views of the stony Alpilles mountain valley are an enticing add-on. The Romanesque styled 12th-century Chapel of St. Blaise and the 10th-century Church of St Vincent with stained-glass windows are other necessary pitstops.

Other noteworthy buildings include a circular turret, topped with a gargoyle-studded dome, where fire used to be lit as a memorial to every local who died, the town-hall, various Renaissance town-houses and chapels.

Le Baux is built into the rock

Credit: Oleg Znamenskiy

Roussillon for die-hard romantics

Enchantment calls, an hour away, where winding hill roads of the National Park du Luberon, drench you into an ochre-dipped paradise. This is French Colorado, one of the biggest ochre deposits in the world, and you’re headed to the red village of Roussillon.

The profusion of colour is a visual delight, begging to be photographed. Red cliffs and quarries contrast against sharp blue Provencal skies and the fresh green pine trees. The village matches up more than adequately, with flamboyantly painted houses in various hues from yellow to pink to vermillion and deep red.

A tragic legend describes the ill-fated romance of a young girl in love with a local musician, who was killed by her jealous husband. She jumped into the valley and the earth went red with her blood. The love story immortalised with melodrama adds to the magnetism of Roussillon for those who choose to believe.

Many buildings in Roussillon are built from locally mined ochre

Credit: CherylRamalho

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