It’s nigh on impossible to pick just three places to fall in love with in Provence but author Janine Marsh chooses three towns that she finds truly irresistible…
No photo can do justice for the sight that greets you when you stroll into Place du Palais in the sunny city of Avignon. There before you is a truly monumental building, the world’s largest medieval gothic palace. Home to several popes in the 14th century, the UNESCO listed Palace of the Popes is majestic and an absolute must-see. For me the best place to view it, after you’ve trod it’s ancient floors and been awed by its beauty, is from the terrace of the Carré du Palais wine bar and restaurant in the square.
But this is a city that has oodles of charm and loads more to see and do.
Dance on the famous Pont d’Avignon, don’t worry the locals are used to it! See and be seen in the stunning Place de l’Horloge next to the Place du Palais des Papes. The clock (horloge) is set in an ancient tower which is all that remains of a former Cardinal’s Palace and this vibrant area is animated and always popular.
Don’t miss the lovely indoor market at Les Halles, the smell of spices, cakes and breads will be a memory you keep forever.
Head to shady squares where the locals know the best cafés to sit in the sun and spend an hour or two just “being”, something the French excel at. Try Place des Corps-Saints encircled by restaurants, bars and bistros and most tourists are completely unaware of its existence. Table and chairs spill out onto the pavement and it has an air of countryside in the heart of the city. And relax in rue des Teinturiers, another local secret and one of the prettiest streets in Avignon with a stream running along one side, peppered with water wheels and shaded by grand old plane trees.
There are two things you absolutely must do in L’Isle as the locals call it, antiques browsing and finding your most favourite place to wine and dine.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is known as the antiques capital of the south of France. It’s not actually an island despite its name, but long ago, it was a marshy area and the inhabitants, mostly fishermen, lived in huts on stilts. Some call it the “Venice of Provence”. It was once famous for its paper, silk and wool mills and to this day there are huge water wheels dotted along the bubbling river Sorgue which runs through the town from its source at Fontaine de Vaucluse just 5km away.
There are some 300 permanent dealers based in L’Isle, a weekly Sunday outdoor antiques market and annual markets at Easter and in the summer. If you love antiques – you’ll go gaga over this place.
All that shopping makes you hungry. Luckily this little town is choc-a-bloc with gorgeous little cafés, chichi bars and delicious restaurants. The Basin de Sorgue, a small lake in the town, is lined with places to relax over a glass of local rosé. Les Terasses Hotel has a great waterside terrace. The locals love Café du Village in the Le Village des Antiquaires de la Gare for its shady courtyard and superb menu. And don’t miss a stop at the Café du France (14 Place Liberté), simply because it’s so very French and fabulous!
Under the stony gaze of an emperor, the Roman theatre of Orange basks in the hot southern French sun. Augustus sits atop a 37m high, 2000 year old wall looking over an open stage which caused Louis XIV to declare it: “the most beautiful wall in my Kingdom…”
I once climbed to the top; it was terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. Behind the wall are narrow chambers, slippery stone stairs, gaping voids. My friend works at the tourist office and invited me for an exclusive view from behind the statue. To stand there, thinking of Roman crowds applauding actors like tiny ants below was one of those moments I’ll never forget. I would go to Orange for the theatre alone (and if you’re there at the right time they have a full programme of performances), but the town is also rather fabulous. A restaurant built into a Roman wall, aperitifs in a bustling cobbled square, music in the park on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, and lovely food shops… Orange is a town you can’t help falling in love with.
Janine Marsh is the editor of www.thegoodlifefrance.com and author of My Good Life in France and My Four Seasons in France. And we are delighted that she joined us as a guest writer this month.