Driving Through France’s Provence Region: Vineyards, Villages and Markets
Driving at one’s own pace is the ideal way to explore France’s beautiful and expansive Provence region.
Having one’s own means of transportation allows for opportunities to stop and smell the lavender, peruse fresh vegetables, handmade soaps and freshly baked breads at daily markets, sample wine at a local vineyard, or spend the afternoon at one of the in-tact medieval villages found throughout Provence.
Provence’s temperature is ideal for a road trip. Even in the winter, Provence maintains comfortable temperatures ranging from 10-20°C. This temperate climate is thanks to a cold, dry wind called “le Mistral.” Le Mistral is the result of an atmospheric phenomenon that occurs during the winter and spring throughout the Mediterranean gulf.
The Mistral first develops as a cold front moving down across France. The cold air accumulates up in the Alps, eventually coming out over the tops of the mountains and filling the Rhône valley. The Mistral effectively “blows” the bad weather out of Provence, allowing the sun to shine on most days.
Provençal Wines and Vineyards
Provence has a long and rich history of viniculture that dates back to the Middle Ages. Over the past 30 years, regional Provençal wines (especially their traditional rosés) have gotten quite a bit of attention from international wine critics (in the past they had been overshadowed by wines from other popular vine growing areas such as Bordeaux).
There are a variety of wineries and “caves” (wine shops/cellars located near the vineyards where you can buy wine in bulk at excellent prices) located throughout Provence. Watch for handmade signs along the side of the road to guide you to smaller wineries.
Every town in Provence has a weekly or bi-weekly outdoor market. Typically, smaller towns try to stagger their market days with surrounding towns, allowing inhabitants the opportunity to shop for fresh food within a 10-mile radius of their home each day.
Larger cities tend to have much larger markets. One of the best in the region is the market in Aix-en-Provence. Here is a schedule of markets (with food, pottery, soaps and other regional goods) in Provence by day:
Monday: Bédoin, Cadenet, Cavaillon, Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Tuesday: Aix-en-Provence, Gordes, Grasse, La Tour D’Aigues, St-Tropez, Tarascon, Vaison-la-Romaine
Wednesday: Arles, Digne, Draguignan, Fréjus, Salon-de-Provence, Sault, Sisteron, St-Rémy-de-Provence
Thursday: Aix-en-Provence, Beaucaire, Isle sur la Sorgue, Le Lavandou, Orange, Roussillon
Friday: Bonnieux, Carpentras, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Lourmarin, Moustiers-Ste-Marie, Remoulins
Saturday: Apt, Arles, Avignon, Digne, Draguignan, Fréjus Manosque, Sisteron, St-Rémy-de-Provence, St-Tropez, Uzés
Daily: Aix-en-Provence (fruit and vegetables), Antibes, Cannes, Marseille (fish), Menton, Nice, Sanary-sur-Mer, Toulon, Bédoin, Cadenet, Cavaillon, Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Medieval Villages: Les Baux de Provence
Les Baux de Provence is one of the most famous medieval villages in France. Just outside of the town of St. Rémy, there is a winding road that leads up to Les Baux de Provence, passing through lush vineyards and olive groves. Thanks to its elevated position, Les Baux de Provence offers impressive views of Les Alpilles, a chain of limestone hills running east-west (an extension of the Luberon mountain range).
The main tourist attraction is the chateau-fortress. Historically, Les Baux de Provence was used as a strategic defense site. The first inhabitants were believed to be the Celto-Ligurian peoples, followed by the Gallo-Romans. During Medieval times, the Baux family ruled between the 9th century and 1426. Some time after this, Baux was integrated into the rest of Provence (thus becoming Les Baux de Provence) and officially became part of France in 1481.
There are a variety of shops throughout Baux de Provence selling santons (small, hand-painted figurines) and other traditional souvenirs. There are also several restaurants, but I recommend heading back down the hill, visiting a market and purchasing goods for a picnic lunch near one of Provence’s ubiquitous lavender fields.