As picturesque vineyards, brilliant lavender fields, and lively festivals are attracting tourists to Provence for the spring and summer peak season, I’m reflecting on our wonderful visit there in December and particularly the Vaucluse area in the northwestern part of the region. You may have already read other stories about our trip that began in Marseille and ended in Cassis with many memorable places in between. Here are a few highlights of things to do in Vaucluse that made our trip special.
Our top things to do in Vaucluse
Visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Key to Avignon’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) is an interesting and very important part of European and papal history.
The story of the popes in Avignon begins in the 13th century when the King of France had a feud with Pope Boniface VIII. After the pope’s death and months later the death of his successor, Clement V, a Frenchman, was elected pope and he chose to stay in France rather than move to Rome. Between 1309 to 1377, seven popes lived in the Palais des Papes in Avignon, not Rome. During this period, Avignon became a major capital of the world with its population rising from about 5,000 to over 30,000.
Surrounded by 4.5-km of ancient ramparts, the palace took almost 20 years to build during the papacies of Benedict XII and Clement VI, and it’s the largest Gothic palace in Europe. There are 25 rooms open to the public, including the private apartments of the pope and grand rooms that were used for formal ceremonies and banquets. The adjacent Romanesque Cathedral of Notre Dame des Doms is also included in the UNESCO World Heritage designation.
Frescoes in the papal apartments, sculptures, and other design features represent the work of many artists who came to Avignon during Pope Clement VI’s papacy.Below left is one of my favorite scenes from inside the palace where I could imagine the popes sitting and gazing through the window at the Provençal countryside. The “Window of Indulgences” on the right is where the pope blessed the faithful in the central courtyard outside below.
Another famous and beautiful site included in the Avignon UNESCO designation is the Pont Saint-Bénézet, known as Pont d’Avignon. You may have heard of the 15th century children’s song about the Pont d’Avignon. It begins, “Sur le pont d’Avignon on y danse, on y danse…” which translates to “On the bridge of Avignon, we all dance …”. The song added to the allure of the bridge for me.
Legend has it that Saint Benezet was divinely inspired as a 12 year old boy to build a bridge in Avignon and that a very large stone he inexplicably threw into the water became the support for the first arch. Originally built with wood in the 12th century, it was rebuilt in stone in the 13th century. Successive flooding of the Rhône River continued to damage the bridge and now only 4 of the original 22 arches remain.
Browse and shop at Les Halles
40 local retailers sell Provençal fresh produce at the covered market of Les Halles in Avignon, open Tuesday to Sunday mornings. It’s quite a sight to see the vertical garden created by botanist Patrick Blanc on one of the facades. Inside we quickly surveyed the many wonderful vendors of food, wine, flowers and much more, wishing we would be staying long enough to partake of the offerings.
Walk around Avignon
Of course, like many of Europe’s old cities, it was a treat to just walk around experiencing the essence of Avignon.
We strolled through many of the narrow cobbled streets during the day and in the evening, passing buildings that have been standing for centuries, and crossing public squares quiet on a winter’s day. The beautiful Opéra Grand Avignon (top right above) on the Place de l’Horloge, is the vibrant scene of theatrical, dance, musical, and variety performances.
Indulge in Provençal cuisine and ambiance
Two of our favorite meals in Provence were in Avignon which was especially nice since we were there on Mr. TWS’s birthday.
Librairie l’Ami Voyage, a small restaurant with an upstairs bookshop, was bustling with locals as we ate a hearty lunch accompanied with a local Côtes du Rhône (one of Vaucluse’s three appellations) vintage from the village of Cairanne in Vaucluse. Lunch was topped off with a special cheesecake that was served with a candle for the birthday boy. It was as much the cozy atmosphere and friendly service as the delicious food that made the meal quite memorable.
Continuing the celebration that evening at Restaurant La Fourchette, we had an elegant selection of Provençal dishes, a few shown below. The food and the presentation were top quality, but again the atmosphere, service and the company of local diners made it one of our favorites. Mr. TWS was once again treated to dessert with a candle on top.
The wonderful meals and welcoming atmosphere at both restaurants really helped to make Mr. TWS’s day special, as if being in Avignon itself wasn’t special enough!
Take a side trip to Carpentras
Located about 16 miles from Avignon in the heart of the rich agricultural and historical centers of Vaucluse, Carpentras is a main gateway to Mount Ventoux (known as the “Giant of Provence” and one of the steepest routes of the Tour de France). In addition to the Christmas festivities and traditions that we focused on during our December visit, there is much to see and do in Carpentras — museums, markets, parks, and significant landmarks, such as the oldest active synagogue in France. We’ll look forward to many of these on a future trip.
We stopped at the Carpentras tourist office where there is a shop with an impressive selection of fine wines and food products of the region, some of which are available for sampling, such as Sautel, an apéritif that you can see I was thoroughly enjoying below.
Our short time in Carpentras was definitely delicious as we made sure to visit Pâtisserie Jouvaud to admire and sample their confections and pastries.
Visit an olive mill
Provence is blessed with a plentitude of olive groves. In Gordes, we visited one of the many mills, Moulin du Clos des Jeannons, where we got a private tour of the olive mill by owner André Horard who talked about the ancient processes of olive oil production still used by the mill today.
He also talked about the history of the groves and challenges they have faced at times when the fruit has been damaged by weather conditions, but have continued to produce only quality oils.
We returned to the unique building designed by Andre that housed a large shop and afforded a view of the olive oil production. His hospitality couldn’t have been more gracious as we sampled three distinctly different oils accompanied by one of Provence’s signature Rosé wines. We would definitely recommend a stop here if you’re in Provence.
Indulge your sweet tooth
I think that sweets are always a good idea, but Christmas is a very special time in Provence with a holiday tradition of the “13 Desserts”. At the Confiserie Saint Denis in the village of Les Beaumettes, we learned about one of the primary 13 Desserts, crystallized fruit, their specialty, and we also learned about the involved process of making it. We also tried a few of the very sweet samples, but since it was just before lunch we refrained from too many of them!
See the quiet side of Cavaillon and the Vaucluse countryside
Our drive from Les Baumettes to Cavaillon was lovely, passing vineyards and farms along the way. Cavaillon is well-known for its amazing melons and draws tourists for its produce and festivals especially mid-June to September.
In the town of Cavaillon, I imagined how busy the streets would be in peak season while we got a glimpse of the town where locals were going about their business with no tourists in sight (besides us) that I could see. We took a few minutes to step inside Maison Jarry and talk to the owner while surveying the mouth-watering cakes and chocolates for which the shop is well-known in the area.
Les Thés au Soleil in Cavaillon was a surprise in its colorful and eclectic decor. And the food and wine were delicious. As in Avignon at this time of year, the meals were hearty, and we left fully satisfied. Then it was time to leave the Vaucluse area and head toward our next destination, Salon de Provence.
I’d encourage you to think about a visit to Vaucluse anytime, but if you’re thinking about going in the less-busy off-season as Mr. TWS and I did, now is the time to start planning.
Driving and Parking:
In Avignon, the large indoor parking lot serving the Palais des Papes and several hotels is right inside the city gates, but we actually missed it! Too focused on our iPhone’s Siri directions to the palace itself, we didn’t even see it and ended up driving the narrow streets through the old district. I definitely do not recommend doing this, especially at a slightly busier time of year.
In most all of the old cities of France, avoid driving in the historic city centers as these streets and alleys were not designed for the large vehicles and two-way traffic of our day. Use main parking structures like the one mentioned above, locate smaller lots just on the outskirts of the city, or travel by train or bus between your destinations.
Take time: Our time in Avignon and other locations in Vaucluse was intentionally brief due to the nature of our Christmas tour in Provence trip and to enable us to provide our readers with a wide-reaching introduction to the area in the off-season. But I recommend taking as much time as you can to see more of the main sites, relish the ambiance of Provence in its villages and countryside, and interact with the locals.
Accommodations: There are many accommodation options throughout Vaucluse, but from our brief experience, we know that Avignon is a good choice as a base for visiting much of the area. Staying in the city center of Avignon was ideal for our itinerary of visiting the Christmas markets and historical sites of the city. Hôtel de L’Horloge (shown on the left) is a small, independently-owned 4-star hotel in a 19th-century building just off Avignon’s main square, Place de L’Horloge. It was very convenient for our activities. Our room was simply designed, comfortable, and had old-world ambiance. The breakfast buffet was wonderfully diverse with cereals, fruit, and pastries to start our day.
And don’t forget to dance on the Pont d’Avignon!
Disclosure: Our Vaucluse experience was sponsored by Comité Régional de Tourisme Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Vaucluse Tourisme en Provence, but our opinions and perspectives are totally our own — as always.