Provence: a paradise for all the senses

In the summer, this corner of France is constant feast of sights, smells and tastes.

Vast fields of sunflowers and lavender, ancient villages clinging to rocky hillsides, olive trees in the scrub and the gentle breeze blowing down from the Alps — they were what Provence offered to British writer Peter Mayle when he lived in seclusion there for years.

Through his best sellers so people got to know this corner of France. Its unique landscape and aroma of flowers drag in tourists from around the world every year, including me.

After a couple days of sightseeing in Paris, I got on a high-speed train bound for Avignon. A few hours later, lavender and sunflowers started to dominate the fields.

Late June and early July is always the best season to visit since the flowers are in full bloom. Most tourists rent a car at Avignon and drive along country roads towards Nice on the Cote d'Azur. That would also be my route

Avignon is a walled city and the buildings have been the same for centuries. Walking along its narrow streets, I was enchanted by the cathedrals and museums, as well as numerous boutiques.

During the 13th century, the town was home to the Pope. The Palais des Papes was is the biggest remaining Gothic building of the Middle Ages covering an area of 15,000 square meters. The palace was linked to the town by the Bridge of Saint-Bénézet, which is often referred to as the Pont d'Avignon, after a popular children’s song. It connected the territory of France and the Papal state and was the only bridge over the Rhône at that time.

Floods eventually destroyed part of the bridge and now, only half is left. Tourists often call it the “Broken Bridge.”

The Festival d'Avignon was inaugurated in 1947 and is today one of the most important theater events in the world. The whole of Avignon becomes a giant stage for performers and crowds during the festival. The event usually takes place in July.

Provence: a paradise for all the senses
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Palais des Papes

I strongly recommend visitors park their cars outside the old town. It is extremely hard to find a parking space and the narrow streets are always crowded.

Leaving Avignon, I headed to Gordes. Provence is dotted with villages, and Gordes is considered the epitome of the Provençal hamlet. On a hilltop overlooking the Plateau de Vaucluse, Gordes is home to vast expanses of olive and almond trees.

Stone buildings are built tight against the cliffs. The red roofs glow orange in the sun, in a pleasing contrast to the lush green vegetation. The village attracts artists and celebrities from Paris.

Not far from Gordes, deep in a valley lies the Abbey of Sénanque, a classic example of primitive Cistercian architecture built in 12th century. Its front yard is planted with lavender, in an ideal integration of architectural, historical and horticultural values.

The souvenir outlet sells delicate postcards, dried lavender, fragrances and essential oils. I bought some postcards and posted them from Nice.

Saying farewell to the abbey, I drove to Arles, where I would trace the footsteps of painter Van Gogh, who lived here for a few years and was inspired by sunflowers and the landscape. He created some of his most spectacular paintings here. "Starry Night Over the Rhone" was painted on the riverfront in Arles.

The café in “Café Terrace at Night” is still open today but renamed Café Van Gogh. I sampled the signature dish, seafood rice, and sitting at a table in the street, I felt like I had entered the painting.

L'Espace Van Gogh is a museum converted from the hospital where Van Gogh spent a troubled time after he cut off a portion of his ear. The garden of the hospital today looks the same as it did in his painting.

The Arles Roman Arena was built about 2,000 years ago and used for gladiatorial combat events between man and beast. In the central square at the heart of Arles is also charming, with a flea market offering knickknacks and souvenirs.

Arles is ablaze with sunflowers in summer and as made my way eastwards, purple lavender gradually replaced the stunning yellow. Provence is one of the largest lavender producers in the world, and Valensole is at the core.

However, I don’t recommend visitors go there in the busy season when the fields are often full of people taking pictures which is really annoying. In my opinion, the area between Riez and Lake of Sainte-Croix is the best place for flower panoramas. Wheat and lavender fields are often side-by-side. The wheat ripens just before the lavender season, so purple fields are bordered by golden belts of grain.

Provence: a paradise for all the senses
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The Bridge of Saint-Bénézet

The scene made up of purple and yellow against the clear blue sky and turquoise lake is the most romantic I’ve found in Provence. Ladies in wedding dress were having their pictures taken among the flowers. Provence adds happiness and romance to wedding photos.

The magnificent artificial Lake of Sainte-Croix sits on the open plateau. An almost invisible slot in the mountain wall hides the deep, wild Verdon canyon, where bluish-green water runs into the lake.

I rent a paddle boat at the northwest shore but it was really exhausting to paddle for more than one hour. I stopped now and then to watching youngsters climb on the cliffs and jump into the lake, then replenished, paddled off again.

The last day of my trip began in Grasse and ended in Nice.

As the perfume capital of the world, Grasse has been a popular tourist town for centuries by virtue of the smell of flowers, clear air, and a perfume industry dating to back to the 16th century.

The town sits on a hillside. Streets wind up and down steps, and passing through archways. Visitors can see the original perfume production process at an exhibition in Museum of Fragonard.

Fragonard is one of the oldest perfume brands in France. Today, it is still popular and offers a wide range of products in the museum.

I visited the town at the weekend, and many of the perfume outlets were closed. If you plan to purchase some products, you’d better check their opening hours beforehand.

Leaving Grasse, I cannot contain my excitement as my car approaches the Cote d'Azur. The road stretches along the coast, and people sunbath on the pebble beaches and swim in the sapphire sea.

Cannes was my first stop Cote d'Azur, a magnet for film aficionados. Every year, the Cannes Film Festival attracts top filmmakers and superstars from around the world.

I didn’t spend long in Cannes, since I need to arrive at Nice before sunset. Driving along the Cote d'Azur was really relaxing after a day of sightseeing.

After checked in to my hotel, I went for a walk along Promenade des Anglais. People were jogging and playing volleyball on the beach. Due to the long daytime in summer, I was still able to climb on the Chateau to look out of the Baie des Anges and old town at sunset.

Visitors can walk up the stairs, or take the elevator from the same starting point. Actually, it isn't a chateau at all, just a platform with a playground, Roman ruins and a waterfall. You can look over the luxurious yachts in the harbor at one side and appreciate the panorama of Baie des Anges and Vieille Nice on the other side.

The city retains some of its medieval heritage in the Vieille Nice (old town). Crisscrossed with narrow winding streets and flanked by beige-walled and red-roofed houses, the old town glows orange as the sun goes down.

Provence: a paradise for all the senses
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Gordes Village

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