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July 19, 2011 2:47 PM   Subscribe

Going to Provence for two weeks in mid-September. What off-the-beaten path attractions or towns are not to be missed? Specific interests inside.

We're planning to go to Marseilles and Nice for sure, but other than that don't know which towns are really worth visiting. We will have a car, and love art and food.

I've read the other Provence threads, but I'm hoping to start a new one for recommendations on:

--Any authentic attraction related to food (cheese-making farm tour, etc)
--Best street markets
--Any natural hot springs
--Best non-touristy hill top towns
--Quirkiest/best museums
--Great Botanical + sculpture gardens
--Anything odd/creepy/morbid (for example: catacombs or ancient sewers or reliquary collections or atmospheric cemeteries)
--Fabulous excursions to less-touristy areas (islands off the coast?)

What we are NOT interested in:
--Roman ruins (unless they are unusually creepy or very different from the ones you can see anywhere else in the former Roman Empire. We've seen a LOT of ruins.)
--Any formerly picturesque villages that are now packed to the gills with tour buses. In fact-- let us know which ones to avoid!
Thank you!!
posted by np312 to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I studied in Aix-en-Provence and they had beautiful daily flower and fruit markets in the town square. There's also a lovely old cathedral that has been added to over the centuries so it's in itself a mini survey of architecture. The countryside surrounding it was pretty ridiculous: all the fields of lavender and sunflowers you see in stereotypical south of France postcards. Also, good shopping if you are interested in that sort of thing.

Les Baux de Provence is a gorgeous historical hilltop town not too far from Aix.

I thought Arles felt a little touristy sometimes. The thing I liked best there was the coliseum, which you have essentially already seen in any Roman town.

Have a fantastic trip!
posted by chatongriffes at 2:54 PM on July 19, 2011

There's a book called Secret Provence which features some religion-related curiosities. It's a guide to mostly small details that are probably overlooked by tourists. It could be a fun aid to plan your trip around curiosities rather than main sight.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 3:01 PM on July 19, 2011

Best answer: Banon--beautiful and home of Banon cheese (chestnut leave-wrapped goats milk cheese) and also very beautiful

Fourcalquier: larger than Banon, home of Absente liquors, other good shops, sometimes cool cultural events, markets

Sault: great market (saturday i believe but DM me to check), also famous nougat

Saint-Michel de l'Observatoire: Great town to explore with a fantastic observatory for the clear nights

All of these are in the area where my mom lives--my knowledge doesn't extend too far out of there.
posted by SpicyMustard at 3:08 PM on July 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: By no means a well-kept secret, but fitting the odd/creepy/weird/beautiful requirement: Les Alyscamps, the old Roman necropolis--you can walk along a section of Roman road that has sarcophagi here and there along either side (I looked inside them but didn't find any bones). We walked all the way to the church buildings at the end, which were beautiful and eerie, like the road itself.

When we were there, Arles itself was crowded with tourists, but not too many of them seemed to want to wander along the Alyscamps. I've been to a few old Roman sites, especially coliseums, but this was different and interesting.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:22 PM on July 19, 2011

Best answer: Hill top towns? Les Baux is, as someone said, unbeatable, but quite touristy over day. You go over to the opposite side at sunset and see the entire town turn red, then blue...
In the same area is Fontvieille and the Montmajour monastery, both only moderately touristy, compared to the hotspots. Something decidedly 'different' are the ancient quarries close to Fontvieille.

Otherwise Look into the Gordes - Roussillion - Lacoste - Bonnieux area. Bonnieux is your hilltop...Gordes has some museums...Rousillion has red dust. Of course the area still swarms of Brits trying to find Peter Mayle, but never mind those...
posted by Namlit at 4:26 PM on July 19, 2011

2nding Aix-En-Provence. It has a great daily market and a really good bi-weekly one.

I also really enjoyed Avignon. I cannot remember much about their market but they also have a Les Halles area that has the best levain bread I have ever eaten in my entire. The smaller Villeneuve across the river also has a nice, less-touristy market on Saturdays. I think they still do the tanker truck wine sales there.
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 4:53 PM on July 19, 2011

If you go to Les Baux early in the morning it's relly nice and there aren't that many people. Really worth it IMO (including the castle all the way to the top for an awesome view on the Alpilles). There is a public market in Arles twice a week I think, definitely not that touristy, you can find fruits, sausages, cheeses, oil and olive oil, etc. We stayed in Maussane-les-Alpilles and really enjoyed the small town and the surroundings, all the way to Avignon and towards Mouriès.
posted by ddaavviidd at 6:15 PM on July 19, 2011

Best answer: Wow, someone else here knows the Banon area! Yes, it's well worth the visit. Loads of typical Provençal lavender fields, a great bookstore in Banon itself, hills with cute churches perched atop... Forcalquier and Saint-Michel-L'Observatoire are neat too, yes.

Also seconding Gordes, there are old stone borie villages nearby that are quite cool (my own borie and Gordes photos here). Simiane is charming too. Roussillon can be a bit of a tourist trap, but the red rocks are neat to see.

Nice has beautiful Greco-Roman ruins in Cimiez – I know you didn't want to hear that, but seriously, it's an old Roman bathhouse that had once been an ancient farm, turned Greek homestead, turned Roman bathhouse, and is slowly being excavated, restored, and is thoroughly researched and documented in the onsite museum. I've seen theatres (Orange) and coliseums and what have you... this farm/bathhouse is quite different, you really get a sense that people lived there thousands of years ago. Plus, there's our Matisse museum just above it. (I live in Nice, btw.)

My favorite museum in Nice is Musée Marc Chagall. Breathtaking. (Chagall lived in Nice for a while.) I think you'll find that all hilltop villages here are tourist traps, sorry, but everyone loves visiting them. If you take a public bus to Eze hilltop (it's in two spots, seaside and hilltop), it's better than driving and going through the torture of finding a parking spot. It's touristy for a reason – quite beautiful. Plus, worth knowing: public transportation – buses and tram (not SNCF-operated trains) – only cost 1 euro per one-way trip in the Alpes-Maritimes (Cannes - Antibes - Nice - Menton - Monaco). They take a bit longer to reach destination than driving, but when you're sightseeing, that can be a plus! The SNCF trains are cheap and have beautiful views too, only costs about 6 euros round-trip to visit Monaco (neat maritime museum there), and the same for a round-trip to Antibes (cool fortifications and a nice old town, sand beaches, but yes, lots of visitors – it's all like that here, IIRC we're second only to Paris in terms of visitors, in the world, not just in France).

Also wanted to echo that Avignon and Aix are pretty and full of neat little shops too, yes.
posted by fraula at 12:27 AM on July 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh! And any of the parfumeries in Grasse, which is also a cute place to visit. Take a tour, it's yet another touristy thang but worth it! Fragonard has my favorite fragrances, and I learned some neat stuff from their tour.
posted by fraula at 12:29 AM on July 20, 2011

Read "A Year in Provence" by Peter Maye and his other stuff, too. He's a real foodie and a writer, writes delightfully and the region and people.
posted by R2WeTwo at 5:09 AM on July 20, 2011

Best answer: Just got back from 2 weeks in Provence in June - it was wonderful! Here are my favorites (sorry for brevity and poor spelling in advance - please let me know if you'd like details on any of these destinations):

We stayed at a little house outside of a town call L'isle-sur-la-sorgue - very picturesque town with river running thru it, lots of nice antique shops if you're into that. Awesome market on Sundays - I think it's considered one of the best in the area.

Avignon is nice for the Palais du Popes and bridge, and also had nice shopping. A good sized walking city, if that's what you're looking for.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape is nice if you like wine - lots of wineries to visit. Great picture-taking opportunities and there are a lot of cute little towns in that area.

I actually really liked Les Baux, it's a little touristy but has been de-tackified recently (according to my mom it's a lot better than it was 10 years ago). Nice castle tour.

Gordes is truly beautiful, lots of money there, but the pictures from outside of town are totally worth the drive. Also, lots of cute shops in Gordes (non-touristy stuff).

Arles was okay, it's famous for the bullring and garden recreated to look like the one painted by Van Gogh - if you've spent any time in Spain the bullring won't impress you.

South of Arles is the Camargue region - truly beautiful and worth a visit because it's quite unlike the rest of Provence - look for the trifecta of pink flamingoes, black bulls and white horses - also I highly recommend visiting Saintes-Marie-de-la-Maire - it looks like a town in Mexico or Southern Spain...not at all like the rest of Provence. Also, you can get your ocean fix there. The town has a cool backstory that's worth googling if you're going to visit

St. Remy de Provence is also worth the visit if you like Van Gogh - the sanitarium where he spent some time after he cut off his ear (or right before...when he was going crazy, in any case) is there, and there are several places you'll recognize from his paintings. The lavender and poppies were beautiful. It's kind of creepy because it's still a functioning sanitarium, weird to be running around when there are people being treated there. It's right near some famous Roman ruins and Les Baux, so you can roll them all in to a day trip.

All in all, Nice was my favorite part of the trip because I tend to be a city lover, but it was all pretty wonderful. The people are amazing, totally different than those I've encountered in Paris and the north.

Also, we ate at an AMAZING restaurant near Lacoste in a little town I can't think of, but if you're staying in that area and want the name, please let me know. They had a really reasonably priced fixed price menu, and it's clear this place is a local favorite (but there were almost no tourists there). AMAZING food and wonderful atmosphere - message me if you'd like the name!
posted by elquien at 1:59 PM on July 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seconding everyone who is recommending Avignon. Be sure to go to the tourist centre; it's well-organized and the staff there are very helpful.

A visit to the Palais des Papes is well worth it; the entrance fee includes a recorded guide that is very good (and often costs extra at other museums). There's also a cave in the Palais that offers wine tastings. The person who did our wine tasting was knowledgeable and friendly.

If you're looking for a good restaurant in Avignon, I recommend La Fourchette--they serve traditional local food. My meal there was one of the best I've had in France, which is saying something. PS: if you like lamb, definitely order the lamb shank.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:00 PM on July 21, 2011

Having formerly lived in Provence, I am seconding...
Les Baux (stunning and very windy!), Le Palais des Papes (magnificent, especially when there are no crowds), Aix (lovely college town).

If you want more offbeat and quirky and less tourists/crowds, I would spend more time in the small towns and not as much in Marseille or Nice.

I would suggest next time trying to go later in fall or early winter during off-season to avoid swarms of tourists.

If you go to any of the markets, try the rotisserie chicken with potatoes and carrots--yum!

Went on a wine tour that was informative...forget the man's name but I think he was Dutch. Visited a small family-run vineyard called Domaine Le Pointu. Recommended.

If you can make the drive, the Gorges du Verdon are spectacular!
posted by lirael2008 at 1:24 PM on July 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

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