Following the Artists’ Sun to Find the Heart of Provence
By Jane Meagher
Have you ever wondered what inspired the French impressionist painters? You’ll get your answer in Provence — it’s the light and the sun! My trip to France in May took me to the picturesque towns in the south of France that were home and muse to many 19th century artists. After an exciting visit to Paris and to Giverny (which will be the subject of another blog — or three!), our small group of eight guests on the amazing Story Land and Sea Treasures of France tour – www.storylandandsea.com/tours/france-treasures.asp — boarded the TGV high speed train from Paris Gare de Lyon to Avignon. The very comfortable two-and-a-half-hour trip through the countryside departed after breakfast and arrived by noon. The dining car provided coffee and pastry — and even a glass of wine! After all, we were in France!
After a chilly and occasionally drizzly few days in Paris, we got off the train to see the beautiful sun! With our spirits lifted, we were ready to explore Avignon, one of the most interesting and lovely cities on the Rhône river. Our hotel in the city center was the historic Hotel d’Europe. The accommodations were luxurious with floor to ceiling window shutters that actually worked! Don’t worry — there was air-conditioning. The very best part of the hotel was the huge plate of multicolored macarons at the reception desk! The dining room where we had breakfast was elegant but with whimsical ceramic cicadas (they’re called cigales) decorating the walls. They’re the symbol of Provence and are ubiquitous — on fabrics, on soaps and every type of souvenir you can imagine. Yes, I have my own little cicada — you wouldn’t want to leave Provence without one! Fortunately, the real ones come out in June so we missed hearing them.
Avignon is best known for the notable landmarks which have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site . The Pont d’Avignon, made famous by the children’s song which we all learned in French class, spans the Rhône river. Of course, we sang the song and then couldn’t get it out of our heads for days! The Palais des Papes, the Palace of the Popes, was the seat of the 70-year Avignon papacy in the 14th century. The very imposing building in the center of the town seems to rule over the city to this day. You can tour the palace to see what remains of this medieval center of power, and the magnificent frescoes are a monument to its former glory. We were very happy to have a city guide which made our visit much more meaningful — there are audio-guides available as well.
Using Avignon as our base, we took day trips to the surrounding cities, hill towns and into the vineyards and winery chateaux of the Rhône valley. All are within a very comfortable driving distance. We were amazed at the well-preserved Roman remains which are among the premier sights of the region. One of the most well-known is the Pont du Gard, an impressive Roman aqueduct which was also used as a bridge for almost 2000 years. Although not the longest, it’s definitely the best preserved Roman aqueduct. In fact, vehicle traffic was just discontinued in the year 2000 – how’s that for astounding? You can still walk across it which is quite exciting.
Traveling on to Arles, the original provincial Roman capital, you will find the Amphitheater (think, Roman coliseum) which is still used for shows and the controversial bullfights.
Artists were drawn to this interesting and colorful town and Van Gogh painted his Café Terrace at Night there. The bright yellow restaurant, now called Café Van Gogh, is still in use, and having a coffee on the patio feels like living in a painting!
Here’s my photo – now you can look up the painting and compare the two. I assure you, Van Gogh was the artist! Our city guide told us that he also painted the Sunflower series there as well as his Bedroom in Arles. I have seen several of the sunflower paintings in galleries in different countries, and I am thrilled to think that I was in the town where such renowned pieces of art were created!
A short distance from Arles is the picturesque town of Saint-Rémy-en-Provence. More than 2500 years old (isn’t that mind-boggling?!), it is one of the oldest towns in France. It is an interesting and delightful combination of ancient ruins, charming restaurants and shops. You can see several examples in my “shopping” collage. I found it interesting that it is the birthplace of Nostradamus. The town is perhaps most notable for being where Van Gogh spent his final year at the St. Paul asylum. He painted many of his very famous works at the hospital including “The Starry Night” (which everybody, including myself, calls “Starry, Starry Night”– go ahead and hum a few bars – after all, the song was about Vincent Van Gogh.) I was very struck by the fact that Van Gogh said that he painted what he saw from the window of his room — minus the bars. There is a walking tour of the town with reproductions of many of his paintings, and brass markers with the signature “Vincent” dotting the walkways make you feel that you are truly following in the footsteps of the tormented artist.
No trip to France would be complete without wonderful wining and dining, and we had some extraordinary and unique experiences. A highlight was a visit to one of the oldest winery estates, Chateau La Nerthe, in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
We were amazed to find that they produce exclusive vintages for some of the most renowned hotels and restaurants in France. After a tour of the cellars, we had a magnificent four-course lunch featuring pâté that looked like petits fours, steak with velvety wine sauce (of course!), cheese course and the pièce de resistance creamy mango and raspberry pastry! Be sure to see my dessert photo!
Just when we thought dining couldn’t possibly get any better, we had the equally amazing experience of dining in Avignon at La Mirande in the kitchen with our own private chef! After a wine tasting in their cellar (see a short video on the “Story” link above), we watched and sampled more wine as our talented and delightful chef, Séverine, created a truly memorable dinner followed by an equally memorable after dinner surprise. I won’t spoil it just in case you’re lucky enough to visit in the future, but let’s just say that candelabra were involved!
As we said “au revoir” to Provence and traveled to the Côte d’Azur, we visited the medieval town, St. Paul de Vence. This is a walled town on a hilltop (think walking up fairly steep inclines on cobblestones, so wear comfortable shoes!) with stunning views of the surrounding area, lovely churches with towers, beautiful windows with flower boxes and excellent shopping in tiny shops where the shopkeeper just closes the door if you want to try on some clothes! All of the ladies in our group found a “wearable souvenir”! There are charming cafés, and we had delicious calamari for lunch. It’s an artists’ colony that has drawn painters for centuries and, whether you paint or not, it’s a delightful way to spend the day.
Visiting the beautiful south of France is a wonderful travel experience and I can guarantee that you will be very happy that you chose it for your vacation! Au Revoir for now and Bon Voyage!