I should’ve taken it as a sign. I guess I was just too excited to notice. It was my first time in Provence, this world-famous region in the south of France, and I couldn’t wait to explore its historic towns, stroll around the charming villages I’d heard so much about and feast on its delicious cuisine and wines. I’d just boarded the TGV in Marseille. Destination: Avignon, in the heart of the Provence region. I’d never been on a TGV before, the iconic French high-speed trains that whisk travellers across the country at breathtaking speeds. I couldn’t wait to get going!
Exploring Provence, the slow way
The TGV train pulled out of the station at a snail’s pace. I waited in great anticipation for the acceleration… alas in vain. It never came. For some reason, the train continued at this snail’s pace, exiting Marseille’s city limits into the hills of Provence and through a seemingly never-ending tunnel. The 30-minute journey turned, due to a technical problem, into an excruciating 1 hour 45 minute ride. I’m pretty sure the kiddie trains that ply the tourist routes in the centre of Marseille would’ve been faster. I should’ve taken it as a sign but I was too preoccupied with the disappointing experience to notice.
Arrival in Avignon
I arrived in Avignon and took a (much faster-moving) taxi to my apartment rental just outside the Avignon city walls. Gosh! It was beautiful! When I think of Provence, the first image that comes to mind is fields of lavender. The instant I opened the door to the spacious apartment, I was greeted by the soothing scent of lavender. I relaxed – lavender has that effect doesn’t it?
I settled into the apartment and after a lovely chat with the owner to discuss his recommendations of things to do and see in the region, I decided to go for a walk into town. I shrugged off the disappointing TGV ride and soon found myself in a gorgeous square in the centre of town, the Place de l’Horloge. I’m not the kind of traveller who likes to dive straight into the main attractions of a particular place. Instead, I always choose to get a feel of the place by parking myself at a café and simply watching the locals go about their daily doings. The square was a hive of activity: families brought their kids to the merry-go-round, tourists stopped for a few snapshots whilst locals congregated at the cafés for a chat and a glass of wine with their friends.
I sipped on my wine and watched. I was so absorbed by the scenes around me that I initially failed to notice the words staring straight at me from the table-top. When I did, I smiled. “Ok Provence. I get it. The train, the lavender, the words on the table.”
You see, the best way to enjoy Provence is simply to take it slow. Here’s what I did to enjoy Provence the slow way:
My days in Avignon were filled with leisurely strolls around the ancient cobblestone streets of this medieval town. I spent the good part of a drizzly day walking along the impressive city walls and exploring the magnificent Palais de Papes, the world’s largest Gothic palace. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the palace was built in the 14th century when Pope Clement V abandoned Rome and settled in Avignon, making the town the seat of the Pope for almost a century. I visited the famous Pont St-Bénézet or Pont d’Avignon, a 12th century bridge that used to span the Rhône – all but four of its 22 arches were washed away by floods in the 17th century.
Read about things to see in Avignon
With the help of a map obtained from the Tourist Office and coloured dots on the pavement, I followed various walking routes around the city – one route traces Avignon’s Papal past whilst other routes cover the city’s medieval era and Romanesque parts. The routes brought me into stunning museums such as the Petit Palais Museum (13th-16th century art and sculptures) and the Angladon Museum (with paintings by the likes of Degas, Cézanne, Manet and Van Gogh), and to some of Avignon’s loveliest corners like the Doms gardens and the picturesque watermills along Teinturiers street. Along the way, I discovered some cool spots like the vertical garden at the Les Halles market, the Autrefois Biscuiterie and the wonderfully quirky trompe-l’oeil art (think ancient 3D images) in the windows of historic buildings.
I stopped a lot!
I stopped for long lunches at petit restaurants and scouted others for dinner. One day, I stumbled upon a small Italian pizzeria, Casa Castagno, near Les Halles. I was intrigued by its cheerful appearance and popped in. The owner, a gregarious lady, sat me down and proceeded to spoil me with her home-made breads, pastas and sauces, sorbets and beautiful wines. By the time I left, we were good friends!
I also stopped frequently for a coffee or a drink at some of the city’s charming squares and chatted with some of the locals. Ahhh, taking it slow in Avignon was bliss!
I hired a car
After several days of exploring Avignon, I decided to hire a car and drive around the region. There are so many towns and other attractions in Provence that “cannot be missed” but I resisted the temptation to zoom past all the highlights. Instead, I planned a series of leisurely routes that I knew could easily be done in a day from Avignon. One day, I chose Van Gogh as a theme and visited some of the places he used to live in like St. Rémy de Provence and Arles. In St. Rémy, I followed the Van Gogh walking trail which took me past areas which inspired some of his famous paintings.
Read about things to see in Nîmes and things to do in Châteauneuf-du-Pape
I also experienced a fabulous olive oil tasting in the St. Remy town centre and strolled around the lovely artisan shops. As I drove through the countryside, my nose never failed to pick up the gorgeous scents of lavender, thyme and rosemary that wafted through the window.
It was at that moment that I realised: when in Provence, it pays to go slow.