Provence is a very fine place to visit in the south of France. The larger cities like Avignon are packed with history, art and some of the world's best architecture. The food is some of the most celebrated in France. The wine is fine. And it's easy to take the TGV from Paris to be whisked right into Avignon within walking distance of the Palace of the Popes. Then, the perfect villages of the Luberon await your visit, and the Rhone Delta is where you'll find the beef (and the flamingoes).
First, lets look at the map below. The northern part of Provence is the Vaucluse. At the western boundary of Provence are three compelling towns, from north to south they're Avignon, St. Remy and Arles. To the east of those, there is the Luberon, with villages like Menerbes, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Bonnieux, Saignon, Maussane, Lourmarin, Cucuron, Lacoste (where Marquis de Sade’s castle is located) and colorfully framed by its ochre cliffs, the charming town of Roussillon.
The most well known bit of Provence is the Vaucluse, which includes the Luberon, made famous in part by the books of Peter Mayle. The Camargue is a distinctive bit of the region known for cowboys called les gardians, beef and horses. Its wetlands bioshere reserve is a world heritage site that attracts bird watchers from all over Europe. Go in spring or fall. Avignon is the capital of the Côtes du Rhône wines and home to the Palace of the Popes. St. Remy is an art town. Take a signposted walk, Promenade dans l'univers de Vincent van Gogh, to see Van Gogh's Rooms at the Maison de santé Saint-Paul, then see the Roman site built atop a Greek one at Glanum just outside of town, where the Romans smoked their wine, just outside of town. Have lunch across from the entrance at the Villa Glanum (where you can stay if you wish). Arles is a charming town built around the Roman Arena that hosts events throughout the year. On Saturday morning the largest market in Provence is held. Near the Rhone in Arles you can visit the Roman Baths of Constantine.
The ruddy hues of its eroded ochre quarries are in sharp contrast to the endless blue skies of Provence. An easy walking trail runs through it. You can find out how it was processed by visiting the mathier ochre factory.
The town perched on an ochre plateau is well equipped with artist studios and good restaurants. To stay in an apartment near the trail, check out La Dame Au Balcon. A highly rated hotel is Le Clos de la Glycine, offering a fine restaurant with views of the ochre quarries, which are enhanced with the setting sun.
Weather is one of the great things about Provence. The average summer highs in July and August reach a mere 75 degrees Farenheit. The rain falls all year, peaking in late fall, but our November trip offered wonderful weather, great clouds, and a majority of crystal clear days. The charts are for Avignon, which is in the path of Mistral winds which blow strongly, mainly in spring and winter, but tend to leave in their wake a crystal clear sky. Frosts are common in winter and there is occassional sleet and snow. We recommend April and May in the spring and September to October and even into November if you don't mind a bit of chill occasionally.
There's a 15th Century castle in Lourmarin, Albert Camus lived, worked and was buried in the Lourmarin cemetery. Take in the Friday morning market, then amble over to the Cafe Gaby for the Friday aioli and local color.
Great little town dating back to Roman times, the 3 BC Pont Julien is just north of town and there's a Cedar forest on the outskirts. The 16 through 18th century residences are stunning and there is a Boulangerie Musueum.
After the 1731 earthquake residents abandoned the ridgetop town in favor of the lowlands where they were closer to their fields and had access to water. Now artists are flooding in, and the ruins are romantic and the views fantastic.
The 11th century Chateau is now owned by Pierre Cardin. He's fixing it up. Lacoste is a village with charming, meandering streets, all of which seem to lead uphill to the castle. The ochre and limestone houses add to the charm.
The Palace of the Popes is the centerpiece of a town inhabited since the Neolithic, but which didn’t come into its own until the Popes settled here in the 14th century. But that's not all there is to see. The Pont d’Avignon is a famous medieval bridge first assembled between 1177 and 1185, and the 12th century Chapel of Saint Nicholas sits on the second pier of the bridge.
The Rhone delta is a very different place. We might call it "cowboy country" but they call them gardians. Camargue black bulls are part of the landscape and have lived in these wetlands since Roman times. Camargue horses, one of the oldest breeds in France, roam freely here. Birdwatchers gather at the Ornithological Park Pont de Gau, where exotic birds, like the flamingos in the movie, live and play in the water. You can stay just outside the reserve and eat very, very well at Hostellerie du Pont de Gau. Don't miss the (not so) Petite Bouillabaisse.
Viator offers a variety of tours for small groups. Here is a list of the tourist favorite tours they offer. They range from the popular Lavender fields tour from larger towns like Aix-en-Provence or Avignon to wine tours to the Footsteps of Van Gogh tour.
Kathy and Charley Wood give highly rated tours of Provence and surrounding countries. The highly rated Luberon Experience coves the smaller towns in the Luberon mentioned here. Check out the website for tours of other places.