Have you been to the south of France? As billed, it does not disappoint! Here are some picks from our five summer days in Aix-En-Provence and the surrounding region.
A number of years ago, we put our daughters in charge of planning our five days in Aix. There were some requirements of course, such as Cezanne’s house and studio, (which was very special by the way), but primarily, we gave them full tour guide rights. I must say, it was a huge success! They researched well and made excellent choices. Some were right in town, and others were short drives away. We had arrived by rental car, so it made it very easy to come and go from our VRBO.
Our apartment was very spacious, air conditioned, and clean. (Unfortunately, the property manager was a bit edgy at times, so we felt like we were an imposition on her). The building was directly across from the bus station giving the immediate neighborhood a little sketchy vibe. However, a few short blocks closer to the center of the city, and we were smack in the midst of beautiful Aix, fountain, street life, and all. We drove to a market and stocked up for a week of breakfasts and picnic lunches. The restaurants on the main boulevard were fine for dinners, but definitely touristy. I'm sure we could have done better, had we tried! Note to self, put in the effort to read menus and reviews before venturing out for dinner with a hungry family!
The girls learned about a cute photo op spot at a library made of giant books. When we set out to find the library on our first day, we realized it was literally on the street just behind our apartment building! Our next Aix adventure spot was less easy to find. The map made it seem more simple to access from our apartment than it was, so off we went on foot to find the Foundation Vasarely Museum.
For those of you who aren’t aware, Victor Vasarely was a Hungarian and French painter best known for starting the movement of Op Art. His optical illusions were often painted on extremely large surfaces. When he was given options of where to build the museum for his works, he chose the cultural center of Aix and designed the structure in hexagone pods to mirror the paintings. The foundation opened in the mid 70’s on a huge piece of property and it stands out from every angle as an Op Art structure itself.
When we finally found the museum, we were hot and cranky from our adventure and were happily surprised to have the museum mostly to ourselves! The brochure guides the visitor to wander through the spaces, sit down on couches, get close, back up, and basically play while you are there. The paintings are colorful, fun, and vibrate as you look at them. Sadly, the Foundation Vasarely is very low on funding and the building is in terrible disrepair. If sending them more visitors would help with the upkeep, then I hope you can all get there some day and support this historic body of work. It is open during the quarantine with the usual precautions of masks and distancing.
1 Avenue Marcel Pagnol, 13090 Aix-en-Provence, France
It is probable that you are well aware of the June through August lavender and sunflower season in the south of France. The Provençal region is beautiful throughout the year, but summer is the time if you want to see the yellows and purples. There are many lavender farms in Provence, but I am pointing out the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque because it's unique and felt like a perfect choice. The Abbey is only one hour from Aix and is filled with a rich history and meditative vibe. This Abbey is a living/working farm for monks of the Cistercian order. This group of monks have lived and operated the Abbey since the 12th Century. Their lives are dedicated to prayer and labor. They pray seven times daily and farm the lavender and olive groves. The sales from the oils and products, and use of the Abbey for monastic retreats, help to support the Abbey and the monks.
We arrived early in the day and were able to roam the fields and surroundings freely. We could take photos without feeling as though we were being disrespectful. We even were allowed to sit in the chapel, built in the 1100’s, for as long as we liked. Some of my most favorite photos are from that visit. When busloads of visitors arrived later, we managed to keep the serene energy, but it wasn't easy!
84220 Gordes, France
Another one hour drive from Aix is the charming medieval village of Sisteron, home of the Citadelle De Sisteron, originally built in the 12th century. The citadel is tucked into the rocky cliffs on the banks of the Durance river. It was used for many purposes during the Wars of Religions in the 16th century, and later as a German prison. Eventually, bombing by allied forces killed over 100 people in Sisteron and damaged the citadel. The original ramparts, parapet, and drawbridges still exist, as well as a chapel with stained glass from the 15th century. The views are extraordinary because you see the rocky mountain, the river bed, and the red rooftops of the village.
We lucked out with a weekday of no visitors and were able to easily park at the bottom of the hillside. Apparently, there is a bus that shuttles people up to the citadel, however, we walked. Yes, it was a hot and dusty trail. However, along the way, we found a ropes course tucked into the trees, we marveled at some exquisite views, and found a cemetery dating back to medieval times. Since we were the only visitors, we were able to interact with the talking medieval figures which provided lots of historical information with the touch of a button! We literally roamed for hours, taking photos, and discovering all the nooks and crannies of the place. There is an amphitheater which hosts a concert series overlooking the village. I still imagine us returning for a concert of my husband's music some day. It would be the perfect setting! After our visit, we hiked back to the car and found a sweet outdoor café for lunch before heading off for our next adventure.
One of my favorite memories is that we happened to visit Sisteron on the final day of an exhibit by the artist Nicolas Lavarenne. Lavarenne’s work is world renowned, as his installations have been exhibited since the early 1980’s across Europe, North America and the Middle East. I was deeply moved by the bronze figures popping up along the way during our visit. They are both graceful and athletic, but also fit into the rock and angles of the scenery perfectly. They were able to perch and sit and stretch in places that make you wish you could too. Somehow, they were both lonely and welcoming. Honestly, I wish I could see an exhibit of his again. Truly magnificent. How lucky were we to be there on that day?
Montée de la Citadelle
04200 Sisteron, France
What is a visit to Provence without a day at the Côte D'Azure? A 45 minute drive from Aix and you land in the delightful Mediterranean fishing port of Cassis. The water was as delicious as it appears in these photos. We spent the day in the sand and the waves. The beach was busy, but no more crowded than a typical California beach on a beautiful day. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to hike along the coast in the calanques, or steep cliffs, because of high winds. We found a public parking lot but we did have a weird experience trying to get the car out of the lot because there were problems with the payment gate and our French skills were sorely lacking! Eventually, however, we were able to exit and avoid being attacked by the frustrated locals waiting behind us! Note to self, practice French words such as "the machine won't accept my credit card and I don't have any cash."
More History and Shopping
Do you know the song Sur le Pont D'Avignon? On the Bridge of Avignon, we all dance. It's a childhood song about a bridge leading to the walled city of Avignon, where the Popes lived in a palace in the 1300's. The city was actually under Papal rule until the 1700's. Since then, it has been a part of France and its walls are still intact, complete with ramparts by the Rhône River. The main attraction is the Palais de Papes, a World Heritage Site, known as the largest
gothic building in the world.
The Basilique Saint-Pierre is also a feat of medieval architecture and should not be missed because of its guided choir, walnut carvings, and Renaissance and Baroque paintings. The palace sits on a main square which leads to streets filled with lots and lots of shops, and lots and lots of tourist shopping. Avignon is known also for summer theater troupes performing in the main square. And then there is the bridge! Originally built in the late 12th century, it apparently had 22 arches which was remarkable, considering when it was constructed. There are only four of the original arches left today because flooding destroyed much of the bridge in the 17th century. We did not walk over the bridge, but evidently, you can visit the original gatehouse and walk across the bridge. I would recommend you plan more time in Avignon than we spent. I'm not sure we realized how much there was to see and do there and it deserved more attention than we gave it!
Of course, decaf coffee is difficult to find in the south of France. So, sip some now while you are home planning your next trip abroad. Be prepared for when the world opens its arms to us again!