Cute. Charming. Canals.
Cute. Charming Canals.
Repeat all of the above.
That’s Provence in a nutshell. Many of the towns dotting the famous French countryside can be characterized by their collection of narrow, charmingly weathered buildings lining pedestrian boulevards that cross the occasional canal. Part of me feels like I’m in Italy, but there’s a palatable ambiance that screams France. The black railings on the bridges swirl like a drawing of a rose petal. No corner of a town center in Provence has been left without thought to the aesthetics of the design. This is, after all, where the antique market and food stalls will be once or twice a week. And yes, there are street musicians passing the day with an accordion-laced melody.
This is true in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, and Saint-Didier. The sizes vary, but the ingredients remain the same. Depending on your interest (or tolerance), you might find yourself saying, “I’m cute town-ed out,” as my wife’s uncle did, at the end of a trip in Provence, preferring to instead go for a hike in the woods. This is also possible, but the region is much drier than you might imagine. Wildfires are an issue here, as a government employee with an orange vest on told me during a break in a bike ride. After which, he gave me a wide smile and wished me a bon voyage in Provence.
Allons en Provence: L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
Provence started for me as most trips do in Europe — with the train. After spending a day in Marseille, my wife and I took the Trains Express Régionaux (regional train) up to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue — an easy 80-minute ride. Much like in Italy, the regional trains don’t receive half the love the impressive high-speed trains do. Windows were smudged and dirty, making it difficult to see outside to enjoy the view. Nonetheless, the ride was still pleasant enough and easily the most agreeable way to make the trip.
It’s difficult not to feel pleased from the moment you arrive in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The town is surrounded by something of a moat, so it retains its historic aesthetic as a pedestrian-friendly haven where the weekend market can flourish. It was easy to imagine myself in one of those old flats with the typically fanciful French railings outside the patio window. Plus this being Provence, finding a good meal was never an ordeal, like at Le Jardin du Quai near the train station with its garden for outdoor eating and a welcoming ambiance inside for chilly evenings.
Provence and its towns are, simply put, pleasant. They won’t blow you away like the Cologne Cathedral outside the main station, but you’ll be hard-pressed not to enjoy yourself. While the awe of Europe’s main sights will wither over time, Provence will always be perfectly pleasant.
The train was my preferred method of arrival, but a road bike was the best way to explore the hilly countryside. This, too, is something the region promotes the most in terms of seeing the outdoors with maps around the area identifying primary cycle routes. (D57 between L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and Saint-Didier ended up being my primary route.) Hiking, however, was much more of a makeshift endeavor. Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon is nearby, but I found it much more difficult to come across an intuitive map online than in Germany where you have the exact opposite problem — too much information.
Hiking Provence to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse
Finding trails was an experiment. Some were merely footpaths to nothing presumably created by other wanderers in search of a hike. The most interesting thing we found was a handful of bories — stone huts first created by French farmers in the 18th Century to be used seasonally. My wife, however, stumbled upon something that appeared to be created on purpose during a run. We returned and ended up hiking along the Canal de Carpentras over crushed gravel trail. All evidence suggested that this was a marked trail. Others were wandering by, too, clicking away on their cameras when they weren’t wiping the sweat off their forehead from the beaming sun.
The evidence proved faulty once we came to a viaduct. There were no signs forbidding us from crossing, though it seemed unlikely that we were meant to. Still, there was a railing on the right-hand side that made us feel safe enough to cross and even pause for a few unique photos. Then once we hopped off on the other side, there was clearly a sign in French noting that such a crossing is a big no-no. (Legality aside, they really should make that a crossing. Some gorgeous views up there.)
Just as quickly as the hike became illegal, it returned to something of a marked trail. Even as we neared Fontaine-de-Vaucluse there were actual pedestrian signs noting the distance to different towns and landmarks.
Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, like L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, is cute, charming, and all the other familiar adjectives, but on a smaller scale. Nonetheless, cycling tourists and tour groups traveling by bus find their way here to take more photos of the cute and charming buildings and the bridges crossing the water with floral arrangements lining the railings.
A distinctly French characteristic is the limited dining hours. Good luck finding lunch after 2 p.m. or dinner before 5 or 6 p.m. in the evening. So a sign of tourism being present is a restaurant that caters to the ignorant by offering meals outside of typical Franco hours. In Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, it’s La Vanne Marel with outdoor seating right on the river with a perfect vantage point for people watching along the bridge. The view is pure Provence.
Dining in Saint-Didier
Even cozier is the town (village?) of Saint-Didier with, again, more charming (attractive? delightful? inviting?) shops and restaurants lining Rue le Cours. Taking a break from French cuisine, we opted for Restaurant Côte Cours to split different styles of pizza pies among our large group. Unlike Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, there’s a stronger local vibe here. It seems in Provence that the smaller the town, the more likely tourists will have yet to add it to their maps — logically so. Dining families and friends filled the large, gravel patio space with a bit of a beer garden feel to it, enjoying the warm evening weather and full moon.
A gentleman behind me, probably in his 50s or 60s with a balding hairline, wire-framed glasses, and khaki vest over a plaid tee shirt, was clearly itching for an opportunity to join our conversation. He jumped in, having heard our English and making the reasonable guess that we were visitors to the region as well.
The man was German and had been renting out a holiday flat just down the street with his wife, implying this was a regular outing for them. He confirmed my suspicions that not many tourists make it to Saint-Didier by asking how we found the town. It was, as is often the case when finding places off the beaten path, an accident. My father-in-law rolled through on a bike ride an earlier afternoon.
We were so taken by the town that I returned a couple of days later with my father-in-law on another bike ride, spotting the friendly German again shopping for fruits at the local market. Saint-Didier outdid itself in the daylight where it was easier to see, yes, even more of the charm and attention to detail that likely made this man a regular in the first place.
Au Revoir Provence
I can’t say why, but it seems clear now that my memory of Provence follows the size of the towns I visited rather than necessarily being chronological. Though my time in Provence did come to an end at our smallest stop — Saumane-de-Vaucluse. During a solo bike ride, I pedaled through this one street town and found a bistro with an excellent view of the sunset. My wife and I sat on the patio overlooking the forest we had just hiked with a glass of wine as the sun dipped beneath the trees.
Our family joined us as the fire of a recently-set sun skipped across the cloudless sky. Below, a rare sighting of a family of wild boars. Even the restaurant owner looked over the edge of the patio in childlike delight as they snorted their way around the grass.
The wildlife spectacle gave way to sleepy conversation and dinner. It was another in an endless barrage of delicious meals, capping our visit to Provence surrounded by the relative quiet and calm of the village stones that lined the path back to our holiday apartment.
More photos from Provence