Provence See And Do
Perfectly preserved medieval walls and turrets surround France's oldest port, at the southern end of the Camargue marsh. The town dates to Roman times, but its significance began under Louis IX, who used it as a launching base for various crusades in the 13th century. This is the edge of Provence, and it feels like the edge of France: You can see the Spanish influence in the bullfighting advertisements and in the many restaurants serving the resulting meat. Take a few hours to wander the town's small grid of streets. Be sure to stop at La Cure Gourmande, a sweet-shop paradise overstuffed with caramel and fig products. The Camargue's salt plains, white horses, and bull farms surround the town. You can also drive down to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 20 miles away, and take in the port-town ambience, abundant water birds, and crashing waves, a rarity for the Mediterranean.
This is Vincent's town, as you can see when you look at the live copy of his Café du Soir standing in the Place du Forum or visit l'Espace van Gogh, the cultural center they've made of the institution where he received treatment. But Arles is equally renowned for its Roman remains—the largest set outside Italy.
Wine pilgrims have been heading here ever since Avignon-based Pope John XXII, an early oenophile, encouraged the locals to produce a wine that would compete with Burgundy and Bordeaux. The result was a dark-colored red wine of great concentration and power, now known around the world. The town itself is a somewhat businesslike medieval ring topped by a ruined Papal palace, with a long, steep climb past dozens of stores selling old and young versions of the local star product. Near the top is Le Verger des Papes, an excellent restaurant and wine store that offers tastings and a sweeping view of the Rhône valley. Don't bother driving around outside of town to check out prestigious wine properties in the area: Most can be visited only with an appointment, if at all. Instead, go to one of the local wine stores. They offer an astonishing variety of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, both red and white. Vinadéa is the best of these, a warm mini-emporium that sells 200 different wines, with tastings for collectors and amateurs alike. They also speak English and are open every day, a huge relief in this neck of the woods. The town bustles, even in low season, with tourists on a mission. You don't catch many camcorder-wielding crowds disgorging from tour buses: Your fellow visitors are likely to be red-toothed couples staggering under the weight of newly bought liquid treasure.
Dreams of owning property in the region are often born in this template of a Provence village: The dramatic limestone cliff is covered in red-roofed buildings set at vertiginous angles among olive trees and scrubby vegetation, with views of fields and vineyards for miles around. The village is not above taking advantage of its visual charms: There's a Sotheby's real-estate office on the town square for impulse purchases. Aside from the sweeping vistas that greet you at every turn, the town is fairly standard, with a central square and a few decent restaurants (beware lunch closing time; after 2:30 you're out of luck, with no exceptions), a ruined château, and a church. But the streets are slanted at an especially steep angle, and those views sneak up on you when you least expect it, whether you're exploring an alley or trying to find the church stairwell. A quick trip to the cliff-side village of Roussillon is also in order if you're in the neighborhood. It's worth it just for the drive through the vineyards, especially in fall, when the grape leaves change colors, lighting up the fields in gorgeous reds, yellows, and browns.
The Gorges du Verdon, at 12 miles long and up to 2,300 feet deep at points, is wild France at its most awe-inspiring. The turquoise-green Verdon River sits at the bottom of jagged limestone faces covered in garrigue (the scrub bush of southern France). A paradise for outdoorsy types who can kayak or canoe on the river, the gorges are also popular with hikers and fishermen. The town of Castellane provides a good point of departure via car, as the gorges are at their highest here; the trip to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie includes many a cliff view, ancient bridges, and a spot the French call "Point Sublime"—a viewing platform over the junction of the Baou and Verdon rivers that allows for an extensive view of the gorge. This is the French Grand Canyon, so be warned that you may have to share it with many a fellow tourist. Still, a hike here is a fine way to work up an appetite.
Driving up to Les Baux is an exercise in pure Mediterranean escapism: Switchback roads lead past endless olive groves, plane trees, and vineyards, giving regular jaw-dropping views over the rolling countryside. At the summit is a ruined mountaintop town, complete with castle, both of which appear to be a few thousand years old. The view from the top, which you'll unfortunately share with several busloads of tourists, is one of the best in all of Europe. Trees growing at odd angles dot the rocky outcroppings of the Alpilles mountains all around, and the plateau below is an Impressionist's dream of lavender fields and those ubiquitous olive groves and vineyards. On clear days, you can sometimes see all the way to the Mediterranean from the 1,000-feet-up vantage point. Château des Baux, historically a strategically important fortress that now belongs to the Grimaldi dynasty of Monaco (think Princess Rainier), offers a few winding, crowded streets inside the town walls. An added attraction for medievalists and kids is the display of catapults, including the largest trebuchet in Europe.
Massif des Calanques
The coastal, creek-lined mastiff gorges known as "Les Calanques" dot the 12-mile jagged shore between Marseille and the attractive fishing port of Cassis. Gorse-covered white cliffs lead down to these clear, clean waterways, which are popular with swimmers. The best, at Port-Pin and d'En-Vau, can only be reached on foot or by boat. A popular spot to start trekking over the mastiffs and across the gorges is the fishing area of Callelongue (at the end of Marseille's Corniche) where you will find a simple restaurant, La Grotte, well worth visiting for its end-of-the-world feel (1 rue des Pebrons; 33-4-91-73-17-79). From here, adventurers can embark on ambitious hikes over the calanques to Cassis—the shorter of two routes takes 10 to 11 hours, and the longer path that follows the coast takes a full two days. However, due to risk of forest fires, footpaths through the calanques are restricted during the summer.
Alternatively, you can explore the calanques via sea kayak. Raskas Kayak runs half-day to week-long tours of the calanques out of Marseille, visiting nearby islands and gliding into hard-to-reach coves (33-4-91-73-27-16; www.raskas-kayak.com).
Les Arènes, perhaps the world's best-preserved Roman amphitheatre, and the Maison Carrée, ditto in temples (33-4-66-21-82-56; www.arenes-nimes.com), are reason enough to visit this attractive but somewhat staid town. Time your visit to see an event in the 1st-century amphitheater—it's in regular use as a concert venue, theater, and bullfighting ring. By way of contrast, the Carré d'Art, a modern art complex, opened in 1993 in a Norman Foster building (66 Ave. Jean Jaurés; 33-4-66-64-56-16; www.carredart.org). About 14 miles northeast of Nîmes, you can visit the impressive Pont du Gard, the highest aqueduct the Romans built anywhere, which supplied the city with water (www.pontdugard.fr).
Route du Pont du Gard
A UNESCO World Heritage site, this is one tourist attraction that's well worth the drive and crowds. The spectacular Roman-built bridge is worthy of a Romantic painting—three elegant layers of arches, 1,200 feet long, span two rocky precipices with the Gardon River flowing 160 feet below. The original structure is an aqueduct running from springs around the small town of Uzès to the city of Nîmes, a distance of 31 miles. No cement was used in the construction, making the architectural marvel all the more impressive. The Pont has been a tourist site for hundreds of years—Louis XVI had his engineers shore up its structure for visitor traffic, and the span got a major makeover under Napoleon III in the 1870s. Visitors can scamper about on the bridge with little keeping the overly adventurous from plunging over; however, walks along the highest archways, where the actual aqueduct is, are available only via tours offered by the site's staff—maddeningly enough, hours are unpredictable and are only available on-site. A spiffy new visitors center offers interactive museums and other educational exhibits, but the bridge itself is really the whole show.
This is that small French town you always dreamed of, a mix of pristine Beaux-Arts and medieval buildings set among plane trees with peeling bark. Arriving from Les Baux or Avignon via one of the most romantic and gorge-filled drives in France, visitors find a ringed boulevard that holds a maze of about a dozen medieval streets chock-a-block with artisanal textiles, olive oil, wine, cheese, and sausages. The outside ring, which changes its name from Boulevard Gambetta to Victor Hugo to Boulevard Marceau, has two of the world's greatest gourmet shops. Olives Huiles du Monde sells a range of award-winning, locally produced olive oils and truffle products. Joël Durand Chocolatier's offerings go way beyond his delicately infused chocolates to include pots of crème caramel and sweets flavored with local olives and almonds. After a stop by these two temples, head down to the Bistrot d'Eygalières some 15 km south for one of the most rewarding meals on offer in Provence or anywhere.