Peppered with gorgeous towns, lush vineyards and sweeping rural scenes, Provence remains one of France’s most sought after getaways. While soaking it all up through the window of a romantic TGV train remains an alluring option, we decided to hit the road and satiate our wanderlust in a hired black Volvo. While it wasn’t quite a DeLorean, it took us through Provence, and six centuries back in time to Villeneuve les-Avignon.
After our magical medieval moment in Montpellier, we shoot north for fresh adventures—first, through the old Roman city of Nimes, barreling east to sleepy Tarascon for delicious fresh seafood paella in the main square by the canal. Further on up the road, we make another pit stop, wandering through gorgeous Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Vincent Van Gogh’s home in his later years, where he produced 150 of his finest works.
With a roasting French sun bearing down on us, it’s a welcome relief to finally pull into Villeneuve les Avignon, our home for the next three nights—Avignon’s sleepier, oft-overlooked counterpart on the opposite bank of the Rhone River. The looming medieval tower of Philippe-le-Bel greets us by the steep roadside; its limestone turret makes us feel like we’ve travelled 600 years into the past. The sensation of time travel stays with us the whole trip.
Our accommodation, Maison Orsini , is deluxe, not least of all because it has a swimming pool, a welcome turn of events in the incendiary heat. Set in the remains of Villeneuve les-Avignon’s 14th century palace, the view from its floral courtyard is breathtaking—a ‘pinch yourself’ panorama; at dusk, we sip red wine, and search out to the gently trickling Rhone, while Fort St André, an 11th century fortress encircling the Abbey of Saint-Andre, broods high and stoic atop steep Mount Andaon.
The fort’s gatehouse must have been an imposing sight, even to those religious powerful across the river in Avignon at the height of the ‘Avignon Papacy’. In 1305, the cardinals of the Catholic Church backed the Frenchman, Clement V, as the next pope, adding fuel to political instability in Rome. The Church relocated to France and for the next 100 years Avignon became a surrogate Vatican. The popes during this time lived in the monumental Palais des Papes, an incredible purpose-built gothic palace. As we sip our wine, it’s difficult to miss the architectural masterpiece standing imperial in the distance, illumined in the balmy night sky.
The next morning, after a sumptuous meat and pastry petit dejuner on the wooden table of Maison Orsini’s castle lounge, we begin a sweaty stroll across to Avignon for a tour of the Palais. It’s even more incredible up close.
We return to Villeneuve les-Avignon in the afternoon, drenched in sweat. At Place Jean Jaures, the sleepy town square, overheated locals sip pints of Kronenburg and cylinders of green pastis. We join them, ogling folks wandering out from La Chartreuse, the sprawling monastery further on down the Rue de la Republique, once home to monks of the Order of Chartreux, now a dedicated exhibition and art gallery space.
Sweating well into the evening, we opt for relaxed decadence at restaurant la Guinguette du vieux Moulin for dinner, close to the tower by the banks of the Rhone. Aperitifs of Pernod and Grande Absenthe keep the temperature down, and crisp, cheesy pizza with local seafood tempers our appetites.
It’s another roaster the next morning; we hit the road again for respite, even further back in time, to the Pont Du Gard, the tallest standing Roman structure next to the Colosseum, a mammoth aqueduct bridge that straddles the Gardon River. The Pont Du Gard is an iconic section of the 50km-long Nimes aqueduct and, as well as an incredible architecture sight, the cool waters of the Gardon provide the perfect spot for a crisp, leisurely dip, and a late afternoon picnic of cured meats, cheese and crusty baguette.
After three nights in Villeneuve les Avignon, our imaginations are awash with the past, floating through history. Returning the Volvo at Gare D’Avignon brings a stark thrust into the present; I suppose no French vacation is complete without enduring a snap strike from the rail unions. With our train to Nice cancelled until evening, we shade ourselves from the 37-degree heat in local cafes, soaking up the views, breathing in the last musty moments of our sweaty adventure. Given a longer strike, it wouldn’t have taken much to find us back on that road, barreling on through provincial antiquity.
Written by and photos by Cam Hassard for EuropeUpClose.com