From Avignon, we drove south along the banks of the Rhône to Arles. Van Gogh left his mark, and his ear, here but you won’t find his paintings. If you arrive on a Monday in the off-season you won’t find much else either as all of the museums were closed (rookie mistake, we knew better but we’ve lost track of the days of the week in our meanderings). We did visit the 3rd century BC coliseum, now used for bullfighting. The €9 euro per head price of admission seems to reflect an imposed inflationary tariff for being listed in the book 10,000 Places to See Before You Die. Maybe they should throw you a bone and add in a visit to the adjacent Roman Theater (also €9) too. C’est le vie. Arles is worth a quick stop if you’re in the area and maybe if the museums are open it would have offered more but on we went to Gordes.
Charming, hilltop Gordes lived up to its billing. With a population of around 2000, this town hoisted atop a hill surrounded by lavender fields and the Vaucluse mountains and Luberon valley is surely hopping later in the spring, during summer and in the fall. It tops ‘best in France’ lists: “Hilltop Towns” (MSN), “Most Adorable Small Towns in Europe” (Huffington Post), “Most Beautiful Small Towns in France” (Conde Nast) for a reason. We rolled into town as the sun was waning over the fields to the west and in time to stroll from our hotel to the town to try to find a dinner spot. We were told that La Bastide des Pierres was open but seeing little sign of imminent opening we headed to the SPAR market (no fellow Mass natives, that’s not a Star Market typo) for emergency provisions. When traveling in the off-season, always have a back up plan. Fortunately, plan A panned out and La Bastide opened, as promised, and served up delicious Italian pasta dishes, so good we went back the next night for the pizza. Try the pistachio ice cream, yum.
In the morning, following our croissants and cafe au lait we meandered around town and visited the Chateau which contains an exhibit on the town’s history and rotating artists’ exhibits. The town has gone through periods of industry, negligence, restoration and rejuvenation. Most recently rejuvenated by the artistic community which has understandably, given the serene and beautiful surrounds, made this area home.
We drove north to the southern tip of a Cote de Rhône driving tour we found in the Rick Steves Provence book in our Airbnb in Avignon and visited the mountain-top vineyard of Domaine de Coyeux from which you get stunning views of vineyards backstopped by craggy mountain tops. Taking full advantage of our rental car, we explored the winding, often narrow, valley roads through winding mountain passes, fields of lavender, olives, vineyards and fruit trees blooming with early spring flowers.
South to Aix en Provence to conclude our short driving tour of Provence we went, wishing we had longer and planning a return for a late June to come when the lavender fields have overtaken the countryside.