For the last few years, I’ve been dreaming of Provence. An obsession took hold one day, and I became convinced that this is where I’m meant to live! My husband is used to me sending him links to Provence country houses (called bastide’s), showing him what we could buy if we sold our Toronto house and just move there. Something about the Provencal life just speaks to my heart – the beautiful and bountiful nature all year round, 300 days of sunshine, slower lifestyle, and charming, hundred-year-old bastide’s to call home. I believed it was the most perfect place on earth – and I had never even been! So when I found out that one of my best friends, who lives in Europe, had time off before starting a new job right at the end of my Saint-Tropez trip, I decided to jump at the opportunity. And I’m forever grateful for my best friend, who like me, jumps at opportunities. We booked ourselves 4 nights and 5 days in Provence. And now that I’ve been there I can confirm – it really is the most perfect place on earth!
We started our trip with two nights in Aix, the biggest city in Provence. We were instantly captivated by its beauty, simple charm, and sun-drenched streets. I strongly believe that the best way to start experiencing any new place is simply by walking – so walk we did! We spent hours wandering aimlessly down the cobblestoned streets and any alleyways that caught our eye, stopping every now and then to take photos and remark at every beautiful little detail.
Dinner at Les Vieux Canailles was a big highlight of our time in Aix. We had a romantic dinner on the cobblestoned sidewalk, beneath the street lights and next to an old marble foundation, while sitting around an old wine barrel turned into a table. The service was extraordinary, and possibly the best I’ve ever had in France. The food was incredible, and the wine pairings that were suggested made it a truly perfect meal.
I also loved starting our morning with a cappuccino at Le Café Voltaire. Eating inside is very intimate, and the book-lined shelves on the wall make it feel like you’re in someone’s home library. But when the weather is nice, their terrace is lovely too with a view of an old clock tower and great for people watching.
Provence is dotted with many of France’s most beautiful, old towns, which makes it a great area to explore by car (road trip, anyone?). On our second day in Aix, we decided to take a day trip Avignon, a historically important medieval town roughly an hour’s drive north. We had lunch immediately upon arrival, on the terrace of a tiny bistro in the shadows of a great cathedral. It was delicious, beautiful, and charming – like everything in Provence. With our bellies full, we went exploring. Probably the most famous landmark is the bridge of Avignon, which if you went to school in Canada you may remember the popular song about this bridge from French class – “Sur le pont d’avignon”. My best friend was a French immersion kid and she definitely had to do a little dance on the bridge! I really loved our walk up to the Rocher des Doms as well, which is a lovely park perched on a cliff over the city, with a walking trail offering panoramic views.
Parc National des Calanques
My favorite part of our time in Aix, which is in the southern part of Provence near the Mediterranean sea, was the day trip we took to Cassis to hike in the Parc National des Calanques. I had done a lot of research beforehand and knew I wanted to hike to Calanque d’en Vau – a small inlet with cliffs so high it feels like you are in a gorge, and the most incredible aquamarine water I’ve ever seen. The photos made this secluded, rocky cove look so magical I needed to see it for myself, whatever it took!
The hike in was hard, a lot harder than I had anticipated. But when we emerged onto the pebbly beach, with limestone cliffs towering on either side of us and that crystal clear water beckoning us to jump in – I forgot all about the difficulty getting there and was in total awe of how beautiful it was.
This is something I highly, highly recommend doing. So below I’ll explain how to get to this hike since it can be a little tricky and confusing.
To get here, drive to the Parking de la Presu’ile at the bottom of Avenue de Notre Dame and park in the car park. Walk back up and out of the parking lot, towards town. Stay to the left-hand side, and you will see a small dirt path that you turn left on and walk down into the park. If you see a small concession stand with a sign for water, sandwiches, and ice cream, you’re in the right place! Start walking along the flat dirt path that will guide you into the park to start your hike.
The hike leads into the coastal national park with two stunning ocean inlets that you can swim in, Calaque de Port Pin and Calanque d’En Vau. Both inlets are lovely, but the second beach, Calanque d’En Vau, is less busy & way more beautiful, so I highly recommend putting aside the time to hike to both.
There are two routes you can take to get to Calanque d’En Vau. The blue route (more scenic, as it runs along the coastline), or the red route (a more direct route). I recommend taking the red route on your way in, as you’ll be eager to see the second beach, and the blue route on the way back, to have something to look forward to. This is exactly what we did – we followed the red markers in until we reached Calanqu d’En Vau. However, be aware that the red route is a very advanced hiking path. You will need proper footwear, and be ready to use both your arms and legs to scale up and down some steep rocks. But like I said, it was so worth it!
The unique thing about this stunning inlet is that it can only be reached by boat or by foot, so crowds are minimal compared to other beaches in the area. This exclusivity is what makes Calanque d’En Vau so special. So if you make it to this beach, congratulations, you earned yourself some of the most beautiful views on the Cote d’Azure. Go for a swim, enjoy a picnic lunch, and take in the views of the towering limestone cliffs that line this incredible beach. Make sure to go in the morning as that is when the light is best and the beach is drenched in the most sunlight. We spent a couple of hours here, taking many dips and quick swims in the cold but beautiful water, and then drying off in the warm sunshine. When the beach had become mostly covered in shade, we hiked back following the blue route, which is much more scenic and takes you along the coast, on top of the limestone cliffs. Another one of my favorite moments was on our way back when I looked down from the top of the cliff and could see the beach we were just at!
After hiking in Parc National des Calanques, we drove up into the Luberon Valley for the second part of our trip, making the hilltop village of Gordes our home base. I’m so glad we did too because after exploring more of the beautiful villages in this area, Gordes was still my favorite!
We stayed at Villa Hautvallon, an old bastide in the countryside which met and exceeded both of our high expectations. A beautiful old stone farmhouse, Villa Hautvallon felt very private and secluded. Surrounded by orchards and rolling countryside, it was also only a 15-minute walk into town – an important factor for us since we didn’t want to be driving after dinner. The owner also gave us the most incredible suggestions of things to do each day, he pretty much gave us our entire itinerary while we were there. We were really grateful for the wealth of knowledge that he happily shared with us.
In my opinion, part of the experience of Provence is staying in one of these old bastides. They are quintessential Provence, and it’s worth splurging for a nice one that you can really enjoy spending time at. I loved coming home to our bastide after a morning of exploring, and lounging by the pool in the afternoon beneath the olive and cypress trees, sipping rose, hearing the chickadees sing, and cooling off with a swim. To me, that experience at the bastide was just as integral to our overall experience of Provence as was visiting the old medieval villages and dining on the local cuisine. Other parts of our stay that I loved were breakfast in the carriage house and an evening apero on our stone terrace, surrounded by the property gardens and Provence countryside. The owner also cued the music whenever he saw we were out there, setting the mood for a relaxing and magical evening!
Gordes itself is a small, ancient village perched high on a cliff overlooking the Luberon Valley. It’s so small you can explore the entire town in one morning, but its beauty really made us want to slow down and take our time. As I said before, it was my favourite town in the Luberon Valley we visited. A place in town not to miss is the hotel Arielles Gordes, La Bastide. This luxury 5-star hotel has a large terrace with sweeping views over the Luberon Valley. On our last night, we went for cocktails and to watch the sunset, followed by a very decadent and delicious dinner in the restaurant. It was the perfect way to end our trip!
From Gordes, we took a short drive over to the village of Rousillon one morning, known as one of the most beautiful villages in France. The village itself has a distinctive reddish color because it is built on top of the world’s largest known ochre deposit. For this reason, unlike the other yellow, sun-drenched towns or stone medieval towns in the area, Rousillon is unique in its reddish appearance. At the south end of the town, there is an orange path that leads you through the richly colored ochre cliffs, which is an incredible sight to see. I couldn’t believe the colors I was seeing on these cliffs, I was in awe. The town is also incredibly picturesque and definitely worth walking around.
After our morning in Rousillon, we drove over to Ménerbes for lunch, which is another one of France’s “perched villages”, along with Gordes and Rousillon. We ate at Bistro le 5, which had both amazing views over the valley and delicious food. After lunch, we decided to wander around and explore. As we made our way further uphill, the streets became quieter. It was incredibly tranquil to walk around this quiet hilltop village, with beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. Ménerbes is an especially well-preserved town, and marveling at the medieval architecture while we walked those quiet streets was my favorite part.
I left Provence with a full belly and an even fuller heart. It was just as magical as I dreamt it to be, and there is still so much more to see. This trip was only the beginning of a lifelong love affair between me and Provence… I can’t wait to go back!