Provence: Legendary Light, Wind and Wine

In this program, we climb Roman ruins in Nîmes, explore a papal palace in Avignon, and savor vivid views immortalized by Van Gogh in Arles. Crossing acres of lavender and wispy vineyards, we explore the Côtes du Rhône and more wonders of the South of France.

Travel Details

Pont du Gard

There are two riversides to the Pont du Gard: the left and right banks (Rive Gauche and Rive Droite). Park on the Rive Gauche, where you'll find the museums, ticket booth, cafeteria, WC and shops — all built into a modern plaza. You'll see the aqueduct in two parts: first, a fine new museum complex, then the actual river gorge spanned by the ancient bridge.

While it's free to see the aqueduct itself, the various optional activities each have a cost. All are designed to give the sight more meaning — and they do — but for most visitors, only the museum is worth paying for. The combo-ticket — which covers all sights and parking — is often your best bet. If you get the combo-ticket, check the movie schedule; the romancing-the-aqueduct 25-minute film is silly but offers good information in a flirtatious French-Mediterranean style...and a cool, entertaining and cushy break.

Consider seeing the Pont du Gard by canoe. Collias Canoes will pick you up at the Pont du Gard (or elsewhere, if prearranged) and shuttle you to the town of Collias. You'll float down the river to the nearby town of Remoulins, where they'll pick you up and take you back to the Pont du Gard (usually 2 hrs, though you can take as long as you like, tel. 04 66 22 85 54).

Bullfights à la Provençale

Three classes of bullfights — determined by the experience of the fighters — are advertised in posters: The course de protection is for rookie bullfighters. The trophée de l'Avenir comes with better fighters. And the trophée des As features top professionals. During Easter and the fall rice harvest festival (Féria du Riz), the Arena hosts actual Spanish bullfights (look for corrida) with outfits, swords, spikes and the whole gory shebang. Don't pass on a chance to see Toro Piscine, a silly spectacle for warm summer evenings where the bull ends up in a swimming pool. Nearby villages stage bullfights in small wooden bullrings nearly every weekend; get more details at the Arles' tourist information office.

Le Caveau de Gigondas

Le Caveau de Gigondas has a vast selection of tiny bottles for sampling filled directly from the barrel and a donation-if-you-don't-buy system (on Gigonda's main square, tel. 04 90 65 82 29). Here you can compare wines from a variety of private producers in an intimate, low-key surrounding.

Palace of the Popes

In 1309, a French pope was elected (Pope Clement V). At the urging of the French king, His Holiness decided he'd had enough of unholy (and dangerous) Italy. So he loaded up his carts and moved to Avignon for a secure rule under a supportive king. The Catholic Church literally bought Avignon (then a two-bit town), and popes resided here until 1403. Meanwhile, Italians demanded a Roman pope, so from 1378 on, there were twin popes — one in Rome and one in Avignon — causing a schism in the Catholic Church that wasn't fully resolved until 1417.

A visit to the mighty yet barren papal palace comes with an audioguide that leads you along a one-way route and does a credible job of overcoming the lack of furnishings. It teaches the basic history while allowing you to tour at your own pace.

As you wander, ponder that this palace — the largest surviving Gothic palace in Europe — was built to accommodate 500 people as the administrative center of the Vatican and home of the pope. This was the most fortified palace of the age (remember, the pope left Rome to be more secure). You'll walk through the pope's personal quarters (frescoed with happy hunting scenes), see models of how the various popes added to the building, and learn about its state-of-the-art plumbing. The rooms are huge. The "pope's chapel" is twice the size of the adjacent Avignon cathedral. Nearby, a staircase leads to the tower for a view and windswept café (tel. 04 90 27 50 74).

St. Bénezet Bridge ("Pont d'Avignon")

While only four arches survive today, the original bridge was huge: Imagine a 22-arch, 3,000-foot-long bridge extending from Vatican territory to the lonely Tower of Philip the Fair, which marked the beginning of France. A Romanesque chapel on the bridge is dedicated to St. Bénezet. While there's not much to see on the bridge, the audioguide included with your ticket tells a good story. It's also fun to be in the breezy middle of the river with a fine city view.

Roman Aqueduct of Barbegal

To reach the Aqueduct coming from Arles, take D-17 toward Fontvieille, then, 1.5 miles before Fontvieille, follow signs for L'Aqueduc Romain on D-82 (it's signed coming from Fontvieille to Arles as well, on the left). In less than two miles, park at the pull-out (no sign, just after Los Pozos Blancos sign, where the ruins of the aqueduct cross the road). Leave no valuables in your car; the gravel twinkles with the remains of wing windows.

Follow the dirt path to the right through the olive grove and along the aqueduct ruins for 200 yards. Approaching the bluff with the grand view, you'll see that the water canal split into two troughs: One takes a 90-degree right turn and heads for Arles; the other goes straight to the bluff and over, where it once sent water cascading down to power eight grinding mills. Romans grew wheat on the vast fields you see from here, then brought it down to the mega-watermill of Barbegal. Historians figure this mill produced enough flour each day to feed 12,000 hungry Romans.

Hôtel le Calendal***

5 rue Porte de Laure
Arles
tel. 04 90 96 11 89
fax 04 90 96 05 84
contact@lecalendal.com

Arlaten Folk Museum

Given to Arles by Nobel Prize winner Frédéric Mistral, the museum was to give locals an appreciation of their cultural roots, presented in tableaux that unschooled villagers could understand — "a veritable poem for the ordinary people who cannot read." The museum offers a unique and intimate look at local folk culture from the 18th and 19th centuries. As it's undergoing a massive renovation, only about a quarter of the collection is on display. A visit is still worthwhile, and a well-done English handout explains the entire collection. However, the museum is entirely closed for renovation in 2010.

A one-way route takes you through several rooms showing old costumes, religious objects, and popular traditions, watched over by guards in traditional dress. The last room holds two dioramas, the museum's pride and joy. The first diorama shows "the great supper" — a Provençal feast served on Christmas Eve before midnight Mass. It's 1860, and everything on the table is locally produced. Traditionally, 13 sweets — for Jesus and the 12 apostles — were served. Grandma and grandpa warm themselves in front of the fireplace; grandpa pours wine on a log for good luck in the coming year. In the second display, a wealthy mom is shown with her newborn. Her friends visit with gifts that represent the four physical and moral qualities hoped for in a new baby — good as bread, full as an egg, wise as salt, and straight as a match. The cradle is fully stocked with everything needed to raise an infant in 1888 .(29 rue de la République, tel. 04 90 96 08 23).

Fondation Van Gogh

A refreshing stop for any art-lover, and especially interesting to Van Gogh fans, this small gallery features works by contemporary artists who pay homage to Vincent through thought-provoking interpretations of his works. Many pieces are explained in English by the artists. The black-and-white photographs (both art and shots of places that Vincent painted) complement the paintings. Unfortunately, this collection is often on the road July through September, when non–Van Gogh material is on display here (24 bis rond-point des Arènes, tel. 04 90 49 94 04).

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we’re in the South of France mixing Roman ruins, fine wine, a little Van Gogh, and even a French bullfight. Get ready for…not a year…but an exhilarating half hour in Provence.

Deep in the South of France Provence offers a rich palette of travel experiences; scenic, historic and cultural. It’s the ideal region to immerse yourself in the good life of France…and you may just come up a Francophile.

We’ll marvel at an ancient aqueduct, savor Cotes du Rhone wine in its birthplace, experience the quintessential Provençal market, play a little boules, follow in the footsteps of van Gogh, and dodge bulls in a 2000 year old arena.

France is nearly as big as Texas. The region of Provence stretches from the Mediterranean coast up the Rhône River Valley. We’ll cross the Pont du Gard, sip our way through the Cotes du Rhone wine region, and explore the cities of Nîmes, Arles, Avignon and Aix en Provence.

While its cities are packed with important sights, Provençal life feels rooted in its countryside, small towns and vibrant markets. Its famous fields of lavender and sunflowers inspire painters. Its howling Mistral wind can — as they say — to blow the ears off donkeys. And its coveted Cotes du Rhone wines showcase this region’s confident mastery of good living.

And around here, good living is never far from nature. Where else can you canoe through such charming scenery and then under a nearly 2000 year old aqueduct? This region’s evocative Roman ruins make history part of the picnic.

The Pont du Gard reminds us that throughout the ancient world, aqueducts were stone flags heralding the greatness of Rome. And they still proclaim the wonders of that age. This perfectly preserved Roman bridge supported a canal or aqueduct on the very top. It was a critical link, helping keep a steady river of water flowing cross-country to Nîmes — one of the Roman Empires largest cities. Remarkably, the water dropped only one inch for every 350 feet. Let’s go inside.

This is what Roman aqueducts were all about. This is part of a thirty-mile long channel, a man made river flowed through this for 400 years. You can see the original stones, a thin layer of mortar which waterproofed the channel, and, after centuries of use, a thick mineral build up. 

The Pont du Gard’s main arch is the largest the Romans ever built — 80 feet across. The bridge itself has no mortar — just ingeniously stacked stones. Taking full advantage of the round arch the Romans invented, it’s made strong by gravity.

The Pont du Gard museum shows that a steady supply of water was an essential part of the Roman “art of living.” You’ll see some very old plumbing; walk through a rock quarry; and learn how they moved those huge blocks into place and constructed those massive arches.

All this work was designed to bring water into the still grand Roman city of Nîmes. The water finally gushed out here into this modest-looking distribution tank from where it served the thirsty city’s needs.

Imagine the jubilation on that day in A.D. 50 when suddenly the system was operational. This is the very end of the aqueduct and water would tumble out of this hole and fill this pool. The system was designed to prioritize according to how much water was available. If the water level was high the holes would send water to homes of the wealthy, to decorative fountains and to public baths, but if the water level was very low, these holes would still send water to the essential neighborhood wells. 

Today, the town’s many Roman ruins testify to Nîmes’ former importance. The Maison Carrée rivals Rome’s Pantheon as the most complete building surviving from the Roman Empire. The temple survived in part because it’s been in constant use for the last thousand years.

The lettering across the front is long gone, but the remaining “nail holes” presented archeologists with a fun challenge: match the pattern of nail holes to the letter it once held.

And they solved the puzzle. They determined that the temple was built to honor Caius and Lucius, the grandsons of Emperor Augustus. And from that information, they dated the temple to the year 4 A.D.

Nîmes' Arena — which is still in use — is considered the best preserved from ancient Rome. It’s another fine example of Roman engineering... and Roman propaganda. In the spirit of “give the masses bread and circuses,” admission was free.

The emperor’s agenda was to create a populace that was thoroughly Roman — enjoying the same activities and the same entertainment, all thinking as one.

The arena still hosts colorful pageantry. And macho men still face dangerous beasts…bulls.

A bullfight à la Provençale is more sporting than the bloody Spanish bullfights. A tiny ribbon, laced between the horns, sits on the bull’s forehead. The daredevil fighters, gripping special hooks, try to snare the ribbon.

The loudspeaker announces the reward various local businesses offer to the man who gets the ribbon. It’s both advertising — “Pierres’ patisserie” offers 100 euros — and encouragement for the fighters.

If the bull pulls a good stunt, the band congratulates him with a tune from the opera Carmen. Unlike more bloody bullfights, in Provence the bull — who, locals stress, “dies of old age” —  always prances proudly out of the arena.

Many travelers visit Nîmes only for its famous Roman sights and are pleasantly surprised by the rest of the town. Inviting pedestrian streets and café-filled squares give it a relaxing charm. 

A foundation of Nîmes’ affluence was denim — a fabric that seems as American as apple pie. But the word denim actually means “from Nîmes”…de Nîmes. In the early 1700s, Nîmes had a thriving textile industry. And it needed a reliable source of water to power its mills and help dye its famous fabric.

To support its denim producers, the city built an extensive system of industrial canals which was ornamented with a lavish Versailles-type park. This happened just 50 years after the construction of the king’s palace at Versailles and, to the French; this peoples place has a special significance. These were the first grand gardens designed — not for royalty — but for the public.

Nîmes is an hour’s drive from the sunny Côtes du Rhône region. Here you’ll follow one of France's favorite wine roads, weaving through a rustic landscape carpeted with vines and peppered with warm stone villages. The lovingly tended vines of the Côtes du Rhône  —  grown on the côtes, or hillsides, of the Rhône River Valley  —  make wines that are delightful on your palate yet easy on your pocketbook. Traveling in May we see the selection of just the best spring shoots on these gnarly old vines.

This region was first planted with grapes by the Greeks, around 600 B.C. Romans built upon what the Greeks started, realizing even back then that here in Provence the stony soil, mild winters and long, hot summers were ideal for producing great wine.

Most villages have winemaking co-ops, offering a handy one-stop place to taste the various wines. My friend and fellow tour guide Sabine Leteinturier is joining us to be sure I get the fine points of Provençal culture just right. 

Sabine: Wait until you taste these wines. This is the Caveau de Gigondas. It’s a cooperative.

Within the Cotes du Rhone, villages like Gigondas have family-run wineries. Visitors are presented with a list and from that they can sample from an enticing selection. The tiny sampling bottles are filled directly from the barrel. Because you’re buying direct from the grower, prices are excellent. Vintners are happy to work with you — if they can figure out what you want. Knowing what you like — drier, full-bodied, more fruity, less tannic, and so on — is helpful. And knowing the term in French is even more helpful.

Rick: If I’m shopping for wine, I’m often thinking, I think like most Americans of the grape. I’m looking for a Merlot or Syrah or something like this… 

Sabine: For French wine you really do not have an indication of the grape, but what you will have on the label is where the wine is coming from. Which will give you the snapshot of the terroir.

Rick: What is the terroir?

Sabine: Terroir describes the physical condition, the climatic condition of where the vineyard is. So, in that you have a reference on the soil, the slope, how much sun it gets.

Rick: So if you know the terroir, you know the personality of the wine.

Sabine: Absolutely!

Rick: So, you come into a place like this and you’ve got like 50 different selections, how on earth do you know which wine you want?

Sabine: Well, the first thing you have to decide is: what’s for dinner? Are you going to have, shall we have grilled meat, are we going to have game, a strong meat with a sauce? And then we select the wine.

Rick: So, you go to a friend’s house and they’re serving some game with a spicy sauce and they come up with just an off-the-wall wine… you’re aware of that?

Sabine: Yes, absolutely.

Rick: They conceived it, like creating the instrumentation for a different composition, a musical composition.

Sabine: That’s right, you really get really that subtlety.

Rick: I was thinking oboes and you’ve got French Horns. Ha ha.

The French eat long and well especially here in the south. Relaxed tree-shaded lunches, long dinners, and lazy afternoons at outdoor cafés are the norm. The French have a legislated 35-hour workweek... and, it seems, a self-imposed 30-hour eat-week.

Provence has been called France’s “garden market.” Salads are popular. Provençal cuisine loves garlic, olive oil, and herbs. Order anything à la Provençale, and you’ll be well rewarded. Laid back lunches often come with a chilled rosé — the blush wines are considered refreshing. They can be very good and are respected along with whites and reds.

Aix-en-Provence is the historic capital of the region. For a tourist, Aix is delightfully free of must-see museums or ancient ruins. It’s simply a wealthy town — its people known for living well and looking good. Aix’s university gives the city a youthful energy.

Centuries ago, the King made Aix the district’s administrative center. Noble French families moved in, kicking off the city’s beautiful age or belle époque. They lined the streets with private mansions giving Aix its classy appearance.

Aix thrived thanks to its aristocratic population. But when the Revolution came — and the bust of the king on the city hall was replaced by …a Lady of the Republic — suddenly it became dangerous to be an aristocrat. The wealthy fled the city and Aix slumbered through most of the 1800s. But today, once again it’s resumed its trendy ways.

The main boulevard, Cours Mirabeau, is designed for the rich and famous to strut their fancy stuff. It survives much as it was: narrow for traffic and very wide for pedestrians who would promenade under their elegant mansions. Cours Mirabeau remains the place for tendance — that’s trendiness. The French are world-class people watchers. Enjoy the show.

In Aix’s old town, inviting pedestrian streets hum with activity. Towns are particularly lively on market days. Good guidebooks list market days and travelers who plan well enjoy the most vivid experience. Aix’s farmer’s market is a classic Provençal scene — rustic farmers selling fresh produce under the shade of graceful plane trees.

Sabine: Freshness is everything in the Provençal cooking. Here’s your garlic, essential to Provençal cuisine. You can’t cook without it.

Rick: No way.

Sabine: And you have your herbs of Provence, you have your dried sage, thyme, rosemary. We’re all set for cooking.

Rick/Sabine: Bonjour!

[Man speaking French]

[Sabine speaking French]

Sabine: This is goat cheese. In Provence we have goat cheese, not cow’s cheese. 

Rick: Huh! And it’s not so strong.

Sabine: It’s very good…delicious. It goes from mild to stronger in taste with age.

Rick: Si délicieux.

Man: Merci beaucoup.

Rick/Sabine: Au revoir.

And just beyond any market you’re likely to find the local gang playing boules. Boules is the horseshoes of southern France. It's played in every village on gravelly courts kept just for this purpose. Every French boy grows up playing boules. It’s entertaining to watch — especially if you understand the rules.

Boules is played with heavy metal balls (or boules) and a tiny target ball. Whoever gets their boule closest to the target ball, scores. There are two on a team — one lobs the ball as close to the target as he can. The other tries to knock away the opponent’s boules.

Once all the balls have been launched and the attempted blasting is over, measurements are made. Whoever ends up with the ball closest to the target receives one point. The first to reach thirteen wins.

Between rounds, players are happy to let curious travelers give it a try.

Rick: Okay here we go, ready here we go. Like so?

The nearby city of Avignon is famous for its papal palace and broken bridge. Contemporary Avignon prospers behind its mighty medieval walls. With its large student population and fashionable shops, Avignon is an intriguing blend of youthful spirit and sophistication. Its foreboding papal palace dominates the old town.

Through most of the 14th century the Catholic Church was run from here in Avignon. In 1309, the French-born pope Clement V decided to move the papacy from Rome to Avignon. All of Europe recognized Clement as the legitimate pope.

During that period Avignon grew from a quiet village to a powerful city. The Church basically bought up the town and made it Europe’s largest construction zone. It built its wall, mansions for cardinals, residences for the entire Vatican bureaucracy, vast public squares, and the Popes’ towering palace

After about 70 years, a later pope moved the papacy back to Rome. But Avignon installed its own rival pope and for about 40 years there were two disputed popes — one in Rome and one in Avignon. Finally in 1417 a Church-wide council affirmed the Roman pope, Avignon dropped its claim, and what was called “the Great Schism” was over.

This bridge is the “pont d’Avignon,” made famous by the 15th century folk song known to all French school kids. 

[Woman singing song]

Avignon’s famous bridge was vital for trade in the Middle Ages. While only a few arches survive, the bridge was huge: extending all the way to the lonely Tower of Philip the Fair, which marked the beginning of France.

Like Nîmes, industrial Avignon was thoroughly water-powered. Its river was split into canals to drive waterwheels which powered the town’s 19th century factories and textile mills.

This “street of the dyers” is charming; its’ limestone car barriers are carved whimsically by amateur sculptors.

Avignon retains its quaint industrial age souvenirs. But its sleek new train station, which welcomes France’s Bullet train, is a good example of how France is embracing modern technology and investing in public transportation. The 180 mph TGV trains now put the south of France less than three hours from Paris.

And the freeways are doing their best to keep up the pace. In France, like almost anywhere in Europe, the fastest way from A to B is the autoroute — or freeway. French autoroutes come with tolls. But if you’re in a hurry, they easily save enough time to justify the expense.

But of course slow roads come with more memories. To be all alone with your own personal Roman ruin, take a quick detour to the Aqueduct of Barbegal. These are the scant remains of an ancient Roman power station…channeling a river to turn their mills.

The Romans ingeniously harnessed maximum power from the water flow. They built a series of terraced pools allowing the water to cascade down, powering eight separate grinding mills.

Romans grew wheat on these vast fields, and brought the grain here to the mega watermill. Cutting through this bluff, the water from this aqueduct provided power to produce enough flour each day to feed 12,000 hungry Romans.

The mill served the nearby Roman town of Arles…and that’s where we’re heading. By helping Julius Caesar defeat Marseille, the people of Arles earned the imperial nod and their city was made an important river port. With its strategic bridge over the Rhône River, Arles was a key stop on the Roman road from Italy to Spain.

After being a trading center for centuries, Arles became a sleepy town of little importance in the 1700s. Allied bombs destroyed much of the city in World War II. But today, Arles thrives again.

This compact city is alive with Roman ruins, an eclectic assortment of museums, and welcoming pedestrian zones. It’s my favorite home base from which to explore France’s Provence region.

Twice a week, Arles’ ring road erupts into an open-air market of flowers, ready-for-ratatouille baskets of produce, and everything but car traffic. Join in, try the olives…sniff that lavender of Provence.

The beauty of this market is its international flavor, reflecting how Provence remains a crossroads of Mediterranean cultures…Paella from Spain, fragrant mint leaves for tea, spices from North Africa.

The market feels a little like a bazaar thanks to the many Algerians and Moroccans who call Arles home. Throughout France but especially here in the south, Muslim North Africans — from France’s former colonies — have come to pick olives, harvest fruit, and so on. While they are integrating, France is dealing with the friction any country has when immigrant laborers do its lowliest jobs.

The Forum Square is named for the Roman forum that once stood right here. This square was the political and religious center of Roman Arles. Still lively, it’s just the place for a pastis. 

This is the traditional aperitif here in Provence. It’s a mix or blend of anise and other herbs and you cut it, dilute it, according to taste. They serve it with a carafe of water. It’s almost a tradition here before a meal to get together with good friends and enjoy a pastis.

The most dramatic remnant of Roman Arles is its arena. Imagine the roar of the fans packing this place nearly 2,000 years ago as gladiators battled wild animals. The floor was covered with sand to absorb all the blood. The word “arena” actually means sand. 

While the grand city of Rome could afford exotic beasts like tigers and lions from faraway places, smaller towns like Arles made do with snarly local beast like wild boar, bears, and so on. Like in Nîmes, the arena in Arles is still used for concerts, bullfights, and other spectacles.

In tumultuous medieval times, locals bricked up the arches turning the stadium into a fortified town — over a hundred humble homes were crammed within its circular defenses. Three of its medieval towers survive.

We’re staying at Hôtel Calendal. The friendly staff speaks English — not unusual here in Provence. Its rooms are quiet and comfy — and many come with views. Guests enjoy Internet access, an enticing breakfast buffet, and the shady, Provençal chic courtyard. The Calendal provides just the mix of comfort and economy I look for when researching my guidebooks.

Nearby, the Arlaten museum was founded to give locals an appreciation of their cultural roots. That starts with ancient Rome — the building itself seems to embrace an evocative old temple. 

Visitors enjoy an intimate look at Provençal folk culture and that includes traditional dress from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Freestanding wedding armoires were given to brides by parents and filled with the essentials to begin a new life. Carved wooden cages — called Panetière — hung from the walls, keeping bread away from hungry critters.

Provençal traditions are remembered: Here a wealthy woman just had a baby and is visited by friends bringing gifts representing physical and moral qualities — they hope the baby will be full as an egg, wise as salt, and straight as a match. 

Perhaps Arles most famous resident was a Dutchman — Vincent van Gogh. He was 35 when he moved here in 1888, and he discovered the light that inspired in him an explosion of creativity.

Van Gogh, coming from the gray skies and flatlands of Holland and Paris was inspired by everything Provençal — he claimed, “the whole future of art is to be found here in the South of France.” Here in Arles, nearly everywhere you turn, you see scenes that could have inspired Van Gogh. While here he worked in a flurry, producing more paintings than at any other period in his too-brief career — nearly 200 canvases in just over a year. 

You can still visit the places that inspired him like this hospital courtyard. While all Van Gogh left in Arles was a chunk of his ear — you won’t find any paintings — his legacy continues at the Foundation Van Gogh. It features a stimulating collection of works by contemporary artists paying homage to Van Gogh through their thought-provoking interpretations of Vincent’s work. 

Whether you’re in search of the magic light like Van Gogh, perhaps the best Roman ruins anywhere; a bloodless bullfight, lessons in boules, or just the right wine…Provence has it all.

Vive-la Provence. I hope you’ve enjoyed our look at this small, but endearing slice of France. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Au revoir. 

Credits:

He discovered the light which inspired him an explooosion of creativity.

This pool was plumbed to handle prioritizing, prioritizing…

Mmm. What is this? [laugh] 

I’m ready. I’m ready.

The town thrives and it’s a threndy place to be. Threndy? Threndy?

Clips