Deep in the heart of Southern France, tidy stone-cut villages straddle limestone hills … lush vineyards drape over vast fields like emerald blankets … fertile farms produce heavenly cheeses, honey, olive oil, herbs, and other bounties … and unspoiled delta plains host rural farms, droves of wild white horses, and some of the last true cowboys in Europe. This is France’s unrivalled Provence region, where man and nature seamlessly converge into a rich and symbiotic culture of breathtaking and bucolic beauty. And there is no more rewarding way to experience it than in a Discovery Tours small group during our new Treasures of Provence trip.
The Untouched Wild of the Camargue
Near Arles, before the legendary Rhone River spills into the Mediterranean, it fans out into countless tendril-like waterways and forms one of Europe’s most magnificent delta systems. This vast untamed region is the Camargue, a spectacular 570 square miles of pastures, lagoons, wetlands, and salt flats that hosts some 400 species of birds, including the wondrous pink flamingo. Bird lovers and nature enthusiasts alike revel in the endless horizons, silent stillness, and clean air of this beloved preserve.
Perhaps one of the most magical residents of the Camargue is the wild white horse. One of the oldest horse breeds in the world, the Camargue horse is believed to have thrived here for thousands of years. Most are wild, but some have tamed by les gardians, the local cowboys who herd the black long-horned bull and sheep. Their ranches are among the only residences in the largely undeveloped area; some date back hundreds of years and embody a generations-old tradition of living off the land.
Remarkable Villages Cut from the Earth
Farther north, another seductive pocket of French landscapes and village culture beckons. The Luberon came into popular renowned with the publication of Peter Mayles’ A Year in Provence. The hilltop medieval villages that he so lovingly depicted as he renovated his farmhouse are all here. Many of them, rightly so, have been officially named among the “Most Beautiful Villages of France.”
Mayles lived in Ménerbes among its narrow cobbled warrens and dramatic vistas. Perched on a hillside in the foothills of the French Alps, this precious hamlet is surrounded by cherry orchards and vineyards and has been compared to a great ship floating in a sea of vines. Two of its most prominent sites—the miniature citadel fortress and the Chateau du Castellet—are spectacular to behold.
The village of Gordes clings to the southern slopes of Monts de Vaucluse. This medieval fortified town, a marvelous patchwork of gray and white stone houses, is crowned by a magnificent Renaissance castle and was once a powerful stronghold of wealth and power. Wandering its calades, the local name given to its streets paved with stone, is pure pleasure as shaded intimate alleyways open up to fantastic views of the Luberon hills. Nearby, the gray-stone Sénanque Abbey is one of Provence’s most popular sites, especially in June and July when the lavender rows are in full bloom, lending a soothing color and fragrance.
Another Provençal gem, the pretty “red village” of Roussillon has lured artists for centuries. Little wonder, with the way its brilliant ochre shades contrast with the surrounding green forests of pines and oaks. Its fiery red cliffs, oddly found nowhere else in the Luberon, seem to have given rise to the sienna-stone buildings that climb up the hillside. You can stroll the former ochre quarries from where the stone was harvested, aptly known as the Sentier de Ocres, or the Ochre Path.
To view the first Renaissance castle to be built in Provence, you will visit Lourmarin. This stunning golden-hued stone village is not on a hilltop at all, but nestled in a combe, or valley, between the Grand Luberon Mountains and the Petit Luberon. Its Mediterranean-style climate lures visitors year-round, as its many outdoor café terraces attest. The village is renowned for its sophistication and relaxed air, and as the last residence of legendary writer Albert Camus.
Uncover the Beauty of Provence with Discovery Tours
The irresistible allure of the Camargue and Provence’s stone villages is that, even in the 21st century, they remain intimately tied to the natural world. The march of progress has stepped aside and let the timeless charms of France endure. We look forward to sharing this beguiling corner of Europe with you during our Treasures of Provence trip.