Provence is a vast region in southeastern France, framed by the Alps to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. Though no one seems to agree as to the exact boundaries of Provence, one thing is certain: if the olive trees grow and the cicadas chant, if the sun-drenched hilltop villages are adorned with bright blue shutters and ruddy clay tiles, and especially if refreshing rosé is sipped at the village café, it’s definitely Provence! Though some of its villages and sites can become crowded in peak season, we’ve imagined an off-the-beaten-track Provence that makes the most of the timelessness to be found along its most stunning trails.
We begin in the Alpilles region, Van Gogh’s home for most of the last year of his life: a chiseled limestone ridge surrounded by a completely flat Rhône valley, with France’s largest olive grove nestled at the foothills.
Perched atop the ridge, the medieval village of Les Baux de Provence has stood defiantly for a thousand years. A mere 25 souls live huddled on the rocky crag. The village is best seen from our hidden vantage spot, away from the crowds and above a sheer cliff—a catapult’s distance away, literally (it’s from this hidden spot that the village was attacked in the Middle Ages).
From the Alpilles we head to the Luberon mountains, made famous by Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. You could argue that these mountains harbor the greatest concentration of magnificent perched villages in all of France. And of all of these the most magnificent is Gordes, where we’ll be based for two nights.
Though the streets of Gordes can be busy, its trails are often forgotten: we follow them along centuries-old stone walls, and through a garrigue vegetation of aromatic herbs and truffle oaks. The trails lead us right to Sénanque Abbey, a jewel of 12th century architecture, hidden at the base of a tightly encased valley and framed by fragrant fields of lavender.
Whilst in the Luberon we climb to the very crest and through its stately cedar forest. Our trails also lead us to the perched village of Lacoste, crowned by the ruined castle of the Marquis de Sade.
From the Luberon we head northbound to the Dentelles de Montmirail, a set of sheer limestone cliffs that soar above the village of Gigondas, world-renowned for its powerful and spicy red wines. We follow farming tracks through the gnarled old vines, whose roots dig deep into the chalky soil.
We climb above the vines and to the base of the cliffs, from where our view takes in the entire Rhône Valley, the world’s second largest vineyard.
Up next is Mont Ventoux, Provence’s highest mountain. Though not nearly as high as the Alpine summits, Ventoux stands alone, towering a mile above the surrounding countryside, with views extending toward the entire chain of the Alps to the north.
Near the summit's north face we’ll have a good opportunity to encounter chamois, wild goats that are most at home on these rocky slopes.
The summit of Mont Ventoux is a veritable moonscape of bare rock. It’s here that we can find the elusive Greenland poppy, a flower that grows in just two places in the world: on Spitzbergen above the Arctic Circle, and here on Mont Ventoux.
Finally our adventures take us south to France’s newest national park, Les Calanques, a set of hidden, turquoise inlets that stretch between the town of Cassis and Marseille. Here we find a playground of hiking trails, beautiful sea vistas, and swimming opportunities in narrow, jewel-like coves.
As if that wasn’t enough, we thought of a little reward after all that hiking: a private boat outing through the Calanques, complete with champagne lunch on board. It's a great way to relax and reminisce about the week’s adventures, all in a stunning Mediterranean setting.
Oh yeah, we almost forgot: the food and wine! Above and beyond the wine, olive oil, and cheese tastings we have planned—and some of the best picnics you can imagine—Provence’s food culture is among the world’s best, and we’ll indulge on a daily basis! À bientôt!
About the Author
Born in Toronto, Stuart Sommers was a math and physical education teacher in a French Immersion school. He moved to the south of France fulltime in 2003 and quickly traded right triangles for hiking shoes, becoming one of only a handful of foreigners to obtain France’s coveted national certification as a hiking guide (and this despite the torment of no longer teaching the Pythagorean Theorem to 12-year olds!). Stuart has been guiding groups in Provence and in Corsica ever since, turning his greatest passion into his fulltime job. When not hiking and leading groups, you'll find Stuart writing guidebooks for hikers in both Provence and Corsica or peddling his bicycle up Provence’s hilly roads.