Provence! The word conjures up images of rolling, sun-baked countryside carpeted with lavender, silvery stands of olive trees, neat rows of grape vines, golden-hued houses, and sleepy, picturesque villages. The region begins on the Mediterranean coast stretching west from the Italian border to the mouth of the Rhône, and in the north from the Italian Alps in the northeast to the northwest past Avignon.
The best known region within Provence is the Vaucluse, made famous by Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, millions of postcards and posters of the lavender fields of the Abbaye de Senanque, and the ochre-hued perched village of Gordes. In the north fanning out from the Rhone River you’ll find villages which produce bold, powerful wines such as Chateâuneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, and Seguret. In the Luberon, to the south, is a sprinkling of sleepy villages such as Bonnieux, Lacoste, and Ménerbes, surrounded by fields of fruits and vegetables. And crowning the region is Avignon, home to seven Popes during the fourteenth century, its medieval interior filled with the buildings and monuments of a time when it wielded tremendous power and influence.
To the west and south is a lesser known area, the Bouches-du-Rhône, home to a diverse set of landscapes ranging from the bustling port city of Marseille, to the wild swamps of the Camargue, from the mini-mountains of the Alpilles, to the Roman artifacts in Arles, Nimes, and Pont du Gard. The wines, while not well-known outside of France, are diverse and attractive. Since its founding in 1995, roughly a dozen domains have become part of the AOC Les Baux, with the focus on “biologique” (organic) methods of production. The same area also produces some of the best olive oils from France, arguably equal or superior to the finest Italian oils. Each of the eight villages that make up the AOC offers its own measure of charm, with hospitable and affordable places to stay and memorable dining featuring Provencal cuisine at its best.
The combination of idyllic scenery, attractive places to stay, delectable food, and exceptional and affordable wines put this area high on a list of desirable wine travel destinations, and provides an excellent base for the exploration of other wine areas nearby. What follows is a guide to the best of the Bouches-du- Rhône and AOC Les Baux.
Visitors traveling to Provence from outside France have three primary gateways: Paris, Nice, and Marseille. Paris and Nice are hubs for international flights, while Marseille’s modern airport is served by connecting flights from most major cities in Europe.
From Nice, it’s roughly a two hour drive to the villages of the Bouches-du- Rhône, an hour or so longer if you choose to wind along the scenic coastal route to Marseille rather than taking the A8 Autoroute towards Aix-en-Provence and on to your final destination.
From Paris, the simplest route is by train. The ultra high-speed TGV runs from Charles De Gaulle Airport and the Gare de Lyon in Paris to Avignon where you can pick up a rental or lease car. You can also hop a short flight to Marseille, but the TGV is usually less hectic and faster, plus it gives a chance to take in the French countryside.
From Marseille it’s about an hour’s drive into the heart of the region on the Autoroute.
When to visit
Generally, April, May, & June, and September, October, & November are the best times to visit. November and March are “shoulder” months with “iffy” weather but no crowds to battle. While July and August boast some of the best weather, they unfortunately also draw hordes of people – from France and beyond – to crowd the hotels and restaurants. For wine travel, September can be problematic, as the harvest normally takes place that month and most vineyards are closed to the public. The winter months can be chilly, especially if the Mistral is blowing with cold winds howling night and day, and many hotels and restaurants choose to close during this period. November and December also mark the olive harvest, with a lot of local activity to enjoy.
The villages of the AOC Les Baux are clustered north and south of the Alpilles, the chain of limestone mini-peaks that run west to east in the heart of the region.
Deservedly designated “One of the Most Beautiful Villages in France,” the fortress-village of Les Baux sits atop a spur of the Alpilles. Its perch 250 meters above the surrounding countryside offers views of the Alpilles, the Camargue, and – on a clear day – the nearby city of Arles. It boasts a rich cultural heritage, with a citadel built in the 10th century and a village that has been carefully restored to preserve its centuries-old buildings, many of which have been designated as Historic Monuments. Its residents host almost two million visitors per year, so expect crowds, especially in the peak summer months. The village may only be visited on foot, so you will need to find a spot in one of the nearby parking areas. This is definitely a “must see” spot on any visit to Provence.
This small, charming village lies south and east of Les Baux, set amidst rolling hills, vineyards, and fields of olive trees. The culture of Mouriès continues to be firmly rooted in its role as one of the premiere olive-oil producing villages in France. In 1900, there were almost a dozen mills producing olive oil in Mouriès. While today that number has shrunk to just three, they continue to employ traditional methods – cold pressing and no filtration – to produce olive oils of exceptional quality. All three mills are open to visitors year round, and offer an excellent opportunity to see how olive oil is made, and to purchase oils, olives, tapenades, and soaps. Mouries also has a small bull ring which features folk dancing and other local customs prior to bull fights. The cafés that line the Cours Paul Revoil offer a chance to relax in the shade of the Plane trees with a chilled glass of wine.
Lying just below Les Baux, where its residents fled for safety in times of war, today Maussane is a sleepy, upscale village of some 2,000 residents. In the early 1800s, Maussane had a dozen windmills to process the olives harvested from more than 1,600 acres of olive trees. Today its remaining cooperative mill, Moulin Jean-Marie Cornille, produces one of France’s best olive oils, a favorite of Patricia Wells often found on the tables of Michelin-starred restaurants. Maussane’s central square abuts the Church, shaded by trees and dotted with tables served by small cafes: The perfect spot for a glass of wine at the end of the day.
Le Paradou is a delightful tiny village of about 1,000 persons. Its narrow winding streets are lined with carefully restored houses and flower-filled gardens. It contains the remains of a 12th century chateau and a museum displaying hundreds of santons (little Saints) small hand-painted figurines cast in terracotta or similar material used for building nativity scenes.
A pleasant country town between Les Baux and Arles, Fontvieille is set amidst fields of fruits and vegetables, Fontvieille is home to the Moulin de Daudet, one of the most famous literary landmarks in France. The windmill is the setting for Alphonse Daudet’s Letters from my Windmill, stories about life in Provence written in the 1860s. The mill can be reached easily, and its setting atop a small hill affords views of the Alpilles and surrounding countryside. The town’s history is also tied to the nearby Abbaye de Montmajour, a Benedictine Abbey constructed in the 10th century, which is worth a visit. The center of Fontvieille lies between two parallel streets, each lined with shops, restaurants, and pleasant cafés. All in all, Fontvieille and its attraction are worth a visit.
This picturesque village lies at the base of the Alpilles, just a few minutes from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Arles, and its closest neighbor – Tarascon. It is a fairly new village, and was part of Tarascon until 1935. Because of this, it doesn’t have the usual village square, with church and fountain. St. Étienne has both new and old sections. The newer western portion has modern houses, while the older eastern section contains farms, restored country homes, and mansions surrounded by landscaped gardens. On top of a hill to the east is the Chapel of Notre Dame du Château, which dates from the 11th century and is one of the oldest in the area. St. Étienne has multiple market days, featuring fruits and vegetables and organic produce.
St. Rémy is the largest of the villages in the region, offering a wide range of places to stay and dine. This, and its location in the heart of the Alpilles, makes it an ideal location for exploring the area. The narrow winding streets of the old town are lined with shops of all descriptions, while the tree lined boulevard that circles it is lined with cafes, restaurants, and art galleries. While seemingly a circle, this boulevard carries four names, depending on where you are: Gambetta to the north, Victor Hugo to the south, Mirabeau to the east, and Marceau to the west. On the outskirts of the village you’ll find the ruins of Glanum, a fascinating 4th Century BC Roman city built in the mouth of a valley in the Alpilles. Nearby is the Clinique St. Paul, where Van Gogh was treated after he mutilated his ear. Gaze out the window of the room where he stayed and you’ll see the inspiration for his paintings of the area.
The easternmost of the villages in this region, Eygalières lies on the slopes of the Alpilles, surrounded by olive groves, vineyards, and carefully restored stone houses. The small main street is dotted with shops and leads up a hill past the village Church to the ruins of an old chateau. The short walk to the top is rewarded with views of the surrounding countryside. Although tiny, Eygalières boasts several excellent restaurants, including a Michelin-starred destination nestled on a corner on the main street. Just above Eygalières the road winds through several vineyards before crossing the Alpilles and descending to Maussane and Mouriès. This sleepy little village is well worth a visit…or a stay.
Our local expert
In addition to multiple visits of our own to this area, much of our input comes from a long-time resident with an exceptional wealth of knowledge about the wines of the region, its history, and things to see and do. Because he is a hotelier/restaurateur, to avoid any conflict of interest, he has not given any input as to places to stay and dine in the region.