Between Avignon and Arles are the Alpilles, the "little Alpes". Drive along small country roads meandering through vineyards and olive grov. These lands provide an astonishing range of aromas and colors. Wander by the olive groves and vineyards and visit the small villages always with the Alpilles as a backdrop and the blue sky above. Similar to Mt.Victoire near Aix en Provence and the Dentelles de Montmirail to the North, the Alpilles' white and grayish cliffs give one the impression of being at a fairly high elevation. In the Alpilles there are two sights which are on most visitor's list, St.Rémy de Provence and Les Baux. But it is the countryside and the small villages which make a visit to the Alpilles especially worthwhile.
There are numerous hideaway type accommodations especially in the smaller villages. This is a premier vacation area with many self-catering vacation homes in a quiet country setting or bucolic village - the Provence at its best!
Here is a short description of the towns and villages we recommend in the area (in alphabetical order):
About 2.5km northeast of Arles are the ruins of the Abbaye de Montmajour, a UNESCO world heritage site. St.Peter Abbey was founded by Teucinde, a noblewoman from Burgundy in 949. She donated land on the "Mont Majour" (the big mountain). Benedictine monks lived there until the French Revolution. It was a safe place as it was surrounded by swamps and was only accessible by boat. Early on the island was used as a burial ground with graves carved into the rock. Economic success was assured when the abbey acquired in 1030 a fragment of the "True Cross" the remnants of the cross where Jesus Christ was crucified. Mont Majour became a major pilgrimage site. In 1639 the abbey was handed over to the Maurists, a reformed branch of the Benedictine order. They started a huge building program which eventually ran out of money. At the time of the French Revolution the abbey had only 9 monks. The Maurist order dissolved and Mont Majour was eventually sold to different private owners. It fell into disrepair, stones were pillaged and used for building material. In 1797 the painter Jacques Réattu from Arles started an effort to preserve this important heritage site of the Provence. Restoration began in earnest in 1862 and in 1981 the abbey was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The buildings' architecture and stone work is formidable. From the 11th/12th century are the St. Peter's Chapel, the Chapel of the Holy Cross, the Crypt of St. Benedict, the Nave and Choir of the Abbatiale Church and the Cloister. Later additions are Pons de l'Orme Tower (14th century) and the (closed) Maurist Monastery (18th century). For more information and opening times click here.
A pretty village (pop. 1.400) with lots of old stone houses and alleys. The "Via Aurelia" connecting Rome with Arles ran through this village, hence the name Aureille. Overlooking the village are the remains of a 12th-century Château d'Aureille (closed to the public - too dangerous to walk there). Noteworthy are the Tour de l'Horloge (clock tower) and the Pointus fountain. There is a 19th century parish church and the Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption church, dating back to the 11th century, rebuilt in the 18th century. Aureille and environs is a great area for hideaway type lodgings.
The impressive Anglica Tower dominates this historic village (pop. 3.800). It was built in 1365 as part of a medieval château which was surrounded by a fortified wall. Only the two gates remain today: the Porte Calendale to the north and the Porte de Seguier to the south. Visit the 12th century Romanesque church with a pretty bell tower and porch. Next to it the 12th century Maison des Chevaliers (Knights' House).
Barbentane has one of the finest châteaux in the Provence, the 17th century Château de Barbentane, the home of the Marqueses de Barbentane since 1674; the current marques still lives here. It is also called the "Petit Trianon du Soleil". Damaged during the French Revolution it was renovated and enlarged in the 18th century. Splendid interior decoration and a fine collection of period furniture. Italian style terraces with sculptures, huge plane trees, a veritable treasure! Open Mid-April to end of October 10AM-12PM, 2PM-6PM except Wednesdays, during summer holidays 7 days a week.
Les Baux, located halfway between Saint Rémy de Provence and Maussanne les Alpilles is one of the most visited sites in the Provence. Perched on a steep limestone "baou" (the Provençal word for rocky spur), Les Baux was settled as far back as 6000 BC. The Celts established an oppidum in 2nd century BC. The most interesting times were the Middle Ages, when the Counts of Les Baux, who controlled 79 towns and villages in the Provence and had a fierce reputation, held a glamorous court here. In the 15th century, the last descendant died and the castle was given to the Manville family. The village was a Protestant stronghold, it revolted against the French crown and was razed in 1632 by the orders of Cardinal Richelieu. In 1642 the village was given to the Grimaldi family, rulers of Monaco, as a marquisiate. Today the village is French. Only the title of Marquis des Baux remains with the Grimaldis. It is used by the heir to the throne of Monaco, presently Princess Caroline of Monaco who would succeed her brother Prince Albert II. Les Baux is definitely worth a visit if you overlook the throngs of tourists, souvenir shops and eateries. In other words, go there once and then move on to places where you can enjoy the Provence. By the way, the name bauxite is derived from Les Baux. It was first mined here in 1822.
The town (pop 13.500) is dominated by the 13/15th century castle of the Châteaurenards whose origins go back to 970. Except for the ruins of this magnificent château there is no reason to visit the town, which has become more and more a dormitory for Avignon with a large immigrant population. Two of the original four towers of the castle remain, the Three-Daggers tower and the Griffon tower. The château houses the Benoit XIII Museum, depicting the history of the castle and Pope Benedict XIII, who took refuge here for a while, when he was driven out of Avignon in 1403.
A delightful historic village (pop. 1.800) perched on a small hill. Beautiful old stone houses, village church, flowers .... picture perfect! Visit le Jardin de l'Alchimiste, a botanical garden with native herbs, spice and shrubs.
The names Eygalières and Eyguières are so similar, that they are frequently mixed up by visitors. Eyguières (pop. 5.400) is dominated by the Tour des Orpies (493m), the Alpilles highest point. The village has many historic town houses and an abundance of beautiful fountains. It is said that Frédéric Chopin played the organ in the 17/18th century Église Notre Dame de Grâces when he visited the town.
North of Eyguières, on the road to Eygalières, are the ruins of one of the castles of Joanna d'Anjou, Queen of Naples and Sicily and Countess of the Provence (she sold Avignon to the Popes) and of the Château de Roquemartine. Both can be reached by foot only, park your car at the Lou Castellas restaurant. The tragic story of "La Reine Jeanne", who married four times, has filled bookshelves and is legendary in France and Italy. The Château de Roquemartine belonged to a prominent Provençal feudal family, the d'Albe, who ruled this area in the 13/14th century. A number of d'Albe's held important positions in the Provence during this time. An easy 1 1/2 hour hike (incl. return) and you can immerse yourself in the history of the Provence all by yourself, no tourist buses like in Le Baux. Take water and a camera, no facilities there.
A busy little town (pop. 3.600) with a distinctive Camargue character of whitewashed houses as opposed to the Alpilles villages with stone houses. Many pleasant squares, fountains (lots of them) and churches. Visit the Moulin de Daudet located on a hill overlooking the valley. At the invitation of the Provençal poet Frédéderic Mistral , Alphonse Daudet visited Fontvieille and immortalized the town in his short stories "Lettres de mon Moulin" - letters from my windmill. A must to read for anyone interested in French literature. So everyone is trekking to Fontvieille to visit the famous Moulin de Daudet, which as it turns out is the wrong windmill, because Daudet did not spend any time here. But it contains the Musée de Daudet and is a great place to shoot photos and tell your friends you have been there. The windmill where Daudet spent hours sunk in literary thought is a 1 1/2 hour hike away to the Moulin Tissot-Avon. There are only two reasons to go there: as a French literature aficionado you just have to see it or you like a good long hike. If not, stay with the windmill in Fontevieille.
A pretty village (pop. 3.200) located halfway between St.Rémy and Avignon, typical Provençal in character, nothing special in terms of historic buildings. But you might want to visit the two museums here. The Musée des Arômes et du Parfum is located in a 19th century farmhouse with well maintained garden. The Musée Chabaud shows works of the painter Auguste Chabaud (1882-1955), a member of the Les Fauves (French for Wild Beast) modern painting movement. Chabaud lived most of his life in Graveson. Interested in figs? Visit the Les Figuières du Mas de Luquet. They grow 150 fig varieties and their store sells everything you can make from figs, the possibilities are nearly endless.
A lively village (pop. 1900) 7km northwest of St.Rémy in an important fruit growing region. Frédéric Mistral (1830-1904), the icon of Provence literature, was born here. He married at the age of 46 a girl 27 years his younger and moved to 11 Avenue Lamartine opposite his mother's house. It now houses the museum. Mistral founded the Félibrige, an association for the preservation of the Provençal, the original language spoken here until the central government in Paris started to suppress it from the 16th century onwards. Mistral, who lived all his life in Maillane, wrote many poems and stories about the Provence; he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904. Provençal is now taught as a second language in schools here and there are daily radio broadcasts, but it is no longer used in daily life.
A center for olive oil production. If you happen to be in the region in November, when the olives are harvested, visit the well known oil mill Moulin Jean-Marie Cornille (turn right at a small sign of the oil mill just before you leave the village in the direction to Arles). Reportedly this oil mill produces the best olive oil in France. You can watch as the oil is being cold pressed. You may want to buy a little supply of extra virgin olive oil and some tapenade in the oil mill's store. The counter is only a few feet away from the oil press!
A village (pop. 2.200) full of charm and Provençal character with narrow streets, ancient houses, windows with colored shutters and flower boxes. Good area to get away from it all yet close to Avignon and St. Rémy.
Very picturesque but busier than Aureille. Together with Maussane a center for olive oil production. It sports a lively weekly market on Wednesday mornings and a 3000 seat bull ring.
St.Rémy de Provence (pop. 9,429), situated on the Northern slopes of the Alpilles, is one of the "must-sees" in the Provence. The main reason is without a doubt Vincent Van Gogh, who produced more than 150 paintings of the countryside surrounding Saint Rémy, including the "Vase avec iris" (vase with iris). Many of the places painted by the artist can be ...... read mor about it here.