Three A-list towns in Provence: Avignon, Arles, and Aix

Provence’s interior has so many lovely hill towns and stunning nature , that visitors are forgiven for not wanting to jeopardize a tranquil holiday with the hustle and bustle of larger towns. Yet Avignon, Arles and Aix-en-Provence make my A-list of Provence towns.

Avignon

This monumental city is a joy to discover, starting from its fortress-like city walls. Avignon’s importance derives from its role as the medieval Rome. For a period of 70 years, beginning with Pope Clement V’s flight from Italy in 1309, Avignon served as the seat of the papacy.

The Palais des Papes is a must on any visit to Avignon and there are both guided and self-guided tours through the Provençal Vatican. Tickets also include entrance to the 12th century bridge, which spans just over half of the Rhône River (damage was a direct result of sieges and flooding) and provides stunning views of the town.

Thomas has already written about the excellent Festival d’Avignon , founded in 1946 and held each year in July.

Arles

Arles is a pleasant town, just at the edge of the interesting Camargue National Park. The city center has enviable Roman ruins, including the best-known, les Arènes. Although this Roman amphitheatre is missing a level, it is still in excellent condition and used for performances during the summer. In addition to the amphitheatre, be sure to also visit the Roman theatre and the Roman baths.

Photo courtesy of Web-provence website

Arles is also famous for its one-time resident, the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh moved to Arles from Paris in 1888. His was influenced tremendously by the bright colours and strong sunlight in southern France and much of his most beloved paintings were done during this productive period in Arles.

It was to Arles that Van Gogh enticed the artist Paul Gauguin, with the hope of creating a type of artistic fraternity in Provence. Unfortunately, tensions ran high between VanGogh and Gauguin, most notably in the fight between them that led to Van Gogh famously slicing off part of his ear on December 23, 1888, resulting in  his subsequent committal to an asylum in nearby St Rémy de Provence.

Unfortunately, VanGogh’s rented “Yellow House” has survived only in his paintings. The building was bombed and destroyed during World War II. Yet the café immortalized in one of VanGogh’s most recognizable paintings, Café  Terrace at Night, is still active today as the Café VanGogh and attracts numerous visitors. Enjoy a coffee in this lovely spot.

Aix-en-Provence

This pretty, small city is just 25 kilometers north of the seaside city of Marseilles. Its elegant old town is charming and was once home to artist Paul Cézanne and author Emile Zola. There are no must-see museums or sites in this pleasant city, although you can’t help but be enthralled as you wander its lovely streets and relax on one of its perfect little squares. Be sure to note the numerous, picturesque fountains. There are about 40 of them in the old town and the carvings are often whimsical.

Numerous French and foreign students call Aix home. The university was founded in 1409 and the tradition is still going strong; the university also has a popular programme for foreigners studying French. Aix is also the home to a lively weekly market.

Enjoy your visit to these lovely towns – some of the best places to visit in Europe – on your next trip to Provence. Do you have any Provence travel tips to offer readers?