Visitors to Provence understandably concentrate on Avignon, Arles, and the charming towns, villages and vineyards in the region. And if you stick to that, you'll have a great time! But just as understandable is that while beautiful, these towns can all seem to blend together after a while. If that's the case, then you should head to the Camargue.
Located in the southwest corner of Provence, the Camargue is a stretch of wetlands that also include salt fields and rice paddies as well as vineyards. The main town and jumping-off point for exploring the Camargue is Aigues-Mortes, a medieval walled town that is a great lunchtime spot – and you'll want to fuel up, as the Camargue is largely untouched.
Although it is protected land, there are pockets of population that tend to the lands and work hard to protect its pristine geographical features. These include the famous wild horses of the Camargue, white horses largely allowed to roam free, although French cowboys.
Less than a half-hour from Avignon, it's a popular stop on Provence wine tasting tours, and rightly so. But there is so much more to this town than the (delicious!) fruit of its labors.
As its name suggests - “pape” is French for “pope” - the part of papal history that takes place in France includes Chateauneuf-du-Pape. As you may know, Avignon was home to the papacy, but when it came to wine, the town wasn't so blessed. Popes had to look elsewhere for their favorite libation, and looked to the area today known as Chateauneuf-du-Pape – named as such because of the new castle (chateauneuf) built by Pope John XXII.
It is from this castle that you get amazing views of the vineyards and neighboring villages. Also of note is the town's beautifully preserved medieval architecture, most of which today is home to various wine stores and tasting rooms.
It's a history that stretches back to pre-Roman times, with various evidence of Bronze Age settlements. But with the Romans came more permanent colonization; soldiers were often given tracts of land in the area as payment for battles. The original Roman gates are still there, as is the Colosseum-style arena. Check the city's entertainment schedule before visiting, and catch a concert inside – something you can't do in Rome!
Throughout the city are various ruins that have been preserved as best as possible, but the jewel of Nimes is without a doubt the temple Maison Carrée. Built just before the turn of the millennium, its near-perfect condition makes it one of the finest examples of Roman architecture found anywhere in the world. Thomas Jefferson was so taken with it, in fact, that he has the statehouse in Virginia built in its likeness!
Today Nimes is a fairly large and bustling city, with great restaurants and gorgeous parks and other public green spaces.
Les Baux-de-Provence is a charming town in the Provence region, and whose name refers to its location: in Provençal, a baou is a rocky spur. Baux-de-Provence has a fantastic position amidst the Alpilles mountains, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful villages in France.
The stunning location is set atop a rocky formation complete with a ruined vast fortress. Baux-de-Provence has a rich history: in the middle ages, Cardinal Richelieu ordered the demolition of the castle because the village housed protestant rebels. The village is also the site where the aluminium ore Bauxite which was first discovered in 1821 by geologist Pierre Berthier, and as such the ore bears its name.
In the Petite Camargue region in southern France, the best way to see the medieval town of Aigues-Mortes is from its medieval ramparts. On a wander atop the city walls, you can see right across the ancient town, once filled with knights and crusaders during the 12th-century reign of Louis IX. Saint Louis ordered the ramparts so that his French kingdom could have a Mediterranean marina that would give them passage to the Middle East. Make sure to check out the famous Constance Tower while you’re in town. Built under the orders of Louis in 1242, it’s the most impressive of the 20 imposing towers dotted around the city walls.
Down at street level, a stroll along Aigues-Mortes' lively medieval streets is a popular pastime. While you’re here, try the local Fougasse pastry, which can be savory or sweetened with sugar and orange blossom. If you walk 15 minutes away from town, you'll run into the local salt works, a major part of the town's history, and their pink salt lakes.
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