Despite the romance of Provence — celebrated in dozens of best-selling travel books and memoirs — some parts of the region have lost much of their authentic character owing to the influx of affluent Parisians and the hordes of summer tourists. Fortunately, there are still pockets in the Luberon and Alpilles areas where a timeless atmosphere remains intact. Hilltop villages such as Ménerbes and Bonnieux still embody the essence of the region, even with their starring roles in Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence.” And the town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue retains an inimitable charm despite the popularity of its Sunday market with the editors of glossy magazines around the world.
Memorable Arles Museums
The Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles encompasses a beautifully renovated 15th-century building with a modern extension and a rooftop terrace offering panoramic views of the town, the Rhône river and the fortified Benedictine monastery, Montmajour Abbey. Van Gogh’s paintings are shown alongside works by his peers and those of present-day artists such as Glenn Brown, Jean-Luc Mylayne and Alice Neel. Guided tours and family workshops led by professional artists are offered only in French. The most recent addition to the roster of museums in town is the magnificent Frank Gehry-designed Tour Luma which debuted in June 2021. The striking tower, set within the Parc des Ateliers, features a twisting fractal façade made of 11,000 bricks of stainless steel and displays large-scale installations by French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, sculptures by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, and works by American photographers Diane Arbus, Annie Leibovitz and Nan Goldin.
Well-known for its flea market and waterwheels on the Sorgue river, the charming town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in Vaucluse also has some of the best antiques shops in France. Stéphane Broutin, one of the members of the Weareantiques association, sells one-of-a-kind pieces dating to the 17th century, and La Boutique de Francine is the best place to find superior vintage fabrics and handmade quilts.
Delicious Olive Oil
We never travel in Provence without stopping at Moulin Cornille in the enchanting little town of Maussane-les-Alpilles to stock up on our favorite virgin olive oil: Fruité Noir AOP Vallée des Baux de Provence. This luscious golden-green oil is made only from the five types of olives that grow in and around Les Baux-de-Provence: Salonenque, Grossane, Béruguette, Verdale des Bouches-du-Rhône and Picholine. For us, this is the essential summer condiment, since it lends sophistication to any salad with its distinctive and inimitable perfume.
A Stunning Cistercian Abbey
Of the three Cistercian abbeys in Provence, Abbaye du Thoronet, built between 1160 and 1230, is our favorite. The all-stone structure, set between a river and a spring, encompasses an upper-level dormitory, beautiful cloister side aisles that link the church to the property’s community buildings, and a cellar where the monks produced wine and olive oil. Original 18th-century wine vats and oil presses are on display. This magnificent architectural gem is worth visiting, as pictures don’t do it justice.
An Ultramodern Museum
Set on Marseille’s waterfront and connected to the 13th-century Fort Saint-Jean by an impressive footbridge, the fascinating Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (Mucem) is well worth a visit. The ultramodern structure designed by Rudy Ricciotti is a glass square covered with filigreed concrete, and the interplay of color, light and shadows makes the building an avant-garde masterpiece. Closed Tuesday.
Contemporary Art Park
Château La Coste is an organic vineyard and contemporary art park. The compound offers three restaurants, including one by acclaimed chef Francis Mallmann. Most notable, though, is the property’s sprawling and breathtaking array of sculptures. The collection is one of France’s most diverse, featuring pieces by Alexander Calder, Frank Gehry and Richard Serra.