One of the reasons we're able to offer unique experiences and visits to hidden gems as part of our self-drive tours is because we’re often on the road researching and looking for ways to continually improve our tours.
After eight weeks under lockdown during the pandemic, we were of course itching to get back out on the road again. Of course, we never tire of exploring our beautiful country. But we also wanted to check how the pandemic had affected travel in France, our favorite sites to send travelers to, and our partners at the Bed & Breakfasts we work with.
So we decided to take a road trip through beautiful Provence.
Overall, we found that things felt very normal. There were fewer people at the more popular sites than usual, so it was easy to maintain social distancing. There was plenty of hand gel available at the restaurants and accommodations we visited, and people were wearing their masks.
We did find that restaurant prices were a bit cheaper than usual, with special offers to try to attract diners.
It was actually very enjoyable to explore some of our favorite places at a quieter time.
This would be a big advantage of visiting France later in 2020 or in 2021, once it is safe to travel again. Come before the crowds return!
Here is my journal of our trip and the places we visited.
Thyebaut Family - France trip planners (Photo© France Just For You)
Pont du Gard Roman bridge
Our first stop was the 2,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site, the Pont du Gard Roman bridge. This is a very popular tourist attraction and a very nice place to enjoy some kayaking in the Gardon River.
Normally the river is full of kayaks during the summer months, but on the day we visited, ours was the only kayak in the river. It was wonderful to have such a wonderful place all to ourselves (though we hope that the tourists feel comfortable returning soon!).
Emilie, Jeanne & Pauline, kayaking at the Pont du Gard (Photo© France Just For You)
Vaison-la-Romaine, a medieval town with roman ruins
Vaison-la-Romaine lies at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail between the Rhone Valley and Mont Ventoux. It actually used to just be called 'Vaison'. But in the early 20th century, the Abbot Sautel discovered the Roman theater, and so it was renamed Vaison-la-Romaine.
The river Ouvèze flows through the village and under the old 2000-year-old Roman bridge, which is still in use today. In fact, this picturesque town has a large collection of ancient ruins. We took the opportunity to visit the bridge and the theater while we were there.
The upper part of the town (known as the “Haute Ville”) is south of the river. It has gorgeous narrow, medieval streets and small squares, as well as the castle. Walking through this part of town will truly make you feel like you have traveled back in time!
On the north side of the river, where the main part of the town lies, you'll find a place to park. This part of the town has a more modern feel to it than the medieval town, but is still very pleasant to explore.
There are shaded squares, restaurants, shops, and the Roman ruins, which is what Vaison-la-Romaine is most famous for.
There are two main archeological sites. The Puymin site with its 6000-seat Roman amphitheater is fascinating to explore, and the La Villasse site has excavated houses, streets and baths. For more information and context, you may like to visit the museum on the Puymin site.
Aside from the Roman ruins, you may like to pay a visit to the Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth cathedral, which is built in a Romanesque style, and has some very pretty cloisters.
Guillaume with the girls at the Roman amphitheater in Vaison-la-Romaine (Photo© France Just For You)
Dentelles de Montmirail, Provence
Driving down from Vaison toward the lovely village of Venasque (to collect some cherries!) we stopped and hiked around the Dentelles de Montmirail.
These are a range of mountain peaks which resemble teeth (hence their name). They rise up majestically behind the vineyards of Gigondas, Sablet, and Séguret, forming a gorgeous backdrop. There are some fantastic views from the top.
Venasque, for the best cherries in France
One of the things that attracts travelers to France from all over the world is our history and heritage. This is evident in our big cities and in our tiny villages, such as Venasque, the next stop on our road trip through Provence.
This ancient hilltop village in the Vaucluse region of Provence is officially one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France, and definitely worth visiting. This area was established in the Neolithic Age (around the 5th century BC), with the name 'Venasque' originating from the Celtic-Ligurian word 'Vindasca', which means 'white rock'. Some centuries later the Romans moved in and left their mark.
As there is no bus or train station in Venasque, this makes it quite difficult for the tourist crowds to get to. But it is possible to drive to - another reason we say a self drive tour is the best way to experience all of France's hidden gems!
The hilltop village of Venasque, Provence (Photo© Jacques Le Letty CC-BY SA 4.0)
Venasque has wonderful panoramic views of the region. It's a very beautifully preserved town with lots of original old stone buildings, decorated with plants and flowers. Look out for the post office with its vine-covered terrace!
As you stroll through the village, you'll see plenty of fountains and, curiously, communal washing troughs. These were used by the villagers until the early 1960s, when the mains water supply finally reached many small, remote villages in Provence, including Venasque.
Places of interest include the baptistère, one of the oldest religious buildings in France. This chapel stands on the spot where a pagan temple once stood, and elements of it were used to build the Christian baptistry in the 6th century AD. The chapel is still used for baptisms today and is open to the public for most of the year. It also has magnificent views across the valley.
At the top of the village, there are some stunning views over Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains, and some ancient ramparts, a fortified gate to the city, and ruined Saracen Towers.
If you’re visiting in May or June, look out for the famous Venasque cherries. These are known for being the best in Provence, where they've been grown since the 17th century. They're so good, the villagers call them diamants rouges (red diamonds!). We took a whole crate of these ‘red diamonds’ away with us!
We stocked up on "Red diamonds" (cherries!) while we were in Venasque, Provence (Photo© France Just For You)
The Luberon and the Lavender Trail
One of things we were most looking forward to on this trip was visiting the lavender fields of Provence, which are in full bloom in the summer months.
We drove around Mont Ventoux and passed by Sénanque Abbey, a 12-century Romanesque Cistercian Abbey, and one of the famous ‘instagrammable’ spots for people exploring the lavender trail. It’s very picturesque but normally a bit ‘touristy’ for our liking!
Senanque Abbey in Provence (Photo: Pixabay)
The Luberon Natural Regional Park
The Luberon is at the very heart of rural Provence and is absolutely breathtaking at this time of year. With lavender fields stretching into the distance, olive groves and a mountain backdrop, you couldn’t ask for much more! Perhaps a cold glass of rosé wine from a local winery…
We love to park at some of our favourite spots and just stroll through the fields, taking in the scenery. In our self-drive tours of Provence, we always suggest some lovely places to stop, with the best views.
This year we captured some great shots in the Valensole area of the Luberon.
Lavender field in Valensole in the Luberon region of Provence (Photo© France Just For You)
Rustrel, the ProvenÇal Colorado
As we explored the Luberon region once again, we stopped for a hike in Rustrel, also known as ‘Provençal Colorado’ for its red-orange rocks and soil.
This spectacular desert-like scenery is located between the Luberon mountains to the south and the Vaucluse mountains to the north, across a former ocher mining area. It is the ocher that gives the land its color. It can get very hot in Rustrel in the summer months, so be sure to bring a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and appropriate skin covering to protect yourself. And needless to say, plenty of water!
Emilie in the beautiful but very hot Provençal Colorado, Rustrel, Provence (Photo© France Just For You)
The Verdon Gorge
The Verdon gorge really is one of the wonders of France! On this trip we only drove by. This beautiful canyon, with its beautiful aquamarine waters, is popular for canoeing and climbing. You may also hire a kayak or a pedalo boat.
The road above was unusually quiet for the season, as there were no tour buses. If you’re visiting this region, the best way to avoid congestion on this route is to travel first thing in the morning.
Verdon Gorge in June 2020 (Photo© France Just For You)
And this was the end of our post-quarantine journey through Provence! It was lovely to be on the road, traveling and exploring our wonderful country again.
We very much look forward to being able to plan more unique and unforgettable trips for our travelers in the near future!
Are you worried about traveling to France post-Covid?
Reach out to Emilie and Laura and we will get back to you with the latest advice on traveling in France.