Under the spell of Les Alpilles

Vanessa Boz

The story

Is it the golden light or the crisp scent of thyme? Or maybe the cicadas singing in the background? No matter what comes to you first, your senses are on alert whenever you get off the train in Avignon. Yes, this is Provence, although not necessarily the Provence of postcards, the one with never ending lavender fields and romantic sceneries. The Alpilles region is a bit more dramatic than that, more enigmatic perhaps, with large rocks dotting its landscape and rosemary growing wild everywhere.

The Alpilles actually designates this range of low mountains 20km South of Avignon, with hundreds of hiking trails and thousands of olive trees. Pleasures are simple. A stroll at the weekly market, a splash in the pool, a tasting of the local organic wine... The region is dotted with little villages, all with their own personality and a certain je ne sais quoi that makes them incredibly charming.

Eygalieres might be the prettiest of them all. It’s also the most dramatic, standing proud on a large hill dominating the plains. Try climbing up to the ruins, breathing in the fresh air of lavender, and you’ll understand what makes Provence raw and refined at once. In the other direction towards Les Baux, with its impressive medieval castle, Maussane-les-Alpilles and Le Paradou exude an old-world charm reminiscent of Marcel Pagnol’s novels. Here is the place to stop for a pastis, and take in the pulse of the locals. And then, there is Fontvieille, a bit closer to Arles and the wild lands of Camargue, a little town made famous by Alphonse Daudet and his windmill tales.

At the heart of the region is Saint Remy de Provence, the unofficial capital of les Alpilles. It has attracted artists and intellectuals for centuries and locals will show you with pride where Nostradamus was born, or where Van Gogh comforted his emotional demons. More recently, the town has become a destination of choice for those seeking a refuge out of the spotlight, a sort of anti-St Tropez if you like, a place where the mantra is to go as low key as possible. You’ll experience this first hand when getting your baguette Chez Berghese in the morning, sunglasses and a straw hat as your only accessories. And while you’re there, pick up a few sacristains for snack time by the pool. Soft, airy, almondy, sugary, they’re a specialty of St Remy and must be eaten fresh on the day. Truth is, a stay in Les Alpilles is all about slow living, taking a stroll in the hills when the light turns gold, enjoying a long lunch with friends prepared with fresh produce from the surrounding farms. Perhaps even listening to a concert under the stars in the Roman ruins of Arles, and finishing those books that you’ve had on hold all year long, a glass of fresh rose in hand, hidden behind the tall cypress trees.

When to go?

The plains at the bottom of Les Alpilles have always been very fertile and it makes the region lively all year round. However, there are two months to avoid: January and February, when the Mistral wind will freeze you to the bones (not that it won’t blow the rest of the year too!)

We love Les Alpilles in the Spring, when the almond trees are in full bloom and the hikes are most enjoyable. We love them in the Summer, when the many world-class festivals take place: photography in Arles, theater in Avignon, classical music in Eygalieres ... We love Les Alpilles in the fall, when the wineries are buzzing and the menus display their best truffle dishes. And we love the whole region at the end of the year when the colourful traditions come together for the festivities.

How to get there?

Arrive by way of Avignon if you can, either by TGV from Paris (an easy 2h30 journey) or by Eurostar (direct from London). The contrast between the all-white modern train station and the rocky scenery around is an inviting scene.
That said, the region is well connected, from tiny Avignon airport to low-cost airlines flying into Nimes, and the many connections in Marseille airport, less than 1h drive.

Discover the region with a convertible Peugeot 404, wind blowing full blast as you go up and down the windy roads of Les Alpilles.

Experiences

Down under for a ride

Grottos, underground rivers and hidden lakes are some of the magic awaiting you and the family in this off the beaten track visit of Provence. For thrill seekers and curious minds, there is no better way to beat the heat in the summer.

Chateauneuf du Pape is the new Bordeaux

Chateauneuf du Pape is a wine of many surprises, emblematic of the fertile banks of the Rhône river. From tasting to pairing, let yourself be guided by master sommelier Guy in the 13th century caves of his domain.

Beekeeper for a day

Learn the A to Z of honey directly from a family passionately beekeeping for five generations in the heart of Les Alpilles. You’ll even get to harvest the honey and take some home.

Our address book

Pizza Brun

Pizza like a local

David and Bruno will greet you with a heavily-accented joke as you walk in to order your pizza, and you’ll queue with everyone else, watching them gesticulate by the huge wood-fire oven. People drive from all over Les Alpilles to taste their pizza with unusual toppings such as truffle, bull sausages or tapenade, the traditional black olive paste from Provence. On a warm day, you can seat at one of the few tables under the string light and the platane trees. You can even try to reserve and see what they say, you might be lucky that day.

1 Rue Edouard Foscalina, 13520 Maussane-les-Alpilles

Le Chateau des Alpilles

Dinner you & me

This is the Grande Dame of Saint Remy, a particularly beautiful and classic hotel particulier on the outskirts of town. It has been owned and run by the same family for generations and while it is primarily a hotel, the dinner served under the centenary-old platane trees is as romantic as can be. The menu is rather formal with escargots, sole meuniere and all; the service is a little old-school – black jackets and bowtie - but it works out all wonderfully well, giving the whole experience an out of time feeling.

Route du Rougadou, 13210 Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

Le Bistro du Paradou

Bistro Gourmet

It would be easy to dismiss this place as you drive from Les Baux de Provence towards Maussane les Alpilles, but you will find a true gem that both locals and tourists appreciate. On a warm night, the tables are set under the big platane tree, but it is equally atmospheric inside the restaurant, by the bar, with the black and white photographs of celebrities who have dined here. Prix fix menu, simple linens, waiters who will casually chat with you until after the closing time. The food is unpretentious and authentically delicious.

57 Av. de la Vallée des Baux, 13520 Paradou

Hameau des Baux - Movie screening under the stars

Movie night

The newly opened Hameau des Baux is never short of fun ideas and we love their old-film screening under the stars during the summer months. Their food truck provides just what you need for an easy evening: a pastis or a glass of rosé, a few tasty dishes, the chaise longues with a little blanket and a selection of old movies that you will be happy to see again. Seat back and relax, as it should be on vacation. And when there’s no screening, you might catch a concert of flamenco or jazz in the courtyard, and try your luck at a game of petanque. Check out the website for updates on the program.

Chemin de Bourgeac, 13520 Paradou

The bar of the Grand-Hotel Nord Pinus

Cocktails & Atmosphere

Atmosphere, atmosphere … it’s all about the atmosphere at this legendary jewel of a hotel in the heart of Arles. Leather banquettes, photos from Peter Lindbergh adorning the walls… the barman will create any cocktail for you. We would suggest putting on a nice little pair of heels for that sexy je ne sais quoi. A mix of old-school and artsy vibe that is equally enjoyed tête à tête or with a fun group of friends.

14 Place du Forum, 13200 Arles

The wine bar at Hotel de Tourrel

Wine and a View

Hotel de Tourrel is the talk of town since it opened in 2016. The German couple behind the project fell in love with Provence a few years back, and renovated this 17th-century hotel particulier from top to bottom, creating a stylish yet understated space in the heart of the village. The wine shop / bar on the ground floor is a highlight, with wines from all over France that the owner will passionately talk to you about. The communal table with stools in the bar can be privatized for a special meal and tasting with friends. Or book a table tête-à-tête on the rooftop terrace, under the very starry night painted by Van Gogh when he stayed in town.

5 Rue Carnot, 13210 Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

Les Patisseries d’Olivier

Sweet tooth

Another surprising address in the bland commercial zone of St Remy: Olivier is a chef patissier who creates wonders in his tiny kitchen. You’ll spot his shop with his pink and grey 2CV parked in front, not far from the organic supermarket. And you’ll often find him mixing meringues – the softest you might ever taste – or trying out a new fruit tart recipe based on whatever he could source at the local farms. Our favourites are his mixed vegetable tarts on a pâte feuilletee , which he artistically presents as if you were served in a 3 stars Michelin., ready for a perfect meal at home. Call him one day ahead on his mobile to order. (+33 6 24 87 72 86)

7 Av. Albin Gilles, 13210 Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

The Boutique de Jeanne

Shop until you drop

Jeanne Bayol is a bit of a legend among the habitués of St Remy, although you would not notice her shop if no one told you! She and her husband Jean-Marie have transformed a non-descript warehouse on the outskirts of town into a most tasteful and colourful emporium of homewares, furniture and fashion from all over the world. Berber carpets from Morocco, golden rings from Jaipur, pottery from French Riviera, and her pretty dresses in vintage fabrics. It is hard to pay her a visit and not buy anything. You’ve been warned.

24 Av. Albin Gilles, 13210 Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

The Friday morning market in Eygalières

Shopping locally

Les Alpilles holds a long list of pretty villages and Eygalières is possibly our favorite. Perched atop a hill, its medieval church graciously welcomes everyone from afar. It is rather quiet all day long, except on a Friday morning when vendors and their local produce flock to town. You will find the soft rosé from Domaine de Vallongue, olive oil soaps from the Moulin du Calanquet, and goat cheeses from the local farms. And once you are finished with all that food shopping, hang out with the locals at the Café de La Place, order a little pastis, and pretend that you have always lived there.

Village of Eygalieres