Provence

Provence: Why go

You don’t need us to tell you, but Provence has a timeless wonder which not even the summer hordes can dilute. The Romans came 2,000 years ago and have left a rich legacy: amphitheatres and aqueducts. There are impeccably preserved medieval towns, 500-year-old papal palaces, Côtes-du-Rhône vineyards and stunning gorges. You can wander the Alpilles hills in Van Gogh’s footsteps or explore Arles, where Picasso and Hemmingway hung out in their heyday. Browse weekly markets, drive through lavender fields and wash up in tiny hamlets for bistro lunches. It's glorious country where an uncomplicated past survives, shining in the honeyed stones of the mas farmhouses and in the ebullient spirit of the locals.

However, high season is impossibly busy. You can circle a Provencal village for half-an-hour searching for a parking place and prices are sky-high. Tourism is the primary economy now.

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Our top tips for Provence

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Uzès

One of France’s best-preserved medieval towns, rich with stone colonnades under which you can escape the heat of day while tucking into your lunch. Climb the Bishop's Tower for panoramic views.

Uzès' huge Saturday market in the Place aux Herbes is widely considered the best in all of Provence. (A smaller version is held on Wednesdays.) Stalls sell everything from linens and pottery to food and flowers. Stock up on olives, crusty bread, pâtés, wine and cheese for a delicious picnic lunch.

Alternatively, Uzès has some excellent restaurants that don’t cost a bomb. For the best food in town, try L’Artemise, which, by all accounts, is heading towards a Michelin star.

In terms of events, there's the truffle festival in January, the garlic fair in June, and the fête votive in early August, when bulls run and horses race around town. It’s the biggest festival of the year and the locals come out in droves.

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Avignon

Go for the spectacular Papal Palace: the Avignon popes lived here from 1307-1377 (the antipopes stayed until 1408), but the palace didn’t rise until Benedict XII took the reins in 1334. For an unbeatable position, book in to La Mirande opposite, where you can dine on fine cuisine in the 14th-century Cardinal’s room.

Wander a little north of the palace, and you’ll find the famous unfinished Le Pont d’Avignon bridge, failing in some style to cross the Rhone. Walk down through the attractive gardens of Rocher des Doms for splendid views. There’s a path down to the bridge on the western flank that briefly gives access to the city’s ramparts.

During Avignon’s annual festival (mid-July to early August), theatre, music and exhibitions are set against the backdrop of its spectacular architecture. It’s a big event (200,000 people visit) so parking can be tricky.

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The Pont du Gard

A 1st-century Roman Aqueduct, now a World Heritage Site. The span of the gorge is so deep the Romans built the aqueduct over three levels. At its highest point it soars 48 metres into the air. Built to carry spring water from Uzès to Nîmes, it helped provide the town’s citizens with fresh water for 5 centuries. Walk over it, kayak under it, or sit on the riverbank and marvel at it. Unmissable.

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Arles

Come for the 1,600 year old amphitheatre and the substantial Roman theatre remains (where performances are held in summer). Afterwards, stop by the St Church of St Trophine to see the exquisite 12th-century stone carvings in the cloisters.

In the more recent past, Van Gogh lived here for two years, during which he painted over 200 paintings - tours are available. For another taste of the town’s artistic heritage, go for a drink (or a night) at [h: FR005:Hotel Nord-Pinus] where artists such as Picasso, Hemmingway, Fritz Lang and John Huston once gathered.

Mas de la Chassagnette, just outside town, is the only Michelin-starred organic restaurant in Europe. It has received rave reviews (you must book ahead) for the 'poetic' fare harvested from its 320-acre farm. Arles also has plenty of simple bistros, pizzerias, brasseries.

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St Rémy

This is where the Van Gogh story continues. It was in St Remy that he spent time in the Le Cloitre de St Paul psychiatric hospital, where you can still visit his room; it remains a psychiatric hospital to this day.

Rising around the town, are the Alpilles Hills where Van Gogh painted his olive trees - you can walk, cycle or ride through them.

Also, for soothsayers the world over, this is the birthplace of Nostradamus (his father is buried in the Jewish cemetery). The great man, a bit of a nomad, spent time here and in Salon-de-Provence, as well as Paris.

St Remy's Wednesday market is excellent, with an endless selection of cheeses and charcuterie to sample. A word of warning though, many roads close and parking in town can be a minefield.