My wife and I live part of the year in the charming village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, not far from the Mediterranean coast. We love the town because it’s the perfect size for us—big enough to have lots of restaurants and cafés, but small enough that you can walk from the bustling center of town to a quiet country road in about five minutes. It has wide, shady streets and sits at the foot of a small mountain range, the Alpilles, which makes it perfect for hiking and biking.
St-Rémy is famous as the birthplace of the medieval seer Nostradamus and as the place where Vincent van Gogh spent a year in a mental institution after that unfortunate business with his ear.
If you are thinking visiting this magical corner of France, you’re in luck because I’ve just written a guidebook about the area, An Insider’s Guide to St-Rémy-de-Provence and the Surrounding Area. Here’s an excerpt, where I describe my favorite things to see and do.
One of the glories of Provence is its outdoor markets, full of wonderful sights, smells, and tastes. You can sample cheeses, drool over roast chickens, and chat with the olive vendor. You can get gifts to take home, then have a drink in a café. You can’t visit Provence without going to its markets—every town and village has its own. My favorite, of course, is St-Rémy’s.
Imagine this: you enter a giant cavern with sheer, 30-foot-high walls. Huge images start to appear on one wall, then another, then on the floor. You realize that they are paintings by a great artist like van Gogh or Cézanne. The images pulse and swirl, full of life and color, their movements choreographed to beautiful music. This is the Carrières de Lumières, the world’s most magical sound and light show, and a different artist is featured each year. It’s so popular that copies are popping up all over the world, but none matches the original; you really do have to see it to believe it.
Vincent van Gogh spent a year in a St-Rémy asylum, painting masterpieces like The Starry Night. Copies of his works are placed around town, in the spots where he painted them, and a free audio guide will take you to them. It is fascinating to see the paintings and compare them to the real scene.
Local wine-making goes back thousands of years, and the area is covered with vineyards. Would you like to taste wine on the site of a medieval Court of Love? Or at a winery where Nostradamus once prophesied the end of the world? How about the one famous for its rosés? I point you to some of my favorite wineries—they all have friendly tasting rooms and English-speaking staff.
La Caume is one of the highest points of the Alpilles Mountains and is surprisingly easy to reach on foot. Rather than starting at the bottom, you can drive to a big parking lot that’s part of the way up and join the trail there. It’s paved and well-marked and not too steep, and the view from La Caume is terrific—to the north you can see the Rhône Valley and to the south the view goes all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.
There’s nothing like hanging out at a French café, and the slow pace of Provence makes it especially sweet. Start your day with a coffee and a croissant, or while away the time over a glass of rosé (or two.) St-Rémy, Maussane-les-Alpilles, Eygalières, and many other nearby towns have excellent cafés.
Just outside of St-Rémy is a shady picnic spot known only to the locals. It sits along the shore of a hidden lake created thousands of years ago by the Romans, and is a nice place to get away from the crowds. The lake has a wide, grassy area at one end, with trees that provide welcome shade on a sunny Provençal day.
Every year, thousands of sheep march through the streets of St-Rémy, accompanied by musicians, shepherds, sheepdogs, and the occasional goat. It’s like a river of sheep flowing through town! Afterwards there are sheepdog trials. This is a fun event for the whole family. It’s all part of an annual festival that commemorates the days when sheep used to walk to higher pastures to escape the summer heat.
The Alpilles Mountains are full of biking routes with fabulous views, that range from easy to moderately difficult. Our favorite ride is to puff our way up to the Val d’Enfer (Hell Valley.) It’s full of rugged boulders and rocky outcroppings and there’s a spot where you can look straight across to the mountaintop fortress of Les Baux-de-Provence. The best part of the ride is coasting back!
To say that Joël Durand was precocious would be an understatement: at the age of 17, he was already running the pastry kitchen in a Michelin-starred restaurant! Then he turned his attention to chocolate, and today he offers Provence’s best in his St-Rémy boutique. Try one from his Alphabet of Flavors—bet you can’t eat just one!
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Provence and California. He is the author of the recently-published An Insider’s Guide to Provence to St-Rémy-de-Provence and the Surrounding Area and An Insider’s Guide to Provence, plus the best-sellers One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Read more at Life in Provence. Photo credit for sheep: Keith Van Sickle.