There is something magical about France. From the Disneyesque castles of the Loire Valley to Nice and the French Riviera to the lavender fields and hillside villages of Provence, there’s nowhere quite like it. Somehow, Provence manages to feel untouched and undiscovered – despite being a major tourist hotspot. Maybe it’s how the buildings don’t change; how the businesses don’t cater to the whims of tourists; how the Provencal attitude towards fresh, accessible food means that despite being in the most beautiful place in the world, you can still eat a wheel of fresh cheese for under two euros and a baguette for 75 centimes. Ahh, France. They just get me.
Roussillon: Natural Beauty and Nightlife
This town is set aside gorgeous ochre cliffs, and when the sun sets, it sets the cliffs gloriously ablaze. The architecture matches this intense hue with buildings to match. The facades look as if the paint was taken straight from the cliffs.
Roussillon is definitely one of the livelier villages in Provence in terms of nightlife. When we went, there was a massive assembly of people assembled watching a soccer game, with pop and dance music blaring loudly. There were plenty of restaurants and shopping opportunities, but this town seemed to lack some of the charm of the other towns, despite the gorgeous setting and the lovely red brick.
Gordes: Hordes of Tourists and Gorgeous Views
This is worth visiting for the stunning vista alone. On your way up the mountain up to Gordes, you get the most beautiful view of the entire town built on the hillside. It’s like something out of a fairy tale (except that most fairy tales don’t include selfie-stick wielding tourists). Still, everyone flocks there for a reason, and despite being filled with tourists this hill town is chock full of charm.
This also has one of the more charming centers, with alleyways that are easy to get lost in, and a beautiful 12th century church. It also has the added benefit of being close to the iconic Abbaye de Senanque, with its gorgeous lavender fields.
Bonnieux: Upscale With Unbeatable Views
Like Gordes, Bonnieux is one of the most picturesque villages in Provence, though this time the view you get is best upon leaving the city headed towards Buoux. In fact, if you drive towards Buoux, you’ll encounter one of the most beautiful open lavender fields that all of Provence has to offer.
There’s also a 12th century church up at the top of Bonnieux, which you usually can’t enter – but it’s worth a walk up to the top to get these views.
However, Bonnieux is definitely a little more upscale than some of these villages, with expensive shopping and pricier restaurants to boot. It’s absolutely worth the day trip, but I don’t know if I’d splurge on staying there.
Fontaine de Vaucluse: The Mouth of the Sorgue River
Of all the villages in Provence, this one has perhaps the most natural beauty. This cute little town is set on the beautiful Sorgue River, which must be seen to be believed. It almost looks as if a jungle has been permanently flooded with the clearest water you’ve ever seen. So much plant life grows at the bottom of the river that it is a vibrant shade of green, both alien and wholly natural. Where the river gets deep, there are spots of brilliant blue turquoise.
There is an amazing kayaking trip starting from Fontaine de Vaucluse and ending in Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue, which I’ll write about shortly, that I highly recommend doing while in Provence.
Lacoste: The Birthplace of Sadism
This small town is best known its most famous resident: the Marquis de Sade, the man who gave his name to sadism by garnering a reputation for crapping in young girl’s mouths. His history lives on in the remnants of his burned down castle at the top of this quaint little hill town.
Unsavory history aside, this is a beautiful little town, with a few cafés and not much else. It is also home to an art school, so there are quite a few American and other foreign exchange students. Because of this, it has a younger vibe than the rest of the towns, which skew older. The Café de Sade is a great place to lunch, with gorgeous views looking over the Luberon Valley.
Goult: The Just-Right Village
This small Provencal village lacks the big draws of the other – and therein lies its appeal. It doesn’t have the gorgeous mountainside views of Gordes or Bonnieux, nor the stunning ochre cliffs of Rousillon. So why, then, is this my favorite of all the villages in Provence?
It has a sense of peace and quiet that other hill towns don’t have. Like all of Provence, there are plenty of tourists; you’re just as likely to hear English or German as French. Still, the day-trippers with their selfie sticks seem to have not descended on Goult. It has both everything you need – a boucherie, a boulangerie/patisserie, a fruitier, a café, and plenty of restaurants.It has an amazing épicerie, which is basically a New York bodega, except you can buy duck a l’orange terrine for four euros there (so I guess not like a bodega at all).
The architecture is also some of the most beautiful, in its understated way. The facades of the buildings are either limestone brick or pale hues of salmon. The potential monotony of this palette is dispersed with doors and shutters in vibrant pastels.
Its Thursday market is unreal, a hedonistic celebration of the senses: lavender sachets and spices, crisp soft linens, the ripest strawberries, the softest cheeses…. Had I not been limited by my backpack, half the town would have been coming home with me.
There are so many quiet places to take in the sunset, without anyone else around. It’s really a magical place, and one I’ll be back to time and time again.
Which village would you stay in? Do you have any favorites to recommend?