Exploring Provence’s vast, rugged sprawl can be exhilarating – and daunting. From the salt marshes of the Camargue to storybook hilltop villages like Gordes to the lively Mediterranean city of Marseille, the famously picturesque French region offers an array of landscapes and experiences that could take months to uncover.
Where to start? Arles and Avignon. Just 20 minutes apart by train, the Roman-era town of Arles and the medieval walled city of Avignon enfold a dense mix of architectural beauty, world-class art, sun-soaked Provençal gastronomy and Unesco World Heritage sites. Toss in ambitious new cultural spaces, a hint of urban cool and a high-speed rail link with Paris (about three hours away), and the result is a southern French smorgasbord that can be devoured in a weekend.
4pm - Art of Arles
Vincent van Gogh created more than 300 works during his 15 months in Arles, in 1888 and 1889. Alas, not one van Gogh canvas remains in Arles, not even at the splashy new Fondation Vincent van Gogh, which organises van Gogh-related exhibitions by contemporary artists. Practically his only trace resides in the Musée Réattu, a castle-like 15th-century edifice containing an 1889 letter he wrote to his friend Paul Gauguin. In a tiny scrawl, he praises Wagner, bemoans the prose of Uncle Tom's Cabin and laments his psychological state. The museum also has drawings by Picasso, sketches by the fashion designer Christian Lacroix (an Arles native) and photographs by everyone from Brassaï to Berenice Abbott. Admission, €8.
5.30pm - Roman roamings
They came, they saw, they erected an entertainment complex. Dating to the first century AD, the grand Roman arena, les Arènes, once packed in some 20,000 spectators for gladiator battles with exotic beasts – and with one another. Maintaining the tradition of men fighting animals, the arena hosts summer bullfights. Next door, the ruins of the colonnaded theatre are a pleasant spot to wander or watch a concert. Admission for both sites is €8.
8pm - Aim for the Middle
Inside Le Galoubet, which evokes both the Middle Ages (stone walls, beamed ceilings, massive hearth) and the mid 20th century (industrial lamps, red neon sign), an upper-crust crowd dines on traditional French cuisine that is far from middling. The three-course menu (€31) might start with crunchy local vegetables and cervelle de canut (a zesty cheese spread) or a soft-boiled egg atop a colourful arrangement of soft-cooked red peppers, eggplant and ham slices. Mains might include hanger steak with mushrooms or veal in tangy wine-mustard sauce. For dessert, the cake enveloped in a chocolate shell with sour cherry sorbet on top is a rich, dark, citric delight.
10pm - Starry Nightcap
A nocturnal walk quickly becomes an art history lesson. Heading west from Place Lamartine, you arrive at the riverside spot where van Gogh painted Cafe Terrace at Night. Strolling the east side of Place du Forum, you might recognize the scene from The Night Café, marked by a signboard. For drinks, avoid the square's tourist traps and instead go around the corner to Baràvin, a cheerful wine bar, for a glass of medium-bodied local Château Mont-Redon red (€4.50).
11am - Pope Art
It's good to be pope. If you happened to be one of those who lived in Avignon during the religious turmoil of the 14th century (when the papacy abandoned Rome), you would have presided over an immense Gothic palace filled with soaring banquet halls, huge vaulted chapels and lush gardens populated with peacocks, camels and other exotic fauna. These areas and more are viewable in the Palais des Papes, whose smaller rooms are equally impressive. The papal bedroom is painted with cosmic swirls of vegetative motifs, while the study is covered by mystical frescoes of a nocturnal stag hunt in a forest inhabited by a dragon and unicorn. Admission, €11.
1.30pm - Lush Lunch
Seeking a light lunch? Seek elsewhere. At L'Epicerie – decorated like a 1950s French grocery store – richness rules the Franco-Mediterranean-North-African menu. Foie gras terrine is sweetened with mango and cinnamon, while scallops are loaded into a dense leek mille-feuille. If veal tagine with couscous doesn't sound sufficiently bloat-inducing, the robust pink duck meat comes with hearty potato gratin. Raspberry cheesecake and a spongy French toast in warm caramel sauce guarantee blissful post-meal immobility. A three-course lunch for two is about €75.
3pm - Books, Pillows and Bow Ties
Whether you're desperate for a skateboard-shaped chopping board or just a coffee-table book about, say, breasts, People's Paradise provides. One of several hip fashion and design shops near Place St Didier, the lifestyle emporium outfits you for summer with ultralight, hand-dyed T-shirts (€30) from the Provençal brand Red Soul, and red rolled-up shorts (€59) by Elevenparis. Kooky and colourful, the namesake shop of Isabelle Erizé sells her lacy, tasselled Baroque-style handbags (€25) and cushions mixing stripes and leopard print (€27). CQFD boutique, dedicated to indie French brands, adds wooden sunglasses (€160-€190) from Shelter and wooden bow ties (€65-€70) by Bowtify.
5pm - Vincent, Finally
A rare treasure hides in the little Musée Angladon: one of the few van Gogh paintings in Provence. Blazing with colour – mint green sky, orange-pink grass and fuzzy blue-red railroad cars – Wagons de Chemin de Fer, painted in Arles in 1888, shows the depressive Dutchman in full visionary mode. The same room includes early Picasso gouaches, Cezanne's geometric, hard- edge still life Nature Morte au Pot de Grès, and works by Modigliani, Degas and Vuillard. Admission, €6.50.
7.30pm - Mind L'Agape
Opened last year, L'Agape – pronounced "lah-GAHP" (the word means a fraternal meal in French) contains stylish vintage industrial décor to accommodate the stylish all-ages crowd. Appetisers and desserts are the standouts, notably the veal tartare starter (served with runny warm egg, girolle mushrooms and blue vitelotte potato chips for a textural mash-up) and the chilled nougat finisher (drenched in honey mousse and studded with radiant citrus-loaded orange and grapefruit slices). Mains, from roast lamb saddle with fried zucchini to pollock fillet in an olive crust, are slightly less flavourful but solid. Three-course menus at €32 and €45 a person.
10pm - Wine and Watermills
Bourgeois or bohemian? For a chic drink, the sultry interiors of 83.Vernet evoke a Mediterranean villa, thanks to white walls, white curtains, white ceiling, a white floor and white wine (Domaine Chapoutier viognier; €25 a bottle). To go casual, stroll the cobbled Rue des Teinturiers. Along a stream with old wooden water mills, the street has a village feel that draws local cool kids, tattooed dads, musicians and alternative types. L'Offset, a sprawling raw concrete space with exposed ducts and factory-style lamps, provides glasses of Côtes du Rhône Villages wine (€3.30) and live jazz, blues and French classics.
11am - Art Times
Two Reopened in July, the Collection Lambert, a museum of excellent modern and contemporary art, has expanded into the adjacent townhouse, doubling its size. The permanent collection includes sculpture by Sol LeWitt, paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, photos by Nan Goldin and much besides. The museum is also hosting an inaugural special exhibition (through October 11th) about Patrice Chéreau, the late French opera, theatre and film director. In addition to Chéreau's personal effects, sketches and notes, the show intersperses creations by artists who inspired him or relate to his oeuvre, from classic French painters like Delacroix to contemporary international figures like Anselm Kiefer. Admission, €10.
1pm - Shop and Shuck
Nature's bounty literally sprouts from the walls of Avignon's covered market, Les Halles, thanks to an exterior "vertical garden". Inside, Provence's cornucopia spills from produce stalls, cheese mongers, delis, florists, bakers and butchers. Noteworthy offerings include a variety of salts flavoured with everything from fish to hibiscus flower (€3 for 50 grams) at Le Moulin à Epices and Côtes du Rhône wines at Les 20 des Halles. For lunch, La Cabane d'Oléron serves grilled fresh scallops on skewers (€7), fine de claire oysters (six for €8.50) and other marine morsels.
© 2015 The New York Times, distributed by The New York Times Syndicate