Ah Provence! You, beautiful Provence! When I think of you, I immediately smell the delicate scent of lavender and the characteristic aroma of garrigue… Your beautiful landscapes and centuries-old villages captivate all my senses and keep me spellbound as soon as I set foot on you! Yes, my dear readers: I’m a romantic person and can write many cheesy lines when it’s about a destination that takes my breath away.
Among the many enchanting places around the world that I’ve visited so far, Provence is the one that stole my heart right from the start. And among the many treasures in this charming region, the hilltop towns of Provence hold a special allure. Join us on a journey as we explore some of the most enchanting hilltop towns in Provence…
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Nestled on the edge of the Vaucluse plateau, Grasse is probably one of the most famous hilltop towns in Provence.
I had wanted to visit Grasse ever since I read Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume. But of course, the real-life Grasse is totally different from what I imagined it to be. Today, this town is very touristy, and most vacationers travel to Grasse to visit the oldest perfumeries in the world, such Galimard, Molinard and Fragonard. All these perfumeries offer free tours to their factories and museums. Because of the crowd, we chose not to visit the factories. But went to the International Perfume Museum instead, where we learned so many interesting facts.
For example, did you know that the most ancient perfume in the world is called Kyphi? It was used in Ancient Egypt around 3000 BC, mainly as an offering to the gods, but also for its therapeutic qualities. A recipe of Kyphi is engraved on the portico of the temple of Philae at Aswan, which we got to explore in Egypt last April.
Also: flower harvesting is a deep-seated tradition in the South of France, and is usually done at dawn before it gets too hot. In one day, one can pick around 10kg of roses, but only 2kg of jasmine. 1000 jasmine flowers and a dozen of May roses are needed to produce 30ml of the famous perfume Chanel Number 5.
Before visiting the International Perfume Museum in Grasse, I knew that perfume shops already existed in Ancient Greece. But what I didn’t know is that one of the most ancient perfume shops were on the little island of Delos, where I spent two weeks in 2010 to study archaeological sculptures for my Master thesis. I can’t believe I didn’t know about these perfume shops when I was in Delos back then!
After visiting Grasse, we were about to drive back to Antibes. But after 10km, we saw a place perched on a hill and surrounded by a medieval rampart: Mougins is the kind of village that lures you from afar!
We had never heard anything of this town, but decided to stop anyway. As soon as we strolled through the narrow winding streets, I was amazed by the well-preserved old stone houses and picturesque squares surrounded by colorful flowers and picture-perfect pine, olive and cypress trees. Perhaps that’s what all those artists and celebrities felt when they arrived in Mougins? Among those who ended up living in this small village, you might know Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Yves Klein, Edith Piaf, Yves Saint Laurent, and Christian Dior…
Like many other hilltop villages, Mougins also offers stunning vistas of the surrounding countryside and the Mediterranean Sea. The best panoramic views are of course from the highest point of the village, where I had to fight against my fear of heights to get a few pictures!
Not far away from Grasse and Mougins, there’s another perched village that I could visit over and over again. Like many hilltop towns in Provence, Saint-Paul-de-Vence is surrounded by a 16th century rampart and has many narrow cobblestone alleys bordered by centuries-old stone houses.
Just like Mougins, Saint-Paul-de-Vence also attracted many artists and writers of the 20th century, such as Modigliani, Picasso, Miró, Matisse, Chagall, Giono, Prévert, as well actors like Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. That’s the reason why the village has plenty of art galleries, art studios and little boutiques today. Even if I’m not a big fan of contemporary art, I was dazzled by multiple artworks! And as soon as we left Saint-Paul-de-Vence, I seriously regretted not buying any painting or sculpture… but then, I now have a good reason to visit Saint-Paul-de-Vence once more!
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Further west in the South of France, not far away from Saint-Tropez, lies the flowery village of Grimaud.
The first thing we saw when we arrived was the Château de Grimaud, perched on a hill overlooking the village. I was eager to explore the ruins of this medieval castle. But it turns out that the stroll through the village’s picturesque cobbled streets was more interesting than the castle itself. The fact that Grimaud was covered in bloom certainly made the village look even more charming. All the colorful flowers falling from the balconies of traditional stone houses and clinging to archways turned the village into a fairytale land! Luckily, Grimaud was very quiet and not touristy at all, so we had it all to ourselves to explore it in depth.
Gassin is a perched village that’s close to Saint-Tropez, only 4km away from the sea to be exact.
The panoramic views of the Mediterranean coast from this village are therefore much more spectacular than from the hilltop of Grimaud. But compared to Grimaud, Gassin is a much smaller village. There are only 3 restaurants and a small café, and definitely less historic monuments to marvel at. After strolling through a few paved streets, we stopped in front of L’Androuno, the narrowest street in the world. With its 29cm at its narrowest point, it’s not really a street, not even an alley or a passageway! Apparently, the Provençal term means “a void separating two houses”.
Just like Grimaud, the hilltop village of Bormes-les-Mimosas was also overgrown with flowers when we visited.
In fact, the village used to be called Bormes (from the Ligurian tribe Bormani, who settled down in the area around 400 B.C.). But in 1968, the village’s name was changed to Bormes-les-Mimosas, because of the large number of mimosa trees (over 90 varieties of mimosas!) Since Mimosas flourish between January and March, we didn’t get to see any of this yellow flower when we visited in July. However, during the summer months the village is fully covered in deep-fuchsia bougainvilleas, which really took our breath away!
Although the village has tons of interesting shops and restaurants, we didn’t let ourselves be lured into the shops. We first walked all the way up to the top. Because on the top of the hill, we got to see the village’s lush vegetation and picturesque gardens, including the Jardin Exotique de Bormes, which showcases a wide variety of exotic plants and flowers.
Cornillon-Confoux may not be the prettiest hilltop town that we visited in Provence. But the panoramic views that this village offers are simply breathtaking! I was amazed that from the ramparts, we were able to see the Alpilles, the Luberon and even Mont Ventoux!
Since the village was not crowded at all, we took our time to sit down and just breathe in the fresh air, while gazing at the idyllic surrounding countryside. People seemed to arrive in town around dinner time. So we slowly moved on to explore the rest of the village, where I fell in love with some bright blue and pastel purple windowpanes of the charming stone houses.
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Located in the Var department, La Cadière-d’Azur is home to many vineyards that offer tours and tastings of local wines. But I don’t drink alcohol… and was hungry (or even hangry!) when we arrived in town.
So we headed to the village’s main street called rue Gabriel Péri, where we found several restaurants. Although they were all fully booked, the nice waitress from La Table du Cadiero simply took out a small table for two and put it under a tree for us, where we tasted one of the best Tuna Tataki! After lunch, we strolled around inside the village’s rampart walls, where we met no one else but sleeping cats. The climb up to the 16th century church Saint André took us through narrow cobblestone lanes, where we gazed at the medieval houses in the rue de l’Horloge. Once arrived on the hilltop, we sat down to enjoy a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside from the rue de l’Hôpital.
After visiting La Cadière-d’Azur, we drove to the perched village located just across the hill, called Le Castellet.
Since Le Castellet is a quite popular destination, it wasn’t easy to find a place to park our car, and we even had to pay for a parking spot just outside of the hilltop village. However, Le Castellet was still worth visiting. Inside this well-preserved medieval village surrounded by ramparts, we were surprised to see many little souvenir stores and art & crafts shops. Although crowded, it was nice to stroll through the charming narrow cobblestone streets lined by lovely stone houses. And the panoramic views of the surrounding countryside are stunning too.
Perched on the edge of a hill, Gordes is probably one of the most famous hilltop towns of the Luberon region, and probably even of Provence.
Gordes is particularly famous for its centuries-old architecture and historic charm. The village is built entirely from stone and one of the main attractions in Gordes is the Château de Gordes, which dates back to the 11th century.
In addition to the castle, Gordes also has a 12th-century church dedicated to Saint Firmin Church, and lots of narrow cobblestone streets bordered by many shops selling local produce, crafts, and other Provençal products. Since we knew that Gordes is usually quite touristy during the summer, we arrived in the early morning. With lesser people, we got to enjoy a quiet stroll through the medieval village, while admiring the picturesque houses, as well as the stunning panoramic views of the nearby countryside.
Lauris is a hilltop village located in the Luberon region.
This village is mainly known for its castle, the Château de Lauris, which holds a spectacular garden. We didn’t visit the castle but enjoyed strolling through the garden. Called Jardin des Plantes tinctoriales or “Garden of dyeing plants”, this garden has over 250 species of plants from which dyes are extracted to produce paints and inks. From the Garden terraces, we were amazed by the breathtaking views of the Durance valley and the Alpilles. The old part of Lauris is filled with paved streets, where we strolled through the narrow alleys and took pictures of the old stone houses with colorful windowpanes and clad in vine leaves.
Built between two rocky slopes in the heart of the Verdon Natural Regional Park, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is one of the “most beautiful villages in France”. And of course, this label was reason enough to made this hilltop town so famous and… crowded.
From afar, I gazed at the gold-painted star hanging high above the village, between two cliffs. According to legend, the origin of the star goes back to the 10th century: after the Crusades, a knight named Blacas decided to hang a golden star above the village to thank Virgin Mary for letting him come home alive. The current star, covered in gold leaves, was made in 1957. It’s about 1,25 meter high and hangs on a 135 meters-long chain.
Located midway between Grenoble and Golfe-Juan, Sisteron – sometimes called the “Gateway to Provence” – is a major stop along the Route Napoleon. On February 26, 1815, Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba and landed in Golfe-Juan, between Cannes and Antibes in the French Rivera. With an army of 1028 men, he marched to the north to reconquer France. The 328 km-long journey from Golfe-Juan to Grenoble lasted only 6 days. But for the first 5 days, Napoleon was most worried about crossing Sisteron.
Because of its citadel and fortifications, and also because of its royalist mayor, Sisteron was a challenging place that could have jeopardized Napoleon’s plans. On March 6, one hundred horsemen marched into town but didn’t encounter any resistance. So, the next morning, the Emperor went to the Hotel du Bras d’Or in Sisteron and declared happily “Soldiers, we are saved!”
As we walked along the Durance river in Sisteron, and faced the impressive Rocher de la Baume, we wondered whether Napoleon and his men were also dazzled by this same exceptional landscape.
Not far away from the city of Orange lies Vaison-la-Romaine. This town is also famous for its Roman ruins.
From afar, we spotted a fortified town with a ruined castle on a hilltop surrounded by dozens of stone houses. But when we drove into Vaison-la-Romaine, we realized that the town is actually split in two parts. There’s a lower city with the modern town, which also contains the Roman ruins. And there’s an upper city dating back to the Middle Ages which we saw from afar.
As much as we like ancient sites, it turns out that we preferred exploring the perched medieval Vaison-la-Romaine. It was probably because of the quiet atmosphere, the charm of the narrow cobblestone streets, or simply because we could never get tired of the typical stone houses from Provence…
Crestet was our last stop in Provence. Maybe that’s the reason why we were so very fond of this village perched on the crest facing Mont Ventoux.
When we saw this hilltop village from afar, I thought it must be like all the other typical hilltop towns in Provence. So, I thought we would just have a quick stroll and wouldn’t spend more than half an hour to visit Crestet. But as we climbed up to the village after leaving our car at the foot of the hill, I could sense that we were going to spend more time in Crestet than expected.
The narrow paved lanes led us to a 12th century castle, a former residence of the bishops of Vaison-la-Romaine. And then to an 11th century church of St Sauveur, nestled between old stone houses. These stone houses and the little square facing the medieval church look so charming that I immediately fell in love with Crestet. We were the only people in the village that morning, so we took all our time to explore the place in depth, taking tons of pictures of every corner of Crestet.
Once arrived on the top of the village, we sat down to enjoy a homemade ice tea on Le Panoramic’s terrace, perched on the highest point of the village. We ended up spending so much time strolling around Crestet that we had to add an extra night to our roadtrip before heading home. But in the end, it was totally worth it!
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