Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence

Local south of France resident, Eric Schwartz, is back with more fun personal recommendations for an enjoyable visit – this time to Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse – three of the most popular towns to visit in Provence. If stunning vistas, fields of fragrant lavender, amazing cuisine, art, medieval history and delectable French wines are your thing, then a trip to Provence should be at the top of your must-see list in France. Provence is a sizeable area in southern France that offers a myriad of things to do and see. This feature will focus on some of Eric’s favorite places to explore; Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse. On this trip, Eric spent five days in Avignon, four days in Aix-en-Provence and two days in Grasse, allowing one day at each end of the trip for travel to and from – two perfect weeks in Provence. Over to Eric……

Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence view of the Rhone River from the ramparts of Avignon

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Starting two perfect weeks in Provence – Avignon

Arriving at the Avignon TGV station with its aluminum panel walls on one side and slotted glass on the other it feels like you’ve walked into a functional piece of art. Making sure you’ve gotten your baggage and that you’ve left nothing behind on the train, you must first figure out how to get to the center of old town, which is about four miles away. You have several options: regional rail, bus or taxi. We opted to take bus #10 from the bus stop at the gare routiére (bus station), which is located to the left and behind the TGV station. The bus runs twice an hour between the two Avignon train stations – the TGV and the smaller Gare Centre Avignon. The bus let us off just inside the defensive ramparts, which surround the old city center. From there it was just a short, two-minute walk to our hotel.

Book your train tickets for Avignon here >>

You could also take bus #21. While it runs much less frequently it does take a more direct and shorter route to Avignon Centre.

Another great option is the SNCF TER (Transport Express Régional) train, which takes only about five minutes to get you to Avignon Centre, the regional and local (non-high speed) train station. There are TER trains about every half hour that go between Avignon TGV and Avignon Centre and tickets can be purchased on the SNCF app or at one of the kiosks found in the main hall at the TGV terminal. TER tickets to Avignon Centre are not included with your SNCF TGV ticket. If you plan to use public transport frequently, there is also the Avignon CityPass which you opt to include public transit.

Where to stay in Avignon

For our stay in Avignon, we chose the following hotel:

Hôtel Le Bristol, four-star, 44 Cours Jean Jaurès, 84000 Avignon. This hotel offered a remarkable breakfast buffet, has a bar for an evening cocktail, and is situated perfectly for your sightseeing. The rooms were a little above average size and the hotel had been recently remodeled. You can book the Hôtel Le Bristol here >>

Some other options include:

Ibis Budget Avignon Centre, three-star, 42 Boulevard Saint-Roch, 84000, located adjacent to the Avignon Centre Gare, is a budget-friendly option just outside the ramparts of the old city. Breakfast is included and the hotel also has a bar. Book the Ibis Budget Avignon Centre here >>

Hôtel Cloître Saint-Louis, four-star, 20 Rue du Portail Boquier, 84000, a boutique luxury hotel with all the amenities of Le Bristol, but also has a pool for summertime use. Book the Hôtel Cloître Saint-Louis here >>

What to see in Avignon

My Mother used to sing “Sur Le Pont d’Avignon” to me and my sister as a lullaby – instilling in me a curiosity about the town and that bridge. While the bridge was toward the top of my sightseeing list, in my research for what to do while in Avignon, the thing that piqued my interest most was The Pope’s Palace (Palais des Papes), and it did not disappoint.

Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence Pont Saint Benezet
The Pont Saint-Bénézet – more commonly known as the Pont d’Avignon

The Avignon Tourism office offers a 24- or 48-hour City Pass, which permits entry into many of the city sights. You can upgrade the pass by purchasing public transit. I think the City Pass is great to see many of the sites that are on your list, but most of these are concentrated in such a small area that we didn’t add transportation to our passes.

On the first day of our five-day visit, after dropping our bags at the hotel, we headed straight for the Pope’s Palace. We were there in October and the lines weren’t bad at all.

Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence Exterior of the Palais des Papes
The iconic Palais des Papes (Photo credit: Canva)

With your entrance fee to the palace, you get an audioguide and tablet. The tablet, called a “Histopad,” allows you to scan objects in each room to visually learn and read more about the artifacts. The palace was built starting in 1335 and was completed in less than 20 years. It housed seven popes and popes of the Papal Schism before the papacy returned to the Vatican. We decided to include the gardens on our ticket and even in late October they were beautiful.

That afternoon we had lunch at La Brasserie de l’Horloge, (French) at 26 Place de l’Horloge, which was located on a pedestrian-only walkway. It looked out onto the immense Place d’Horlage theater, Avignon’s home to opera, and other magnificent surrounding buildings. We took a table outside to enjoy the sights and sounds as there was a merry-go-round nearby as well as a band playing. It was idyllic.

After lunch we downloaded the Velopop app and rented two bikes. We decided to ride around the exterior of the entire wall since there was a bike path encircling the old town. It was a beautiful, sunny day and every once in a while I just had to stop to take pictures of the ramparts with the impressive defensive towers.

After returning the bikes we had a glass of wine at the bar of the hotel before strolling in the golden twilight to the restaurant for dinner that evening. We treated ourselves to a special dinner at Grand Café Barretta (French), 14 Place Saint-Didier. The meal was remarkable and the restaurant boasted a superb wine collection.

The next day, after a nice leisurely breakfast at the hotel, we decided to visit Fort Saint-André. We took bus #26 from Poste toward Paul Bert and exited seven stops later at the Tourism office. It was a short, seven-minute walk from there, winding around some beautiful homes and gardens on a gentle incline to get to the base of the former royal fortress.

The fort’s original purpose was to protect France against attacks from Provence as they were two separate kingdoms in the early 1300’s during its original construction. More recently the fort has served other purposes besides defense, such as a Benedictine Abbey, a prison, and a war veteran rehabilitation center. We pretty much had free run of the walls, towers, ramparts and living quarters without hardly anyone else touring that day. It was a fascinating glimpse into medieval military life.

Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence Vaulted ceiling of the Palais des Papes

I had to satisfy a craving for a hamburger so we decided to take the bus back to the old city, then walk to Maïnama, 37 Rue des Teinturiers. The burger was over-the-top delicious, but they do offer chicken or salads if red meat isn’t your thing.

While in this neighborhood, we strolled along Rue des Teinturiers, which got its name from the textile dying industry that thrived there between the 14th and 19th centuries. We explored the narrow bridges, cobbled walkways and marveled at a canal, which has a few remaining waterwheels, making this neighborhood not only one of the oldest in Avignon, but one of the most picturesque. This “street” follows the Sorgue River through the neighborhood where originally there were wool, silk and cotton manufacturers and leather tanneries, and later, fabric dyers moved in. These original businesses are all long gone and have been replaced with art galleries, artisan shops and restaurants.

After our stroll in the shaded lanes, we made our way to the Pont d’Avignon to see if it could live up to my childhood imaginings. I could finally find out why the bridge only went part-way across the river!

The Pont d’Avignon, officially known as Pont Saint-Bénézet, has a fascinating history. The medieval bridge that now partially crosses the Rhône River had to be rebuilt several times, mostly due to bad engineering and high water. Reconstruction was finally abandoned after 22 of the bridge’s arches spilled into the river, leaving only four, along with the gatehouse and the Chapel of Saint Nicolas.

Avignon boasts some impressive architecture – the bridge and the Tour Philippe-le-Bel being just a few examples. We explored the adjacent Jardin du Rocher des Doms gardens and squares around the village for the balance of the afternoon, stopping in occasionally to shop or to have an afternoon coffee or ice cream – a few of our favorite pastimes.

Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence Avignon Ramparts
The Avignon Ramparts

That night we picked a tiny hole-in-the-wall type place called Fou de Fafa, (French) 17 Rue des Trois Faucons. We were in search of typical Provençal cuisine, which usually features wild game like venison or pheasant. We made a good choice as there was meticulous attention to detail in the preparation of dishes and responsive wait staff.

On our third day, we decided to explore some of the churches in Avignon and started out with the Cathedrale Notre-Dame des Doms, built in Romanesque style in the second half of the 12th century. It is the main Roman Catholic church of Avignon and has two popes who are buried there: Pope Benedict XII and Pope John XXII.

We then visited the Basilique Saint Pierre, a flamboyant gothic style church dating from 1358 featuring beautiful gold embellished statuary and small but luminous stained-glass windows. For lunch that day we decided to see the covered market, Les Halles, and enjoyed meandering through the aisles looking at all the fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, spices, baked goods and sweets of all kinds. We chose one of the vendors that uses local produce in their dishes. The meal was simple, but very good and satisfying.

Day trips from Avignon

We planned to do some day-tripping from our bases in Provence. Among our options were Orange, Arles, or a wine tour around the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which produces some very expensive wine sold all over the world.

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The place we picked for the balance of our day was Arles, as there are fantastic Roman ruins there. Arles was an excellent choice for a day trip because it’s an easy TER journey, which took just under 20 minutes from Avignon Centre. We were dropped off near the middle of the old city center in Arles.

Our highlights from Arles included seeing the Roman Amphitheatre (les Arenes), which was built in 90 AD and regularly welcomed 20,000 spectators for chariot races and of course, brutal hand-to-hand combat matches. Today it hosts attractions like bull fights as well as summer theater and musical concerts.

Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence interior of Arles arena
Interior of Arles arena (Photo credit: Jo Karnaghan)

We also visited the Saint-Trophime Cloister (Cloitre Saint-Trophime), built in the 12th century, which is an amazing example of Romanesque and Provençal architecture.

Throughout the day we were on the lookout for the town’s plaques showing where Vincent Van Gogh had stood to paint certain scenes. As touristy as it might be, we had to see Café Van Gogh, (now permanently closed at the time of this writing), which during his time was known as Terrasse du Café, located in the Place du Forum, the site where he painted the Cafe Terracé at Night, in 1888.

We woke up early on the next to last day to get ready for a full day tour. We boarded a mini-bus, which took us to the Pont du Gard. We also saw historic Roman ruins in the cities of Orange and Nîmes. Being the history buff that I am, the Pont du Gard was something that I always wanted to see, and it was simply breathtaking in its immensity and sheer feat of engineering. It was constructed in about 19 BC by the Romans and carried water from Nîmes over the Gard River into southern France. There is a massive modern museum complex explaining the construction of the aqueduct and bridge. The museum also conveniently has restrooms and cafes as the monument itself is rather isolated.

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While the visits to Orange and Nîmes were brief, we did get to see the highlights in each. Orange has incredible Roman structures, including the Roman Theater of Orange, built early in the 1st century AD. Today it serves as a venue for concerts and other entertainment. We also saw the Arc de Triomphe, built between 10 and 25 AD, which was a gateway to the fortified ramparts that protected the city.

We got just a glimpse of Nîmes, stopping briefly for pictures in front of the Arenes de Nîmes, which was built around the same period as the Colosseum in Rome, roughly about 70 AD. The Nîmes arena is about one-fourth as large as its big brother in Rome. Nevertheless, it was impressive. We also stopped at the La Maison Carrée, one of the most in-tact Roman temples still standing. There is a lot to do and see in Nîmes so we will likely have to make a return trip to spend additional time exploring the city and to catch a bull fight, rock concert or sporting event in the arena.

For our final half-day in Avignon we were able to fit in a visit to the Musée Angladon where we saw the collection of Jacques Doucet. The museum is housed in the hôtel de Massilian, built in the 18th century. (A ‘hôtel particulier’ just means a free-standing grand mansion that belonged to a single family of wealth and prestige and employed a full housekeeping staff, gardeners and of course, chefs). This museum has an extraordinary collection of artwork from the 18th to the 20th centuries featuring works from artists like Modigliani, Picasso, Sisley, Degas, Van Gogh and Cezanne.

After consuming this incredible feast for the eyes we grabbed a quick bite by the hotel at Brasserie du Théâtre (French), which has a sizeable menu and quick service.

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That afternoon, we caught a train from Avignon to Aix-en-Provence. Most trains on this journey necessitate a change in Marseille, which culminates in about two and a half hours of travel including transfer time.

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How to travel from Avignon to Aix-en-Provence by train

I try to time my train trips so they’re coordinated with our check-out time and the hotel check-in time at our destination. Depending upon the exact scheduled departure and arrival times it can shift how and where we eat. My typical options include having lunch before boarding, buying lunch to take on the train, having lunch on the train, (TGV only) or eating after arriving at the destination. Note: it will be difficult to find any place that serves lunch past 2 p.m. unless they note “Service Non-stop.” While this can be convenient, I have often found the ‘continuous service’ fare to be lacking.

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Book trains to Aix-en-Provence here >>

Aix-en-Provence: where to stay, eat and see

We decided to walk to our accommodations from the Aix-en-Provence Centre station rather than taking an inOui train from Marseilles to the Gare d’Aix-en-Provence TGV. The TGV station, which is situated a substantial distance from the town center, takes at least 20 minutes by cab or 45 minutes by public transport to get into the old town.

Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence Fontaine de la Rotonde Aix-en-Provence
The Fontaine de la Rotonde. Aix-en-Provence is deservedly famous for its fountains

Our hotel, which was on the outskirts of the old city center was:

Best Western Le Galice Centre-Ville, four-star, 5-7 Rte de Galice, 13090 Aix-en-Provence, a very-well run business hotel with ample free parking and a pool. It is about a 15-minute walk from the old city center. It did have a great breakfast spread and was clean. The friendly and helpful staff spoke English very well. You can book the Best Western Le Galice Centre-Ville here >>

Depending on your budget you could consider staying within the old city center at several inviting hotels as Aix does not lack for choices:

Hôtel Cardinal, two-star, 24 Rue Cardinale, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, a very small boutique, traditionally French-style hotel in an ideal location. Book the Hôtel Cardinal here >>

Hôtel Les Quatre Dauphins, three-star, 54 Rue Roux Alpheran, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, set in a former private mansion with classically charismatic French design and breakfast priced additionally. You can book the Hôtel Les Quatre Dauphins here >>

Hôtel des Augustins, three-star, 3 Rue de la Masse, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, located in the chapel of the Couvent des Grands Augustins, which was built from the 12th century onward and is listed as a historical monument. You will find interesting details with stone arches and ceilings, stained glass windows and a spiral staircase with iron railings. Breakfast is served in your room. Book the Hôtel des Augustins here >>

Hôtel Rotonde, four-star, 15 Av. des Belges, 13100 Aix-en-Provence is a clean, modern hotel with friendly staff and a nice breakfast at a small additional price. Book the Hôtel Rotonde here >>

Villa Gallici Hôtel & Spa, five-star, 18 Av. de la Violette, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, a luxury over-the-top Parisian-chic hotel located about a 10-minute walk north of the old center. You can book the Villa Gallici Hôtel & Spa here >>

We decided since the city center of the old town in Aix-en-Provence “Aix” is so compact, that we would just explore it on foot. To give us a general outline of the area, we got tickets to the tourist train which runs throughout the old center.

Aix has a lot to offer with its many welcoming squares narrow, winding cobble lanes and shop windows showing trendy clothes, as well as coffee shops, which beckon people to come and relax. We noticed how clean the city was and that it exuded such charm, part of which was due to an abundance of fountains scattered throughout the center.

Many of the fountains on street corners in Aix are drinking fountains and are much smaller than the ornate display fountains. The drinking fountains have obvious waterspouts and draining trays, allowing you to fill your water bottles whenever needed.

Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence Fontaine Pascal Aix-en-Provence
The fontaine Pascal

We then walked on to see the Place des Cardeurs, which has the famous Fontaine Saint Louis, one of the ornate fountains which also happens to have potable water. Many travelers are drawn to Aix because it is a spa town. You’ll see that some of the older (non-potable) fountains that contain water from the thermal springs sprout moss or grasses and look odd initially – like oversized Chia Pets.

If you really want the Roman experience, why not visit the Thermes Sextius, 55 Av. des Thermes? These baths are built on top of old Roman ruins and baths: Aquae Sextiae. Those baths were founded by the consul Caïus Sextius in 123 BC near natural hot thermal springs (33°C/91°F). Besides the thermal pools the spa offers a full range of services.

Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence Thermes Sextius Aix-en-Provence

We next walked to the Fontaine de la Rotonde in Place du Général de Gaulle, a very intricate but massive bronze display of lions, sirens, swans and angels perched on the backs of dolphins.

We were starving at this point so had a late bite at Le Rendez-Vous Aixois (French), which has an amazing view of the beautiful fountain and plaza.

After lunch we made it our mission to search out Calissons, a special baked treat originally produced in Aix by a confectioner for King René d’Anjou for the king’s wedding to Queen Jeanne in 1454. These are tempting little delicacies that are made from a paste of melon and crushed almonds, spread on unleavened bread and topped with royal icing. We finally came upon one of the stores of Calissons Brémond and after a couple of taste-tests were hooked and bought several packages including assortments and the traditional diamond-shaped box. Brémond Fils is the oldest calisson producer in Aix and has been in business since 1830. These treats travel well so we bought enough of them to take back as gifts.

Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence Calissons Bremond
Hhhhmmm….anyone for a calisson?

Next, we walked to Place d’Albertas at 11 Rue Espariat, a small cobblestone square bordered by beautiful Regency-style 18th century buildings with a delightful fountain in the center. As twilight was descending upon us, we headed to the Jas-de-Bouffans – a green area of parks where we could see the Bastide du Jas de Bouffan, a mansion and former home of impressionist painter Paul Cézanne.

That evening, we had dinner at the Four Courts (Pub), 51 Cours Mirabeau. We just needed a light jacket to eat outside as the restaurant provided outdoor heaters.

The next morning, we started out exploring Couronne Urbaine, another green area with French-style gardens that surrounds the historic Aix center. When originally conceived the area had homes including the 17th-century Pavillon de Vendôme, which is now a museum housing art from the 1600s to today.

Sprawling Parc Jourdan is brimming with linden trees and is also home to the Saint-Pierre Cemetery where you can visit the tomb of the Cézanne. The city focuses a lot of tourism around Cézanne, one of Aix’s most famous artists, and many companies offer walking tours to see the places where he grew up, went to school, got married, and painted.

In observing the town and surrounding terrain, you’ll see landscapes like Mont Sainte-Victoire and other scenes that inspired Cézanne. If you don’t take a guided tour, you can at least pose for a picture by his statue next to the tourist office. A visit to his studio is also a great experience for those who love his work. In search of a spot for lunch we again found ourselves at Cours Mirabeau – a very pleasant, mostly pedestrian area. This grand thoroughfare is lined with cafes and is likely the busiest and most frequented place in Aix. It is capped on one end by the magnificent Fontaine de la Rotonde and the other by a tree-shaded square with a fountain and statue of the Roi René of Anjou, the good king of the Provençals. He was known not only as an art lover but is credited for importing the muscat grape to Provence.

The Cours Mirabeau (cours meaning route, path, course or way) reminds me of Cours Saleya in Nice or the Champs-Élysées in Paris – it is that impressive. It is dotted with statues, fountains, benches and cafes where you can just sit and people-watch. We decided to try Bar Le Grillon (Brasserie), 49 Cr Mirabeau for lunch – to watch passersby from a table under the sidewalk awnings. If you have time, walk up and down each side of the ‘path’ to check out all the of the “hôtels” (grand mansions) that line the street, each having extravagant features, with one seemingly trying to outdo the next.

Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence Cours Mirabeau Aix-en-Provence
Cours Mirabeau

Not wanting to overextend ourselves, we decided to peruse a few churches in the afternoon so we visited Paroisse Cathédrale Saint Sauveur, at 34 Place des Martyrs de la Resistance, a Roman-Catholic church which was built and re-built from the 12th to the 19th centuries and located on the 1st century site of the Roman forum. It contains precious, religious artwork including the “Burning Bush” triptych by Nicolas Froment, painted between 1475-76. There is a large plaza in front of the church and once inside, you’ll be impressed by not only the artwork, but the stained glass, cloister and baptistery. We later walked to Le Garde Manger, (Patisserie), 37 Cr Sextius, one of Aix’s best coffee and pastry shops where we relaxed and indulged in a late afternoon coffee and dessert.

For dinner we treated ourselves at Yves Restaurant, (French–good place for families) 23 Rue Lisse des Cordeliers. I always look for a restaurant that offers a variety of main dishes, as with many couples, we have distinct palettes and preferences. I generally prefer seafood dishes and lighter fare whereas my spouse leans more toward heartier meat and potato dishes. We both selected a ‘plat principal’ (main dish) suited to our tastes and both exceeded our expectations.

In pursuit of picnicking supplies, we started out the following day by strolling to the Marché Aix en Provence, which winds its way through Cours Mirabeau and features produce and prepared foods at Place des Prêcheurs. This square has an ornate baroque obelisk with a fountain base called the Fontaine des Prêcheurs, which is positioned in front of the law courts where vendors offer a bevy of fruit, vegetables, fish and meats. It is an open-air market and vendors bring in produce that they place on tables, some having mobile trailers with cold cases, while others display their goods under pop-up tents or awnings. The variety of items you can buy and see here is unbelievable. We enjoyed the market so much we decided to also go to the flower market, Le Marché Aux Fleurs, located in the plaza in front of the l’Hôtel de Ville or city hall. Even though it was late in the season the variety bouquets, blooms and plants were staggering. Both markets operate Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from about 9 a.m. to sometimes as late as 2 p.m., but I recommend going early as you’ll see some vendors packing up even before noon. If you miss the farmers’ market days, there is a daily food market located in Place Richelme.

Still fascinated by Cézanne, I tried to search out more about his life in this town. The Aix tourist office has a self-guided walking tour of sites he frequented – all conveniently marked with a letter “C.” You can download or print the map from their website. This expedition led us to the Café des Deux Garçons where he drank and ate elbow to elbow with fellow artists and writers. Later, other famous French artists and intellectuals also frequented this place including Jean Cocteau, Raimu and Jean-Paul Sartre. Sadly, there was a devastating fire in 2019 that destroyed the restaurant and it remains closed as of this publication. I still imagined him lingering at the bar of this restaurant nursing a drink. I made a mental note to myself to indulge in a glass of the wonderfully balanced, not too sweet and not too dry rosé wine that Provence is known for, at lunch, in his honor.

Nearby the burned-out shell of the Café des Deux Garçons, we walked to the next street corner and looked above the ground floor of the now CIC bank building at 55 Cours Mirabeau and Rue Fabrot, to see the faded remnants of the sign from the site of Cezanne’s father’s hat shop, “Chapellerie du Cours Mirabeau – Gros et Detail.” The faded letters can just be made out and invoke another small reminder of his life in Aix.

We ended up eating not too far from there at La Rotonde, a brasserie perched in a perfect spot to stare aimlessly at the Fontaine de la Rotonde, 2 A Place Jeanne d’Arc. In the plaza, there are several statues, one of which is of a female, but it is not Joan. This statue is of Les Sciences et les Arts (1882) by artist and sculptor François Truphème. If you want to see a statue of Joan of Arc, go look at the left side entrance of the L’Église du Saint-Esprit, which is not too far from the plaza, at 40 Rue Espariat.

If you decide to go to the area near the Église du Saint-Esprit, be sure to walk through Passage Agard. ‘Passages’ are typically covered, narrow, pedestrian-only forms of early shopping centers, which I love to seek out as they often reveal little hidden gems of stores – whose entrances can be easily overlooked. This one is located between Square Verdun and Cours Mirabeau and connects the Cours Mirabeau to the Law Courts (Palais de Justice).

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To cap the day off we headed to Musée Granet where Cezanné took drawing classes and where 11 of his paintings are now on exhibit. That night in search of a place for dinner, knowing that Aix is a university town with a youthful energy, we knew there would be plenty of fast casual restaurants to choose from. We ended up having falafel from a short-order take out place and took it back to the room to accompany some of our bounty from the markets.

On our last morning in Aix, we again had breakfast at the hotel, left our luggage at the front desk and then went to get one more view of the open-air museum called Aix-en-Provence, trying to burn the scenes into our minds. We decided to see Pavillon Vendôme, not so much for the art that was on display, but just to see the mansion itself and the exquisite gardens.

Travel to Grasse from Aix-en-Provence by train

Our next and final stop would be Grasse where we would explore the birthplace of not only the perfume industry, but of its early innovators. This village is nestled in the lower Alps on a gentle slope and rounded valley, which looks out over the Mediterranean Sea. Grasse is famous for the abundance of floral scents it produces, along with producing flavorings for food manufacturers. As we were travelling in late October, the lavender fields had already been harvested. If you want to see them in their full glory, plan to visit from mid-June to no later than the first full week of July, as many farmers are cutting crops much earlier in the season due to drought conditions.

Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence view of the Mediterranean Sea from the hills of Grasse sunset in Provence
Stunning Mediterranean sunset from Grasse

On this journey we left from the Aix TGV station on an Ouigo train and connected in Cannes, where we had to switch to a TER to complete the trip to Grasse. The duration was the shortest of all options at just over three and a half hours. Since this train left Aix before lunchtime and service was provided by an Ouigo train between Aix and Cannes, we purchased our lunch beforehand to take on board with us.

Book trains to Grasse here >>

Ouigo tickets are typically less expensive than inOui (TGV) tickets and typically have longer journey times. Ouigo tickets are also sold à-la-carte, so you have to purchase seat assignments, luggage space, bicycles on-board, an electrical outlet and WiFi separately, or you can purchase a bundle at the time you buy the ticket. Ouigo trains do not offer food or bar service.

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What to do in Grasse

While today Grasse is known for its thriving perfume industry, until the 18th century, Grasse’s main commerce was leather tanning. Unlike perfume, manufacturing of leather goods does not give off the most pleasant odor. In fact, many at the time would have considered the smell coming from Grasse as putrid!

Jean de Galimard, who originally was a glove-maker and tanner, came up with the idea of creating flower-infused balms to rub into his leather, making them more appealing to his clients, some of whom were courtiers of Louis XIV. The flowers and herbs grew abundantly and wild in the surrounding hillsides around Grasse where they continue to thrive to this day. It was a simple idea that eventually transformed his business and the town and created a completely new industry that is alive and well today. Many major fashion houses are reliant upon the flowers, herbs, flowering trees and grasses grown there. Chanel cultivates its signature Mai de Rose in Grasse, a flower that for more than a century has been integral to the distinctive allure of Chanel No. 5 perfume and other legendary Chanel creations.

Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence Palais de Congres Grasse and fountain
Traditional architecture modern architecture in Grasse

Arriving in Grasse in the late afternoon was super simple as the station is located near the city center. While the city is fairly walkable, Grasse is located in the pre-Alps so many streets have steep inclines or declines – so make sure your footwear is up to the task. The train station was small and easy to navigate and we were soon on our way to check into our hotel: Le Virginia (by Popinns), a three-star hotel located at 10 Trav. Dupont, 06130 Grasse. Our stay was nice (the room was large with a balcony overlooking the surrounding foothills and the staff was friendly), but it was located a bit far from the old city center. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any hotels situated directly in the old center itself. It was budget friendly and breakfast was available.

Book Le Virginia here >>

Some other lodgings I can recommend in Grasse, located close to the old city center are:

Les Passiflores Bed & Breakfast, Trav. du Jardin public, 06130 Grasse, located a five-minute walk away from the Fragonard perfume museum. Its best features are a shaded terrace and an enclosed garden. You can book Les Passiflores Bed & Breakfast here >>

Skylark Bed & Breakfast, 32 Rue Des Carrières, 06130 Grasse, about a 15-minute walk to the old city center. The property has panoramic views of the coastline, including Cannes, Antibes and Nice, as well as terrific vistas of Grasse. Book Skylark Bed & Breakfast here >>

If you want to stay in the old town center, I’d recommend looking at rental apartments, houses or alternative lodging. Pay particular attention during the high season because available accommodations in Grasse can be tight. Booking in advance is essential, particularly around big events like the Grasse Jasmine Festival. This annual gala usually takes place the first weekend of August, so most places will be booked very far in advance leading up to and after that weekend.

France Travel Planning Travel Tip

Search for Grasse house and apartment rentals here >>

If you’re looking for a unique stay in Grasse, why not rent the charming country cottage of Julia Child? It is equipped with a chef’s kitchen and has four bedrooms and four and a half bathrooms. It’s a short drive from the city center and was built in 1963. It’s named “La Pitchoune” (or “La Peetch” as Julia called it). It even has a garden terrace and outdoor pool. There is a cooking school adjacent to the home so depending on your budget, you could also take cooking classes or have your stay fully catered. See all the details here >>

France Travel Planning Travel Tip

After checking in we made our way to dinner navigating our way through narrow cobbled stone streets to eat at Restaurant Le Vietnam, 3 Rue des Fabreries. It is a family run restaurant serving all kinds of tasty Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. Our server did not speak much English so we mainly had to communicate in French or by pointing at pictured menu items, which worked out fine.

Our main reason to visit Grasse was to discover how perfume is made and how the industry was formed to its current configuration today. So after breakfast the next morning we visited the Fragonard museum in downtown Grasse, located in a historical factory at 20 boulevard Fragonard.

We took an English-speaking tour and learned about how the flowers, herbs and other ingredients were plentiful in this part of France, which drew many fragrance makers there, including not only Fragonard, but Galimard and Molinard. We found at the that the company is still run by members of the family – predominantly the women of the family. Both Galimard and Molinard offer tours as well. All three of these early pioneers of perfume production have retail shops in the old city center area.

That afternoon, along with wandering around the old city center, we visited Musée International de la Parfumerie, as we still hadn’t consumed enough history and information on perfume. It is located at 2 Boulevard du Jeu de Ballon and is open daily. Opening in 1989, it tracks the history of scents through the ages, explaining the role perfume has played throughout civilization. We visited the gardens afterward, which are open to visitors.

For dinner that night we chose La Tannerie, (Gastro-pub) located at 10-14 place du lieutenant Georges Morel, which offered a good wine list and some interesting small plats.

Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse: Two Perfect Weeks in Provence Covered walkways of Grasse
The covered walkways of Grasse

After breakfast on our last morning, we left our luggage at the front desk, freeing us up to explore the old city center some more and discover art galleries, trendy clothing boutiques, antique shops and quirky artisan shops.

Later we went to see the Jean-Honoré Fragonard Villa-Museum, housed in a beautiful 17th century house at 14, rue Jean Ossola. The museum is home to a good-sized collection of the namesake’s works, covering his career and different subject matters. You would think the artist Fragonard, who also has works in the Louvre in Paris, would have something to do with perfumery, but no, the founder of Fragonard, Eugène Fuchs, simply named his business after the famous artist to recognize the artist’s connection to, and birth in the town in 1732.

We had a simple lunch at Le Brasserie des Artistes, 2 Place de la Foux.

Grasse is filled with small eateries everywhere you turn – particularly in small squares, plazas and lining pedestrian-only streets. Place aux Aires is typical of this scene and each side of it is brimming with eateries and cafes with all sorts of different food options. The square has a fountain in the center and is shaded by the buildings surrounding it. This square is an ideal and pleasant place for a meal, coffee or afternoon apéro. My recommendation would be to get lost and wander around in the old city center, going in and out of narrowed cobbled lanes, up and down stairs and just immersing yourself in the quaintness of it all.

France Travel Planning Travel Tip

Another of our goals in going to Grasse was to make our own perfume. We selected Fragonard to do the apprentice perfume maker’s workshop with the intent to craft unique perfumes for my sisters as Christmas gifts. You can also make colognes for men. This activity just sounded like something fun to do in Grasse and off the beaten path of your typical tourist activities. I had made my reservations online three months in advance of our trip to Grasse. Perfume classes sell out, particularly during high season, and are usually only available two days a week, so time your trip accordingly.

The class is led by a “nose,” a person trained to combine scents and come up with new perfumes and colognes for the brand. After an intensive overview on making perfume during the 90-minute workshop, we walked away with two 100ml bottles of perfume, a Fragonard apron and the formula and notes we used in our creations. We each paid 69 euros for this workshop and thought it was well worth the price, as everyone was having fun and joking around during the process, while learning a lot.

Molinard also offers some perfume making workshops, one of which is more or less along the lines of Fragonard’s, and others offering additional indulgences with classes serving champagne. There is also one for children ages three to 10, so there are a variety to choose from.

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We returned to Place aux Aires for dinner. We picked Les Delicatesses de Grasse, (Mediterranean) 3 Place aux Aires, which features small plates, and honestly, who doesn’t enjoy a dinner composed almost completely of appetizers? Of course, we ordered an Aperol Spritz, the quintessentially French afternoon drink, which compliments small bites very well.

If a truly exceptional meal is on your radar, then try La Bastide St-Antoine, housed in a luxury five-star hotel by the same name. They have an amazing garden terrace that overlooks the Mediterranean. But the small plates meal was the perfect ending for us on a great trip in Provence, as one of our favorite memories and things to do in France is to eat under an umbrella outside and have a drink in the afternoon sun. We took a late train back to Nice, capping off an absolutely wonderful trip to Provence.

If you’re yearning to travel to a beautiful place that’s steeped in history, enjoy perfect weather and azure blue skies, indulge in a variety of cuisines and exceptional wines, all within a short trip from Paris or other EU hubs, then look no further than Provence. While we managed to pack a lot into our 12-day stay, I know we just barely scratched the surface as there is so much more this region of France has to offer. Needless to say, I’m anxious to return soon – this time in summer to see the lavender fields in full bloom.

Plan your trip to Provence

Book your Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Grasse apartment or house accommodation here >>

The regions around Avignon and Aix-en-Provence are famous for their delicious rosé wines. Book wine tastings and tours here >>

This area is perfect for thrill seekers and adventure travellers. Book your Provence adventure experiences here >>

Photos: Eric Schwartz unless otherwise stated.

About Eric: Eric Schwartz (left) is originally from Colorado. At the age of 8, he made his first trip to Europe and was bitten by the travel bug. Since then he has visited nearly 20 countries all over the world with a focus on the European Union where he has family and friends. He has also visited all 50 states in the United States. In 2020, he retired from a career as a multidisciplinary creative, and also worked as a technical writer, software analyst, trainer and coach. Early in his career he became a professional photographer and now has an affinity for storytelling and travel adventures, capturing the perfect moments digitally. He has been living in Nice, France, since 2021.

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