I suppose I should have known I was going to like the south of France.
Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux.
I certainly like saying the south of France – it sounds like it should be said beside a pool, sipping something with gin in it.
A more rational reason is that is was a favourite of some of history’s greatest artists.
Vincent Van Gogh is said to have declared ‘the whole future of art is to be found in the south of France’. And with a list which includes Claude Monet, Jean Renoir and Cézanne – you feel Vincent was on to something.
We flew from Gatwick to Marseille, hired a car and made our way to the beautiful small hotel La Maison du Paradou which had invited us to explore the famous area.
Driving along we soon realised the road signs read like a ‘Where’s Where’ with Barcelona, Lyon and Nice among the list.
And with the ‘Baby Alps’ framing rolling countryside I knew I didn’t want to leave before I had even unpacked.
After our refuelling with tea and flapjacks we headed to the nearest highest point – Les Baux – to get our bearings.
This rocky outcrop, crowned with a ruined castle, offered breathtaking views over the plains to the south and out to sea.
As dusk drew in the light changed and we got a real sense of how special the area was.
We turned in early, following a delicious dinner at La Maison, to be ready to explore more in the morning.
One of my favourite things about our hosts, Andrea and Nick, was that they could turn a discussion over breakfast into a perfect, and printed, itinerary.
Our love of markets saw them suggest driving 20 minutes to Saint-Rémy.
The streets were brimming with a rainbow of produce and products while the lavender, which the area is famous for, filled the air.
We ducked into the quiet and cool Collégiale Saint-Martin Church and took too many photos of the buildings bearing painted signs, before heading to the breathtaking Saint-Paul
Asylum nearby – where Vincent Van Gogh stayed for a year. He was a self-admitted patient, from May 1889 until May 1890, and produced 143 oil paintings and more than 100 drawings here, including some of his most famous work – The Irises and Starry Night.
Back on the road we headed to Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct named after the Gardon River it crosses.
The on-site museum extensively documents both how it was built and how time has changed it, so, along with a spot of lunch, it made for a great stop on route to Nimes.
With the day running out we decided to head straight to the coliseum.
Built around 70AD, it is reported to be one of the world’s best-preserved Roman amphitheatres. It was remodelled in 1863 to serve as a bullring and now hosts other public events.
It is, like Pont du Gard, an astonishing feat of engineering and is a tangible link to the routes of the historic city.
Weaving our way through the narrow streets, where fashion brands and antique shops sit side by side, confirmed it offered a great merging of worlds and interests.
Keen to see more of the city life, and tempted by an array of markets, Aix-en-Provence was our first destination.
Andrea’s description of it being ‘bustling and bohemian’, thanks in part to the universities here, was spot on.
At the same time the streets were dotted with cathedrals, museums and quaint squares – where you find the numerous markets which are themed into textiles, food, flowers and crafts.
The Pavillon Vendôme, a historic house surrounded by a French formal garden, proved a nice spot to while away some time.
On our way back to the hotel we took the opportunity to visit Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux.
The former quarry has been transformed into a spectacular projection show venue.
Regular films are shown, both of historic and modern art. My favourite was themed on the renaissance and saw the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci grow across the walls.
For dinner we went to the neighbouring village, Maussane-les-Alpilles, rumoured to have 25 restaurants and only 200 inhabitants.
Our pick was Au Bistrot Marin which specialises in seafood. Half a crab has never been delivered so literally, or been so tasty, and after a feast we retired for the night
Keeping the momentum going we aimed to make the most of the time before our flight.
We started with the ‘toy town’ of Eygalières. Arguably our most stunning destination yet, with stone buildings spread over the hillside, a quaint church and cafe culture, it really highlights the Provence feel.
In sharp contrast our final port of call was the capital Marseille, second only in size to Paris.
Historically it was the most important trade centre in the region and the main trade port of the French Empire.
Now, thanks to its beaches, history, architecture and culture – including 24 museums and 42 theatres – Marseille is one of the most visited cities in the country.
Being European Capital of Culture in 2013 saw many changes and now modern attractions and architecture nestle among the old.
We just follow our noses and wind up at the waterside before devouring fish and chips, French style.
Then the airport calls an end to what has been a perfect mini break.
For more about my visit keep an eye on http://www.etcmag.net and for details of La Maison du Paradou visit www.maisonduparadou.com