Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is the archetypal Provencal village. While it may not have spectacular monuments or ancient ruins in the village, it has a special charm of its own, definitely worth visiting -- and there are two famous historic sites outside town, the hospital where Van Gogh spent his final, most-productive year, and Glanum, a Roman ruin, described below. Another famous attraction is the busy outdoor market on Wednesday mornings.
The historic center of St-Rémy village is quite small, several blocks long and wide, 250 meters on each side, but contains charming nooks and crannies. St-Rémy’s Old Town used to be surrounded by a circular wall, which has been replaced by modern busy streets, but the effect of a sheltered refuge remains, with many structures going back to the 15th and 16th centuries. These narrow lanes and alleys in the heart of the Old Town are charming as could be.
Entering from any angle will bring you to the center in a few minutes, but perhaps the “front door” is the town’s main street, Rue Carnot, on left side of the big church of Collégiale Saint-Martin, whose interior is said to be a smaller copy of Rome’s St. Peter.
Rue Carnot leads in two blocks to the most picturesque square of town, Place Favier, surrounded by ancient, ivy-covered buildings, some going back to the 14th and 15th centuries. The entire village has charm but this square is extra special, with the small castle tower rising above, old stone walls all around and a multi-level fountain on the end. In warm weather a café sets up tables on the square adding another touch of delight.
Adjacent to Place Favier, through a cobbled alley spanned by an ancient arch, is the Hôtel de Sade, still owned by the family of the Marquis de Sade who had ancestral connections with this town. The medieval atmosphere of this stone lane is complemented by the small Musée des Alpilles in a former Renaissance mansion, Hôtel Mistral de Mondragon, with original inner courtyard encircled by galleries featuring archaeology, ethnology, graphics and photography.
You don’t really need to walk along Rue du Parage just north of Place Favier unless you have time for a stroll in the simple residential neighborhood on this end of the village. It does present a contrast if you get a block off the main street here in these quiet little residential lanes with people living in apartments at ground level and upstairs. The old stone buildings are low rise with medium density as they had been throughout most medieval villages in Europe, remaining the same over these many centuries. This is a tricked out tourist town in some ways, and in others it's a quiet Provençal village.
Then head for the little retail “downtown” by walking another block east along Rue Carnot to reach three main shopping lanes of Rue Gilles, Jaume Roux and Lucien Estrine, all converging at little Place Joseph Hilaire. One could easily wander up and down for an hour in this heart of St-Remy, with lovely shops and a quiet pedestrian atmosphere, featuring dozens of stores in surprising variety for such small village center.
One specialty of Provence is handmade pottery, with yellow and green theme colors, gaily displayed in many shop windows. You'll often find the craftsmen running their own shops, giving you a chance to talk with them and do a little bargaining. Pottery is a little hard to bring home, but you might get a small piece and pack it carefully. Local fabrics also display those same green and yellow pastels, with various attractive floral and botanic themes -- an easy gift to bring home.
There are lovely cheese shops, bakeries and little restaurants of course. One fromagerie had 12 different kinds of goat cheese, so you might buy variety for a picnic, with fruit, bread and…of course, wine from separate nearby shops. Other popular local items to admire in the little shops and galleries are the soaps, fragrances and potpourri. They even have a small Museum of Aroma, for this entire region grows countless flowers for the perfume industry.
One block further along Rue Carnot brings you to another town landmark, a statue, fountain and street dedicated to local hero Nostrodamus, the most famous person from St-Rémy. He was quite the scholar and reputedly could see the future, although none of his prophecies were ever proven true. Born in a house several blocks away, he left for Avignon as a teenager to begin his education and career.
City Hall is a block south on Place Jules Pélissier, the other main square, which sometimes has a few market stands selling local olives, breads and cheeses. Rue Lafayette in front of City Hall has more shops, and narrow Rue de la Commune is especially nice, extending 100 meters south from here with a lineup of traditional shop fronts ending at the picturesque, arched, gateway of Portail Saint-Pauline, a remnant of the old encircling wall.
That would bring you out onto Boulevard Victor Hugo, part of the busy ring road encircling the Old Town. Free maps, brochures and toilet are available another block south at the Tourist Information Offiice at Place Jean Jaurè (closed for lunch 12:30-2:00pm). You might also find parking here or on nearby streets, but in busy times this is a challenge.
Boulevard Victor Hugo is a wide tree-lined street with plenty of traffic, many parking spaces, more shops and restaurants. It leads around to where you began, at Place de la République, a big parking lot and market site.
Wednesday morning is a nice times to be here to catch the outdoor market. Each town takes its turn during the week, so it is useful to find the schedules and arrive in town on the right day if possible. The market offers fruits, vegetables, handmade items as well as clothing, junk, imported goods, antiques, bric-a-brac, and there are always the local folks hanging out -- lots of characters here.
After visiting the village there are two more stops to make: the Roman ruins of Glanum and Van Gogh’s hospital, the Saint-Paul de Mausole Asylum, both just a few minutes drive. You can see portions for free, but pay an admission charge to go inside. There is a discount pass covering four attractions at full price for the first, then half-price for the others, including these two sites and the Alpilles and (modern art) Estrine museums in town.
St-Rémy is perhaps most famous as the place where Vincent Van Gogh was confined in an asylum towards the end of his life. Van Gogh was brought to the hospital in 1889 for recuperation after he sliced his ear and was having episodes of despair and hallucination while living in nearby Arles. He stayed at the hospital and found enough stability to walk in the gardens and surrounding countryside and create 150 paintings -- undoubtedly the greatest one-year outpouring of masterpieces in art history, worth one billion dollars today. Of course we know the tragic story…he never sold a painting and died soon after in poverty, unknown.
These conflicting emotions will come vividly to life as you stroll through the hospital grounds and nearby fields in the organized walk provided with your ticket. Copies of his paintings, along with interpretive explanations, are displayed where he made them, adding new dimensions to your appreciation of this amazing person. Evocative plaques include excerpts from his letters to his brother and others expressing his feelings about each painting, giving you a sense of his struggles and progress. A replica of the room in which he was confined is also part of the tour. None of his original paintings are here or in Arles, but this hospital provides a most satisfying alternative for Van Gogh lovers.
About a mile from Saint-Rémy are two monuments of the earliest Roman time, memorials of the skill of hands whose work was finished two thousand years ago. The smaller monument is a specimen of a triumphal arch, much damaged, but what remains is more beautiful in its proportions and simplicity than many of the larger triumphal arches found in Provence. The other monument, the tomb of the Julii, is a mausoleum of exquisite symmetry and distinction. Here, at the foot of the Alpines, lay the Roman town of Glanum, destroyed by the Visigoths in 480.
One relic of it is a well-proportioned Triumphal Arch, with sculptured coffered vaulting. The archivolt is enriched with a garland of leaves and fruit; and right and left are reliefs representing captives.
Close by is a mausoleum, one of the best preserved of the Roman era, called the “Tomb of the Julii”, from the inscription on the architrave. It is 60 ft. high and consists of three stories: on the bottom, a square base; in the middle, porticos; on top, ten columns holding up a small round temple.
The pedestal sculpture on the north side represents a cavalry fight; the south, hunting for wild boar; the west, a combat between infantry in the Trojan War; and the east, an Amazon celebrating a dead enemy.
The second story is a square portico, which has four niches and is enriched with fluted columns at each corner. On top, the entablature is embellished with moldings and ornament and surmounted by a small circular turret, or tholos, with ten fluted Corinthian columns, inside of which are two statues lacking heads, representing the parents of Sextus and Marius, of the family of the Julii, for whom this mausoleum was erected. The conical roof is decorated with carved fish scales, traditional for Roman mausoleums.
There is no charge to see these monuments, but there are also extensive ruins of the Roman town that have been uncovered in recent decades and do have an admission charge. This impressive site reaches further back in time to the Celtic-Ligurian tribes who settled here before 600 BC, and later Greeks arriving in the 2nd century BC, with the Romans landing in 125 BC, conquering the local tribes, destroying their city and building a new town in Roman style. Under Julius Caesar and Augustus many classical structures were built including a forum, temples, basilica, residences, baths, dams and aqueducts, whose ruins are visible today inside the historic park.
At the end of your trip through the south of France, you might look back upon these brief hours in St-Rémy as some of the most enjoyable of the whole experience.
We enjoy this included day-trip with a local travel company from our home-base in Avignon that also brings us to Les Baux and Pont du Gard with a guide providing explanations and doing all the driving.
BEAUTIFUL LES BAUX
The ancient stone village of Les Baux-de-Provence is a remarkable sight, dramatically perched 750 feet high on a rocky plateau with a history dating to the Middle Ages, and a prehistoric Celtic settlement going back thousands of years. Les Baux was once a powerful medieval castle that controlled vast territories, including 79 villages throughout Provence, but is now a tiny quaint ruin. Charming as could be, this cozy hill-top hamlet is a major tourist attraction with 1.5 million annual visitors, making it the second most-popular site in the region after the Pope's Palace in Avignon. This tells you 1) it is very worthwhile, 2) but can get uncomfortably crowded unless you take preventive action, like visiting in the off-season, or arriving early or late in the day.
The plateau was naturally easy to defend due to vertical cliffs all around, and was further built up with stone walls and castle as protection from invasion by Franks, Catalans, Saracens and marauding bandits of the chaotic Middle Ages. The medieval village was built up from the 10th century and by the peak of occupation during the 1300s and early 1400s nearly 3,000 people lived in this small space. Les Baux continued thriving for another century with a grand palace at the highest point. The castle was attacked and destroyed in the 1600s by Cardinal Richelieu, leaving us with dramatic ruins, with some parts of the Château still standing.
Major restorations in mid-20th century brought it back to life and have created a lovely historic experience, complete with museum, shops and restaurants. You would enjoy walking through the well-preserved village along narrow, cobbled pedestrian lanes lined with original stone buildings, leading right back into the Middle Ages. The houses are partly scooped out of the rock, and partly constructed. Whole chambers, kitchens, cellars are veritable caverns. You will not get lost because there is only one main pedestrian lane about 300 meters long on this rocky route, with a few side alleys leading to viewpoints. The slight uphill slope is easy to negotiate and this slant enhances the drama of being in this exceptional place.
Frankly, you really don’t need much guidebook help in this smallest of Provencal destinations – just follow your nose and wander about, but it is still beneficial to learn some history and get a few navigating tips. If in a rush you could walk back and forth through the entire village in half an hour, but you’ll also want to spend at least 45 minutes visiting the fortress ruins, plus time for shopping and snacking. There are two sections to visit in Les Baux -- the free village, with its pedestrian lanes, shops, restaurants and old buildings, and the paid attraction, which is very worthwhile, because of the vast outdoor site of the citadel fortress on the plateau, where you can see remains of the old buildings and palace along with various artifacts in a very dramatic hilltop setting with commanding views for many miles all around, providing an outdoor excitement that alone is worth the price of admission.
When you first walk in the front entrance of the village you will find a Tourist Information Office on the left side of the lane, which offers a free map, brochures and helpful information about shops and restaurants. Better yet, before you even start your vacation, visit the websites for the town and castle and download their free apps from the AppStore and Google Play (listed below). The Château app includes extensive audio tours, photos, maps and fun interactive activities.
In front of the Tourist Information office you will see a large bauxite boulder on display, because the stone in these hills contains a lot of that valuable mineral. In the 1820s this became an important area to mine for bauxite in order to produce aluminum, and so the precious new material was named after this location where they first found it. Later, you could visit Carrières de Lumières, an abandoned bauxite and limestone quarry 800 meters away, which has been transformed into a multimedia art theater with 70 video projectors casting images of famous paintings and places onto walls and floors of the artificial caves, immersing spectators in a colorful 3D world.
Once you are in the village the main joy is simply walking along and appreciating these very old stone buildings, most of which date back 500 years to the Renaissance. The French government did considerable renovations in mid-20th century under direction of the Minister of Culture, André Malraux, to restore these historic structures to their original appearance. The village had been falling apart but is now in beautiful condition, with no graffiti or trash, and offers many attractions for the visitor -- not only history, but shopping, panoramic vistas, and a variety of eating choices: snacks, sandwiches, drinks, crepes, or fine dining. The little crêperie is perfect because it's right on the main lane, making them fresh on the griddle to order – how about ham and mushrooms and cheese – makes a delightful lunch that you can eat while walking along – divine finger food.
You are going to find a lot of attractive shops with a great variety of products at competitive prices. Among the traditional items for sale you'll see the Provençal fabrics in characteristic pastels: yellows, oranges and greens with local designs including olive tree motifs, so important to this area. Another easy to pack item is potpourri – one of the specialties of Provence made with flowers that grow in the south of France. This is a famous perfume district so the potpourri is local, making great little gifts. And of course there are always the T-shirt, cooking apron, refrigerator magnet, little models of the town, or anything that says Les Baux on it. Take a look around in these shops and you're bound to find something you’ve never seen at home, making a unique gift. We found that the prices here were just about the same as in the bigger cities in Provence, so when you see an attractive deal, don't hesitate thinking you'll get a better price later. First rule of travel shopping is grab it right now.
Navigating the town is quite easy with only a handful of little lanes to deal with. Keep going straight on what is obviously the main route, called somewhat optimistically the Grand Rue. In about 200 meters it reaches a fork where you can turn right to Rue Neuve that will bring you, via Rue de l’Église to the best panoramic viewpoint of town, looking west on a cluster of houses below and in the distance to the rocky low mountains of the Alpilles, a dramatic landscape of barren limestone patched with pine and cypress greenery. Get a good look and take lots of photos because this is your only view, unless you pay admission to the Château up ahead, which we highly recommend.
This lookout is next to the main church of Saint-Vincent, built between the 12th and 16th centuries, mostly in the Romanesque style, and partly carved into the bedrock in the “troglodyte” style. Quite small, as expected in such a tiny village, the building is square and has a nave with two aisles. There is also a tiny Penitants’ Chapel across the square with modern murals inside, and public toilets to the right of the church.
At the far end of the main lane, a few minutes away, you'll find the ticket office for the Château, the Musée d'Histoire et d'Archéologie des Baux-de-Provence, a vast outdoor collection of ancient sites. By all means go into the office where you can have a look at the exhibits – a small model of the town is quite fascinating, and you'll be tempted to pay the 8 euro admission to go out onto the plateau and see the rest of the site, which is definitely worth visiting. You have come all this way and made it to the end of the road, by all means you should carry on to see this magnificent outdoor site with its wind-swept plateau and lofty castle ruins perched on the highest point.
They call it Château des Baux-de-Provence, but don’t expect to see a big mansion or palace, because there is no complete building left out here, and yet, the ruins are fascinating. The fortress, which had resisted many a siege, was of almost monolithic construction; its ramparts, towers, staircases, banqueting halls carved out of the rocks and built up with tall stone walls. They made clever use of the natural foundations enhanced by elaborate construction, creating one of the most fantastic castles that ever existed.
This feudal Court of Baux was famous for its high level of culture, chivalry and merrymaking, with formal etiquette and endless entertainment from singing troubadours, the seat of a famous Court of Love. Nowadays it's mostly in ruins but you can imagine the grandeur they once enjoyed.
You’ll see several reproductions of medieval siege machines – huge full-scale models that are in working order, including a battering ram which is a reconstruction of an instrument that would not have done much good in attacking this village, because it is so high on the cliff. A full-sized trébuchet sling is ready for action, largest in France, like those used during the Middle Ages for the siege of villages. The sling could send two hundred pounds of rocks flying 200 yards through the air with devastating impact. From April through September weekends, costumed guides demonstrate various crafts and weapons.
Stroll through the shattered ruins of what had been the inner fortress that controlled the surroundings for 100 miles. Not many walls are left standing here, more like bones and foundations, so use your imagination and learn some history from the free audio guide that comes with your entrance ticket. Notice several caves were carved into the limestone to create additional living space. The citadel has a steep staircase you can climb up, but not for the faint of heart or those afraid of heights. At its top you have a nice view of extensive olive groves reaching to the distant Alpilles Mountains, from Aix to Arles on a clear day.
A vast, barren plain extends 200 meters south end of the plateau, flat, empty and windy, which it might not seem alluring, but walking across it to the precipice can be thrilling when you reach the edge. Views across the vast landscape reach to the glimmering Mediterranean, making a majestic spot for a picnic along this white limestone fringe, if you don’t get blown over by the mistral. However there is no food available for sale inside the castle grounds, so you might want to bring your own supplies. Also they do not allow reentry – once you leave the site that's it, therefore you cannot go out and get some food and come back in again, so be prepared.
It seems very peaceful now, but centuries of violent history saw battles rage back and forth, with attacks from Barcelona in the Catalan area of what is now Spain to the west, and various invasions from the Eastern side, and Saracens coming up from Africa. The history is as extraordinary as its situation. It was not only a city, but an empire in which the island of Sardinia, to say nothing of places nearer home, such as Arles and Marseille, paid them homage.
Barons of Baux were among the most powerful lords of the land, and acquired great titles and possessions, being in turn the Princes of Orange, the Counts of Provence and Kings of Arles, but by the 15th century they had been defeated and their fortress destroyed. There was an effort shortly after by Good King René to renovate and rebuild, which was quite successful. The final blow that destroyed the castle came in 1632, when Cardinal Richelieu led an army that leveled the walls, in response to an ill-fated Protestant Huguenot rebellion stirring throughout southern France. Richelieu was de facto leader of France in the reign of Louis XIII, increasingly concerned with the power of the Southern knights and the new religion. Richelieu subsequently ordered destruction of all fortified castles throughout the nation, putting an end to the lingering feudal order. Following this disaster, in 1642 the French struck a deal with the rulers of Monaco, which at that time was much larger than today, and gave Les Baux to Honoré Grimaldi, Prince of Monaco, and it remained in the possession of the House of Monaco till the revolution of 1789. Throughout the 19th century Les Baux was nearly abandoned and the fine mansions fell into decay, until rescued in mid-20th century and restored to the historic site we enjoy today.
After you've completed the visit you can walk back through town again to get out to the main entrance. Even if you've walked up in one direction it's always nice to observe as you walk back in the other direction – you're going to see new things each time.
If you missed the great view looking down into the valley when you were coming up the lane towards the Château, be sure to detour over to catch look at it now. Turn left on Rue des Fours to the viewing terrace just by the main church of Saint Vincent.
Walking back down the main Grand Rue past the shops is probably the most interesting route, but you might try a scenic alternate along Rue de la Calade, with more views across the valley. This leads to Place Louis Jou where you’ll find the free Musée des Santons, exhibiting a collection of the little folk-art figurines so characteristic of Provence, with added items from Naples. Open daily in a historic building that had been the Town Hall in the 17th century, this is one of several little museums tucked away in Les Baux that could keep you busy.
Upon departure we stop for a great overview of Les Baux from the hilltop on the other side of the valley, which gives you the best perspective on this eagle-nest city, a good way to wrap up your visit before returning to Avignon in our private van.
PONT DU GARD
The Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard is one of the greatest sights in all of ancient history -- the tallest bridge and second highest structure the Romans ever built, after the Colosseum in Rome, which is only 2 meters higher. Not only is the Pont an astonishing engineering feat, but it has come down to us as one of the most important works of art of the ancient world, a miracle in stone inherited from antiquity, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. It is one of only six sites in the country labelled by the government as a “Grand Site of France” and is in France’s top-five visitor attractions.
Pont du Gard is part of an ancient canal about 50 kilometers in length, built mostly on or beneath the ground to carry water to Nimes, which was a major Roman city. When an aqueduct came across a river valley it had to be raised as a bridge spanning the chasm in order to keep a relatively level course for the water. There were no pressurized pipes in ancient times, so water could not possibly flow down one side of a valley and then back up the other side.
The Romans constructed this bridge across the Gardon River valley in the 1st century with such precision that it spaned 360 meters but only drops a mere 2.5 centimeters, for a gradient of 1 in 3,000. A similar gradation was found throughout the entire 50 km canal length, which descended only 17 meters in total. This provided just the right speed to keep huge amounts of water flowing without stagnating, up to 44 million daily gallons, while not going too quickly and damaging the system.
Three levels of arches hold up the water channel that runs across the top, at a maximum height of 49 meters. The tallest arch that Roman engineers ever built is on the lowest level, soaring 25 meters in height. Roman buildings relied heavily on the arch, for many interior spaces were differing variations of this critical feature: large rooms were often made with barrel-vaulted ceilings, really a series of arches connected together, and an arch could also be spun around on its axis to form a dome, another important Roman innovation.
Amazingly, the bridge construction was done without the use of mortar or clamps. The stones were cut so perfectly that they were held together only by friction and gravity. Paradoxically, a huge stone structure held together this way can better withstand an earthquake than if it relied on mortar to bind it together, because everything has to fit so tightly and be in such balance that the structure achieves a stable internal strength.
The water channel on top was the only part of the bridge using with mortar and concrete, to make it waterproof. The interior surface of the water channel was covered with special stucco composed in part of shards of pottery and tile, and then plastered with a slippery mixture of olives, lime, pork grease and figs to help water flow smoothly.
During its many years of use the aqueduct had to be carefully maintained by the ancient Romans, because plants grow inside and calcite accretions from minerals in the water build up on the limestone channel. Constant work was necessary to scrape it off and keep the water flowing.
This huge structure is made from an enormous volume of local limestone quarried along the riverbank 600 meters away. In total the rock weighs 50,000 tons with a volume of 21,000 cubic meters, equal in amount to the Eiffel Tower, if you would imagine, filled in solid with stone. They actually extracted about six times more rock from the quarry than they needed, with the excess used to build smaller bridges and culvert supports elsewhere in this long aqueduct system.
You might wonder, how could those ancients could lift so much stone up from the valley bottom, 150 feet high in the air? These are very big rocks, some weighing 6 tons. No problem for those ancient Roman engineers, who were very experienced with block and tackle, pulleys, ropes, cranes, gears and wheels. A human-powered treadmill wheel would have done some of the heavy lifting. Scaffoldings were built upon stones jutting out from the structure still notceable today.
Most of the length of this aqueduct was built underground, which was constructed by digging a trench, then lining that with stones, covering it with stone slabs and then sealing it with earth on top to create a stable subterranean pipeline. A few of the sections of the aqueduct were tunneled by drilling right through solid rock. Such skills and manpower enabled them to build the entire 50 km aqueduct in about 20 years.
Curiously, the water source in the spring and the city of Nîmes are only 12 miles apart, but the aqueduct is 31 miles because it takes a winding course to match the contours of the landscape. They estimate that it took about 27 hours for the water to flow along the entire course.
In typical ostentatious Roman style, the aqueduct probably supplied way more water than they needed, in order to deliver water to their fountains and public baths, and into homes of the upper class. Nîmes was a great Roman center and a retirement area for the very successful soldiers from the Roman armies, so they had to take very good care of them.
Perhaps the Pont du Gard was best described by the writer Henry James, who visited Pont du Gard in 1884 and commented: “unspeakably imposing…the hugeness, the solidity, the unexpectedness, the monumental rectitude of the whole thing leave you nothing to say…and make you stand gazing. You simply feel that it is noble and perfect, that it has the quality of greatness… a kind of manly beauty, that of an object constructed not to please but to serve, and impressive simply from the scale on which it carries out this intention…The Pont du Gard is one of the three or four deepest impressions (the Romans) have left.”
Remember Stendhal’s Syndrome? (dizziness and collapse when confronting great art) That author visited and fell victim himself: “my soul is thrown into a deep and prolonged sense of astonishment. The Coliseum in Rome never saw me plunge so deeply into such a state of reverie.”
Water kept flowing through the aquedect for nearly 600 years, but after the collapse of the Roman Empire and later barbarian invasions, it began to fall apart. Pont du Gard remained standing and was strong enough for it to be used as a bridge for another thousand years. In the mid 18th century a new bridge was constructed connected to the arches of the lower level, wide enough for carraiges to pass. This functioned as a toll-bridge, and with further stabilizing, it was used by automobiles in the 20th century. That added bridge is now only by pedestrians and provides access for visitors to reach the other side of the river.
After coming all this way to the great monument of Pont du Gard, you want to fully enjoy the various vistas for a complete appreciation.
Start at the excellent visitor center where you can get the free map that shows the various paths and viewpoints. You can also pick up an audio guide at the center, browse in the shops, use the restrooms, have a snack and look at the large posterboards that display walking routes in detail. There is also a museum with models, multimedia screens and reconstructions to explain the sites.
Walk the paved path to the bridge where you will soon be awed by the sight, but don’t just stop at the first viewpoint, because it gets better and better.
There are three different routes you can follow. Upon arriving at the bridge you’ll see a sign-posted path leading uphill to the right, which is worth climbing for a fine vista. You can then walk down to the river’s edge on the right (west) side, continuing along the dirt path to get far enough away from the enormous bridge for a good angle. This is an excellent perspective, especially if it is a sunny day with no wind, when you will see a nice reflection of the arches mirrored in the water. There are better viewpoints on the other side of the river, so don’t quit yet.
Stroll across the bridge, then up a well-marked hillside path to gain access to the aqueduct’s upper level where you can walk along the path and have a birds-eye view of the upper level. It is possible to stand in one end of the water channel and look through the gate along this upper pipeline. The water channel was originally covered, like all aqueducts, but today is partly open to the elements.
Here on top you acquire further respect for the amazing engineering skill that created this marvel.
Exiting the aqueduct channel, walk back down slope, then along the stream on the sunny southwest side of the structure in order to reach the best view. Keep walking along the river on the sunny side of the bridge for a few hundred yards to get the most superb view looking back toward the soaring masterpiece. There is a paved path you can follow, but if the viewing conditions are good, with mid-day or afternoon sunshine and little or no wind, you will need to leave the path and walk down to the waterline to find the perfect angle. It is a bit slippery, rocky and muddy but don’t be dismayed.
Here you will have a complete mirror reflection of the bridge in the river’s smooth surface, which will be one of the most beautiful sights you have ever seen. Three levels of soaring golden arches above, and again repeated upside down below…unbelievable. It is one of those jaw-drop, heart-attack moments. Of course you have to snap your photos, which will be award-winners, but don’t forget to put the camera away and just look in awe and wonder. Soak it up for as long as you can.
You cannot see this full reflection from the paved path, so you are confronted with this opportunity to put in a little extra effort for a Big Bang payoff. On the paved path, oooh what a nice view, but down in the mud, it will enter your top-ten ever sightings. Of the 2 million annual visitors only a fraction get this angle.
The majestic natural setting enhances the scene in a perfect way, for you are surrounded by the tree-covered valley with major river running through, lined by a varied embankment of rocks, sand and foliage. Aside from the majestic bridge, there is no sign of civilization anywhere, and the only sound is that of flowing water.
Let this be another lesson for you on the value of extra effort.
The easiest way to get here from Avignon is on a guided day-tour in a van, with an itinerary that also includes St-Remy and Les Baux as we have been describing here -- a highly recommened way to spend a day. The advantage of a private van tour is no worries about schedule, assistance of a local guide, and you take in more destinations.