Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, one of the oldest towns in all of France, sits right smack in the middle of what is generally considered to be the heart of Provence. Located in the Parc Naturel Régional des Alpilles (The Alpilles Regional Natural Park), it’s probably best known as the village where Vincent Van Gogh lived for a year and produced 150 of his paintings, including some of his best known canvases such as “The Starry Night,” “The Almond Branch in Bloom” and “Les Iris.” The historic “old town,” situated inside a circular roadway, is a marvelous medieval village full of boutiques, shops, fountains, hotels, chapels and restaurants. Carole and I spent a day there in October 2019 while driving to Spain and I fell in love with the town immediately. We came back in September 2020 for a visit to Les Baux-de-Provence and the Carrières de Lumières with our friends Cash and Roger. It’s a lovely place to spend some time and there is a lot to see, both in the town and the area all around it. There’s a “marché provençal” (Provencal market) every Wednesday morning in the city center and another smaller local food market on Saturday mornings. If you want to see the real Provence, this is a great place to start. Certainly, there are lots of tourists during the high season, but this is a real working town, unlike some of the more famous Provencal villages such as Ménerbes, Gordes and Lacoste which seem to exist almost exclusively for tourists these days.
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A Little History
What are known to archaeologists as “decorated caves” can be found in the territory around Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The Otello cave, the Baldouin cave and others feature paintings and rock engravings that date back to the Late Neolithic and Bronze ages. The Salyens, a large Celto-Ligurian tribe in the area, established the city of Glanum around 400BC around a spring in the Notre-Dame-de-Laval valley which was famous for its healing waters. The town grew and prospered over the years but conflicts arose between the Salyens and the Greek city of Massalia (what we now know as Marseille). The Greeks called upon their Roman allies and in 125BC Glanum was defeated and much of the city destroyed. Marseille itself was captured by Julius Caesar in 49BC and Roman takeover of Provence began in earnest. Over the years the town of Glanum was gradually abandoned and another settlement was born just one kilometer north which would become what we know today as Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
In the middle ages the territory was owned by the Abbey of Saint-Remi de Reims, which is where the name of the town comes from. During this time the town was known as “une ville comtale,” a “count’s town,” which provided it status and protection.
During the 19th century and up until the first world war the town enjoyed a strong agricultural economic period that made it a center of international trade with all of Europe and even the United States. A train station was established in 1874 , but this was eventually closed in 1950. Besides Van Gogh, other artists such as René Seyssaud, Jean Baltus and Albert Gleizes have called the town home. Famous writers and intellectuals from all over Europe and the UK have settled here at one time or another during the 20th century. Today Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is no longer an agricultural town but it still remains a favorite destination for travelers and tourists from around the world.
A Walk Through the Old Town
For me the most interesting part of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is the old town. You can pick up a map at the Office de Tourisme which is located just to the south of one of the main entrances into the old town. There’s a list of thirteen historical places and monuments that make for a great morning or afternoon walk. If you are interested there several guided tours which you can sign up in advance for. I like to begin at the Porte St. Paul (Saint Paul Gate), one of the original entrances into the village, located on the south end.
Like most French medieval cities there’s no real rhyme or reason to the pattern of the streets so it can be easy to lose your way. If you like to simply stroll around with no purpose or direction you can wind in and out of the small streets and just see where they take you. Me, I like to have a plan, so I follow the list of the sites on the map. First up is Place Pelissier where you’ll find the Maire (the town hall) which dates back to 1634 when it was an Augustinian convent and the beautiful Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins, a large fountain inaugurated in 1814 in honor of King Louis XVIII. The old town hall, dating from the Renaissance era, is very close by.
Another fountain, Fontaine Nostradamus, is located just a few blocks away at the beginning of rue Nostradamus. The famous French astrologer and physician, best known for his 1555 book of prophesies, was born in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in 1503 and spent his childhood in the village before leaving to attend university in Avignon. An old house with a watchtower, Maison à échuaguette, is located nearby and at the end of the street is another gate to the city, Porte du Trou. Interestingly enough, Nostradamus’ birthplace is located a few blocks away from the street named after him, though there is some controversy as to whether this is the actual house he was born in. Nearby, on rue Hoche, is the old door of the Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle Hospital which operated until 1653.
The Chapelle Jean de Renaud sits at the foot of a 14th century tower, all that remains of the original Saint-Martin Collegiate church that collapsed in 1818. The chapel was heavily damaged during the French Revolution and then neglected for a long period of time. Dating from the beginning of the 16th century it underwent extensive restoration in recent years and now stands as one of the highlights of the city.
The Saint-Martin Collegiate Church, sitting on the edge of the old town, features a huge portico of neoclassical columns supporting a triangular pediment. The building, which as been classified as a historical monument since 1984, was rebuilt after it collapsed in 1818. It contains a famous organ which was completely rebuilt in 1983 and on which many concerts are given each year.
If museums are your thing you’ll find three located in the old town. Musée Estrine, once an elegant private mansion, is a contemporary and modern art museum with a Van Gogh “interpretation center.” Hôtel de Sade, another converted mansion houses relics and archeological findings from Glanum, the Roman city just outside of town. The fabulous Mistral de Mondragon Mansion now houses the Musée des Alpilles, a regional ethnological museum.
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is home to quite a few festivals throughout the year. In early January is the Foire à la Brocante et aux Chevaux, a flea market and horse fair with a parade of donkey carts. The Fête de la Transhumance takes place in June when you’ll find thousands of sheep paraded through the streets of the town. Every Tuesday evening during the summer finds the Marché des Créateurs, an arts and craft market. The Festival Organa takes place during July, August and September and features concerts from some of the world’s best organists in the Saint-Martin Collegiate Church. The Festival of Jazz occurs over three weekends in September and the Marché Noël (Christmas market) happens throughout the month of December. And there are even more!
More To See And Do
If you plan a trip to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence I would highly suggest that you tack on at least an extra day (or two) to take more sites in the area. Every time I have been there I’ve wished I had more time to spend. Just south of town is the Monastère St. Paul de Mausole which features a museum dedicated to the time Van Gogh spent in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. His room has been reconstructed and reproductions of twenty of his paintings can be admired. Van Gogh fans will not want to miss this. A special “Van Gogh Trail“, from the center of the old town to the museum, is the best way to get there. It’s not long (it should take you less than one hour to walk) and it features nineteen panels displaying reproductions of his paintings (with commentary) along the side of the road as you progress.
Les Angiques features the Mausoleum of the Julii (from 30BC) and the Arch of Triumph (from 20AD), two of the best preserved Roman remains in Provence. Located about one kilometer south of town, these outstanding monuments are free to visit and open to the public. The neighboring Site Archéologique de Glanum on the other hand requires paid admission but is certainly worth it, especially to lovers of archeology and Roman history. Inhabited as early as the 7th century BC, it eventually became a Roman colony and was destroyed in 260AD and abandoned. Only rediscovered in 1920 you can now see remnants of the old Roman town, including temples, a forum, a basilica, spas, shops, houses and more.
Les Baux-de-Provence, one of the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France,” is only a short 20 minute drive away. The village, along with its ruined castle, Château des Baux-de-Provence, are highlights of the area and certainly not to be missed. Just outside of Les Baux-de-Provence is the enchanting Carrières de Lumières which features wonderful lightshows in an old, abandoned quarry. Carole and I have seen shows devoted to Vincent Van Gogh and Salvador Dali here and we can’t recommend it enough.
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is located about 20 kilometers south of Avignon (and the Avignon TGV train station) in the department of Bouches-du-Rhône. The A8, A7 and A54 highways provide the easiest access by car, depending upon which direction you are coming from. The Office de Tourisme is located just outside the old town and is open most days from 9:15AM to 12:30PM and again from 2:00PM to 5:30PM though the hours may vary throughout the year. You can also find lots of information about the village on their website listed below.
What: The town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
Where: Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône) (Google Maps)
When: All year
Phone: Office de Tourisme – 04 92 74 67 84
Download a guide (in French and English) and map to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.