The following itinerary describes a range of museums and gardens which we plan to visit. The daily activities described in this itinerary may change or be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate alterations in opening hours, flight schedules and confirmation of private visits. Participants will receive a final itinerary together with their tour documents prior to departure. The tour includes breakfast daily, lunches & evening meals indicated in the detailed itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch and D=dinner.
Menton - 8 nights
Day 1: Sunday 2 May, Arrive Nice – Transfer to Menton
- Arrival transfer for participants taking the ASA ‘designated’ flight
- Introductory Meeting
- Welcome Dinner
On arrival at Nice’s airport, participants taking the ASA ‘designated’ flight will transfer by private coach along an awesome coastline where the pre-Alps plunge almost sheer into the sea, to the port town of Menton. If you are travelling independently you should meet the group at the Hotel Napoléon, Menton. Note: private transfers from the airport to the hotel can be arranged through the hotel’s concierge, please contact ASA for further information.
For the next 8 nights we stay at the 4-star Hotel Napoléon, located just across the road from the beach and only a ten-minute gentle walk to the old town of Menton. The hotel’s private off-street courtyard is an exotic garden designed by Eric Ossart and Arnaud Maurières. Ossart and Maurières believe hotel gardens must balance privacy with sociability, complement the hotel’s overall design, and remain attractive in all seasons. This evening we enjoy a welcome meal at a local restaurant overlooking Menton’s Garavan Bay. (Overnight Menton) D
Day 2: Monday 3 May, Menton
- Jardin Exotique Val Rahmeh
- Guided tour of Menton, including the Salle des Mariages
- Jean Cocteau Museum Bastion
We begin the day with a visit to the sub-tropical botanical garden of Val Rahmeh, laid out in 1905. In 1957 May Sherwood Campbell acquired the property and a second garden and created a pond with water hyacinths, water lilies, and papyrus. A guided tour will reveal its wonderful array of lush plantings.
Menton occupies a natural amphitheatre dominated by Mount Agel and the Gorbio and St. Agnes Heights. Ruined fortresses clinging to its surrounding cliffs testify to the town’s deep, turbulent history. Here we shall encounter the work the famous artist and film-maker Jean Cocteau. Cocteau first came upon Menton in 1955. He fell in love with its high-cliffed coastal charms and began the next year to redecorate the town hall’s Salle des mariages (marriage room) with frescoes and furnishings all in the theme of ‘Love’.
Nearby we also visit the Jean Cocteau Museum Bastion created by Cocteau between 1958 and 1963. It features the famous drawings of the Innamorati, a series of fantasy animals, as well as ceramics made in the Madeline-Jolly studio. (Overnight Menton) B
Day 3: Tuesday 4 May, Menton – Opio – Coursegoules – Menton
- La Casella, Opio (private garden, by special appointment)
- Le Vallon du Brec (private garden, by special appointment)
- Late afternoon at leisure
Our first visit today is to the stylish garden of La Casella, located on the site of an old jasmine farm. Tom Parr, one of England’s leading designers, and Claus Scheinert, created this late 20th-century garden, combining Provençal, English and Italian styles. Parr evolved a series of flower-filled rooms of simple grandeur. Scheinert has made the gardens of parallel, raised terraces ever more structurally ambitious, lush, and romantic. Laurus nobilis has been sculpted into rows of obelisks and walls clipped from Italian cypress and yew. Old-fashioned roses form one terrace framed by lavender. The house, integrated with the garden, is coloured terracotta and planted with white wisteria.
We next travel to Coursegoules to visit Le Vallon du Brec, located at an altitude of 1,000 metres in the backcountry of Nice. Designed by photographer Yan and painter and Jean Grisot, this 20,000-square-metre garden is divided in two parts. One part, planted with botanical varieties from China, Japan, North America is dotted with wooden sculptures. The second part occupies 11th-century farming terraces. We return to Menton for a late afternoon at leisure. (Overnight Menton) B
Day 4: Wednesday 5 May, Menton
- Clos du Peyronnet (private garden, by special appointment)
- Serre de la Madone
This morning we visit one of the region’s garden highlights, the Clos du Peyronnet. Mr and Mrs Derick Waterfield established the Clos du Peyronnet around a Belle Époque Italianate villa on terraces between vertical cliffs and the sea. The villa façade has been engulfed by a Wisteria sinensus (Chinese wisteria). Oreopanax, catalpa and jacaranda give way to a wet grotto, terraces of heat-loving plants such as hibiscus and solanum, architectural cypresses, and a water garden affording glimpses of the Mediterranean below.
This afternoon we visit Serre de la Madone, designed in the 1920s by Lawrence Johnston. Johnston acclimatised a large variety of exotic species to this inimitable environment. It is a secluded paradise with double curving steps, fountains, pools, classical statuary, green garden rooms, a Moorish patio and orangeries for tender exotic plants. Johnston’s terraces support a bewildering variety of plants from throughout the world.
We return to Menton where the evening is at leisure. (Overnight Menton) B
Day 5: Thursday 6 May, Menton – Villefranche-sur-Mer – Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat – Beaulieu-sur-Mer – Menton
- Chapelle Saint-Pierre by Jean Cocteau, Villefranche-sur-Mer
- Villa Ephrussi, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
- Villa Grecque Kérylos, Beaulieu-sur-Mer
We spend today on Cap-Ferrat, a narrow peninsula extending far out to sea. Our first visit is to the Chapelle Saint-Pierre, painted by Jean Cocteau at Villefranche-sur-Mer. Cocteau’s Chapelle Saint-Pierre resulted from a dream he cherished that he finally realised in 1957. Cocteau supervised the ceramicists and stonecutters who worked on his project. The chapel’s feeling of simple, humble fervor echoes that of small Romanesque churches. It simultaneously represents St. Peter’s life, the village dear to Cocteau’s childhood, and the artist’s friendship with the fishermen to whom the chapel was dedicated.
Cap-Ferrat was one of the most fashionable resorts of the 20th century. In 1926, Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild chose a site here for her enormous villa and garden – Villa Île de France. The eclecticism of her garden reflects the unique mix of styles that made the Riviera an important avant-garde centre in the early 20th century. We shall take a guided tour of the villa’s first floor that includes terracotta sculptures by Clodion, a Meissen China Room and a Tapestry Room whose furniture by Jacob is upholstered with Beauvais tapestries. We shall then tour the villa’s seven exquisite gardens, which include patios, waterfalls, ponds, floral borders, shady walks and rare species of trees. The garden ensemble comprises Florentine, Spanish, formal French and exotic gardens, as well as rose and rock gardens.
After lunch in the villa’s tearoom, we visit the extraordinary Villa Kérylos. This unique re-creation of an ancient Grecian dwelling, complete with wall decorations and furniture, was built by two great Hellenophiles, archaeologist and patron Théodore Reinach and the architect Emmanuel Pontremoli. They based the design on 2nd century BC noble houses on the Island of Delos. Everything inside, from the arrangement of rooms to the details of the décor, recreates the atmosphere of a luxurious Grecian villa. The villas garden grows typically Greek plants: olive trees and vines, pomegranate and carob trees, acanthus and myrtle, oleanders and irises, pine and cypress trees, palm trees and papyrus. (Overnight Menton) BL
Day 6: Friday 7 May, Menton – Grasse – Châteauneuf-Grasse – Menton
- Le Mas des Pivoines, Grasse (private garden, by special appointment)
- Jardin de la Villa Fort France, Châteauneuf-Grasse (private garden, by special appointment)
Le Mas des Pivoines, near Grasse, is owned by Marcel and Lucile Barrault, who have been developing this 1.5-hectare garden since 1998. A succession of different gardens – olive grove, lavender fields, mix-borders of Mediterranean plants – are separated from each other by arbours covered with roses or vine creepers. A set of restanques, dry stone retaining walls, hemmed with iris and other plants adapted to the dry conditions, descend to a peaceful landscaped park. A creek runs through the lower part of the land. From mid-April, venerable tree peonies bloom. These are followed by tree and herbaceous peonies such as the Golden Isles and Hana-Kisoi, as well as roses, shrubs, spring flowers, irises and perennials. This constantly evolving garden includes ancient remains such as basins and canals, as well as arbours, gazebos and big box-hedges.
Nearby is the garden of Villa Fort France. Its original owners, Lady Winifred Fortescue and her husband, Sir John, bought it in 1935. Lady Fortescue wrote of her struggles to create her home there entitled Perfume from Provence, illustrated by A.A. Milne. Her rose garden was expanded by Jeanne Gruniaux for the present owners, Pierre and Valérie de Courcel. The de Courcels have added their own touches to create a lovely garden full of colour using annuals: Poppies, larkspur, love-in-the-mist and aquilegia plus a sweet pea hedge. (Overnight Menton) BL
Day 7: Saturday 8 May, Menton – Tourrettes-sur-Loup – Saint-Paul de Vence – Vence – Menton
- Domaine du Prieuré, Tourrettes-sur-Loup (private garden, by special appointment)
- The Maeght Foundation, Saint-Paul-de-Vence
- Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire, Vence
Today we drive through some of the finest scenery in the south of France. We first travel up to Tourrettes-sur-Loup to visit the private garden of Joanna Millar, the ‘grand dame’ of Riviera gardening. Joanna’s roses will be in full flower, as will the irises that she grows in serried ranks among a fine collection of other native and exotic plants.
We next drive to Saint-Paul-de-Vence, built on a rocky outcrop and surrounded by ramparts overlooking the coast. Fortified in the 16th century, it began to attract artists such as Marc Chagall who moved here in 1966. A host of famous artists and writers were drawn to the beauty of the surrounding area and its exceptional light.
After time at leisure for lunch and to explore the narrow, picturesque streets of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, we visit the Marguerite and Aimé Maeght Foundation, which has an exceptional collection of 20th-century and contemporary artworks in all media. Painters and sculptors collaborated closely with Catalan architect Lluis Sert to create such elements as the Giacometti courtyard; the Miró labyrinth with sculptures and ceramics; mural mosaics by Chagall and Tal-Coat; a pool and stained glass window by Braque, and a Bury fountain. We shall enjoy works by artists such as Bonnard, Braque, Calder, Chagall, Giacometti, Léger, and Miró.
We return to Menton via Vence, noted for Henri Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire. Matisse worked on this unique architectural masterpiece between 1948 and 1951, elaborating its plan and all its decoration, including stained glass windows, ceramics, stalls, stoup, cult objects and priestly ornaments. (Overnight Menton) B
Day 8: Sunday 9 May, Menton – Cap d’Antibes – Antibes – Nice – Menton
- Scenic drive, Cap d’Antibes
- Château Grimaldi – Musée Picasso, Antibes
- Provençal Food Market, Cours Masséna, Antibes
- Musée Matisse, Nice
This morning we tour the Cap d’Antibes, a beautiful peninsula with a winding road offering stunning views; we shall take in a grand panorama at its highest point, the Plateau de la Garoupe.
We visit the port town of Antibes, which attracted many writers, such as Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as artists like Picasso. Our walking tour includes a visit to Antibes’ Provençal food market. We also visit the Château Grimaldi that houses the Musée Picasso. Picasso used the castle as his studio for a time in 1946. It holds a fine collection of the master’s paintings and ceramics.
After lunchtime at leisure in Antibes we drive to Cimiez, site of a small Roman city just oustide modern Nice, which is famous for its museum devoted to France’s greatest modern painter, Henri Matisse; he lived in Nice from 1917 to his death in 1954. We shall view paintings that span his career, from the very early Still Life with Books (1890) to his Rococo Armchair (1947) and Blue Nude (1952). (Overnight Menton) B
Aix-en-Provence - 3 nights
Day 9: Monday 10 May, Menton – Fréjus – Bouc-Bel-Air – Aix-en-Provence
- Jardin la Pomme d’Ambre, Fréjus (private garden, by special appointment)
- Jardins d’Albertas, Bouc-Bel-Air (private garden, by special appointment)
This morning we drive to Fréjus, built upon the remains of an ancient Roman harbour. We visit the Jardin la Pomme d’Ambre of Madame Nicole Arboireau, chief exponent of the small Provençal cottage garden in which local plants are propagated. We will explore this lovely small domain, learning much about the traditions of gardening in this region and enjoy a delicious Provençal buffet, prepared by Nicole herself. Nicole’s delightful book Jardins de Grands-Mères reveals the special secrets of grandmothers’ gardens.
We continue to Aix-en-Provence, where we shall be based for the next three nights. En route we shall visit the Jardins d’Albertas at Bouc-Bel-Air. The Marquis Jean-Baptiste d’Albertas decided in 1751 to create a garden at Bouc-Bel-Air. The garden, which includes a kitchen garden, is laid out somewhat like Villandry in the Loire Valley. Its formal parterres are enlivened with a profusion of sculptures set against powerful vistas. It has since been maintained by the Albertas family in its original 18th-century state. (Overnight Aix-en-Provence) BL
Day 10: Tuesday 11 May, Aix-en-Provence – Valensole – Aix-en-Provence
- Clos de Villeneuve, Valensole (private garden, by special appointment)
- Atelier Cézanne, Aix-en-Provence
- Orientation walk of Aix-en-Provence
This morning we drive north of Aix to the Clos de Villeneuve, Valensole, a bastide (farm) constructed in the first half of the 18th century. Jean-Baptiste de Villeneuve, seigneur of Esclapon, laid out its basic form. His garden still occupies three terraces with seven water basins and fountains. The recent owner, André de Villeneuve, has, over the last 30 years, created the present garden on the original terraces, around the early basins. Parterres planted in the tradition of the French formal garden, an alley of 100-year-old chestnut trees, a huge basin on the lowest terrace, and a view beyond to purple lavender plantations, form a magnificent ensemble. The garden is enlivened with colourful roses and richly aromatic sage, thyme and other Provençal herbs. There are fruit and olive trees at every level, and remarkable walls constructed of round stones from the Valensole Plateau. Alain Sauvat, long-time friend of André de Villeneuve and manager of the property, will show us the garden and host us for lunch.
In the afternoon we drive back to Aix to the Atelier Cézanne, from which Cézanne made excursions to paint his landscapes. When the weather was bad he painted his famous still lifes in the studio. This Atelier museum still has many of the objects Cézanne used as subjects for these still lifes: a table, a short ladder, a high easel, a potbelly stove, a sofa, a few chairs. A few locally decorated vases, a ginger jar and an olive pot, a fruit bowl, a plate, a glass, a bottle of rum, three skulls, and a little plaster cupid by François Duquesnoy are among the smaller objects in the atelier’s collection that all appear in his paintings.
Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral went to school in Aix, Marcel Pagnol attended its university, and it was Émile Zola’s home town. Zola and Cézanne enjoyed long excursions on which one would paint and the other would write. Our day ends with a guided orientation walk of Aix. (Overnight Aix-en-Provence) BL
Day 11: Wednesday 12 May, Aix-en-Provence – Cucuron – Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade – Aix-en-Provence
- Pavillon de Galon, Cucuron (private garden, by special appointment)
- Lunch at La Petite Maison de Cucuron, Cucuron
- Art and Architecture Tour, Château La Coste, Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade
This morning we travel north to the Pavillon de Galon, a restored 18th-century hunting pavilion at the foot of the Luberon mountains, surrounded by vines, orchards, cherry and olive trees. Its gardens boast a colourful mix of lavender and clipped hedges.
We next drive to the well-preserved medieval village of Cucuron in the heart of the Luberon National Park. Here we enjoy lunch at Michelin-star chef Eric Sapet’s La Petite Maison de Cucuron, one of the finest restaurants in Provence. Located on the central square in the shade of hundred-year-old plane trees, the Petite Maison serves traditional Provençal dishes made with fresh market produce.
On our way back to Aix-en-Provence, we visit Château La Coste, the creation of Irish property magnate Patrick McKillen. Since 2008, the Château has invited artists and architects to create a work there. Jean Nouvel designed the estate’s chai de vinification (wine vault). In 2011 Tadao Ando designed the art centre surrounded by a shallow pool of water, on which Louise Bourgeois’ Crouching Spider masterpiece perches.
On a guided tour through wooded hilltops and valleys, alongside olive groves and vineyards, we discover many installations by Alexander Calder, Frank O. Gehry, Ai Weiwei, Andy Goldworthy, Paul Matisse, Tom Shannon, Jean Prouve, Sean Scully, Richard Serra, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Tunga, and others.
We also visit the kitchen garden, conceived by the landscape designer Louis Benech. It consists of twelve equal-sized square plots of aromatic herbs, vegetables and flowers, and it is edged by an orchard of almond, peach, red plum, and cherry trees. The garden’s central plots are planted with perennials, perfumed roses, asparagus, artichokes, aubergines and tomatoes. (Overnight Aix-en-Provence) BL
Avignon - 6 nights
Day 12: Thursday 13 May, Aix-en-Provence – Apt – Ménerbes – Avignon
- La Chabaude, Apt (private garden, by special appointment)
- Le Clos Pascal, Ménerbes (private garden, by special appointment)
This morning we cross the Luberon mountain range to La Chabaude, a beautiful stone manor near the market town of Apt. Its gardens, designed by owner and landscape architect Philippe Cottet, are an emerald masterpiece which include sculptural boxwoods, sycamore trees, towering topiaries and fragrant rosemary and lavender.
In the Luberon hills, beneath the village of Ménerbes, we visit Clos Pascal, a little-known garden by Nicole de Vésian. Long, gentle terraces and cloud-clipped shrubs lead up to a potager garden and a small vineyard. (Overnight Avignon) B
Day 13: Friday 14 May, Avignon
- Papal Palace
- Pont Saint-Benezet
- Afternoon at leisure
Avignon, one of Europe’s most beautiful medieval cities, is sited majestically on the banks of the Rhône. Its historical importance and grand monuments reflect its status as a papal city between the 14th and the 18th centuries.
This morning we will visit the castle that served as a palace fortress for the seven popes whose sojourn in France between 1309 and 1377 came to be called ‘the Babylonian Captivity’. For the following 400 years it was the residence of the papal legate. This massive complex has some magnificent rooms, such as the grand hall, the great kitchen with its single huge chimney spanning the whole interior, and the papal bedroom with its painted walls depicting a great vine set against a blue background.
We view the Pont Saint-Benezet, the famous bridge described in the popular children’s song, Sur le pont d’Avignon. Saint-Benezet, who built the bridge between 1177 and 1185, founded a company of bridge-builders to serve pilgrims. Now missing a number of spans, the original 900-metre-long wooden structure was repaired and reconstructed – in stone – many times before half of it collapsed into the Rhône in the mid-1600s. The remainder of the day is at leisure. (Overnight Avignon) B
Day 14: Saturday 15 May, Avignon – Eygalières – Noves – Saint-Rémy de Provence – Avignon
- Mas Benoît, Eygalières (private garden, by special appointment)
- Atelier of Marc Nucera, Noves (by special appointment)
- La Pomone, designed by Dominique Lafourcade (private garden, by special appointment)
We begin today with a visit to the private gardens of Mas Benoît in the foothills of the Alpilles. The garden surrounding a traditional Provençal farmhouse, or mas, lies on a low hill with a magnificent distant backdrop of the Alpilles. It is a leading example of contemporary Mediterranean landscape art, with lavender wedge, almond spiral, rock river and oak groves sculpted by Marc Nucera.
We next are privileged to meet with Marc Nucera, renowned tree sculptor and ‘shaper’, at his atelier and experimental garden ‘Le Terrain’. Marc trained as a tree pruner, commencing with the rehabilitation of old olive orchards. From the 1990s, working with land artist, Alain-David Idoux, he evolved his own style. Nucera sculpts living trees, favouring natives such as almonds, green and white oaks, and the remnants of cypress hedging often found on old farmsteads. He also gives new life to dead trees by turning them into furniture and sculptures, either still in the ground or positioned near their place of origin.
We next make a visit with master landscape architect Dominique Lafourcade to one of her recent creations near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, La Pomone.
“A garden is first and foremost a work of art, with the gardener playing the roles of architect, sculptor, musician and painter in turn. A garden should move visitors, setting all their senses aquiver” – Dominique Lafourcade.
(Overnight Avignon) BL
Day 15: Sunday 16 May, Avignon – Isle-sur-la-Sorgue – Bonnieux – Sorgues – Avignon
- Sunday Market, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
- Scenic drive through the Petit Luberon
- Le Jardin de La Louve (She-Wolf), Bonnieux (private garden, by special appointment)
- Château de Brantes, Sorgues: garden tour, Provençal dinner and classical music concert
This morning we visit the large Sunday market of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, incorporating a food market, flea market, and antique market. The town, which stretches across the Sorgue River, has shady plane trees, historic waterwheels, and flower-filled riverside cafés and restaurants. It is the second largest antique centre in France (after Paris).
Having bought ingredients for a picnic lunch, we continue through the Petit Luberon. This scenic drive takes us to a panoramic point where we eat lunch whilst enjoying a view of Gordes, one of the most picturesque of the local villages. We pass Roussillon, a village that stands on one of the striking hills composed of ochre rock of 16 or 17 different shades. These colours, featured in local stone houses, enhance the beauty of each village and its surrounding countryside.
Continuing south through the Luberon mountain range, we reach the picturesque village of Bonnieux, set atop craggy cliffs, where we shall visit the Jardin La Louve (She-Wolf Garden). Fashion designer Nicole de Vésian began restoring her Provençal terrace garden on the lower fringe of this medieval village in 1987. She designed the house and garden in harmony with the natural surroundings. Since Nicole’s death in 1996, this tiny spot has become one of the most photographed gardens in the world. Louisa Jones’ book, Modern Design in Provence (2011), brought further fame to the garden.
In the late afternoon we visit the Château de Brantes for a special evening tour and reception. The garden, which incorporates the oldest magnolia tree in France (1780), was designed by the Danish landscape architect Mogens Tvede in 1956. The château is surrounded by an extensive plane-tree wood, and features a series of basins through which the River Sorgues flows. After a guided tour through the park and garden, we enjoy an al fresco Provençal buffet dinner, followed by delightful classical music concert. (Overnight Avignon) BLD
Day 16: Monday 17 May, Avignon – Pont du Gard – Arles – Avignon
- Pont du Gard
- Musée de l’Arles Antique, Arles
- Theatre and Amphitheatre, Arles
- Saint-Trophime and its cloister, Arles
Today we visit the Pont du Gard, best preserved of all Roman aqueducts. The massive blocks from which it was fabricated have remained in place for two millennia despite the fact it is a dry stone construction (without mortar or cement).
We next visit Arles, commencing at the splendid Musée de l’Arles Antique, whose rich collection of antiquities includes a wonderful sculpted head of Julius Caesar and a 31m-long Roman boat which was discovered in the Rhône.
Provence takes its name from the fact that it was the first ‘province’ (provincia) of the Roman Empire outside Italy. Roman Arleate became a major city, was built to protect the vital estuary of the Rhône. This colonia was given a typical gridded street plan that can still be traced in the centre of the city. It had an important amphitheatre, which in the Middle Ages became a castle but is now used for bullfights, and a theatre, now used for festivals. Arles’ Basilica of Saint-Trophime has one of the finest Romanesque porticoes in Provence with a porch modelled on a Roman triumphal arch. (Overnight Avignon) B
Day 17: Tuesday 18 May, Avignon – Saint Etienne du Grès – Saint-Rémy de Provence – Avignon
- Le Petit Fontanille, Saint Etienne du Grès (private garden, by special appointment)
- Garden of Valrugues, Saint-Rémy de Provence (private garden, by special appointment)
This morning we visit Le Petit Fontanille, the private garden of Mrs Anne Cox Chambers. Le Petit Fontanille is the work of several English garden designers: Peter Coates, Rosemary Verey, and, more recently, Tim Rees. The garden merges perfectly into the surrounding hills, woods and olive groves; its success lies in its combination of a profusion of native plants with exotics that are compatible with the climate.
We return to Saint-Rémy de Provence for lunch and some time at leisure. We then visit another of Dominique Lafourcade’s creations, the garden of Valrugues. (Overnight Avignon) B
Florac - 3 nights
Day 18: Wednesday 19 May, Avignon — Uzès — Le Villaret — Florac
- Wednesday market in the medieval village of Uzès
- Le Jardin des Sambucs, Le Villaret (private garden, by special appointment)
- Dinosaur footprints, St-Laurent-de-Trèves
Today we drive north-west from Avignon to the pretty village of Uzès, home to one of the most colourful markets in the south of France. The Wednesday morning market specialises in regional products and specialties: creamy goat cheese, garlic olives, fragrant herbs, pots of thyme-flavoured honey, bread and even small jars of snail and shallot spread!
We then drive to the foothills of the Cévennes National Park. Set in Le Villaret, a tiny hamlet on a terraced slope, Le Jardin des Sambucs is one of France’s most creative new country gardens. It is a labyrinth of stone, pools, wild plants and other horticultural treasures. It covers some 5000-square-metres of hillside in the southern Cévennes hills. Agnès and Nicolas Brückin spent years transforming Agnès’ family farmland into a marvellous mix of plantsmanship and art. Nicolas worked with stone while Agnès created a garden rich with scents and hues. We lunch in the garden, sampling a menu based on their home grown vegetables flavoured with edible flowers, such as elderflower.
We continue to our friendly family hotel in the picturesque village of Florac at the very centre of the Cévennes National Park.
We stop at the little hamlet of St-Laurent-de-Trèves, situated on a rocky outcrop with magnificent views. Dinosaur footprints have been discovered here, dating back 190 million years, to a time when the region was a limestone swamp. A short walk around the site reveals a number of footprints, which are amazingly clear.
We dine in the hotel restaurant, L’Adonis, where owner and chef Martial Paulet will serve dishes with the best local seasonal produce. The hotel is situated on the escarpments of the Causse Méjean close to the awesome Gorges du Tarn, Mont Lozère and Mont Aigoual. Robert Louis Stevenson became enamoured of this awesome region and spent much time wandering through it. (Overnight Florac) BLD
Day 19: Thursday 20 May, Florac — Mont Lozère — Finiels — Pont de Montvert — Florac
- Orientation walk in Florac
- Mont Lozère scenic drive
- Le Pont de Montvert
We spend the next two days exploring the Cévennes National Park in the company of local expert mountain guide Anne Nourry, Vice-President of the Association Sur Le Chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson. The Cévennes is one of the wildest areas of France, with high mountains and deep gorges. Nineteenth-century travellers like Robert Louis Stevenson visited isolated villages that seemed locked in the past, with a tradition-bound, conservative culture. Many Cévennes inhabitants converted to Protestantism in the 16th century. When Louis XIV revoked Henry IV’s Edict of Nantes (1685), which had assured Protestants the right of free worship, the Huguenot Camisards of the region revolted (1704-1712). When Stevenson trekked through the area, Protestantism was again tolerated, but the deeply conservative people of each village adhered universally either to the Protestant or Catholic cause. Stevenson, a Protestant, was familiar both with the barren landscape of the Cévennes and its history of religious strife.
Today’s program will combine coach touring with easy rambles through the countryside and to small, medieval villages. We shall be able to imagine the area as Robert Louis Stevenson saw it, with its wilderness scenery of rugged escarpments, deep valleys, small streams and a host of pretty wildflowers.
After an orientation walk in Florac, we take a scenic drive to the summit of Mont Lozère, the highest peak in the Cévennes National Park. It offers some stunning views of coniferous plantations and ‘broom’ scrub moorland. A short walk will enable us to view the Pic de Finiels which rises at 1699m. The distinct geological zones that make up the Cévennes National Park sustain different types of landscape, which have all been shaped by human activity. Mont Lozère is a granite massif scattered with typical reliefs called felsenmeer (‘block fields’). Water is omnipresent in springs, peat bogs and rivers. The bare crests are summer pastures for great flocks of sheep. Mont Lozère bears the signs of ancient human occupation: menhirs, Gallo-Roman vestiges, and so on.
Following lunch in the small village of Finiels, we drive to Le Pont de Montvert (870 metres in altitude), located at the base of the south-facing slopes of Mont Lozère. Le Pont de Montvert is a pretty granite village that is named for its hump-backed bridge (en dos d’âne) that spans in a single arch the swift-flowing Tarn. The bridge is guarded by a defensive tower. Medieval in aspect, the bridge and tower actually date to the 17th century. The bridge, where Robert Louis Stevenson stopped during his famous Travels with a Donkey, is now a stop along the popular trail that follows his original route. (Overnight Florac) BLD
Day 20: Friday 21 May, Florac — Gorges du Tarn — Gorges de la Jonte — Florac
- Boat excursion, Gorges du Tarn
- Belvédère des Vautours (Vulture Lookout), Gorges de la Jonte
- Farewell Dinner
This morning we focus on the great Gorges du Tarn, an impressive canyon cut by the Tarn through the harsh limestone plateaux (causses) south of the Massif Central. We shall drive along the gorge and then take a small cruise down the Tarn as it winds through the most spectacular section of the valley. We cruise through Les Détroits, the most beautiful and narrowest section of the canyon, between towering vertical cliffs of 400 metres, and end at the Cirque des Baumes, where the gorge widens forming a magnificent amphitheatre.
Following a picnic lunch we travel to the western edge of the park, where the Gorges du Tarn meets the Gorges de la Jonte. Here we visit the Belvédère des Vautours, an interpretive centre and viewing point for the many Griffon and Black vultures that nest in the Gorge. National park officers will show us their nests as we watch individuals and groups perched on the dramatic gorge walls. Following a majestic aerial ballet performed by 30 or so vultures, we return to our hotel and enjoy a farewell meal. (Overnight Florac) BLD
Day 21: Saturday 22 May, Florac — Nîmes TGV Station
This morning we drive out of the Cévennes National Park along the scenic Corniche des Cévennes, past the village of Saint-Jean-du-Gard and on to Nîmes’ TGV station, where you will be able to take a train to your airport or next French destination. B