Explore Provence Verdon for Intense Nature, Vines, and Villages
The family reunion began in Paris, with ten (10) of us gathering for two nights. It was an intense program as the kids wanted to visit all the sights from Sacré Coeur to the Eiffel Tower and points in between. After three nights in the “City of Lights,” we took the TGV south to Avignon and began an even busier week of exploring Provence from the Alpilles to the Camargue. Then the holiday was done, the kids had left, and my parents, while they loved every minute, were exhausted. So, what to do?
Head to the Var
The Var is a large geographical and administrative department in Provence. It includes varied terrain from seaside towns to the Îles d’Hyères Archipelago (including Porquerolles) to France’s Grand Canyon – the Gorges de Verdon. From the Mediterranean to the foothills of the Southern Alps, this region offers lots to discover, including swaths of untouched nature, beautiful villages and some wine-tasting opportunities. Please keep reading for our round-up of the many reasons to visit and discover Dracenie Provence Verdon.
Explore Provence Verdon
We drove east to the Var, about two hours from the Alpilles, to the Provence Verdon (also called Provence Verte) to a charming B&B just outside the hamlet of Saint-Antonin du Var. Our visit was in early September, so the crush of summer visitors was diminished, yet the hot weather remained. Separated from the coast by the A8 superhighway and the Massif des Maures, this part of Provence – Destination Dracénie – delivers a range of experiences for cyclists, walkers, marketgoers, and wine lovers. With small roads, forested hillsides, beautiful vineyards, and charming towns, while we only had a few days in Provence Verdon, we will return. We recommend a few must-see (les incontournables) places in alphabetical order.
The village of Aups is located between the Mediterranean coast and the Alps. With a population of about 2200 permanent residents, it is known as the capital of the Haut Var. However, the population increases in the high season because the village is considered the gateway to the Verdon Regional Natural Park, Lac St Croix and the stunning Gorges du Verdon.
Of course, connoisseurs of fine foods know that Aups is one of France’s largest producers of black truffles. And black truffle season (November to February) is one reason to visit Aups. There is even a black truffle festival (Fete de la Truffe Noire d’Aups) on the fourth (4th) Sunday in January. Learn more about harvesting the “Millionaire’s Mushroom” or prepare scrambled eggs with black truffles or chicken with black truffles and a mushroom cream sauce.
Cotignac is a hidden gem in the Var region. The village is nestled against limestone cliffs and surrounded by farmland, vineyards, and wooded areas of Cypress, Elm, and Fir trees. The region’s fresh air, clean water and fertile soil contribute to the deliciously fresh produce available in the local markets. In addition, the village is a short commute to Aix-en-Provence, the Côtes d’Azur, Lac St Croix and Gorges du Verdon, making it the perfect base for day trips to those regions.
For those who enjoy the outdoors, Cotignac has plenty of activities. Don’t miss the climb to the troglodyte caves and learn about the pre-historic humans and animals who took shelter there. Hiking and cycling (bike rentals are available) are other ways to explore the area. And when you’re done touring, the town has plenty of cafés and restaurants where you can relax and savour delicious meals and locally produced wines.
Entrecasteaux and its Castle
A stately castle attracts your view from a distance, an imposing site for a small village. However, as you drive towards the village centre and Château Entrecasteaux, take note of the remarkable border of old Plane trees. It’s believed that an 11th-century fortress existed but was destroyed and rebuilt over the following centuries. An attractive and well-proportioned, the castle dates from the 16th and 17th centuries. The castle and its garden (inspired by Le Nôtre’s garden of the Orangery of Versailles) survived the French Revolution.
Owned by Alain Gayral since 2000, Château Entrecasteaux is open to visitors, with guided tours at 4:00 pm most days.
Gorges du Verdon
The Gorges du Verdon is one of France’s most beautiful natural sites and the largest canyon in Europe. Carved by the Verdon River through the limestone, the gorge’s cliffs are 700m high in some places. It’s a beautiful place for those who enjoy the great outdoors. Many people prefer to unwind on the sunny riverside beaches or rent a pedal boat for a relaxing tour down the river. But for thrill-seekers, the Gorges offers many activities, including power boat rentals, white water rafting, rock climbing, paragliding, and challenging hiking trails.
Lorgues Vineyards and More
If you love food, wine, and history, you’ll love Lorgues. Located halfway between the Côtes d’Azur and Lac St Croix, this splendid village is surrounded by olive groves, farmland, and vineyards. Wine significantly influences the local economy, with at least a dozen wineries close by, each one worth visiting. If you prefer to stay in town, you can stroll through the streets and examine the ancient ramparts and typical Provencal architecture. Lorgues has an ample water supply which helped its growth over the centuries. Many town squares have embellished fountains, and you can explore the public washbasins (lavoirs) – where women would gather to socialize while carrying out the arduous chore of laundry.
When you’re ready to take a break, enjoy one of the several Michelin-starred restaurants or visit the Lorgues Coffee Roasters for a specialty coffee with freshly roasted beans. When planning your trip to Lorgues, try to visit on a Tuesday to browse the market, the largest one in the Dracénie region.
Most people pass through the picturesque village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie on their way to or from the Gorges du Verdon. It is an enchanting little town and in 1981 was added to the list of the most beautiful villages in France. The city is nestled between two rocky escarpments, and a large gold star is suspended between them. There are many legends about why the star hangs over the town, but the mystery remains unsolved.
Moustiers-Saint-Marie is known around the world for its fine ceramics and pottery. There are several workshop worth visiting, each of them producing unique pieces. The town has hotels and rental accommodations, several campgrounds close by, as well as motorhome parking. It is an excellent base of operations for nature lovers interested in making day trips around the Gorges du Verdon. Outdoor enthusiasts who desire adventure can enjoy hiking, cycling, horse riding, rock climbing, and even paragliding over this beautiful locale.
The town of Salernes is part of the Dracénie region in the centre of Haut-Var. It is known as the cité de la Céramique because of its terra rossa (red clay) soil, and it has been home to potters, ceramists, and artisans for many centuries. The town has two distinct areas, the old Provencal village centre with tightly packed village homes and the new commercial section.
The Maison de la Ceramique Terra Rossa (House of Ceramics) is a must-see. It serves as a museum focusing on the history of ceramics and pottery from the Middle Ages to the present day. The centre also showcases the work of local artisans and contemporary pottery and ceramics artists. With a population of close to 4000, Salernes has everything visitors might need, including hotels, restaurants, shops, financial services, salons, and more.
Salernes is a great place to enjoy nature. On the edge of town is a natural swimming area on the Bresque River. Please note there is no cost to swim in the refreshing (sometimes cold) water but no lifeguard. The town’s official website offers maps of hiking circuits. One loop passes by “Tholos de la Lauve,” a grave site from the Neolithic period. The trail continues to Saint-Barthélemy, a spot in the hollow of a gorge with caves inhabited by pre-historic humans.
A short drive from Lorgues, you’ll find L’Abbaye du Thoronet, one of three Cistercian abbeys in Provence. It was constructed between 1160 and 1230 on land donated by the wealthy House of Baux. The grounds included a small river and dependable spring water. In addition, it was surrounded by agricultural land, which was ideal for building a self-sustaining community.
In the late 1700s, the Abbey declared bankruptcy. But in 1840, it was classified as a French historical monument and, over the years, restored to its former glory. Typical of many Cistercian abbeys and churches, there are no decorations or embellishments to distract the inhabitants from prayer. However, the building design amplifies natural light. And it is said that the architecture boosts the acoustics so that the monks sang in perfect harmony. Plan to spend the day and enjoy a guided tour of the buildings and exploring the gardens.
Tourtour in the Sky
Sitting on a plateau high above the valley, Tourtour is often called “the village in the sky of Provence” (le village dans le ciel de Provence). On a clear day, visitors can see from Montagne Sainte-Victoire in the west to the town of Fréjus near the Mediterranean coast in the east.
Although Tourtour is a small village with less than 600 permanent residents, visiting the Tour de Grimaud (Tower of Grimaud) is worthwhile for the fantastic panoramic views. The Saracen-type tower was built in the 12th or 13th century and restored in 2018.
Tourtour is known for its freshwater springs. There are fountains around the village – some with potable water. A spring-fed lavoir (laundry basin) constructed in 1778 is on the north edge of the town. The village is unique because it has a community-owned water-powered oil mill for local olive producers. It runs in December and January after the olive harvest and serves as an exhibition site for local artists for the rest of the year.
Travel south across the Canjuers plain (arid limestone plateau) from the Gorges du Verdon to the charming village of Villecroze. It has a beautiful climate year-round due to its altitude and low rainfall, and the surrounding tree-covered hills shield it from harsh weather.
Evidence suggests that Romans farmed in the area as early as the 1st century, but the town was established around the 12th century. Typical of many villages are fountains, chapels, restaurants, shops, and most other amenities.
The most popular attraction in Villecroze is the Caves of Villecroze (Grottes troglodytiques). They were formed over eons as water flowed over the porous rock, leaving calcium carbonate deposits along the cliff face. Cycles of natural erosion and deposits formed caves of smooth stone and flowing stalactites.
After touring the caves, relax and enjoy a picnic in the municipal park at the base of the cliff. The park is home to many species of trees and flowers native to the region. Children can climb on the play structures. Or participate in the self-guided “Arbr’à code” game of scanning QR codes and learning about the trees in the park.
Dracènie Visitor Information
Destination Dracènie (tourism website)
2 Avenue Lazare Carnot
Telephone: +33 (0)4 98 10 51 05
Méditerranée à Vélo
Information is online only.
Provence Verte and Verdon
Carrefour de l’Europe
Telephone+33 (0)4 94 72 04 21
Market Days in Provence Verdon:
Wednesdays: Aups, Draguignan, Sainte-Antonin du Var (it’s really tiny), Salernes
Thursdays: Draguignan, Villecroze
Fridays: La Motte, Lorgues (seasonal)
Saturdays: Aups, Draguignan