The roofs of Saint Remy de ProvenceEmbraced by a wide, leafy boulevard, the lazily charming old town of Saint Rémy is a maze of winding streets, cafés, squares and fountains with two exceptional attractions on its edge.

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One of these is Glanum, a vast archeological site that's an essential stop for anyone on the trail of the Romans in Provence.

saint paul de mausoleThe other is Saint Paul de Mausole, pictured, the former monastery and psychiatric clinic where Vincent van Gogh spent the last year of his life and painted some of his greatest works.

Click here to read more about Saint Paul de Mausole. Both are just a short walk from the centre.

Saint Rémy de Provence itself is set 20 km / 13 miles due south of Avignon and 26.5 km / 17 miles north-east of Arles in the Alpilles, craggy limestone hills carpeted with vineyards, orchards, market gardens and olive groves.

It was founded by Celts in around 6 BC, turned Greek two centuries later, then fell to the Romans who constructed a large city on the site, Glanum.

Eventually the settlement became known as Saint Rémy, named after a bishop said to have performed a miracle there. It continued to flourish and in the Middle Ages its walls and ramparts were built.

A prosperous little town with an economy based originally on market gardening and seed production, it has now become a magnet for artists and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region.

WHAT TO SEE

The Tourist Office is just outside the town walls on the place Jean Jaurès (which also has a large car-park). As usual, it's a good place to start and will supply you with a suggested itinerary and a map, though the latter is barely necessary.

Square, Saint Remy de ProvenceEntering the walled old town through the Porte Saint Paul a couple of hundred metres away, you could get right around Saint Rémy in less than an hour.

However the tangle of streets, picturesque squares, and shops, galleries and bistros is an irresistible invitation to take things easy and linger.

Many visitors will be happy to do just that over a glass of rosé. And the weekly Wednesday morning market is a major draw too. It spills from the place de la République down into the winding streets and squares of the walled town.

marketsaintemy08Here you can buy fruit, vegetables, local cheeses and charcuterie and a very wide range of pottery, olive wood artefacts, textiles and other more unusual local crafts.

Get here very early, or be prepared to park well out of town if arriving by car on market day. Click here to see our gallery of images of the market of Saint Rémy.

But there's more to Saint Rémy than lazy lingering. If you want to explore some of the historic sights, read on for our guide.

Michael de Nostredame, better known as Nostradamus, the scholar, astrologer and prophet, was born in Saint Rémy in 1503.

The house, tucked away down a narrow side-street, bears a plaque although, with its bricked up windows and modest façade, it's not terribly impressive. A more fitting tribute is a pretty little fountain topped by his bust on Saint Rémy's main street, the rue Carnot.

Collegiale Saint Martin, Saint Remy de ProvenceThe Collégiale Saint Martin, pictured, is a monumental hulk built on the site of a mediaeval church which collapsed in 1818 and was reconstructed three years later. The style is mostly neo-classical, though it's topped, slightly incongruously, by a Gothic bell tower.

Its pride and joy is the great organ which was restored in 1983 by Pascal Quoirin. It is pressed into service each year throughout the summer for the Festival Organa, a series of free concerts by some of the finest organists in the world. Website for the Festival Organa

Among other sights of interest are the Hôtel Mistral de Mondragon, a Renaissance town house with a beautiful courtyard. Today it has been turned into the Musée des Alpilles, an ethnology museum housing a curious, rather intriguing miscellany of provençal culture.

Inside, displays illustrate various aspects of the town's economy, with silkworms, the thistle heads once used for carding raw wool and an evocation of the era when Saint Rémy was a centre for market gardening and seed production.

There are rooms dedicated to Nostradamus, the Félibrige (the 19th century movement to promote provençal language, history and customs), folk costumes, and the course camarguaise, a local version of bull-fighting which does not involve killing the animal.

If there are any fans of the cicada or cigale out there, they will be in seventh heaven among the glass cases of hundreds of different species from all over the world. The explanatory panels are in French, but look out for laminated sheets with an English translation.

The Musée Estrine, also located in an 18th century hôtel particulier, has an audio-visual display about van Gogh as well as a permanent collection of modern art (there are no paintings by van Gogh himself, of course). It additionally hosts temporary exhibitions.

hotel de sade saint remyPictured, the Hôtel de Sade (which once belonged to very distant relatives of the notorious Marquis) is a showcase for archeological treasures from the excavations at Glanum.

It was closed for years because of structural problems with the building but has now been refurbished and reopened as a small museum.

Just across the car-park by the Tourist Office, the Chapelle Notre Dame de Pitié, a 16th century chapel, has murals, engravings, prints and other works by the Greek-born artist Mario Prassinos and also hosts temporary exhibitions.

All this is very pleasant indeed, but the two must-see sights of Saint Rémy are just outside the town. The first is the beautiful eleventh century Romanesque monastery of Saint Paul de Mausole.

You can take a self-guided walk between Saint Paul and Saint Rémy peppered with illustrated panels all along the roadside with short explanations in English and French. They compare van Gogh's visions directly with the real landscapes that inspired him.

The second big sight is Glanum and the surrounding Roman ruins. The "Mausole" in Saint Paul de Mausole refers to the immense Roman mausoleum a couple of hundred metres up the road from the clinic. Van Gogh must have often walked past it and the triumphal arch right next to it.

Les Antiques, Saint Remy de ProvenceCollectively known as Les Antiques, pictured, these two mighty chunks of stone sit on the edge of a car-park and can be viewed free of charge.

The road, which today links Saint Rémy and Les Baux de Provence is a small loop or slip-road off the legendary Via Domitia which in Roman times linked Italy and Spain. As with van Gogh, a self-guided walk about the Via Domita has been created with seven explanatory panels.

You can read more about the Via Domitia walk in Saint Rémy here (the website is in French only, though the panels on the walk itself are in both English and French).

The main Roman city of Glanum, for which there is an admission charge, is on the other side of this road. Having been covered for centuries by alluvial mud which slid down from the hill, Glanum is uncommonly well-preserved and is one of the most important ancient sites in Provence.

Excavation work on it only began in 1921 (and so van Gogh would not have known of it) and it is thought that very much more remains to be discovered.

In fact the Romans were not the first on the scene. The Celts settled here in around 6 BC, attracted by the unbeatable combination of limestone from the nearby quarries and water from a spring which was thought to have healing properties. The name Glanum is derived from the name of a Celtic god, Glanis.

The inhabitants subsequently had contact with, and were influenced by the Greeks until Glanum was conquered, destroyed and rebuilt by the Romans.

They laid out the city on a north-south axis. At the northern end is the residential quarter, with its Roman baths and, at the southern end the sacred quarter, with its spring and grotto. In the centre is the civil quarter, with the forum and other public buildings.

glanum st rmy de provenceOne of the delights of Glanum is the spectacular setting amid the limestone hills of the Alpilles. You can wander around it at your leisure and kids will have a great time exploring all the nooks and crannies. There were several parties of enthralled school children on our own visit.

It would take you between an hour and 90 minutes to explore in full this very extensive site.

The signage is rather sparse within Glanum itself, but you can pick up a free leaflet in a range of languages with a detailed map in the shop and visitor centre at the entrance or buy a more comprehensive guide book there.

The centre also has displays of architectural maquettes depicting the city as it looked in Roman times.

As much of Glanum consists of unmade paths and shade is hard to come by, be sure to come armed with good, flat shoes and (in summer) a sun hat and bottle of water. There are several spots to eat nearby. Glanum is open all the year round. Read more about Glanum here.

Finally, if you have a car and would like to escape for a breath of fresh air, the Lac du Peiroou is just a ten-minute drive from the centre of Sant Rémy. This large artificial lake was created by a dam built by the Romans to supply Glanum with water; the current dam dates from 1891.

The lovely wooded area was re-landscaped in 2011 in order to facilitate access, with new picnic areas, signage and a long wooden deck along the lakeside.

 

ALSO OF INTEREST

In summer a craft market is held in Saint Rémy every Tuesday evening from 7pm till midnight on the place de la Mairie and the avenue de la Résistance. Expect to find ceramics, textiles, jewelry, hats, calissons, soap, glassware and more.

Fete de la Transhumance, Saint Remy de ProvenceThe Fête de la Transhumance is held in Saint Rémy every year on Whit Monday (Pentecôte). It marks the moment when, at the end of spring, sheep travel to the lusher grazing in the high mountains.

Today the animals are transported by trucks, but in times gone day the journey was done on foot and took nearly two weeks. The Fête de la Transhumance commemorates that tradition.

The town becomes a spectacular sea of sheep as some 3000 of them from all around the Alpilles, plus goats, donkeys, shepherds and sheep dogs swirl twice around the old town.

There's a market and sheep dog trials too. And, after all the excitement, you can join in a shepherds' lunch, for which you will need to reserve: enquire at the Tourist Office.

Route des Artistes Saint Remy de ProvenceOn selected Sundays between the spring and early autumn, artists set out their wares along streets and squares all around the old town for an event known as the Route des Artistes.

The selection criteria are quite rigorous and, since it was established in the late 1990s, the Route des Artists has become one of the leading art markets in Provence.

The white horses and black bulls of the nearby Camargue are the stars of the Féria Provençale in the middle of August.

Carreto RamadoThe celebrations include the Carreto Ramado, pictured, an enormous cart piled up with agricultural produce and drawn by around 50 horses in richly decorated harnesses accompanied by locals in traditional Arles-style folk costumes.

Specific to the Northern Alpilles region, this colourful ceremonial procession is always held on the morning of 15 August (the Feast of the Assumption, a public holiday in France).

The Féria also features the running of bulls through the streets and a course camarguaise. As night falls on the last evening, the dramatic and romantic Roussataïo finds around a hundred horses galloping freely through the town.

A little outside Saint Rémy, in Maussane les Alpilles, there is an olive oil mill, Domaine Plaines Marguerite, which produces fine AOP (appellation d'origine protégée) Vallée des Baux de Provence olive oil and can host visits and tastings. Domaine Plaines Marguerite, chemin de Tarascon à Eyguières, 13520 Maussane les Alpilles. Tel: (+33) 4 90 54 50 97. Read our full guide to the olive oils of Provence.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

The Saint Rémy de Provence Tourist Office is on the place Jean Jaurès, 13210 Saint Rémy de Provence. Tel: (+33) 4 90 92 05 22. Website for the Saint Rémy de Provence Tourist Office

How to get to Saint Rémy by public transport: The train station in Saint Rémy has closed down. The easiest way to get there is by bus from Avignon, from where buses run almost hourly throughout the day.

There's also a less frequent service to Saint Rémy from Arles and, in summer only, a third bus route runs between Avignon and Arles via Saint Rémy and Les Baux de Provence. Links to all three current bus timetables can be found on the Saint Rémy Tourist Office website.

If you are planning to rent a car, please consider our comparison search engine for all grades of hire car from Smarts to 4x4s and limousines.

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Finally, The Provence Post is an informative and entertaining blog by Julie Mautner, an American journalist and travel consultant based in Saint Rémy, to whom many thanks for helping with this report.

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