– Saul Leiter
Ah, the South of France. Avignon, Arles, Camargue, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and all of the charming towns you’ll visit along the way.
I have always felt a desire to visit the South of France after seeing photographs of white horses on the sandy shores of Camargue.
It’s where artists came to be inspired by the play of light and color found throughout the region. In fact, one of my favourite photographers, Peter Lindbergh, actually hitchhiked from Berlin to Arles, in search of inspiration to help his own photography career.
And as an art lover myself, I had always heard about the Les Rencontres De La Photographie, a renowned photography festival hosted throughout the city since the summer of 1970 in the charming town of Arles. It had been on my bucket list for years.
Now I understand why so many artists have found inspiration in the South of France. Experiencing the rich history and the captivating interplay of light in Arles, driving through the barren and beautiful landscapes of Camargue, and immersing yourself in the vibrant culture of Marseille was just a glimpse of how time seems to slow down. Allow yourself to be guided with our Nomad Voyageur Guide below.
Rarely, places meet your expectations, but the ancient city of Arles is one of those places that exceeded mine. Arles is not only famous for being the inspiration for many artists, most notably, Vincent Van Gogh, but it is also known for once being a provincial capital of ancient Rome. And you can feel the influence everywhere, especially when you see the illumination of the Arles Amphitheatre at night.
Now, Arles has become an artistic and cultural hub for many. Les Rencontres De La Photographie has really put Arles on the map for showcasing new photography talent.
The festival was founded by Arles photographer Lucien Clergue, writer Michel Tournier, and historian Jean-Maurice Rouquett. From April to September, you can visit up-and-coming photographers who have their works displayed throughout various historic monuments.
Lee Ufan Arles
Each year, you will undoubtedly encounter different artists, but here’s a glimpse of my visit. As I began to wander the city, I was excited to discover an artist whose pieces I instantly fell in love with Lee Ufan, a Korean artist, philosopher, and poet at Lee Ufan At Arles. This art center is in a 17th-century mansion in the city’s historic quarter, converted by the artist’s friend and architect of choice, Tadao Ando (who is also one of my favorites). If you’re a lover of sculpture, you’ll appreciate the powerful simplicity of Lee’s work.
Lee Ufan Arles
His sculptures showcase the beautiful and meditative connection between stone, wood, natural, and industrial materials, which he calls ‘Relatum’ – a result of the ‘encounters’ of these materials within a space. I couldn’t resist getting one of his books; I love his sketches and how he connects all the elements. As I entered his space, there was an undeniable wabi-sabi allure. This quality prompted introspection and reminded me of Axel Vervoordt’s work.
Saul Leiter’s | Palais De L’archevêché
I also loved seeing Saul Leiter’s exhibition at the Palais De L’archevêché. His work in black and white, playing with the dynamics of shadow and reflection, has always attracted me. Leiter is an American photographer who is known for his unique approach to street photography and fashion. His groundbreaking mastery of color and innovative, bold compositional style has left an indelible mark on the art world. His ability to capture the beauty in everyday moments and play with color, light, and composition is enchanting.
Of course, I couldn’t wait to see Jacques Léonard’s L’esprit Nomade at the Musée Réattu. His exhibition showcased a beautiful collection of photographs that depicted the everyday life of the Gypsies. I’ve always found them to possess a mysterious allure. Leonardo fell under the spell of Rosario Amaya, and marrying her, opened the doors for him to fully capture their everyday life, earning their trust. His photographs have become one of the most important collections and documentations of Gypsy culture.
With Van Gogh painting his infamous works of art in Arles – such as Sunflowers, The Yellow House, and The Room, the city opened the Foundation of Vincent Van Gogh. It is said that he moved to Arles in 1888 in pursuit of ‘another light.’ Therefore, the Foundation places a strong emphasis on Provence’s ‘light’ throughout its exhibits, which are in creation by other artists, and are in dedication to Van Gogh.
– Dian Arbus
I couldn’t miss visiting the Diane Arbus: Constellation exhibit at Luma Arles. The building’s architecture is strikingly beautiful, and, as always, my fascination with staircases drew my attention. Luma was conceived by Maja Hoffmann, and in collaboration with Frank Gehry. It features various multi-purpose spaces, including exhibition halls, work and research rooms, and event venues. It became the ideal venue for hosting the ‘Constellation’ exhibit. This exhibit is a tribute to 454 of Diane’s photographs presented in an immersive installation.
The way the photographs are set up throughout the space, like stars in a constellation, is an art form itself. Each photograph tells a story, but there is a story also being told through the way the exhibit presents it.
I believe the South of France, like Italy, is one of those places that is best enjoyed slowly. I love to get lost in the antique bookshops, and to browse old parfumeries. It’s like traveling back in time.
Throughout Arles, there are interesting and cute shops where you’ll find objects for your home or unique pieces to wear. Here are some of my favorites.
At Moustique Arles, a concept store, I fell in love with their plates, specifically ones with unique details of the Camargue. I enjoyed browsing the curation of objects created in collaboration between artisans and designers.
Shortly after, I visited L’atelier Emelie, a beautiful home goods store. I picked up cozy candles and a unique bag to take home.
If you’re a lover of scent, you’ll also love La Parfumerie Arlesienne. You’ll find perfumes created by Fabienne Fabrando and unique jewelry pieces and ceramics. Opened in 2012, all of Fabienne’s scents tell especially beautiful stories about Arles and the region.
I’m not sure if it is just me, but I feel that in the South of France – you can still find so many small bookshops, that have been disappearing over time. In Arles, you will find so many of these! I picked up Francesca Woodman’s (whose work I’ve always adored) The Artist’s Books, which is a gorgeous collection of 19th and 20th-century journals that Woodman collected from Rome in the late 70’s.
Hôtel Du Cloître | Le Chardon | D’Arlatan | Hôtel Nord Pinus
For a cozy and easy lunch, try the Michelin guide-approved and chef-in-residence restaurant, Le Chardon. This was one of my favorite dining spots that I enjoyed during my travels in the South of France. Despite it being in the Michelin guide, Le Chardon does not feel pretentious at all. The staff is so friendly, and the menu is fixed, as you let the chefs surprise you. Something to note – Le Chardon also honors upcoming artists with a rotating selection of pieces of art on their walls.
If you’re looking for more of an upscale dinner and atmosphere, visit D’Arlatan, the sister hotel of Hôtel Du Cloître. L’Arlatan has very interesting decor and a beautiful interior courtyard. In the Middle Ages, L’Arlatan was known as the most luxurious mansion in Arles. Artist Jorge Pardo turned the L’Arlatan into the hotel it is today, with two million mosaic fragments made by hand.
For a beautiful stay, I recommend the Hôtel Du Cloître, where you are greeted by a 100-year-old Paulownia tree. I love entering places where I can already feel the artistic vibes. Originally built in the 13th century, Hôtel Du Cloître has been recently re-designed by India Mahdavi, back in 2012. From the vivid blues, yellows, and oranges that make up the hotel’s color palette, to the mosaic tiling and bespoke furniture, the hotel pays homage to the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. You’ll find beautiful art books while you settle in, and a very friendly staff.
While many recommend to go to Hôtel Nord Pinus (another sister hotel to Arlatan and Du Cloitre) for aperos, I enjoyed going there for breakfast and observing the locals. It made me think of the conversations that were taking place in that piazza, in Van Gogh’s Cafe La Nuit, which is now unfortunately closed, and seeing the locals in “Bar des Aficionados” right in front. The hotel’s history is so interesting. It was once owned by a cabaret dancer and a tight-rope walking clown. If you’re in need of a drink, enjoy a cocktail at their infamous bar. Former guests included Pablo Picasso, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway.
Now, if you travel a bit south of Arles, you’ll find the region of Camargue, known as the “wild, wild west” of France. The landscape is more barren and full of marshes, in fact, it’s quite rural. Because of this rural landscape, you’ll find white horses and bulls running free, and you might even be lucky enough to spot a few flamingos while you’re at it.
The Course Camarguaise
If you love horseback riding, then you’ll love staying at Les Arnelles. Les Arnelles is a hotel that is situated on a wild reserve. The interiors resemble those of a chic log cabin with wood-paneled walls, and pops of orange as design accents. Les Arnelles has an equestrian center on site, so you can ride off into the sunset! I enjoyed dinner at La Pampa, their on-site restaurant that focuses on ingredients that come from the farm’s vegetable garden.
Camargue is also known for The Course Camarguaise – bullfighting! I didn’t have a chance to visit a fight this time around – but what I found interesting is that the bulls are the star of the show, versus the bullfighter. Each bull’s name is written on a poster for the races, and usually, it would be the fighters’ names. Some bulls even have statues set up in surrounding villages!
And if you’re in the mood for fresh seafood, or a romantic sunset dinner by the sea – stop by La Playa En Camargue. The owner, Antoine, and the rest of his staff do an incredible job at creating a relaxed and chilled experience, while you get to sit back and enjoy the natural beauty of this enchanting coastal region.
Chateau La Coste
Now, on to one of my highlights of my travels to the South of France – Chateau La Coste. I was recommended to go here by a few friends, as they told me, “Katherine, it’s not your normal winery.” And they were certainly right. I found everything I love: delicious food, wine, surrounded by installations of art and architecture.
La Coste is over two hundred hectares of countryside that holds different galleries and installations around its property. It is currently owned by Irish property manager, Patrick McKillen. He also owns London’s Claridges, The Berkley, and The Connaught.
Upon entering, you’ll be greeted by Tadao Ando’s “Gate”, the entrance to the Japanese architect’s Centre D’Art, as well as Louise Bourgeois’ “Crouching Spider” – a bronze statue that sits right over a body of water.
Then, as you stroll past their enchanting bookshop, curated with an interesting selection of books that I couldn’t resist, you’ll encounter Ando’s distinctive architectural style and profound reverence for light.
Inside the center, a grand oculus welcomes a generous cascade of sunlight into the building. The building’s angles and shapes grant breathtaking vistas of the countryside.
As you begin your journey through the Chateau’s grounds, you’ll discover that some of the most renowned artists and architects have their masterpieces exhibited throughout the estate. The Yoko Ono “Wish Trees” are designed as a live meditation. You can go and hang a wish on one of the branches. I’ve always loved how so much of Yoko’s work and exhibits invite you to engage with it.
Chateau La Coste
I loved strolling through Renzo Piano’s recently designed art pavilion, and straightaway discovering the work of two interesting artists inside the gallery designed by architect Joseph Dirand. An interesting mix and harmony between the works of Afi Nayo and Philipe Anthonioz in their exhibit, “Cheek to Cheek” from paintings on wood, clay cubes in earth colors, engraving animals, fabrics to marble, wood, and bronze in voluminous shapes with a slow rhythm.
Chateau La Coste
The Drop by Tom Shannon got its name because it looks as though the stainless steel sculpture is “levitating”. It will move in all ways (spin, tilt, rise, and fall) when given a gentle push. Tom Shannon’s eye for movement is so remarkable.
Visiting the Meditation Bell, created by Paul Matisse, is a beautiful way to enjoy the presence and feel the appreciation for the Chateau. The Meditation Bell can be found at the very end of a secluded path, that invites you to take time for yourself.
Andy Goldsworthy’s Oak Room is another standout for me. In an old stone wall, Goldsworthy intertwined oak trunks, small branches, and twigs to create this circular form that encapsulates the room. It’s really a sensory experience – from the earthy smell to the freshness we feel, and the ways our eyes adjust from the light.
Back to one of my favorite artists – Lee Ufan’s, House of Air. Lee Ufan chose a monolith to place in front of the house, and then painted a shadow in front of it. When you enter inside, it is extremely dark, with only a small veil of light that comes in from the ceiling.
Dining at the Chateau is another fabulous experience. Are you a fan of Chef’s Table? I was so excited to see that Francis Mallmann, opened an Argentinian restaurant, Francis Mallmann at La Coste on the grounds.
La Mirande Avignon
On our way to the Marseille, we stopped in Avignon, visiting The Palais des Papes, also known as the Palace of the Popes. It is always interesting to go back in time and explore the grandeur of its spacious chambers, frescos, chapels, and courtyards imagining everything that happened within those walls.
For an early breakfast, late lunch, or tea – try Chez Lisette. Chez Lisette is located in one of the oldest bakeries in Avignon, dating back to 1931. Stroll down Rue Galante for endless dinner inspiration, as there are restaurants with all different types of cuisines.
Tired after a long day of traveling and sightseeing? We have the perfect place for you. Once an 18th-century townhouse that belonged to a nobleman, La Mirande is now a luxury 5-star hotel tied with so much French history and soul. Each room is individually decorated and named after 18th-century printed canvases, such as The Rose Garden, The Enchanted River, and The Cornucopia. It’s an art aficionado’s dream.
Marseille, the oldest city in France, offers a diversity of neighborhoods, each with its own unique charm and character. From the historic allure of Le Panier, with its narrow winding streets and colorful facades, to the vibrant Vieux-Port, a bustling hub of activity and stunning waterfront views. La Corniche offers a taste of the glamorous Mediterranean lifestyle, with its scenic promenades and stunning vistas, while Cours Julien is a thriving arts and cultural district, perfect for those seeking a more bohemian atmosphere.
Notre-Dame de la Garde | Les Goudes
On top of the hill of Garde, visit Notre-Dame de la Garde. It is a Catholic basilica that is historically known for watching over sailors, fishermen, and the inhabitants of Marseille. The captivating scent of incense fills the air, inspiring you to light a candle and reflect on the sanctuary’s holiness.
Then, you must stop through Les Goudes, a seaside port, aptly nicknamed “the other side of the world” by those who live in Marseille themselves.
Tuba Club & Les Bors De Mer, Marseille
I always love to find spots in big cities where I can disconnect and recharge. Les Bords De Mer is a hotel directly located on the water, and each room has a stunning beautiful ocean view. The hotel will even charter a boat for you to enjoy aperitif on. A glass of French rosé on the water, what more could anyone want? I loved going to the hotel’s rooftop to enjoy a drink!
And just a bit outside the bustling city, it’s worth a visit to Tuba Club, a hotel and restaurant located in Les Goudes, a quiet and quaint fisherman town. Les Goudes is only accessible by bus or by car, and the Tuba Club is located right on the edge near the National Park, known for its Calanques.
What used to be a centuries-old “cabanon” or fishing shed, is now a chic hotspot for French creatives and intellectuals. In fact, fashion designer, Simon Port Jacquemus has added the Club to one of his favorite hot spots!
Inside the hotel, the decor feels like a cozy holiday home hideout, while the restaurant still keeps that coastal charm with wooden tables and white stucco walls. Enjoy fresh seafood like carpaccio and ceviche, and enjoy the club’s infamous Basil Boli: a delicious gin and tonic with a touch of basil, that is a nod to the Olympique de Marseille football team.
I hope this travel guide helps to inspire you on your next trip to the South of France. Remember, the region is best explored slowly, so as to savor every moment of art, architecture, history, and wine!
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