Saint-Rémy-de-Provence stands out as one of the most picturesque towns in Provence. It’s of intermediate size by south-of-France standards–smaller than Arles and Avignon but larger than Eygalières and Fontvieille. Nestled between the Durance and the Rhône rivers, it’s in the Alpilles region where olive trees carpet the sloping hillsides.
A highlight of Saint-Rémy is Saint-Paul de Mausole, the monastery-turned-asylum where artist Vincent van Gogh voluntarily committed himself after cutting his ear. (New research suggests that he severed not just the earlobe but nearly the entire ear.)
It was there, during the last year of his life (1889-1890) that van Gogh created about 150 paintings, including masterpieces such as The Starry Night and The Olive Trees. He then moved to Auvers-sur-Oise where he died 2 months later. Saint-Paul still functions as a psychiatric hospital, although portions are open to the public. You can visit a re-creation of his humble room, the chapel, the cloisters, and some of the grounds.
It’s easy to imagine van Gogh in the same spots, drinking in the same views. Reproductions of his fiery landscapes are strategically placed to make the connections apparent between what he painted and what can still be seen from these locations. Whenever I visit, I’m struck not by the madness of his vision but by how sane and acutely searing it was. A friend who accompanied me on a trip to Provence this summer said, “being there brought van Gogh alive…I could feel his genius and his pain.” It was one of her favorite stops in Provence, as it is for many visitors.
Other highlights include the archaeological site at Glanum on the outskirts of Saint-Rémy which is thought to have been inhabited starting about 500 BCE and rose to prominence during the Roman era. The Musée des Alpilles showcases regional art and crafts in a hôtel particulier from the Renaissance era. Tours and tastings at an olive oil mill offers a chance to sample some of the world’s best pressed from olives grown in this vicinity. (For more details, see below). Look for the “AOP Vallée des Baux de Provence” label if shopping for it at stores. A visit to Saint-Rémy can also be combined with an excursion to Les-Baux-de-Provence which has its own attractions including a sound and light show projected in a stone quarry– Les Carrières de Lumières. The theme changes each year and is reliably a mesmerizing display.
But what keeps luring me, and many others, back to Saint-Rémy time and again is the Wednesday morning market. It’s full of character and part of the town’s weekly rhythm.
Every Wednesday the old town swells with market vendors selling olives, breads, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, honeys, jams, meat, and fish.
Plus there are stands selling olive wood chopping boards and utensils, pottery, clothing, accessories, soaps, table linens, jewelry, and flowers in a dazzling array of colors.
The first time that I visited the market in Saint-Rémy, I was kindly treated to a personalized tour by the aunt of an acquaintance who has lived in Saint-Rémy for decades. Henriette showed me and my friend Robin around while pointing out her favorite vendors and expertly weaving a path through the narrow streets. We bought olives and bread. We sampled wild boar saucissons and white nougat. We enjoyed live music and the surprising antics of street performers.
We also explored the brocante (flea market) dealers’ stands clustered in Place de la République where I was smitten by the vintage postcards.
After making our rounds at the market, we settled into one of the restaurants on the main drag for lunch. This is a typical routine for the locals who often combine a market outing with social time before or afterwards –or both. It’s a leisurely approach to shopping that prizes being outdoors and enjoying the company of friends or the pleasure of solitude while at a café.
Any visit to Saint-Rémy should allow extra time to roam around. There are boutiques, trickling fountains, and galleries with art that evokes the local landscape. Two of my favorite stops are the chocolate shop Joël Durand on Boulevard Victor Hugo and Lilamand Confiseur on avenue Albert Schweitzer for the famous calissons and candied fruits. You might pass a bust of the 16th-century prophet Nostradamus or a plaque identifying his birthplace in Saint-Rémy in 1503.
Don’t worry about getting lost as you wander around. The streets are circuitous, but you’ll inevitably come back to a familiar spot. Or, if you’re geographically challenged as I am, then make a note of where the Mairie (town hall) is and let that be your landmark or meeting spot.
Provence has many wonderful towns, and Saint-Rémy ranks high among them. It has it all—a lively and colorful market, fascinating history, art, good cafés and shopping, picnic spots, and a relaxed ambience. Something for everyone!
The traditional Provençal market in Saint-Rémy is open Wednesday morning from about 8:30 am-12:30 pm. Arrive early for parking. You might get lucky and find a space in Parking de la Libération on av. de la Libération. For more details about this and other markets throughout Provence, you can find my book Markets of Provence.
The Saint-Rémy tourism office, located on Place Jean Jaurès, offers helpful information.
For a tucked-away spot to enjoy a picnic, check out this article by Keith Van Sickle.
For background about van Gogh and other Dutch artists who came to France, read this recent post from Paris Breakfasts about the van Gogh Museum.
Click here for more details on visiting the Saint-Paul de Mausole sanitarium where Vincent van Gogh lived and painted.
To taste olive oils or tour an olive oil mill, some of the best options are Le Moulin du Calanquet (in Saint-Rémy), Château Romanin (Saint-Rémy), Moulin Castelas (in Les-Baux-de-Provence), Moulin Jean-Marie Cornille (in Maussane-les-Alpilles), Moulin Saint Michel (in Mouriès), or Château Estoublon (Fontvieille).