For you and me, Marseille soap is a quaint handmade product. But a century ago, it was a huge international industry. The center of craftsmanship is the Provence salon. Decades later, when washing machines and detergents came out, trade slumped, but the city has two old-school factories that practice their craft as they did a century ago and are happy to host curious tourists.
Soap doesn’t tell the whole story of the city, as there’s a medieval princely castle and some attractions related to the mysterious Nostradamus who lived and died here. Lovely squares with plane trees and coffee tables, rocky countryside with wild grass, vines and olive trees, are picture books Provence.
Let’s explore the best things to do in the salons of Provence:
1. Savonnerie Marius Fabre
Marius Fabre soaps are sold all over the world and have been produced in the salons of Provence for four generations since 1900. The factory is a rare relic of an industry that led the world a century ago.
Free guided tours are available in French or English explaining that all the traditional knowledge from the first step to the finished product is still incorporated into this olive oil soap.
There’s also a museum with antique boxwood soap stamps, stencils, crates and beautiful old packaging.
2. Imperial Castle
Overlooking the Claude plain from its habitat in Rocher de Puech is the medieval castle of the Salon in Provence.
The tower is the symbol of the city, the noble property where the Archbishop of Arles and the Holy Roman Emperor once lived.
Inside the castle is a museum dedicated to the French army before World War I, so you’ll notice how uniforms and small arms have changed over the course of hundreds of years.
There are also some great displays, like the gloves Napoleon wore during the Egyptian campaign and Louis XV’s leather bag.
3. Fontaine Mousse
The Salon de Provence wouldn’t be the same without the peculiar mushroom-shaped moss fountain on the Place Croustillat.
Fountains have existed here since the 1500s, and the town’s residents have sought coolness and shade for much longer.
But it wasn’t until the 20th century that nodules formed on the limestone, merging the fountain’s two basins.
Since then, moss and other vegetation have conquered the monument and created its strange, fungus-like silhouette.
4. Tour de l’Horloge
While you’re sipping coffee or an aperitif at Place Croustillat, something else to admire is a fine Baroque tower that marks the northern entrance to the old town.
This rose in the 1630s and replaced the old fortified gate.
From gargoyles and quoins, to clocks, moon phases and elegant iron bell towers, there’s a lot of workmanship to see.
Just above the pediment at the top of the gate is a coat of arms that reads “La Loi” (law): an interesting relic of the revolution, as it is where the king’s coat of arms is located.
5. Porte du Bourg Neuf
The bulky eastern entrance of the Salon de Provence is more like what the walls of the Salon de Provence looked like before the 1600s.
It is a solid sawtooth gate with an arrow ring in front and a mechanism under the battlements.
There is a coat of arms above the arch and as you pass you will pass a medieval statue of the Virgin and Child.
It’s a black Madonna, usually the colour it has become due to the accumulation of remnants over the centuries.
6. Savonnerie Rampal Latour
On a summer morning, another old soap factory in the city is happy to show you its century-old expertise.
Rampal has been operating on this site since 1907 as it sticks to time-honored methods of making soaps that are good for your skin and the environment.
Although this quaint old factory was built at the beginning of the 20th century, you will learn how the craftsmanship went back at least 100 years in the Rampal family.
If you’re impressed by what you’ve seen here, or already know about Rampal Latour, you can buy this handmade soap in bulk at the factory store.
7. Nostradamus House
The 16th-century prophet, born Michel de Nostredame, still has the power to fascinate people nearly half a millennium after his death.
In the Salon de Provence you can visit the house where he lived from 1547 to 1566. His most famous book, The Prophecy, was written at this address on what is now Nostradamus Street.
There are no artefacts in the era of Nostradumus; instead, you’ll get a 40-minute audio guide that casts the man as a Renaissance humanist dedicated to learning and science during the perilous days of the Inquisition.
8. Saint Laurent Church
The church was built in the 14th and 15th centuries outside the city’s northern walls.
It’s a Gothic building, but it also has hints of Romanesque: you can see this early style, the lack of decoration on the outside, and how narrow the window openings are.
It may also be a way to defend against the northern and fierce summer sun and keep the interior cool.
Either way, some of the decor inside is dazzling.
Things to look for here are a 16th-century polychrome sculpture of Mary holding the body of Jesus, and the tomb of Nostradamus in the Church of Our Lady.
9. City Hall
As you pass by, you get to see more and the Hôtel de Ville is still worth a stop to take pictures.
Like the nearby Tour de l’Horloge, it is from the 17th century and has many baroque similarities.
On the ground level, striking is the fine wooden lintel with the coat of arms of the Salon de Provence.
At the front two corners of the building are turrets, while the top of the building is a stately balustrade.
In the square in front is a statue of the 16th-century engineer Adam de Craponne.
He opened the town to agriculture by digging a canal that drew water from the Durance River.
10. Pabon Zoo
Take 10 minutes on the Route de Saint-Cannat and you will arrive at the gates of this highly rated zoo.
You’ll see hundreds of animals from 120 different species and more idyllic views on the plateau east of the city.
The park is set in 30 hectares of holm oak forest, and if you care about animal welfare, you might be happy to see that it uses profits for international animal protection projects.
Children will be delighted to see elephants, giraffes, tigers, hippos, various bears, wolves and jaguars.
11. Legallon Gorge
The southern spurs of the Luberon Massif are not far from Salon-de-Provence, and outside the town of Mérindol, there are already some jaw-dropping rocky landscapes waiting to be explored.
The Gorges de Régalon are steep limestone walls that stretch over 140 meters.
In some places, the ravine is less than a meter and hardly any light reaches the ground.
With two parking lots, you’ll hike trails through olive and pine groves beckoning to this little-known natural wonder.
The canyon is closed on rainy days due to the risk of landslides.
12. Weekly Market
If you find yourself in a Provence salon on a Wednesday morning, stop what you’re doing and head straight to Place de Jules Morgan.
This is a large weekly market filled with stalls selling all the specialties of Provence.
But this is a Provence salon with a focus on olives, olive oil, artisanal soaps and wines, and delightful navettes.
Look for these at pastry stands; they are boat cookies flavored with a variety of seasonings like orange blossom water, vanilla, chocolate or fennel.
Just like olive oil and soap, they’re great to take home and give to friends.
Another highlight of Salon-de-Provence is that it is a wine town producing the Rhone Valley and the Appellation Méditerranée IGP (Protected Geographical Indication), as well as the Appellation Méditerranée AOC (Controlled Appellation of Origin). 10 km from the city is the Calisan winery, an area with 250 hectares of vineyards planted with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rolle, Uni, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cousins and others. Grapes are grown for the production of dry red, white and rosé wines.
The property is located at the base of a spectacular cliff, and along with its selection of wines, the cave sells preserves, olive oil and earthenware jars.
14. Olive oil
One of the quirks of fate that made the Salon de Provence the soap capital was a catastrophic frost that killed olive trees across Provence, while those on the gentle slopes around the city were spared.
Many of these groves now produce Provence’s AOP olives and olive oil.
If you want to learn more, you can visit some domains where you will meet the owner and get a full overview of this ancient way of life.
Mas des Bories is one such place, with groves scattered with old dry stone houses and wild grasses such as laurel, lavender and thyme.
15. Musique à l’Empéri
Every year for ten days in August, the Chamber Music Festival takes place, inviting soloists from prestigious orchestras such as the Paris Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Adding real grandeur to these performances is the venue, located in the Renaissance courtyard of the Château de l’Empéri.
They take place every night at 21:00, while the Romanesque Church of St. Michael hosts an earlier show at 18:00. To keep the show fresh, there is also contemporary classical music.
If you can, you should try to watch live musicians accompany silent movies.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Salon, Provence, France
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