On an eastern spur of the Luberon Range, Cavaillon is a mid-sized Provençal town in bucolic countryside.
The fertile soils around nourish all kinds of fresh fruit, like the lauded Cavaillon melon.
This is how most people in France know the name of the town, and there’s even a festival in July to honour this delicious fruit.
For hundreds of years Cavaillon was in the Comtat Venaissin papal enclave, which bucked a trend in medieval times by accepting Jewish people.
Cavaillon Synagogue is the oldest in France, set in the former Carrière ghetto.
There’s a manageable choice of things to see in Cavaillon before you push out into the Luberon to be wowed by its river gorges, lavender fields, ochre quarries and perched villages.
Lets explore the best things to do in Cavaillon:
1. Cavaillon Synagogue
In medieval times Jews expelled from elsewhere in France by Louis IX and Philip the Fair were welcomed to this Papal Enclave.
Cavaillon’s Synagogue is the oldest in France, dating from the 1400s.
The outside is relatively plain, but the interior is in a sublime rococo style from the 1700s.
Upstairs there’s dainty gilded plasterwork and wrought iron banisters.
Below is the space reserved for women, where the ovens for baking matzo bread for Passover can also be found.
There’s a small museum with Jewish liturgical items like scrolls and prayer books.
2. Cavaillon Cathedral
The city’s cathedral went up in the 1100s and thanks to Cavaillon’s turbulent history has several architectural styles after being damaged in the French Wars of Religion.
This is most obvious in the choir, nave and side chapels, which were given a lavish makeover in the 1600s when they were decorated with multicoloured marble and gilded woodwork.
The cloister to the south of the building is gorgeous, and was completed in different eras: The west gallery is the oldest, dating to the 1100s, the north and south galleries are from the 1200s, while the south side has a completely different look as it was rebuilt after the cathedral was sacked in 1562 by protestant troops.
3. Musée Archéologique de l’Hôtel Dieu
Cavaillon’s old hospital dates to 1750, and since the 1940s has hosted the town’s archaeological museum.
It is owned by the Fondation Calvet, which is based in Avignon and runs several museums and historic building around the region.
The museum has prehistoric artefacts dating to the earliest years of human habitation around, but also a strong display of more recent Roman finds.
These are mostly from 5 BC onwards, and include ceramic oil lamps, marble busts, a variety of epitaphs, a Corinthian column and Roman glassware.
4. Hôtel d’Agar
Like most of the monuments in the centre of Cavaillon this mansion was built on top of Roman ruins in the medieval period.
Most of what we see now is from the Baroque period, but outside on Passage Vidau there’s also Gothic medieval tower.
The mansion’s highpoint was in the 17th century when it was owned by Jean d’Agar, counsellor to the Aix Parliament.
Now it’s a show house decorated with period art, furniture and a fabulous set of 150 Provençal nativity figurines.
The walled garden is wonderful, with pieces of a Roman aqueduct and 16th-century irrigation channels.
There’s a world of history beneath your feet here, and in 2010 the Treasure of Cavaillon, 300 Roman silver coins, were unearthed here.
5. Colline Saint-Jacques
Something else to love about Cavaillon is how you can escape to the beloved Provence countryside on foot on foot from the centre of town.
The best local walk is to climb the stiff slopes of this hill, a detached outcrop of the Luberon Massif to the west of the city.
Generations of Cavaillon’s citizens have made the walk to visit the Chapelle Saint-Jacques up here, where a chapel has stood for at least 1,000 years.
There’s an adorable little garden and an orientation table pointing out the various landmarks in the fertile plain below and Petit Luberon to the east.
6. Via Ferrata de Cavaillon
You can also reach this climbing course on the Colline Saint-Jacques from the centre of Cavaillon.
If you’re new to Via Ferratas they’re horizontal climbing courses attached to a cliff-face.
You shimmy over the route via rope bridges, ladders, monkey bridges, Tibetan bridges, gangways and beams.
There are two courses here, Via Natura and Via Souterrata, the first of which is family friendly and carries you along the cliff-face.
Via Souterrata is more challenging and guides you into the Colline Saint-Jacques’ cave network.
7. Roman Arch
Nobody is too sure what this Roman arch on Place du Clos was built for.
But they do know that it wasn’t always at this location.
The arch was moved here piece by piece in the 19th century, and before that it had been integrated into Cavaillon’s episcopal palace, which was sold off and destroyed after the Revolution.
Whatever its purpose, the arch is something to inspect up close so you can get a good look at the rich carving that covers almost every surface.
There are rosettes, acanthus leaves and you can make out the faint outline of a winged deity.
If you’re in decent shape you can see what Provence is all about on the “Luberon à Vélo” cycle trail that slices through the Luberon Massif all the way from Cavaillon to Forcalquier more than 100 kilometres away.
This obviously isn’t for everyone, but you can ride sections of the route, or go halfway, to the town of Apt and never have to deal with a main road.
However much you attempt you’ll ride through the Provence of movies and paintings, with garrigue scrub, cedar forest, limestone gorges, ochre ridges, olive groves and lovable perched villages to stop in for meals and breaks.
9. Gorges de Régalon
Only 10 kilometres from Cavaillon is an otherworldly canyon hidden in the rocky garrigue countryside.
The gorge has sheer walls of limestone that taper so much they block out the sunlight and you’ll have even squeeze through in places.
Elsewhere falling rocks have been suspended by the walls a few feet above the canyon floor to create archways.
It’s an humbling natural sight, but can be dangerous during or after heavy rainfall, and normally closes during sustained periods of bad weather.
Provence wouldn’t be the same without its adorable perched hilltop villages, and there are dozens within reach of Cavaillon.
But Ménerbes, at 15 kilometres away, is rated as one of the most beautiful villages, not just in this region but all of France.
Few authors had an affinity with Provence like Marcel Pagnol, and Ménerbes shows up often in his work, while Pablo Picasso owned a house here.
The village is no more than a few streets and alleys crammed onto a narrow hilltop, but the stone architecture is wonderfully rustic and there are traces a citadel from the 1500s.
Occasionally you’ll turn a corner in Ménerbes to be hit by boundless views of cherry orchards and vineyards.
11. Sentier des Ocres
For another trip into the Luberon that you won’t soon forget, set a course for the old ochre quarries outside the perched village of Roussillon.
The geology of this almost Martian landscape is hundreds of million years old, with iron oxide leaving a pigment in the rocks that was mined for paint.
This pigment runs the spectrum from a dark purple to a reddish yellow, and creates a kaleidoscopic backdrop for a walk.
There are two walking trails, one taking 30 minutes and the other an hour, and both routes are set up with information boards with insights about the geology and plant-life of this phenomenal environment.
At no more than half an hour, Avignon deserves at least a day.
Not least because its history as the seat of medieval popes and antipopes is intertwined with Cavaillon’s.
The 14th-century Palais des Papes is where these popes lived and worked, and for almost 80 years was the seat of Western Christianity.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and most people agree that it’s one of the finest Gothic buildings in the world.
And you can’t neglect the Pont Saint-Bénézet (Pont d’Avignon), a once enormous bridge spanning the Rhône.
It was abandoned in the 1600s, but four arches, a chapel and two gatehouses remain today.
13. Local Food
The soil in Cavaillon’s countryside is rich and well-irrigated, sustaining a carpet of market gardens.
There’s a surplus of cherries, pears and apples in summer.
But it’s the melons that put Cavaillon on the map.
This cantaloupe is native to Armenia, and came from Italy via Africa in the middle ages.
It’s in season from June to September, and you’d be remiss not to buy one at the market.
The vendors will give you tips on picking the best ones (the heavier the better!). And melon appears in dishes at local restaurants at this time of year, as a starter with cured Bayonne ham, in salads, in tarts for desserts and even as gazpacho.
14. Fête du Melon
Taking place on the second weekend of July, Cavaillon’s melon festival is now in its fifth year.
On both the Saturday and Sunday morning there’s a market inviting producers and artisans from around the region, as well as dozens of the best melon growers from the area.
Things get livelier as the Saturday progresses: There’s a melon- themed parade, cooking contests and most of the bars in the town set up stalls at an open-air bodega, and there’s live music until the early hours.
But the most memorable moment happens at 22:00 when 100 white Camargue horses are released to run through the city streets.
Another cornerstone of Provence’s identity is lavender, which also grows near Cavaillon.
The time to come to see this beautiful spectacle is around July when the colours are at their boldest, just before the lavender is harvested at the beginning of August.
Simply hop in the car, head east and take your camera with you.
The most captivating and enduring image is probably the Sénanque Abbey in Gordes, around 15 kilometres northeast of Cavaillon.
Here the lavender looks incredible against the stark grey walls of this Romanesque medieval church.