Provence is a geographical region of south east France and it is also quite possibly the most irresistible part of France and certainly one of the most popular areas for visitors. It extends from the lower Rhône River to the Italian border and is lovingly lapped by the Mediterranean Sea. Sunshine, snow-capped mountains, beautiful villages perched on hilltops, lavender fields, sparkling lakes, charming seaside resorts, fabulous gastronomy, luscious wine, colourful markets and the Gorges du Verdon, Europe’s greatest canyon, and much else make this one of France’s best loved holiday destinations.
Petite Guide to Provence
The Romans were fans of the area and called it Provincia Roman. Until the late 15th Century it was ruled by the Counts of Provence from then capital, Aix-en-Provence, when it became a province of the Kings of France.
Provence covers a wide area and is enormously diverse and for most people, choosing where to visit is an issue, particularly if you only have a few days. So to help, here’s a petite guide to some of my favourite places in Provence:
There are six departments in Provence:
Alpes-de-Haute-Provence: Northern Provence, a mountainous, historic area featuring the Luberon oriental and the gorgeous Verdon Gorge.
Alpes-Maritimes: Famous for its French Riviera and towns like Nice and Cannes and the wonderful house and gardens of the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. This department boasts 300 days of sunshine a year. To the north are the French Alps.
Bouches-du-Rhône: A diverse area, it is home to the wetlands of the Camargue, the picturesque villages of Cassis and maritime Marseille, France’s second biggest city, as well as the rural landscape of the Alpilles.
Hautes-Alpes: Part of the French Alps, it is among the highest regions in Europe, bordered with Italy to the East it is well known for the beautiful town of Briancon.
Var: Seaside resorts, yachts, the rich and famous, wine and Romanesque and medieval architecture. Frejus, Hyeres and the island of Porquerolles where you’ll find some of the most beautiful beaches in France, and St Tropez are amongst its jewels.
Vaucluse: Lavender land! Inland Provence, an area is well-known for the Luberon, the swathes of lavender fields and many picturesque villages such as Rousillon, Apt, Carpentras and Lourmarin to name just a few plus Avignon, home to the Palais des Papes and a UNESCO listed bridge.
The Luberon: Not a department but the name given to a band of hills and mountains running east from the Rhone valley to the Alps which form a regional park and protected area with dry, wooded limestone hills.
Where to visit in Provence
Aix-en-Provence: Beautiful old town, also known as the “City of a Thousand Fountains” with museums, fabulous markets and a large historic centre, once home to Cezanne. Read more about Aix-en-Provence
Apt: A town with a seriously sweet tooth! Famous for making crystallised fruit, it’s a great place for sitting and watching the world go by from a terraced café and there’s a lovely market too. Read more about Apt
Antibes: popular seaside resort on the French Riviera with 25 km (16 miles) of coastline and 48 beaches including the ever popular Juan les Pins, home to a very popular jazz festival.
Arles: Centre of the Camargue, an area of great natural beauty. It is an historic city beside the river Rhone, with several major monuments including the famous Roman Amphitheatre.
Avignon: Historic walled city, UNESCO World heritage site. Capital of the Vaucluse department. The famous medieval bridge over the Rhone river is immortalized in the song “Sur le pont d’Avignon”. One of the best known attractions in the town is the incredible Palace of the Popes, medieval palace from which the French Popes once ruled.
Bonnieux: this picturesque town is perched on a hill and has the most amazing views over valleys and vinyards and the Friday market is small but very lively! Read more about Bonnieux
Briançon: at an altitude of over 1300 metres, is the highest town in France, one of the highest in Europe and best known for its steep and narrow streets and picturesque town.
Cassis: a stunning little seaside resort surrounded by vineyards… (Cassis Photo Gallery)
Eze: A 1000 year old village that lies between Monte Carlo and Nice on the French Riviera and offers exquisite views from its hill top perch. Don’t miss the view from the exotic garden – it’s worth the chest-thumping climb! Read more about Eze
Fréjus: A charming old town with an historic centre and big marina.
Grasse: in the hills inland from the Riviera, Grasse is the capital of the French perfume industry and you can visit a perfume museum there.
Ile-sur-la-Sorgue: This small town is famous for its bric à brac and antiques markets – especially the Sunday morning antiques market, one of the biggest in France. The town, once an important silk-spinning centre, also has fine old water wheels that are still working. Read more about Ile-sur-la-Sorgue
Les Baux de Provence: Charming and irresistible town of cobbled stoned streets and quirky shops and cafés…
Marseilles: Marseilles, the grand port city of the south of France is exhilarating and enormous. The Vieux port in particular is a great place to visit with its many restaurants and somehow retaining an authentic charm as you watch boats unload fish on the quayside. This very modern metropolis has undergone a metamorphosis in the last few years since it was elected City of Culture in 2013, everything is spruced up and the effort has really paid off. Read more about Marseilles
Martigues: A pretty old town beside the canals linking the lagoon known as the Etang de Berre with the Mediterranean sea.
Menton: very old seaside town almost on the Italian border, pastel coloured houses, wiggly, wobbly streets of the old town, a beautiful marina… this place really is a little paradise. Read more about Menton
Nice: The city on the sea is not so big you can’t enjoy it and not so small that you can’t find loads to do. It’s a great base for visiting the coastal towns of Provence and for enjoying a holiday by the sea. The old town of Nice is gorgeous, the daily markets are enticing, the beaches are pristine and oh so tempting.
Roussillon: the “red town” of Provence with its ochre coloured houses that reflect the sun beautifully. It’s a small town but it’s well worth seeking out with lots of charming cafés and restaurants and fabulous views over the countryside and the huge ochre cliffs that fed the town its bright colours. Read more about Roussillon
Saignon: Step back in time at this small town perched on a ridge. A place to watch the world go by and sigh over stunning sunsets… Read more about Saignon
Saint Paul de Vence: This small hill town not far from Nice wins the hearts of those who visit. The attractive small town has a plethora arts and crafts shops and has a very arty feel to it. Picturesque and impossibly pretty.
Saint Raphael: Riviera seaside resort, with an attractive old town, markets and harbour, well-known for its many activities, particularly beach and water sports.
St Remy de Provence: Van Gogh immortalised the town and today today it is stylish, classy and oozes with vibrant life – a living photo album to ooh and ah over.
Sault: another hilly town that’s really charming and from where from mid June to mid August you can look out over the lavender fields whilst sipping a cool drink in a fabulous café. Lot of charming little shops, shady squares and friendly locals make this a fabulous place to visit.
Vence: A pretty little town of flower filled, hilly little streets with a laid back vibe.
Verdon: An area along the river Verdon, crossed by rivers running down from the Alps, cut through by deep gorges the most famous of which is the Gorge du Verdon the depest gorge in Europe at 20 km long and 300 metres deep.