Of all the areas in France, Provence is to many, the most irresistible, the most charming and the best of them all. It’s a vast portion of France and stretches from the mountains of the Hautes-Alpes in the north to the Mediterranean coast in the south, from Arles in the west to Monaco and the borders of Italy in the east. It isn’t at all difficult to see why the Riviera of Provence has become the French home to the rich and famous of the world with its warm climate and 300 days of sunshine a year.
The region includes the following departments: the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, the Bouches-du-Rhône, the Vaucluse and the Alpes-Maritimes.
Famed for its joie de vivre way of life, Provence is a place of intense colours – the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean, the wedgewood blue skies, emerald green country side, roofs of terracotta and ochre and fields of deep purple lavender. The colours change according to the brightness of the sun and the area has long been a magnet for artists, writers and creative sorts from Van Gogh to Scott Fitzgerald.
The beauty and charm also attract the famous and it was Brigitte Bardot, the legendary screen goddess who contributed to the popularity of St Tropez when the movie which made her famous “And God Made Woman” was filmed and where she has lived since the ‘60s. The area continues to attract Hollywood and music scene crème de la crème such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt who have a chateau in Provence and who are said to be planning to wed there in the summer of 2012.
You certainly don’t have to be rich and famous to go there and appreciate the charms of the place the locals call PACA and get out among olive trees, lavender and vineyards, visit chateaux and taste the local wines and gourmet fare and relax on a beach, basking in the sunshine.
History of Provence
Thanks to its location on the Mediterranean coast line and borders with Italy, Provence has been a crossroads for civilisations over the centuries. There are prehistoric remains, the Greeks,Romans and Saracens all came to Provence, the Popes made it their home several hundred years ago after fleeing Rome and Provence only became a fully integrated part of France in the 19th Century. The Romans who were there have left behind arenas and theatres and there are impressive remains in Arles, Orange and Vienne. Typically French, there are festivals and concerts hosted in some Roman ruins even today – a memorable event.
Where to go in Provence
Well, you are spoiled for choice in this region and choosing where to go might be difficult.
If you like historic sites then the Roman remains at Orange, Vaison-la-Romaine, Carpentras and Arles will thrill you; as will the city of Avignon – once the home to Popes, Avignon and its Palais des Papes and its fantastic summer festival make it a marvellous area to visit.
Aix-en-Provence was where Cezanne once lived and painted, it remains a dazzling and picturesque place with its colourful market, pretty houses, wonderful views and relaxed way of life. Van Gogh painted at St-Remy and Arles – Picasso and Renoir also painted in Provence and there are many galleries and museums in the region where you can see some of the wonderful works of art.
The fabulous Gorges du Verdon – the biggest canyon in Europe has stunning views and for those who like to hike and take in the fresh air – it can’t be bettered.
Canoeing, climbing, pretty villages perched on hill tops, the scent of lavender filled fields, grapes growing in the vineyards, Nice, Cannes, St-Tropez. Olive groves, garlic and pepper fields, sparkling warm sea water, white sandy beaches and tranquil bays. Provence is the second most visited region of France after Paris and as we said, if you visit here you’ll be spoiled for choice!
In the summer, fields in Provence burst into colour as the lavender comes into flower. Lavender, it surprises most people to know, is a member of the mint family, and an integral part of Provençal culture. For almost a century and a half, the oil produced from lavender plants in the Haute-Provence area has had its own AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée). For details of where to see the best lavender fields the route-lavande website will provide you with details.
Around half of the production of rosé wine in France comes from Provence, produced under the Côtes de Provence appellation and the region is noted for its red and white wines.
The famed herbes de Provence also of course are grown here, a mix of sun loving herbs that are used to enhance the flavours of French dishes and which you can taste in the wonderful cuisine of the region.
The French Riviera
It was the British who coined the phrase the “French Riviera”. The coast line of the Cote d’Azur was one of the earliest modern resort areas, begun by the British upper classes in the late 1700s. They intended it as a winter playground – the weather being far more clement there than in cold and wet London. The area grew in popularity over the subsequent years attracting royalty, artists, writers and the wealthy. Tsar Alexander II of Russia visited on a private train, Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor (she liked Menton) and Napoleon III and Leopold II, the King of the Belgians were also fans of the French Riviera.
It continues to be a prosperous area, loved by the rich and famous and holidaymakers taking in the seaside resorts of Cap-d’Ail, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Villefranche-sur-Mer, Antibes, Juan-les-Pins, Cannes, Saint-Raphaël, Fréjus, Sainte Maxime and Saint-Tropez. Famous also for its yacht and cruise harbours and marinas – it is said that the French Riviera hosts 50% of the world’s super yacht fleet each year.
Things to do in Provence
Don’t miss the Gorges du Verdon –halfway between Avignon and Nice the dramatic and stunning views are amazing. Flowing through the canyon are the green waters of the River Verdon where you can enjoy a range of water activities such as white water rafting, canoeing and kayaking.
Explore the Palais des Papes at Avignon – the 14th Century city of the Popes is filled with monuments and museums and in the summer hosts the famed Arts Festival considered to be one of the greatest in the world.
The Camargue marshes on the Rhône Delta are home to white horses and ethereal landscapes. In the spring flocks of beautiful pink flamingos arrive to nest and stay throughout the summer.
If chic locations and people watching are your thing – choose between the pavement cages of St-Topez, Cannes and Nice.
Go on a day trip to Monaco, the tiny kingdom of the Grimaldi’s and maybe have a flutter in one of the casinos and play like James Bond!
Take an exhilarating hike in he Parc National du Mercantour and the Vallée des Merveilles – superb Alpine views off the beaten track in Haute-Provence.
Wander through Lyon – with its wonderful Renaissance quarter and have a meal in one of the many famed and fabulous restaurants.
Visit Grasse, the perfume capital of the world, beloved by Queen Victoria who spent time holidaying in the Grand Hotel there.
The Abbaye de Sénanque is an ancient Cistercian monastery and wins the hearts of those who see it – a symbol of Provence, surrounded by fields of lavender.
How to get to Provence
Provence is easy to get to and there are plenty of modes of transport available:
Provence by Plane:
Avignon, Nîmes, Marseille, Perpignan for Western Provence
Marseille, Toulon-Hyères for Central Provence
Nice-Côte-d’Azur for Eastern and northern Provence
Provence by Train:
Rail travel along the coast or in the Rhône Valley is good, check with railway services TGV and Provence TER for details.
From the UK you can take the Eurostar service direct to Avignon, or from Lille/Paris you can take the TGV service direct to stations in Provence.
Steam train service on some Sundays in the summer from Puget Théniers to Annot and in July and from Villars-sur-Var bound for Puget Théniers – see the trainprovence website for details. The website also had details of the picturesque route of the train des Pignes, a privately run service operating between Nice and Digne-les-Bains which takes in views over the valleys and off of the edges of hills.
Provence by Ferry:
From the UK Le Havre and Cherbourg are the nearest ports.
Marseilles is France’s largest port, colourful and exotic. Ferries arrive and leave from ports in Provence – Nice, Toulon and Marseille – for such diverse destinations as Corsica, Sardinia, Algeria, Tunisia, multiple Italian destinations, Greece and Spain.
Provence by Car:
Plenty of toll roads and auto routes lead to Provence in a vast network of roads across France, in the summer months the influx of tourists may mean traffic jams.
Getting around in Provence
Provence is a large area so if you want to be able to get around you’ll need a car. If you’re staying in a resort or one place it won’t be necessary and you could hire a car if necessary. Public transport is available in the main towns and resorts but not everywhere so don’t rely on it unless you’ve checked carefully on the availability and time tables.