Provence – a state of mind?
Provence is one of those magical destinations that travellers dream about. Blue skies, warm days, balmy evenings, healthy cuisine, splendid architecture, fascinating heritage and the wonderful sing-song accent of the local inhabitants, the Provençaux. It is almost as much a state of mind as a geographical area.
But where exactly is Provence? Technically it is contained within the modern Région of Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur which occupies the south-east corner of France and stretches from the mighty Rhône in the west to the border with Italy in the east.
Things To Do In Provence France
It includes the Départements of Vaucluse, Bouches du Rhône, Var, Alpes Maritimes as well as Alpes de Haute Provence and Hautes Alpes. However, I have taken the liberty of straying into the Gard which is actually part of the Languedoc-Roussillon. In doing this I am following the many Provenceaux who maintain that Provence includes territory on both sides of the River Rhône.
Around the Rhône Delta, several of the exciting, vibrant cities of Provence such as Nîmes, Arles and Avignon can be found. They exude a vivacious, Latin culture contrasting with the tranquillity of the amazing Regional Nature Park of the Camargue with its white horses, black bulls and pink flamingos.
Further east lies the great port city of Marseille founded by the Greeks. The prefecture of the Bouches-du-Rhône, Marseille offers great shopping, fascinating sightseeing and a tremendous ambience. The view of the Vieux Port from the Parc du Pharo is absolutely awesome!
The City of Cézanne
A little north of Marseille lies the city of Cézanne, Aix-en-Provence. Aix boasts one of the best known brasseries in France, les Deux Garçons, situated on one of the most well known thoroughfares, the wonderful tree lined Cours Mirebeau.
At the other end of the Région, towards the Italian border, are the glittering resort cities of Cannes and Nice both associated with the rich and famous but quite different to one another. Nice is very Italianate due to be being an Italian city till 1860 while Cannes is much more French. Both cities were, and still are, very popular with the English – Nice’s main drag is after all the famous Promenade des Anglais!
Some of the most famous villages in France are found in Provence as well as several Plus Beaux Villages. In the Luberon explore Bonnieux, Roussillon, Ménerbes, Lourmarin and Gordes. Further east discover Seillans, Bargème, Éze and St-Agnès. Many of these are so-called villages perchés or perched villages and have their origins in medieval times when their inhabitants very sensibly decided to build them on cliffs or rocky spurs! Check out my 10 Best villages.
Not so well known is the region which many see as the heart of Provence. Stretching from Cézannes’ beloved Mont St-Victoire to Draguignan in the east and from the Gorges of Verdon, France’s answer to the Grand Canyon, in the north to the magnificent Mediterranean coast in the south around Hyères and St-Tropez. Centred around Brignoles, Green Provence includes the charming villages of Barjols, Cotignac and the fascinating old town of St-Maximin-la-Ste-Baume where they claim to have the remains of St Mary Magdelene.
The Côte-d’Azur aka French Riviera
The coast from the Italian border at Menton to St Tropez is where most of the visitors head. The cities of Nice and Cannes are world famous and the many other resorts such as Antibes, St-Juan-les-Pins, Beaulieu-sur-Mer not to mention St-Tropez are legendary. Discover miles of fabulous beaches along the coast and arguably the most sophisticated resorts in the World.
Top things to see and do
Provence has so many different places to go and things to do that it caters for a wide variety of interests and tastes. There are great beaches, Roman remains, ancient town and villages, local produce markets and boutiques not to mention high mountains and lavender fields.
From sun worshipers to history buffs, from walkers to winter sports enthusiasts and from foodies to oenophiles there are boundless opportunities in this warm and pleasant land in the glorious South of France!
The Côte d’Azur is renowned for les plages (beaches) which stretch from Menton in the east to St-Tropez in the west. Of course there are plenty of great beaches to the west of St-Tropez right up to and including Marseille and I will include a few of them here.
East of Nice
Starting in the east there are 5 great beaches at Menton. My favourites are the easternmost ones, Sablettes and Rondelli, near the old town. There are also a couple of good beaches next door at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.
Moving west, the beach below the impressive Medieval village of Éze known simply as the Plage d’Éze boasts some of the cleanest seawater on the Riviera.
St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, home of the rich and famous, has perhaps two of the Riviera’s most well-known beaches – Passable Plage and Paloma Plage, said by afficionados to be the best!
Just a little west of St-Jean is the stunning resort of Villefranche-sur-Mer with its beautiful Plage des Marinières and the smaller more intimate Plage de la Darse. Not always the cleanest seawater due to the number of boats using the Bay but a fabulous resort nonetheless!
Next door to Villefranche is fabulous Nice which has an amazing selection of beaches – 25 in fact – running all the way along the Promenade des Anglais from the Airport in the west, past the Quai des États Unis and on to the other side of Bassin Lympia below Mont Boron in the east.
Nice’s coastline, fronting the Baie des Anges, is generally very clean and usually sports plenty of blue flags. If you spot yellow, orange or especially red flags then bathing is inadvisable. If in doubt consult a lifeguard. Also, don’t expect to find sandy beaches here – most consist of pebbles.
I’ve featured Opéra Plage separately in my app Nice’s Best because it’s perhaps the most well known but there are many others and most of Nice’s beaches are accessible by public transport although the stop furthest east is at Jardin Albert I.
Antibes to St-Tropez
To the west of Nice is the Cap d’Antibes which features the resorts of Antibes and Juan-les-Pins which share between them 13 beaches, 8 public and 5 private. (check out the website in Practical Info below to see which one meets your needs).
Moving on to the glittering resort of Cannes you’ll discover 7.5 km of sandy beach divided into 13 public, 2 Municipal and 33 private beaches with restaurants! Most are just off La Croisette and easy to reach. The Municipal beaches are located at each end of the Croisette – these are free to use but you need to hire a parasol and chair.
At the other end of the Bay of Cannes, Théole-sur-Mer, which some argue has the most beautiful beaches on the Côte-d’Azur, offers 5 great public beaches with restaurants and a couple of private ones. Outstandingly beautiful is the Plage de l’Aiguille below the amazing red mountains of the Esterel.
At the westernmost limit of the Côte d’Azur is the legendary resort of St-Tropez. The most famous beaches are out of the town itself but near the centre are Plage de la Ponche and Plage Fontanette. The more famous Pampalonne Plage associated with Bardot and Vadim’s 1956 film ‘And God created Woman‘ is located at nearby Ramatuelle and has a good mix of private and public sections.
Beyond the Riviera
Finally, west of the the Riviera there are five beaches on the Ile de Porquerolles just off Hyéres including including the Plages d’Argent & Nôtre Dame which are a 20 minute ferry ride from the mainland. Further west again you can avail yourself of great beaches at Toulon including the Plages de Mourillon and also at Marseille where you can choose from half a dozen including the Plages du Prado which are just south of the City.
For those interested in history then Provence has a great deal to offer.
The region was much favoured by both the Greeks and the Romans from whom the name of Provence derives. Gaul, as France was known to the Romans, was divided into regions. This area was called the Provincia Romana, or sometimes, Provincia Nostra (Our Provence) hence the appellation Provence of today. History buffs can enjoy the Roman cities near the Rhône, the amazing Pont du Gard, the fascinating ruins at Fréjus and, above Monaco, the magnificent Trophée des Alpes.
Goodbye to the Romans
After the Romans left, Provence was invaded by Visigoths, Burgundians and Ostrogoths until finally in 536 AD it came under the control of the Franks. From the 7th – 9th centuries the folks of Provence found themselves between a rock and a hard place – they were ruled by the Carolingian Franks who fought among themselves for control and they were invaded from the sea by Saracens who carried them off into slavery. In contrast to the Roman era there is little to see of this period but remains of Carolingian castles can still be seen at Roquebrune-cap-Martin and Cassis.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Provence was ruled by its Counts, who included the illustrious Ramon Berenguer, Count of Barcelona. The French Monarchy began to increase its influence after 1246 however, and King Philip IV was able to establish the Avignon Papacy in 1309. Provence was absorbed into France in 1480 and there is much to see from the Medieval and Renaissance eras in most of the cities like Avignon where, for example, you can see the Palace of the Popes as well as other significant structures. In addition, all the major centres have at least one Château to see and the Cistercian Abbeys, especially Sénanque in the Vaucluse, draw huge numbers of visitors.
A Scenic Route
The Luberon boasts many charming villages, two of which are classified as Plus Beaux Villages. Moreover, there are wooded hills with plenty of good walking, great markets, excellent restaurants and a producer of quality wines. All in this relatively unspoiled corner of Provence.
One day or more?
While this Itinerary can be done in a day if you are staying nearby, I would advise spending more time in this beautiful region if you can. If you plan to stay overnight, you will find plenty of good accommodation in Apt – in season it is advisable to book ahead.
From the A7 Autoroute take Sortie/Exit 24 and head east on the D900 direction Apt/Forcalquier for about 22km. Soon you will see the Luberon Massif on your right and on your left the Vaucluse Plateau. Keep heading east and at Beaumettes turn right onto the D103 and after about 3km you will arrive at the village perché of Ménerbes. This is the first of the Plus Beaux Villages and was the home of Peter Mayle, the author of ‘A Year in Provence‘, for a while.
‘A Year in Provence’ Territory
Ménerbes like many villages here has a wrought iron belfry on its church tower. This acts as a defence against the notorious Mistral or Master Wind which blows in these parts. You’ll find another one 6 km to the east on the D109 to Lacoste. This particular perched village was home to the notorious Marquis de Sade whose castle has been restored by fashion designer Pierre Cardin.
Continue along the D109 for 5km till you reach Bonnieux. There are several restaurants here making this village a very good choice for lunch.
Before you leave what is the Luberon’s best known perched village, check out the great views of Lacoste and Mont Ventoux, Provence’s Bald Mountain, to the north. Leave Bonnieux on the D36 and after 5 km turn right onto the D943. Cross the Luberon Mountain before dropping down into the plus beau village of Lourmarin with its fine Renaissance Château. You can make a short excursion from here by continuing south on the D43 across the Durance to the Abbaye de Silvacane. This is one of the so-called ‘Three Sisters of Provence’ along with Sénanque and Thoronet.
Film set for ‘A Good Year’
Retrace your steps across the Luberon Mountain and turn left on the D36 to Bonnieux, take the D149 out the village heading towards the D900. You will pass the vineyards of the Château Canorgue, made famous by the movie ‘A Good Year’ starring Russell Crowe, on your right and eventually arrive at a traffic island. On the other side of the ‘rond-point’ park up, walk a few metres, and gaze in awe at the amazing Pont Julien which only recently closed to vehicular traffic. Back in the day, Pont Julien carried the Via Domitia over the Calavon River.
Now to Colorado and some giants!
Return to the rond-point and take D108, cross the the D900 and continue on the D108 for 4 km. Soon you will reach the amazing red Plus Beau Village of Roussillon and its strikingly beautiful Chaussée-des-Géants. The seam of ochre which makes everything red round here stretches east and, if you have time, follow the D227 to St-Saturnin-lès-Apt and then the D179 to the nearby grandly titled Le Colorado Provençal de Rustrel.
A final Plus Beau Village
Return via the pretty village of St-Saturnin-lès-Apt, follow the D2 for 17km and you will come to the striking village perché of Gordes your final Plus Beau Village of the trip. The best view of Gordes is on your right as you climb the hill. There is very limited parking both here and in the village itself.
The final attraction on this itinerary is the second of the three sisters, the Abbaye-de-Sénanque. If you can time your visit for late June you will be rewarded with one the most striking and well known views in the world as the lavender field before you is juxtaposed with the austere stonework of the Abbey.
If you enjoyed this route check out Paul’s Provence’s Best where you will find several more great itineraries!
Parks, Gardens & Open Spaces
Provence can boast several world renowned open spaces from the Camargue on the Rhône Delta in the West with its semi-wild horses, bulls and flamingos to the majestic Vaucluse Plateau in the North. Further east, the huge gash of the Grand Canyon de Verdon and eventually to the wilderness of the Mercantour in the East.
In between there are numerous smaller Parks like the Luberon Natural Park, the Alpilles and the magnificent Esterel between Fréjus and Cannes.
Due to the very mild climate along the Côte d’Azur, there are some splendid sub-tropical gardens. The most renowned are the Jardin du Val Rahmeh and Serre de la Madone at Menton, while just over the border into Italy are the Hanbury Gardens in the care of the University of Genoa.
Fans of the late Grace Kelly can visit a spectacular bronze statue of the lady at the Princess Grace Rose Garden at Fontvieille Park in Monaco.
More formal gardens can be found at the Monastery Garden at Cimiez. As a contrast the Parc Phoenix near Nice Airport is a recreational and horticultural haven in a busy location.
Right in the centre of Nice, next to the Vieux Ville is the restful and spacious Albert I Garden, just in the right spot for a quiet hour or so away from the bustle of the Promenade des Anglais.
Vaucluse and Bouches-du-Rhône
North of Aix, across the Durance River lies the Luberon Mountain which has its own Parc Naturel Régional. While it lacks the bulls and flamingos of the Camargue it is nevertheless a beautiful wild area. Enjoy forest walks, historic villages and an ochre massif with its Giant’s Causeway also known as Le Colorado Provençal and referred to above!
Food & Drink
Typically the food of the Région is locally sourced and consists of fresh vegetables, fruit and seafood – the so-called Mediterranean diet in fact. Tomatoes and olives play a big role in the cuisine and it has a well deserved reputation for being very healthy!
Restaurants, Brasseries, Auberges and other eating places
There are various categories of eating place in France ranging from posh restaurants to very basic eateries.
Restaurants can be found everywhere and open only at traditional meal times i.e. noon – 2pm and 7.30 – 10 or 10.30 pm. The food available ranges from haute-cuisine to regional dishes and best value is usually the set menu at lunchtime. Café Restaurants normally serve coffee or breakfast and Brasseries usually serve food throughout the day. Both are much less formal than the restaurant. The Auberge is found in the countryside and offers regional food and a place to stay should you need one.
Note that restaurants and other eating places are often closed on a Monday. Finally, if you’re very hungry and can’t find one of the above, then the local Bar will often be happy to sell you a delicious sandwich made from a fresh baguette with ham or cheese.
Some Regional Specialities
Perhaps the most well-known of Provençal dishes, Bouillabaisse (pronounced ‘Boo-yah-base’) is a delicious fish soup which originated in Marseille but variations can be found along the coast. The authentic version contains fish, scorpionfish, sea robin (gurnard), conger eel, herbs and spices and originated as a cheap meal for the fisherman who used fish leftover from the day’s catch for a cheap meal. No longer cheap like many such dishes, it is now quite expensive and often served as a main course to be shared between two.
A delicious thin flatbread made from chickpea flour, Socca is a favourite in Vieux Nice although it originated in Genoa and is popular all along the Ligurian coast. Also known as farinata, torta di ceci or cecini it is often eaten accompanied with a glass of chilled rosé. Originally it was a cheap filling breakfast dish for workmen. However, it has surprisingly remained relatively inexpensive and makes a very pleasant lunch.
Pissaladière also originating in Liguria, where it is known as Pissalandrea (Pizza all’Andrea), is really an Onion Tart made from bread dough, onions, olives, garlic and anchovies. Like Socca, it is really an Italian dish but the eastern corner of Provence was in fact Italian until 1860!
Wine and Pastis
The sunny climate of Provence is one of the reasons for its success as a tourist destination. Although it can get very hot in Midsummer, it is generally very pleasant from March till October. The far eastern corner around Menton enjoys a benign micro-climate which enables the locals to grow exotic plant species. During late February the various festivals are often bathed in warm sunshine. For more detail see the websites below.
Beware the Mistral or Master Wind!
The Mistral is a cold wind from Siberia. It blows down the Rhône Valley and affects anywhere between Marseille and St-Tropez. Usually occurring during Winter, it sometimes happens in Spring or even early Autumn lasting for 3, 6 or 9 days.
All words & images © Paul Shawcross