France is a country that is comprised of several regions – each with its own unique history and culture – and Provence is one of the most distinct of these regions. With its varied scenery, its different weather patterns, its diverse cities and villages, this large territory in southeastern France can almost claim to offer the attractions of an independent country. Yet for all its individuality, Provence lays claim to some of the most familiar associations we all have with France. For example, the song “Sur le pont d’Avignon” or Van Gogh’s famous French landscape paintings and the Cannes Film Festival. For many centuries, travelers, artists and writers alike have been drawn to Provence, and whether you have come to enjoy its stimulating ambiance or restful atmosphere, its historic cities or picturesque villages, its untamed mountains or cultivated terrain, its indigenous cuisine or legendary drinks, you will find Provence a most fascinating destination!
The historic region of Provence forms the largest part of the now official administrative region known as Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, which covers an area of some 8,500 square miles, roughly the size of the American state of Massachusetts and just a bit smaller than the island of Sardinia. Contemporary Provence extends from the Rhône River on the west to the Italian border on the east, and from the Mediterranean Sea near Marseille up to above Orange, France in the west and then diagonally northeast over to the French Alps at about the same latitude as Turin, Italy. The land to the west is dominated by the Rhône River and its delta, especially that part known as the Camargue; virtually an island, this vast plain is surrounded by marshes and sandbars, and is the home of some 400 species of wild birds, including the greater flamingo, as well as the bulls, steer, and horses raised by the inhabitants.
Maritime Provence refers to its relatively narrow Mediterranean coastal strip from Marseille to the Italian border and includes not only Provence’s major commercial cities, the great ports of Marseille and Toulon, but also the luxury resorts of the Côte d’Azur and the independent principality of Monaco. The rest of Provence, usually referred to as Interior Provence, includes large areas conducive to agriculture, including wine grapes, and more mountainous areas assigned to sheep rearing. Although there is naturally some variation in the climate across this large region, it can generally count year-round on clear light, blue skies, and lush vegetation, ideal summer weather in the interior, and especially mild winters along its Mediterranean coast.
Provence also boasts of an indigenous cuisine that visitors will want to at least sample. The best known of these dishes is the bouillabaisse, the wonderful seafood soup credited to Marseille, with its assortment of fish, vegetable, herbs, and seasoning. It is imitated around the world, but can never match the real thing served in Marseille. Daube is a beef-based stew with a variety of vegetables and herbs. Ratatouille, with its mix of several fresh vegetables all stewed together, is said to have originated in Nice, but has also been widely adopted across France. So too has tapenade, a chopped olives spread with capers and olive oil. Aioli is a thick sauce made with olive oil, egg yolk and garlic, traditionally served with a fish soup or potatoes and cod. Another such sauce is known as Oursinade. There are also the traditional breads of Provence – fougasse for one, the socca of Nice, la pissaladière of Nice – and the specialty pastries such as tarte Tropézienne. As an aperitif before such foods, you may like to try, the anise-flavored pastis, but there is no end to Provence’s wine that can be enjoyed with these meals.
Provence is filled with historic attractions, contemporary sights, and beautiful natural landscapes. No matter where you travel to in the region, you will surely be treated to tasty regional meals, and marvel at the colorful, idyllic landscape. Below we have singled out only the major cities, beginning with two coastal cities, but keep in mind that Provence is dotted with several beautiful picturesque villages that are well worth a visit.
Marseille and Toulon
The two great port cities of Marseille and Toulon are now an almost united industrial complex; each has its own role in French history and each has its major buildings. Toulon is France’s major naval base and has preserved its old fortifications, but as a bustling commercial-industrial center, it is not all that appealing to the casual visitor. The port of Marseille, now the second-largest city in France, hosts both commercial and passenger ships and is also a major industrial city. Although it is arguably one of the oldest cities in France, it has few remains from its past – mostly 19th century buildings like the celebrated housing complex, designed by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, called Unité d’Habitation. Marseille is definitely one of the most cosmopolitan cities in France!
Avignon is probably best known today for its summer festivals of music theater, dance and cinema, although many may remember it from a song about its 12th-cenury bridge which still stands today, and officially called Pont Saint-Bénézet. Because it was briefly the seat of the Catholic Church’s Papacy, there are many fine buildings and massive 14th century ramparts, including an old quarter with narrow and crooked streets, and fine old houses. Now a center of trade, Avignon remains a city dominated by its historic past and contemporary culture.
A lovely and lively old city, Aix-en-Provence was founded by the Romans in the Middle Ages. Effectively the capital of Provence and the center of Provencal culture and literature, to this day it attracts many painters and other artists. Among its many handsome buildings are the 11th-15th century Cathedral of Saint-Sauveur and the 15th century Church of the Madeleine. Although it is now a relatively busy commercial center, its still rural environs and typical Mediterranean climate make this city a most attractive destination.
A flourishing town under the Romans, Arles today draws many visitors especially to its well-preserved Roman theater and its Roman arena that seats 26,000 spectators and is today used for bullfights. Arles was virtually an independent city throughout the Middle Ages, only fully joining France after the French Revolution. It has several fine buildings from the medieval era, in particular the 11th-15th century Romanesque Church of Saint Trophime. In the 19th century, Arles was the center of the movement to restore the Provencal language and culture, and is a city that attracted many artists including van Gogh and Gauguin. It is also known as the entry point into the Camargue, a vast natural preserve with ponds and wetlands where horses and bulls are raised.
With a population of approximately 30,000, Orange is a charming town in Provence with lovely cobblestoned pedestrian roads, plazas, and fountains. Its name, strangely enough, comes from the Dutch House of Orange who gained possession of the land through marriage in 1566. Orange is well known because of its remarkable Roman remains, including an amphitheater so well preserved that it is still used today, and a triumphal arch – both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and considered among some of the most impressive Roman remains still standing in Europe.
If you have some extra time you might like to visit Grasse some 15 miles north of Cannes. The longtime capital of the French perfume industry, it’s an interesting old town located on the slopes of the Alpes-Maritimes, surrounded by fields of flowers and fruit trees. Grasse suffered major destruction during two conflicts, but it has preserved most of its important buildings, including its 12th century Gothic cathedral called Notre-Dame-du-Puy, as well as an old quarter with winding streets. Its climate has made it a lovely health resort, and of course if you have a special interest in perfumes, you can tour the various perfume producers.
Route 1: Natural Provence: The East
If you have dreamt about visiting the Provence that evokes the image of an idyllic retreat – a gentle landscape, soothing sunshine, and subtle scents – this route is a perfect introduction. Provence in recent years has gained the reputation of a sort of escapist’s paradise – picturesque, carefree, and timeless. The good news is that this does exist in the large eastern region of Provence.
During this excursion you can expect to stop and enjoy many beautiful of natural environments, to drop in and out of picturesque villages, and to try different local foods and wines. For this route, you should begin from Marseille and will need to have a vehicle. From Marseille proceed north some 52 miles/85 kms to the city of Orange, itself a fascinating city, but wait to explore it in Route 2 outlined below. The first destination on this route is the Mont Ventoux or “windy mountain” some 25 miles/40 kms due west; it dominates the region, and provides a grand view from its peak although driving to the top. It is important to note that, although beautiful, it can be quite windy and chilly and involves a very steep incline.
Alternatively, head straight southeast 65 miles/105 kms to the region known as The Luberon, with picturesque villages distinguished by stone structures scattered among the hills and valleys. En route you will pass through the village of Roussillon, famed for its reddish stone and earth that has been used in building the local homes and for pottery. Move along a few kilometers from Roussillon to the regional capital of Apt, a trip of some 50 miles/80 kms. Since much of this region has been designated as Natural Parks, you will continuously be driving through rich natural environments; for example the Natural Park of Luberon that has diverse fauna and flora, and is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. From here head through Manosque, then north via La Brillanne and on to Peyrus across the Durance River to Les Mées and proceed east to Digne-les-Bains, an old spa town. From here head south approximately 25 miles/40 kms to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, one of the more delightful villages on this route, famed for both its setting and its faience pottery.
Here you are also on the edge of one of Europe’s natural wonders, the Verdon Gorge whose depths reach 700 meters/2,300 feet. Since your excursion is coming to an end, you have two choices on how to continue: driving along the north side, the Route des Gorges and Route des Crêtes, or along the south side, called the Corniche Sublime. Both options are quite spectacular, and both roads do actually meet just east of the gorge, but we’ll leave it to you to decide which route you’d like to take. Since it’s been a long day, you may like to rest at one of the several towns in the area like Castellane to the northeast, Trigance to the southeast, or Aiguines or Monasque to the west.
Route 2: Urban Provence: The West
Western Provence is just as enticing and celebrated as the eastern side, but definitely more centered around its historic cities. A good place to start is Marseille, one of Europe’s oldest seaports and today the second largest city in the country. Marseille is a major industrial city whose harbor hosts both commercial and passenger ships from all over the world. Although one of France’s oldest cities, Marseille has few remains from its past and mostly 19th century buildings like the Unité d’Habitation – the celebrated housing complex designed by the Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier. Admittedly, not everyone enjoys such busy and noisy cities, but everyone should make at least a quick visit to see one of the world’s most diverse populations. Be sure not to leave without treating yourself to its famous fish soup called bouillabaisse.
Heading east along the coast is the city of Toulon, France’s major naval base and a bustling commercial-industrial center. Although not very appealing to the casual visitor, it is noteworthy for its well-preserved old fortifications. Also appealing is the Calanques National Park with its rocky promontories at the edge of Marseille, or the nearby small port town of Cassis.
To begin the main part of your exploration, from Marseille head north 22 miles/35 kms to Aix-en-Provence, one of the loveliest and liveliest cities in France. Essentially the capital of Provence and the center of Provencal culture and literature, to this day, Aix-en-Provence has attracted many painters and other artists; Cézanne was born and died here and the mountain at the edge of the city is the Montagne Sainte-Victoire where he frequently painted. Among its many handsome buildings are the 11th-15th century Cathedral of Saint-Sauveur and the 15th century Church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine. There is a university, founded in 1409, and a mineral-springs spa. Although Aix-en-Provence is now a relatively busy commercial center, its still rural environs and sub-tropical climate make it a most attractive city to visit.
Moving on, head west approximately 40miles/64 kms to Arles. A flourishing town under the Romans, Arles draws many visitors, because of its well-preserved Roman theater, and Roman arena that seats 26,000 – today used for bullfights. Arles was virtually an independent city throughout the Middle Ages and only fully joined France after the French Revolution. It has several fine buildings from the Medieval era, in particular the 11th-15th century Romanesque Church of Saint Trophime. In the 19th century, Arles was the center of the movement to restore the Provencal language and culture, and artifacts of that culture are on display in the 16th century mansion that also serves as a museum of pagan and early Christian art. Arles was also the city that attracted van Gogh and Gauguin; van Gogh spent the last 3 years of his life here and painted many of his most famous works here. Arles also serves as the entry point into the Camargue, the vast natural preserve with ponds and wetlands where horses and bulls are raised. Bullfights take place on select dates from spring into September in Arles and the Camargue.
From Arles head north some 25 miles/40 kms to Avignon, probably best known today for its summer festivals of music theater, dance and cinema. Many may also remember the name Avignon from the famous song “Sur le pont” that is about its 12th-cenury bridge that is actually still standing today. Avignon was the seat of the Papacy from 1309 to 1377 during the Catholic Church’s Great Schism and then the residence of the Antipopes from 1378 to 1409. These Popes left many fine buildings, chief of all the great 14th century Gothic Papal Palace, used as a residence, place of worship, and fortress. Today Avignon is known for its Mediterranean fruit trade, as well as its famous Côtes du Rhône wine.
If you can tear yourself away from Avignon, proceed north again some 20 miles/32 kms to Orange. Just before Orange you’ll pass through the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, famed for its red wines. Orange is yet another city in Provence that draws visitors to see its Roman remains including a triumphal arch and an amphitheater that dates to 120 AD that is so well preserved that it is still used. Although in the center of agriculture, its name, strangely enough, comes from the Dutch House of Orange that gained possession through marriage in 1566 – it is the same family as that of William of Orange who ruled England at the end of the 17th century.
Provence’s history dates back to approximately 6000 BC when it was inhabited by primitive tribes. By 700 BC, traders from Greek-speaking colonies from around the Aegean began establishing colonies at Antipolis (Antibes), Nikaia (Nice), and Massilia (Marseille), and by approximately 600 BC, Celts began to migrate to the region, adding to the non-Mediterranean population at the time.
After centuries of Celtic domination, the region that is now Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur was first colonized by the Romans, bringing an age of prosperity to the area. With the fall of the Empire and the ensuing chaos, the area faced more unstable changes, until the Frankish Merovingian and then Carolingian were installed on the throne of the Franks. These kings contested rule in the area, with numerous invasions being repelled from what they saw as prime farmland and estates.
Avignon, one of Provence’s large cities, holds the singular title of being a formal papal seat. Pope Clement V moved the official seat of the papacy to Avignon from Rome in 1309, and was the seat of numerous popes during the Great Schism. The architecture in the area is extensive with Italian and Arabian touches, as not only the papacy but Berbers from North Africa took an interest in the region.
Provence, along with much of the southern coast, was part of unoccupied France during World War II and thus was spared from widespread destruction of the war. Today Provence is one of the world’s most sought after travel destinations.