travel guide

Provence, the beautiful region beloved by artists.

No part of France is more compelling than Provence, or richer in scenery, art, and the sense of history. The landscape has an epic and timeless quality, very Mediterranean. Hills terraced with vines and olives roll to blue horizons; the warm air is scented with jasmine or lavender; a lone cypress stands by an old stone barn, like a painting by Van Gogh, who loved this land so well.
The light is amazingly clear; the climate is dry and sunny in summer, and mild in winter (except when the Mistral blows in bitter gusts). Large parts of Provence are still surprisingly unspoilt, and not too expensive.

Provence takes in the six South East departements of France from Nimes to Italy . From pre-Roman times, Provence has known foreign intruders, but has always welcomed and assimilated them. The Romans left mighty remains – the aqueduct of the Pont du Gard, the theatres and amphitheatres of Arles, Nimes, and Orange. The people sometimes use their own ancient dialect, Provencal. Many ancient villages are perched on the crests of hills; the old houses have heavy stone walls, and a rich interior decor with tiled floors and dark polished wood.
The largest town, though not the most typical, is the great seaport of Marseilles, in some ways more eastern Mediterranean than French. The port, and le Corbusier’s skyscraper, are worth a visit. Aix, to the north, is a quiet university town and there are some good museums and stately 18th-cent. houses worth visiting.
The most inspiring part of inland Provence is the lower Rhone Valley around Avignon. Here is the ruined castle of Les Baux, where the troubadours paid court in the Middle Ages, sitting on the crest of its parched hills – it is as romantic a place as you will find anywhere. Aristocratic Arles glows with a sense of the past, and its dark-eyed girls really are as pretty as they are said to be. Avignon, with its famous bridge and its massive Palace of the Popes, is a chic and gracious town, the centre of France’s richest fruit-growing area. All around, the variety and interest seem inexhaustible. You can visit Daudet’s mill near Arles, or the surging Fountain of Vaucluse where Petrarch sighed for Laura.

Big new nuclear and hydroelectric systems have been developed in the River Rhone basin at Mondragon and Marcoule.  Close by however is the beautiful city of Orange, a city with an incredible rich history with remarkable Celtic fortifications and Roman monuments. Here too is the lovely River Ceze, where you can bathe in deep rock-pools. Bagnols-sur-Ceze, a dormitory town for the Marcoule nuclear workers, is a marvellous blend of old Provence and modern town-planning. In the hinterland lies the snowy peak of Mont Ventoux (6,2’73 ft, with a motor-road right to the top), and the gorges of the Verdon, 2,000 ft deep, the finest in Europe.

By contrast, the marshy plain of the Camargue, down by the Rhone Estuary, is one of the strangest corners of Europe – a nature reserve full of horses, bulls, flamingoes, and wild birds of all sorts: ideal for a riding or nature-study holiday. Its main town, Saintes Maries, is the centre of a big gypsy pilgrimage each May.
The long coast of Provence, from Marseilles via the naval base of Toulon to the Esterel, is in many ways pleasanter than the more famous stretch from Cannes via Nice to Menton. It is far less urbanized, and in many parts it is just as beautiful – notably the deep rocky coves west of the little fishing port of Cassis; the Cote des Maures, where wooded hills slope steeply to little bays; the Ramatuelle Peninsula; the strip north of Ste Maxime, where gaunt umbrella pines stand out on rocks beside the dazzling sea; and the weird coast of the Esterel, with its savage red cliffs.
Everywhere there are fine sandy beaches and delightful hotels, some not too expensive. The best resorts, small or medium-sized, for a family holiday are possibly Cassis, Bandol, Giens, Aiguebelle, Cavalaire, Ste Maxirrte, Les Issambres, Agay, Miramar, and Theoule.

Just inland there are some enchanting old Provencal hill villages. Examples are Bormes, Ramatuelle, Gassin, Grimaud; still largely unspoilt despite the vogue among film stars and intellectuals for buying up old houses and villas all around.  The only really fashionable resort on all this coast is St Tropez. Unlike Cannes or Nice, it is garish and bohemian, a tiny fishing port, thronged all summer with modish sophisticates. St Tropez is colourful and restless – and great fun.  If you want an experience even more bizarre, but also more contrived, go to the island of Bendor, near Bandol – owned and run by Paul Ricard, the aperitif magnate, as a kind of avantgarde holiday camp.

Fish soup in restaurant

Provencal cooking is rich and distinguished, strongly flavoured with olive oil, wild herbs, and garlic. It is a subtle blend of fishermen’s and mountain cooking. Of the fish dishes, the greatest is bouillabaisse (an elaborate fish stew, with garlic), followed by the somewhat similar bourride, and loup au fenouil (bass grilled with fennel).  All are expensive. Soupe de poissons (fish soup with garlic) and soupe de pistou (vegetable soup with garlic) are both much cheaper, and excellent. Beef or lamb are often succulently grilled with herbs on open wood or charcoal fires, or served marinaded in stews (beuf en daube and the rest). Ratatouille is an unusual vegetable dish. Fruit is plentiful – try the sweet pink Cavaillon melons. There are some excellent full-bodied wines from the lower Rhone Valley, both red (including Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas) and rose (Tavel). Some of the dry white wines from the coastal regions are also good – Cassis, Bandol, Pierrefeu, and many more.