Provence state of mind
What does ‘Provence’ conjure up for you? A magical land of lavender, cicadas, shimmering heat, rugged mountains and troubadours? Superb old mas and bastides surrounded by olives and vineyards? Views across open countryside to a quaint little hilltop village in the distance? Fields of sunflowers? Romance? Or quite simply memories from family holidays to Provence as a child? These and many more are the images that this mythical land will bring to mind.
And yet, you may find this hard to believe but Provence doesn’t actually exist!
So, where is it?
There is no geographically determined boundary to this mythical land. It is not a Département, a Région nor even an ancient nation-state. There is the PACA Région – Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur – but this encompasses an area which is not all truly Provence. The busy Cote d’Azur with all its glitzy glamour is a world apart from traditional Provence where the pace of life is comparable to a donkey racing a Ferrari.
Provence is, essentially, whatever you want it to be. Look at a map of France and – very roughly – take the area south of Vallance, east of the Rhone and stretching all the way to the Italian border, forming the hinterland to the Cote d’Azur. This is what is generally recognised as ‘Provence’. It is a huge area and offers an equally varied landscape.
Areas to explore
Provence is home to some unforgettable locations, stretching down to the coast at Marseille and the gorgeous little town of Cassis which lies at the heart of coastal Provence. Cassis provides an excellent spot from where to visit the Calanques – fjords of stunning aquamarine waters, often only accessible by boat.
Around the beautiful town of Aix-en-Provence, on the other hand, the land is fairly flat and given over to agriculture. And then suddenly the magnificent Mont-St-Victoire rears up, the iconic image in so many of Cézanne’s paintings. Further east, in Haute Provence, the landscape is mountainous and quite rugged. Here you will find France’s own Grand Canyon – the Gorge de Verdon. Vultures wheel in the skies and the sun beats down on the peaceful Lac de St Croix.
Provence is also famous for its hilltop villages, or ‘villages perchés’. Take Roussillon, for example. The village is a rich blend of reds and oranges as the houses are decorated in ochre mined from the nearby hills. You can take a walk through the old ochre mines and see how industry and nature have shaped the landscape.
St-Rémy de-Provence, a little gem of a town, is located in the Alpilles which look like mini-mountains and also shelter such delights as Les Baux de Provence. This fortified hilltop village is just a stone’s throw from a superb son et lumière display in a disused quarry. The theme for 2019 is Van Gogh’s paintings – imagine his famous ‘Sunflowers’ projected on bare stone 30 feet high – breathtaking!
Gordes is possibly the most archetypically ‘provencal’ village in Provence. Its cobbled lanes and narrow ‘ruelles’ haven’t changed much in hundreds of years.
Bonnieux is also worth a visit with lots of cafés and restaurants to while away your time. There’s even a bakery museum here.
Things to do
Provence offers so much more than picturesque villages, good food and stunning landscapes. Provence’s varied history and architecture are world-famous. Avignon has its Pont, of course, but the real gem is the papal palace. The Old Port of Marseille is also well worth a visit. And don’t forget the wines. Provence is particularly famous for its rosés and a glass of chilled rosé with a little bowl of locally produced olives under the provencal sun is surely the way to paradise.
If you’re looking for something a little more active, then Provence offers a wealth of watersports. Most of the region is inland but you can find excellent lake bathing at Les Salettes, Le Paty at Caromb, and La Bonde at Cabrieres d’Aigues. Canoeing and kayaking on the Sorgue or the Rhone at Avignon make a superb day out for the family. Remember your hats and sun screen! Hiking and biking is available throughout the region, anything from a quiet evening stroll to a challenging day-long hike. Bikes can be hired at a variety of venues and you can choose from a leisurely ride through the vineyards to a strenuous trip up Mont Ventoux.
For the extremely adventurous, there is bungee jumping from Europe’s highest bridge poised over the Canyon of Verdon. Or canyoning, which involves plunging into rivers, abseiling down small cliff faces and tobogganing down natural water slides.
Everyone who comes to Provence wants to visit its markets – it’s a foodie paradise. Any village or town has its own but the best ones are the flower market in Nice, the Marché Forville in Cannes, the fish market in Marseille and the daily market in Place Richelme in Aix-en-Provence. See our guide to the food markets in Provence here. The region is obviously a great place to try the wine and eat in the restaurants. Local specialties are bouillabaisse – the fish soup from Marseille, the dessert Tarte Tropézienne from St Tropez and socca, the chickpea pancake from Nice.
Where to stay
Provence offers every type of solution for every type of tourist: from small boutique hotels on the coast to country houses in the countryside, small mountain resorts and wine cellars that host hospitality in exchange for labor.
Probably the best way to enjoy the scents and colors of Provence is to rent one of the many houses available for tourists scattered in the countryside, enjoying the mild and relaxing rhythms of this corner of France.
Whether in the vicinity of Aix-en-Provence or Gordes, rather than on the French Riviera or in hilltop villages, you will surely find the one that best suits your case on Emotional Escapes, a company that offers one of the most beautiful villas in Europe for rent.
So, Provence is anything you want to make it. Culturally rich, action-packed, offering superb cuisine and breathtaking landscapes. Provence is a state of mind!