Provence has been described as ‘the most irresistible area in France’.
Certainly it’s an area that expands over a vast range of regions and lays claim to a great diversity of lovely landscapes. Its boundaries extend from the Southern Alps to the South Western plains of the Camarague, and features famous cities such as Avignon, Aix-en Provence, and Arles.
Provence also lays claim to Europe’s greatest canyon, namely the Grand Canyon du Verdon – described as ‘one of the most spectacular sights in France’.
Archaeological sites, likewise, mingle with scenic sites of exceptional beauty.
And it is an area that has consistently attracted – and inspired – both artists and writers.
Considered to be one of Provence’s top attractions is the ‘Palais des Popes’, based in Avignon, which is described as being ‘a monument to the immense power of the papacy in the Middle Ages’. For, during the 14th century, the papacy was transferred to France, and Avignon became ‘the religious, political and cultural centre of Christendom’ for a period of 68 years. And it took more than 20 years to build the Papal Palace, with the ‘Old Palace’ being designed in Cistercian style, and a ‘New Palace’ being added in Gothic Style. As a result these combined towers and stone walls soar to a height of 165 feet above the town centre.
Avignon’s other claim to fame is its internationally renowned annual brilliant summer ‘Festival d’Avignon’, which takes place over a three week period in July, and attracts as many as 200,000 visitors every year. And it was during its festival in the year 2,000 that it was accorded the title of ‘European Cultural Capital’.
Avignon also has a number of museums, the Musee Calvet being regarded as the most famous. The city’s other museums include Musee Requien, Musee Lapidaire, Musee Vouland, and Musee Angladon-Dubrujeaud.
Aix-en-Provence, which is referred to as a ‘mini-Paris’, is described as an elegant town, and it features many museums and historic edifices. The town was the capital of independent Provence for 300 years prior to its unification with France. And nearby Mont Sainte-Victoire, which soars to 3,300 feet, fascinated artist Paul Cezane to such a degree that he painted it more than 60 times! Paul Cezane lived in Aix-en-Provence throughout most of his life, and he’s claimed to have painted hundreds of oil and watercolour scenes of his home town.
The city of Arles – once considered one of the most important provincial cities of the Roman Empire - is also referred to a ‘Roman Arles’, and its appearance was designed to resemble a ‘miniature version of Rome’. And it’s claimed that its ‘splendid arena still evokes the age of Caesar’. In fact, it’s considered to be ‘one of the most spectacular Roman relics in Provence’, and has two floors of arches and seats for 20,000 spectators. And the Musee d’Archaeologique d’Arles is said to have the finest collection of Roman sculpture in the whole of Provence.
The town of Vaison-la-Romaine also features ‘a treasury of archaeological finds’. Here can be located the ‘Theatre Antique’, which has ‘34 semi-circular rows of stone benches ascending to a columned portico’. And, in addition, a part ruined castle stands at the highest point of the town, which was built in 1160.
Provence’s ‘Grand Canyon du Verdon’ is justifiably called ‘one of the most spectacular sights in France’. By cutting deep into the rock, the Verdon River has created numerous gorges that are 15 miles long and 2,300 feet deep. Bright blue in places, yet frothing white when it roars through the rapids underneath the limestone cliffs, the Verdon is said to ‘flow south into the turquoise water of the ‘Lac de Ste-Croix’. Even in photographic form the scene is a stunning sight. And to view it in reality represents a breathtaking experience.
And considered to be one of the best vantage points from which to view the gorge is an elevated spot called ‘Point Sublime’, which is situated near a village known as Rougon. From here a path leads down to the canyon itself, where it’s possible to explore the tunnels.
Likewise, a drive along the seemingly vertical ‘Routes des Cretes offers visitors what is described as ‘unbeatable vertiginous views’ across the canyon. And on the west shore of the Lac de Ste-Croix, at Ste-Croix Village, it’s even possible to hire electric motorboats, windsurfing boards and catamarans and take to the turquoise waters in person.
If one wants to explore the terrain ‘on foot’ then La-Palud-sur-Verdon on the north side of the Grand Canyon is the place to head for to take part in ‘walking expeditions’. From here too it’s possible to do some ‘white-water rafting and kayaking’ on the rapids. A longer walking tour can also be undertaken from Le Palud to Point Sublime. Referred to as the Martell Trail, this is likely to take about eight hours, and involves crossing narrow passes and fording sheer cliffs.
Within reach of the Grand Canyon lies the small market town of Castellane - through which the Verdon flows en route to the Grand Canyon. Here one can locate both overnight accommodation and restaurants. Likewise, the village of Rougon, which lies close to Point Sublime, has an inn called Auberge that serves food, and which has a terrace that overlooks the peaks of the Canyon de Verdon.
The small village of Trigance too is a favourite ‘stopping off point’ for anyone exploring the Grand Canyon area for here can be found the Chateau de Trigance, a small ten roomed chateau, originally built in the 10th century, and since restored, which is now a hotel and possesses a highly recommended restaurant.
Of particular interest as well is the village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, through the middle of which a stream runs, and which offers a spectacular view of the Gorges du Verdon from the 12th century church of Notre-Dame-de-Beauvoir.
Surrounded by spectacular purple lavender fields, the Abbaye de Senanque is a definite ‘must see’ on most tourists’ sightseeing itineraries. The Cistercian abbey itself is considered to be a remarkable example of Romanesque religious architecture, while its stunning surroundings of vivid lavender fields projects a particularly picturesque image – from which emanates an aura of serene tranquillity.
Described as ‘the flattest land in France’, the south western plains of the Camargue comprise a 200,000 acre zone of lagoons, salt flats and marshes. Referred to as ‘remote, romantic and rich in bird life’, this unique landscape is also a ‘protected area’. And it’s officially known as ‘Parc Natural Regional de Camargue’.
Mention The Camarque and visions of roaming black bulls, white horses and pink flamingoes instantly spring to mind.
The area also abounds with sea birds, water fowl, birds of prey, wild boars, beavers,
badgers, tree frogs, water snakes and pond turtles. And its terrain includes a rich flora of reeds, wild iris, tamarisk, wild rosemary and juniper trees.
Here too are to be found Europe’s only ‘cowboys’ – known as ‘guardiens’ – who are seen galloping across the flat land astride their white horses. Paradoxically, the Camargue horses only become white when they reach adulthood for they are virtually black in colour when they are born.
In the south-eastern region of The Camargue lie the spectacular Salt Pans, regarded not only as the largest salt pans in Europe but also as one of the biggest salt works in the world, and which cover a region of 26,000 acres and produce 800,000 tons of salt a year.
The Salt Pans can be seen from a ‘viewing point’ that has been set up south of an area known as Salin-de-Grand. And it’s claimed that if it is sunny, they appear to shine in a red glow.
On the western point of the same peninsula lies the ‘Plague de Beauduc’, referred to as ‘the beach at the end of the world’. But despite the wildness of its location, it lays claim to two fish restaurants!
Potential explorers of The Camargue are recommended to visit the ‘Gines Information centre’ at Pont-de-Gau, where the area’s exceptional natural environment is explained, and displays showing aspects of its vegetation are given. Here too there is a ‘panoramic window’ that overlooks local birdlife in the wild. And adjacent to the Information Centre is a bird park known as ‘Parc Ornithologique du Pont-de-Gau’, where there are aviaries dotted around two acres of marshland housing birds that are not easy to identify in the wild.
The Camargue also has a museum which is known as Musee Camarguais, and which is a converted barn located in Mas du Pont de Rousty, and which features man’s ‘interaction with nature’in The Camargue.
It’s claimed that during the summer months the little old seaside village of Les-Saintes-Marines-de-la-Mer attracts many visitors. Situated on the south western coast of the The Camargue peninsula, its lays claim to some spectacular belltowers, and also has a museum known as Musee Baroncelli which features a collection that relates to Camargue animal life and folklore.
Provence’s coastal venues embrace a variety of different types of resorts which range from secluded coves to world famous beaches such as St. Tropez.
St. Tropez – initially known as a ‘congenial fishing village with a pretty harbour’ – is now world renowned, and is referred to as ‘the place to see and to be seen on the Provencal coast’.
Long before the influx of tourists, it’s claimed that the ‘fishing village’ had already enthralled a generation of painters. And it’s also claimed that despite being described as ‘a world famous mecca for the rich and famous’ St. Tropez has retained much of its original charm. In particular, it is said that the market place known as Place des Lices is probably now one of the best known village squares in the world, yet it remains the venue where ‘local’ markets are staged on two days of the week. And, with its open-air cafes that are shaded by plane trees, it is still considered to be the perfect place to relax.
St. Tropez’s transformation from being an unknown fishing village to a ‘holiday hotspot’ is attributed to the many painters and writers who fell in love with the place. Later it attracted the attention of the film industry and Brigette Bardot is said to have been one of the stars who became its ‘ultimate symbol’.
Provence lays claim to many areas of natural beauty, one of which is ‘Parc National du Mercantour’, which extends over 270 square miles – and is considered to be Europe’s largest park. And its rocky slopes are inhabited by several rare animal species, while golden eagles and the rare lammergeier vulture are said to have been seen soaring above the area.
Another Provence beauty spot is the ‘Parc Naturel Regional du Luberon’. Known for its wild mountain beauty, the park covers 375,000 acres. Its moorland area, cedar forest, chalk hills and river gorges are said to provide shelter for wild boars, eagles, owls and beavers. Those wishing to walk within the park are recommended to call at the park’s headquarters, based in nearby Apt, where they can be provided with guidance and relevant information about the area.
A particularly spectacular Provencal beauty spot is Mount Ventoux, which is described as ‘a lonely peak’. It rises to a height of 6,300 feet and is said to give the impression of seeming to ‘guard the gateway to the region of Provence’. Its topmost slopes are referred to as the ‘desert de pierre’ (stone desert).
And these slopes are swathed in snow throughout the winter months, while during the summer the summit is described as being ‘arid chalk’. Referred to as ‘the bald headed Giant of Provence’, Mount Ventoux is said to have inspired poets, mystics and botanists for centuries. In fact, it’s claimed that its summit commands ‘the most stunning panorama in Provence’.
Tourists who are fascinated by ‘dinosaurs and fossils’ always head for the ‘Reserve Geologique de Haute-Provence’, a park that’s situated in the limestone country near Digne. Described as the largest of its kind in the whole of Europe, it covers 730 square miles of rock and is claimed to be ‘rich in fossils from ancient seas and tropical forests dating back 300 million years’!
Vineyards and distilleries abound in Provence. And regarded as being among some of the top regional wines are ‘Chateauneuf-du-Pape’, ‘Cotes-de-Provence’. ‘Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence’, ‘Cotes du Ventoux’, ‘Cotes du Luberon’, and ‘Cotes-du-Rhone Villages’.
The area’s regional food specialities, likewise, are numerous, and include: ‘Bouillabaisse’ – a fish dish of up to six species; ‘Salade Nicoise’ – composed of hard-boiled eggs, anchovies and olive oil; ‘Pistou’ – a thick soup of white and red kidney beans, pasta and vegetables, flavoured with basil, garlic and olive oil; ‘Pied et Paquets’ – lamb’s feet and stuffed sheep’s stomach in white wine; and ‘Daube’ – Beef or Wild Boar marinated and simmered in red wine, herbs and garlic.
Provence, in fact, would seem to be an area that caters for all tourists’ tastes, be they food, drink, cities, historic sites, scenery, quiet villages, walking tours, beautiful beaches – both less known and well known, and serene sites where total peace is guaranteed.
And reaching Provence embraces numerous options. To reach eastern Provence one can fly to Nice, while one can fly to Marseille to reach central Provence. And there is also an airport at Nimes, which lies just beyond Provence’s western border. It is also possible to travel by train, by Motorail, or even by road from the Channel Ports.
But whatever one’s means of transport, Provence is guaranteed to represent a ‘never to be forgotten’ French tourist destination
Roberta Crookes has worked as a newspaper journalist throughout most of her life, writing news stories, editorial features, advertisement supplements, and reviews. And in the course of her work she has interviewed many famous people from all walks of life. She has also managed to combine parallel careers in both journalism and acting, and, being Welsh speaking from North Wales, her main television featured parts have been Welsh language roles with BBC Wales.