This may seem a daft question…after all it is one of the most irresistible, and favorite, places in France to visit. Lavender fields; long lunches in pavement cafes; dappled olive groves and vineyards stretching into the distance; the deep blue of the Mediterranean, and lazy evenings watching the sunset. What’s not to like?
But because of its universal attractiveness, everyone has their own ideas of what is best about Provence. Here are a few of my suggestions; you will definitely have your own so please do join the conversation at the end!
So…Which part of Provence to visit?
That’s the first question to answer.
Provence is large…and varied, just part of the region technically called PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur), taking in the departments of Bouches du Rhône, Var, Vaulcuse, Alpes Maritimes, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Hautes Alpes.
But to most of us it’s really two different areas. The hinterland takes in Haute Alpes, Bouches du Rhône, Var, Vaulcuse and Alpes de Haute Provence.
Mediterranean Provence, which runs along the glorious blue sea from Menton to Marseille, takes in the Alpes-Maritimes as well as the coastal parts of the Var and the Bouches-du- Rhône.
The geographical differences are only really interesting to the pedantic and to the frustratingly complicated French bureaucracy. But the visitor sees the two regions as separate – each to be cherished for contrasting pleasures.
North East Provence
North east Provence borders the snow-capped peaks of the southern Alps and Italy where you can ski in the winter and hike in the summer through spectacular landscapes.
Lying between the Rhône and the Durance rivers, western Provence is the land of fruit, vegetables and vines ripening in the baking heat. The fertile landscape is punctuated by the beautiful range of Les Alpilles and the Dentelles; in total contrast, the south ends in the mysterious marshlands of the Camargue. The cities of Orange and Avignon dominate the Rhône valley.
Pretty hilltop villages built on stony outcrops bring the novels of Marcel Pagnol: Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources to life. The Gorges du Verdon, France’s answer to the Grand Canyon presents quite a challenge.
The south borders the Mediterranean with its famous resorts stretching from Nice to Marseille. It’s attracted the artistic, the dreamers, the great and the good in equal measure through the centuries and still does today.
So what are you looking for?
If it’s nature in all its glory…
…Hike through the Parc National de Mercantour or the Vallée des Merveilles in Haute Provence.
Take to the waters of the massive Gorges du Verdon – or just drive around the rim for a pretty impressive trip (not for those nervous about small roads and long drops).
Visit the weird and wonderful marshlands of the Camargue with its cowboys, wild white horses and flamingos. You can hire a horse if you’re an adventurous type.
…Or one of the glorious inland cities…
…Aix-en-Provence has to be on everybody’s favorite list. You’ll be seduced by its maze of medieval lanes, today full of bistros and bars, boutiques and cafes that invite you to sit down, order a coffee and watch the world go by. Paul Cézanne’s city is quite delightful.
…But have you been to Orange in west Provence? It’s a delightful small town with one of the best preserved Roman theatres in the world.
…And then there’s not-to-be-missed Avignon with its imposing Pope’s Palace, its strange bridge and great festivals.
…Hilltop fortified villages that dot the landscape
Walk the 20-minute stretch to the stunning waterfall, surprising in the area, in the sleepy village of Sillans-la-Cascade in the Haut-Var.
Standing high on a rocky outcrop in the Vaucluse looking out over the Luberon, Gordes is a gem of a village. Dominated by the 16th-century Château de Gordens it’s easy to see why it’s attracted artists in the past and chic Parisians today. Catch the Tuesday market.
Down near the Mediterranean, St-Paul-de-Vence is another of those idyllic little villages much loved by the likes of Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. The nearby Fondation Maeght is stunning architecturally and contains a great art collection. Then, if you can afford it, stay, or eat, at the famous La Colombe d’Or hotel.
Quintessential Provence…What not to miss
Venture out to the one of the great historic abbey such as Sénanques surrounded by the lavender fields that give Provence so much of its charm and identity.
Walk in the footsteps of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) in Aix-en-Provence then go out to Montagne Ste-Victoire to the east of Aix to see the mountain the artist painted so famously.
Swim in the Mediterranean at Nice in the morning then drive up to one of the ski resorts for an afternoon’s sport in winter.
Shop ’til you drop
South of France shopping is first and foremost about its markets. Don’t miss the covered market in Antibes, the Cours Saleya in Nice and the huge market in Vaison-la-Romaine every Tuesday morning.
If it’s antiques you’re after, check out the brocante markets in the main towns (the Tourist Offices will help here). But if you really are after antiques, check out the town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue just outside Avignon. It’s full of antique shops selling just about everything; there’s a weekend brocante fair plus the best known antique/brocante/any old rubbish fairs at Easter and mid August.
Look for Provence specialties
Lavender is everywhere: in sachets, in oil, in soap and in liqueurs. You can’t get away from lavender but why would you want to?
Provençal textiles fill the shops and the market stalls. Great for table cloths, napkins and to use as gift wrap.
Santons (little saints), terracotta figures are found throughout Provence and are part of Christmas. Unlike the rather more austere Protestant Nativity tradition, there are up to 55 characters from the fishwife to the chestnut seller. The best ones are hand-made and painted, so cost from around 35 euros upwards.
Mediterranean influences are dominant in the wonderful, and happily, healthy food of Provence. It starts with olives that you see growing in the stony soil of the region. Eat them with an aperitif or put them into sauces salads, pizzas and tapénades.
In restaurants, go for Provençal beef stew in winter and the freshest seafood in summer. Or order salt cod with aioli for that pungent garlic. Look out for cheeses such as Banon made from raw sheep’s milk and ripened in chestnut leaves, and St Marcellin .
And as for the wines…
Sitting on a terrace and sipping a glass of cool rosé is quintessential Provençal living though the area produces other good wines. Try Gigondas and the well known Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Weather in Provence
Provence has a great climate. The best months are May, June and September when it’s very warm but not as blisteringly hot as it can get in July and August when all you want to do is head to the beach. In winter there’s snow in the Alps, and sun in the Mediterranean.
How to get to Provence
Marseille Provence Airport north of Marseille serves west Provence and is also closer to Languedoc-Roussillon.
Nice-Côte d’Azur (NCE) serves east Provence and offers the best value due to the number of competing cheap flights.
Nice is also my favorite airport. You fly in along the Cote d’Azur above the blue sea where mega yachts move at what seems a stately pace. I try to spot landmarks like the Cap d’Antibes, then the curving Marina Baie des Anges block of apartments, then suddenly you’re very close to the sea and land on a spur of the airport. Step out and the heat hits you. Heaven!
Paris to Nice takes on average just over 8 hours; the fastest TGV trains take 5 hours, 47 minutes. The cheapest fares involve a change at Lyon Part-Dieu.
France is a big country so if you’re going by car, it’s best to stop over. Otherwise take the A6 and A7 (with tolls), taking around 9 ½ hours to drive the 932 kms (580 miles).
Only the adventurous, the impecunious or students take the coach from Paris to Nice. It can be done but takes a minimum of 13 hours. However, fares are from £22.
Check out Flixbus