Welcome to Provence
Provence is a vast region in France and in order to truly appreciate it, you need to be the type of traveler who likes food, wine and local crafts. You should make your own itinerary – and by the way: make it as flexible as possible because you will be “forced” to linger in a café more than you expected or visit a Roman ruin for a longer period of time.
Where is Provence?
Located in southern France, on the Mediterranean Sea, Provence has been identified as a geographical region since the days of the Roman Empire. The actual region is called Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, which covers a lot of territory. The western part of the region is bordered by the river Rhone and the Languedoc region, while the eastern part is bordered by Italy.
Language in Provence
Obviously, the official language is French; but many people in the region have an atypical accent. That’s because a long time ago French was studied only in schools, while the dialect spoken in Provence was Provençal. Many writers have tried to reintroduce the language and although it has almost disappeared, universities and some non-profit organizations offer courses. The names of the villages are printed both in French and Provençal.
How to get to Provence
The TGV – Train à Grande Vitesse (high speed train) – links the region with Lyon and Paris. The journey on this high speed train takes about four hours, more or less, depending on where you’re going or if you need to switch to local trains that operate within the region. Common getaway cities in the region are Aix-en-Provence and Avignon. Read about how to get from Paris to Avignon to give you a better idea of traveling to the region.
The (glorious, glorious) weather in Provence
Most of Provence has a Mediterranean climate, with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Snow is not very common at all, unless you’re up on a mountain top.
Within the region there are several micro-climates and local variations, such as the Alpine climate inland and the continental climate in northern Vaucluse.
Common in the region are the winds of Provence. The Mistral is a cold, dry wind which blows especially in the winter and often reaches high speeds. Ask people in Provence about the Mistral – they will tell you some freaky stories. There are many superstitions about the winds.
The easiest way to explore the region is to rent a car, if you want to visit the enchanting smaller Provençal villages that have made the region so very famous. You have the freedom to create your own itinerary without worrying you’ll linger in one place more than in others. But for everything else, local trains and bus lines can get you where you want to go.
Major cities in Provence include: Marseille, Avignon, Cannes and Nice.
Marseille is an important French city, known for its culture and history. There is a lot to do and see.
The major city landmarks include:
Old Port (Vieux Port), the main city harbor, guarded by two forts. Linger at one of the cafes which sit right on the waterfront.
Centre Bourse and the rue St Ferreol district are the main shopping areas in Marseille.
Musée d’Histoire, located in Centre Bourse, is the city’s history museum. Among other items you can see records from the Greek and Roman eras.
The Abbey of St Victor is one of the oldest Christian churches in France.
Stade Vélodrome, the home stadium of Marseille soccer team.
Avignon is another major city in Provence. The major city landmarks include:
Le Pont Saint-Benezet is a ruined bridge built in the Middle Ages.
Place du Palais and Place de L’horloge are generally crowded with tourists during summer and the prices are shocking for most tourists (as in shockingly expensive!)
Modern Art Museums houses artifacts from the Roman and pre-Roman period.
Cannes has been made popular by the international film festival baring the same name. However, there is more to Cannes than just glamour. The major city landmarks include:
The Old Town is filled with restaurants and souvenir shops which pop up on every narrow street.
Îles de Lérins are two islands in the bay. Ste Honorat, the smaller one, has a monastery and a ruin castle on it. The larger one, Ste Marguerite, also has a castle on it, as well as restaurants and shops.
It’s difficult to find a bad meal in France, let alone in Provence. A nice option is to go to a local market and buy some local produce – bread, cheese, olives, fruits, vegetables, wine – and then head out and have a picnic.
You’ll find only seasonal foods, and they’ll taste so fresh it’s like you’re eating them for the first time. A local favorite wine in Provence is the rosé. This wine is dry and light, just perfect to go with cheese and bread.
Things to do in Provence:
Boasting so many great sights, sounds and tastes, the only difficult part about deciding to take a trip to Provence could very well be deciding where to go and what to see. It is a sun-soaked region marked by azure Mediterranean waters and cobalt blue skies, fields of deep purple lavender, bright sunflowers, poppies, and olive and lemon trees, and was a famously favored region for impressionist painters like Van Gogh and Cézanne, who used the pervasive light and stunning palette of colors to paint their vivid landscapes.
The Provençal countryside and port of Marseille characterized by author and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol still holds true today —old men gathered in town squares playing pétanque; people clinking glasses of pastis in the shade of café terraces; market stalls with the season’s bounty from local farms; fish coming straight from the boat to Marseille’s fish market; Roman ruins and medieval cobblestoned villages.
It is no wonder Provence is one of the most popular areas to visit in France. But unlike some places that may not live up to all the hype, Provence deserves all of the accolades it receives. Since you could potentially fill a lifetime with exploring this diverse and colorful region, here is my list of the top 10 things to do and see in Provence. Since narrowing this list down to just 10 things was hard enough, I couldn’t bear trying to put them in any kind of order.
1. Stroll through Marseille’s Vieux Port and eat bouillabaisse
Marseille, being the second-largest city in France, is certainly not what many people picture when they envision quiet stone villages set among fields of lavender. It is big, gritty and rough’n’tumble, but don’t let its sometimes harsh exterior discourage you from making a visit.
Visitors to Marseilles should not miss heading to the Vieux Port area of the city, where you will find market stalls filled Provençal products, Moroccan-like souks, and a centuries-old fish market with its wares coming straight off the boats behind it. In Vieux Port’s Le Panier neighborhood, you’ll find narrow, winding streets and authentic shops. You’ll also find pedestrianzed shopping streets such as Rue St-Feereol.
Make sure you stop somewhere and get a steamy bowl of bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew containing different kinds of fish, shellfish and vegetables, flavored with a variety of herbs and spices such as garlic, orange peel, basil, bay leaf, fennel and saffron.
2. Visit the Palais des Papes and the famous the Pont d’Avignon
Avignon has long been one of my favorite cities in Provence. It has impressive and amazingly well preserved art and architecture, so it is not only picturesque, but also oozes history. The Papal Palace, which was home to several popes during the 14th century, boasts cavernous halls, beautiful grounds (picnic alert!) and is the largest Gothic palace in the world.
While Avignon is probably most noted for its famous bridge, Pont St. Benezet or the Pont d’Avignon, it is a vibrant city with an active student community, lots of history and makes for a great jumping off point for exploring the region.
3. Check out Roman ruins in the charming village of Saint-Remy-de-Provence
Located just 20 km south of Avignon, Saint Remy de Provence is a quaint, traditional Provençal village. Marked by Roman ruins (specifically the Triumphant Arch of Glanum), Saint Remy is a small, sleepy town with a whole lot of history. Not only was it once the site of a Roman city, it was also where Van Gogh was housed at the Monastery de Mausole when he was being treated (unsuccessfully) for his many psychiatric problems.
There is a beautiful town square in this usually sleepy town, which has a good selection of hotels, restaurants and shops. On Wednesdays, Saint Remy is home to a popular and bustling market. Stalls full of fresh produce (including melons grown in nearby Cavaillon), pottery and other Provençal goods fill the city. Though the atmosphere is lively and pleasant, if you’d prefer to avoid the crowds make sure you stay away from Saint Remy on Wednesdays in the high season.
4. Peep wild horses and flamingos in the Camargue Wetlands
The bleached, desolate landscape of the Camargue wetlands stands in stark contrast to the usually brightly colored scenery of Provence, but it should not be missed by visitors headed to this area of Provence. The marshes, salt plains and rice fields in this protected region are roamed by wild white horses, black bulls and pink flamingos. The 780-sq-km area at the Rhone River delta was created over thousands of years by sediment flowing from the river to the Mediterranean. Today the area is home to over 500 species of migratory birds.
This unique area is great to explore by bike, jeep or horseback. Make sure you wear lots of bug repellent as the marshes attract lots of mosquitos. While some of the flamingos here hang out year ’round, visit in the spring, summer or fall before thousands migrate to Spain and Senegal in search of warmer temperatures.
5. Visit the ancient stone village of Les Baux
Although one of the most visited spots in France, Les Baux is well worth braving the potential crowds of other tourists. It’s located about 25 km south of Avignon just past the small town of Saint Remy de Provence, sitting precariously on a 245-meter high limestone baou (which means rocky spur in Provençal). The unique, spectacular village has been home to humans since 6,000 BCE, and during the Middle Ages was home to the most powerful feudal lords in southern France.
The dramatic rocks and cliffs overlooking a valley full of olive groves and vineyards have long inspired authors and artists, and is even said to be the inspiration for Dante Aligheri’s descriptions of Purgatory in the Inferno. It is a truly spectacular spot and shouldn’t be missed on a trip to Provence.
6. Hike in the Gorges du Verdon and visit Moustiers Sainte-Marie
Also known as the Grand Canyon of Verdon, the plunging Gorges du Verdon is Europe’s deepest canyon, with oddly bright green waters flowing through the bottom. It’s 250m-750m deep and only 8m-90m wide. There is a great hike up this canyon, though not for those who have a fear of enclosed spaces. Also, bring a flashlight.
The drive to the beautiful Medieval town of Moustiers Sainte Marie is long and windy and can be very slow, but a visit to this charming village is well worth it and seems a million miles away from the 21st century.
7. Shop the markets at Isle sur la Sorgue
Often called the antiques capital of France, Isle sur la Sorgue sits on a winding set of canals and is home to the largest marché aux puces (flea market) in France outside of Paris.
Isle sur la Sorgue also has a great Provençal market every Sunday and Thursday, with stalls overflowing with fresh walnuts and olives; men in aprons slicing hunks from giant wheels of cheese; brightly colored produce spilling out of bins; and baguettes leaving crusty crumbs on tables. It has long been one of my very favorite markets in France.
Need Market Shopping Tips?
Shopping at France’s Markets
Markets in France: Tips to maximize your shopping experience
Make sure you bring a basket with you. I like this one!
8. Hang out at the beach and explore the Calanques at Cassis
Although not nearly as famous as its nearby Riviera neighbor, Cassis is just as delightful as St. Tropez with an equally beautiful town and beach defined by white limestone cliffs and sheltered inlets called calanques. It also has a lovely, wide sandy beach perfect for getting your tan on in the summer (of course in the French tradition, sans bikini top).
Cassis was an ancient fishing port and was rebuilt on the old ruins in the 18th century, resulting in a more regular layout than most other medieval villages. A walk through the old village streets will reveal well preserved old buildings, some dating back to the 16th century, and some restored with the colorful pastels of Provence. The picture-perfect harbor is dotted with masts and fishing boats. Although not an undiscovered beach town in France, Cassis tends to be less crowded than other Mediterranean cities and nearby Marseille.
9. Soak in the thermal springs and bask in lavender at Digne les Bains
While Dignes is a great place simply to soak up the beauty of the natural surroundings—from fields of lavender to nearby mountains—it is also a great place to soak in the thermal pools. Dignes les Bains is named for the supposedly curative thermal springs located here. Wild and cultivated fields of lavender carpet the mountains and plains around Dignes, and the town celebrates the harvest of the fragrant purple plant every year during a five-day festival the first weekend in August.
Located 2 km from Dignes center, you can soak in the thermal pools, cover yourself in mud and seaweed or soak in a lavender bath at the Etablissement Thermal. There is also a a great Provençal market in town on Wednesday Saturday mornings.
The best part of going to Dignes, however, very well could be getting there. The famous Train des Pignes (Pine Train) chugs along a narrow-gauge railway from Nice to Dignes. The train crosses through some of Provence’s most stunning mountain scenery, and is well worth a trip to Dignes les Bains.
10. Watch bull fighting in Arles
Although the narrow, winding streets, stone squares and colorful houses may look oddly familiar from many Van Gogh paintings, Arles’ historic roots date back far further than the days of the famous impressionist painter. Arles was the site of a Celtic settlement, a Greek colony and later a Roman city, so it is easy to imagine that this Provençal city is bursting at the seams with history and culture.
The city boasts a 20,000-seat Roman amphitheatre, which once hosted gruesome gladiator battles and now stages corrida (bullfighting), which sends the entire city into a fervor when the bull-fighting season begins each spring
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