Beautiful beaches, wondrous wetlands, picturesque parks, calming countryside, fabulous food, titillating towns, scintillating shopping, and wizard wines; just a few of the associations with the beautiful region of Provence. Can you believe you only need to fly just over an hour to reach this culture-rich region?
The region of Provence is part of the region called Provence-Alpes-Cote D'Azur. This region is part of the most south-eastern in France adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea and only one Département away from the border of Italy.
The region of Provence-Alpes-Cote D'Azur is broken into the Départements Var, Vaucluse, Bouches-du-Rhone, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Alpes-Maritimes, and some of Hautes-Alpes. Many people still know this region simply as Provence as epitomised in the books by Peter Mayle, that many of you may have read, or indeed, have that pleasure to come.
Provence is famous the world over for its colourful landscapes and its relaxed way of life, and its tantalising regional produce and cuisine. The region still retains a strong cultural identity, most evident in its year-round events calendar. Whether you are a newcomer or old hand Provence has plenty to offer everyone young or old.
Evocative of Provence may be the lavender fields or the Mont Saint Vincent so often painted by Cézanne. Also synonymous within the region are the olive trees, sunflowers, and the dry rocky coastline with its scented stunted pine trees and the air filled with the chi-chi-chi with the cacophony of cicadas (crickets).
If you're looking for a beach holiday in Provence, look no further than the glorious beaches of the Mediterranean! Not only does this region experience approximately 300 sunny days per year, but there is something for everyone; quiet family beaches, lively sporting beaches, naturist beaches, and many more.
The beach of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is set among the sand dunes of the Camargue and has beautiful white sandy beaches. It is located near the Étang de Vaccares (also in the Camargue) and the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer has a fortified church to which gypsies make pilgrimages in May. The pilgrimage is to salute the arrival of Mary Magdalene in 18 AD.
Marseille, although more famous for its harbour, gorgeous architecture and tourist attractions such as museums, hosts several splendid beaches. After the harbour is the Plage des Catalans with its long expanse of sandy beach and convenient close proximity to the centre of Marseille. The next expanse of beach is Plage du Prophete which is slightly less busy and protected by a breakwater so more suitable for young families. Following beaches include Plage du Roucas Blanc (sailing and canoe centre), Plage Planches a Voile (excellent for wind-surfing), Plages Borély and Bonneveine (bars, clubs, restaurants), and finally Plage de la Vieille Chapelle (pebble beach).
The picturesque beaches of the port town of Cassis, with its white cliffs and splendour, rival those of St Tropez but at less than half the price! They are kept beautifully clean and are said to be the best kept secret of the French Riviera. The main beach is Plage de la Grande Mer which is beautifully sandy but often very busy. Plage du Corton and Plage de l'Arene are both rocky beaches so perfect for snorkelling.
The Calanques is said to be one of the best attractions (beach-wise) of this region with its impressive limestone cliffs and abundance of pine trees. Calanques are narrow inlets formed by the sea. The area is very unspoilt owing to the difficulty in getting heavy machinery to the beaches (easiest way to reach the beaches is by boat) and the flora and fauna is plentiful (and rare). Two of the most beautiful beaches of this area are Port Pin and d'En-Vau. To visit these dramatic beaches, boat tickets may be purchased at the harbour at Cassis.
The Camargue is famous for its wetlands and sand dunes with its unique collection of flora and fauna. If you would like to marvel over flamingos, herons, egrets, ibises, white horses and many other breeds of wildlife, make sure you pack your binoculars and camo-gear because you're in for a treat as it has been designated a "Wetland of International Importance".
As mentioned above, roaming this area are the famous white horses and they represent one of the oldest breeds in the world and have existed in the area since prehistoric times. The horses are best described as semi-wild and live in small herds consisting of one stallion, his mares and foals. They are born either black or brown, but turn grey with maturity at around four to five years. An adult stands between 13 - 14 hands. They are protected under French law.
Because of the abundance of brine shrimps and brine flies in the Carmargue they supply the main source of food for many birds including the flamingo. The flamingos often feed in the company of avocets and black and white waders and make a truly inspiring site especially when in flight.
The Camargue is over 360 square miles in area and around a third of this is lakes or marshlands. The largest saltwater lake (known as an Etang in French) in the Camargue is the Etang de Vaccares. If you are interested in this area, you would do well to visit the National Nature Reserve where the public may walk as far as the sea dike. There is an information centre at the zone of la Capeliere which would be a good first stop.
Two marvellous ways to tour the Camargue are by horseback or Jeep Safari. Horse riding, or equitrekking, is available all around the Camargue area, but some good places to try are Cap Rando (in business for over 26 years) in Mas de Recaute, La Cabane du Daladel in Aigues-Mortes and Ranch Aventure in Aigues-Mortes. Jeep Safaris are plentiful and can be booked mainly in Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer. For a jeep safari company in Arles, you could try Camargue Decouverte or Safari 4x4. Other excellent ways to view the Camargue are on foot , hiking, or on bicycles. Look at the links below for the tourist offices to find out more.
Restaurants and bars are bountiful in the Camargue with the two most popular destinations being Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and Aigues-Mortes. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is another good alternative and is approximately a 30 minute drive from the Camargue. There really is no shortage of things to do in the Camargue. Check out the tourist offices in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and Arles for more information on how to plan your trip.
There are many national parks in this stunning region, including Parcs Naturel Regional des Alpilles, de Camargue, du Luberon, du Verdon, des Ecrins, du Queyras and du Mercantour. Many of these parks are located further north in the region, away from the beaches. If you're thinking of a two week holiday, perhaps you could spend a week in the lush north visiting national parks, orchards, vineyards, palaces, chateaux, and roman towns, and then a week in the sparkling south, soaking in the rays.
National Park of Luberon
Luberon hosts the Montagne du Luberon (3690 feet high) which is made hugely of limestone. The entire area is designated an area of outstanding natural beauty and you can trek, see beautiful old village, and flora and fauna of the local area all at the same time.
Massif des Maures
The Massif des Maures (Maures is a mountain range) stretches across from Hyeres to Frejus (about 40 miles) and is a thick hinterland of pine and oak trees. There is a glorious route called the GR9 footpath if you are an avid hiker and if you're into cycling, you could take the D14. Either of these routes will afford you breathtaking views.
Parc Naturel Regional du Verdon
The Natural Regional Park of the Verdon came into existence in 1997. Its main attraction is the Gorges du Verdon, a deep natural gorge flanked by calcareous rock. It's possible to hike along the entire length of the gorge. Water sports enthusiasts enjoy rafting and kayaking in the Verdon River.
There's a plethora of exciting and beautiful towns, cities and villages in the Provence region of France.
Avignon is another not-to-be-missed city in Provence encased in the Departement of Vauclue. Avignon is sometimes called the City of Popes and holds the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes - circa 14th century). The ramparts were built in the 14th century and wrap around the city; a beautiful sight to behold. In Avignon, you can see the breathtaking Pont St-Benezet.
At the heart of the city is the place de l’Horloge, a huge square shaded by plane trees and a myriad of cafes. Later in the day the place comes alive with street muscicians, jugglers and portrait painters.
Only four of the 22 original arches remain of the bridge that the famous song Pont d’Avignon represents. The song celebrates dancing on the bridge but it is thought that it originally was dancing beneath the bridge as that was where the dance halls were sited.
Arles is a gorgeous city in the Bouches-du-Rhone Departement. It has a long history dating back to 1st century BC which can be seen at the Roman Theatre Antique. Plays can still be seen at this historic site. Other evidence of the Romans is the majestic amphitheatre, the Church of St. Trophime and the Alyscamps (large Roman burial ground). Arles is at the start of the Camargue so you could always nip across and see two beauties in one day (although you might want to spend more than a day in the Camargue!) Van Gogh lived in Arles for a year and painted many pictures of its scenic views. You may want to check out the excellent Musée de l'Arles et de la Provence antiques which shows a great deal of ancient history.
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is an idyllic little town in the Parc Naturel Régional des Alpilles where Van Gough spent a year in 1889 and Nostradamus was born in 1503. At Glanum, a few minutes south of the centre of Saint-Rémy, Roman ruins were excavated in 1921 making this a very interesting place to visit indeed. For more information visit www.saintremy-de-provence.com
Marseille, of course, is famous for its beautiful old harbour which still retains its beauty but is now only a venue for small boats. An excellent daily fish market can be found here, however, which has a very good reputation.
Marseille was founded by the Greeks in 7BC but seized by the Romans in 49BC so if you're looking for awe-inspiring architecture and a real authentic ancient feel, roam the streets of Marseille for a few hours and I'm sure you won't be disappointed.
There are many museums in Marseille, the most noteworthy of which are the Musée d'histoire de Marseille, the Musée de la Marine et de l'Economie (economic history of the ciry) and the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires du Terroir Marseille (shows how Marseille was in 17th and 19th centuries).
If you are looking for activities in Marseille, you won't have to look hard, but a couple of other interesting sights that you may like to take in are the Chateau d'If, made famous by Alexander Dumas in his book The Count of Monte Cristo, which is on an island about a mile south west of Marseille port and was once a prison, and the Abbaye de Saint Victor which was many different things in its past including barracks and a prison. There is a crypt in the church and beneath are catacombs. You can also see Pagan and Christian sarcophagi.
Hyeres is a town on the most southern tip of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region and it is famous for being one of the first health resorts in the Cote d'Azur. Many people still travel to this town for a relaxing spa break but Hyeres is also a large centre for aquatic sports now as well.
Other towns, such as Aix-En-Provence (founded in 103 BC by the Romans), Carpentras (capital of papal county Venaissin from 1320-1791), Fontaine-de-Vaucluse (river Sorgue - most powerful in France), and Gordes (mediaeval villages) are numerous and noteworthy, and it's safe to say that a long expedition could be planned in Provence with no worries of ever getting bored!
Potters abound in the region but there is a particularly fine tradition in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, at the western end of the Verdon gorges. The village is famous for its glazed ceramics (faiences). There is also the Musée de Faience; the museum has a fine collection of ceramics by Clérissy, Olérys, Laugier, Ferrat to name but a few.
In the valleys surrounding Grasse, there are colourful fields of lavender, clary sage, jasmine, mimosa, roses and other sweet scented plants. These are harvested at dawn when the dew is still on them. In Grasse there are several museums dedicated to the art of perfumery; the Musée International de la Perfumerie and the Villa Musée Fragonard are certainly worth visiting. It is worth noting that Grasse is also famous for its crystallised fruit amongst other things.
There are shops selling regional fragrances in most of the bigger towns – a lot of them sell the famous savon de Marseille (Marseille soap) both in Marseille and elsewhere. The soap, a mix of vegetable oils, alkaline ash from sea plants, and seawater, is even included in washing powders because the fragrance is so fresh. The green variety has olive oil in it and the white dusting on the surface is sea salt.
Bouillabaisse, which originates from Marseille, is a meal in its own right which can contain different types of fish like loup de mer (sea bass), rouget (red mullet), etc. and shell fish. It is cooked in a stock and served with a spicy red pepper, quite fiery, and garlic mayonnaise called rouille which you spread on croutons and sprinkle with cheese. Salads and fresh sun-ripe tomatoes are typical of the region.
For the meat eaters, lamb, beef and rabbit are plentiful but used sparingly in stews and casseroles and can be served with provençale sauces or braised in vegetables and red wine. The fish and shell fish are world renowned and include moules (mussels), gambas (giant prawns), palourdes (clams), and crab and lobster.
Local cheeses in this area are usually made from goats’ milk (chevres) or ewes’ (brebis) which can be obtained from Provencal markets. These markets are also famed for their large variety of fresh fruits and Herbes de Provence.
Camargue red rice is a variety of rice cultivated in the wetlands. It is a short-grained and unmilled variety of rice and has a nutty taste. It is quite interesting to see the rice growing in the wetlands and, of course, buy some to try at home.
As in all of France, there are many restaurants in the Provence area. Below we have listed just a few, in different areas of the region. Nothing actually surpasses walking in the towns and finding suitable restaurants and most are exceptionally welcoming and the food extremely good. Whether dining in a 6 star restaurant or a 1 or 2 star, on the whole you will have a very enjoyable experience. Of course there are other cuisines to experience in the region and one you may like to try is North African cuisine.
Other specialities of the region are anchoiade—an anchovy tart and pissaladière—an onion tart with black olives. These can either be served as a starter or eaten as a snack, necessary after all the activities you have embraced.
Restaurants in Avignon
Restaurant in Saint Remy de Provence
le Bistrot des Alpilles
Restaurants in Marseille
Wouldn’t it be remiss not to mention the fantastic wines available in Provence?! Although the wine industry here has taken a knock in recent years (there is now a lot of competition around the world), it is staging a momentous comeback. We mention below just a few that can be found in the region.
By far the largest appellation of wine in the area is the Côte du Provence. The main production of wine is rosé but there are reds and white available. The dry and fruity rosé wine is best served very cold and suitable with all meals, especially the excellent fish and shellfish synonymous with the region.
The principal varieties of grape used in Provence are Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Tibouren; Mourvèdre and Tibouren being indigenous grapes.
Bandol is one of the more robust and most age-worthy reds in Provence and comes from the coastal appellation that also makes some good rosé. It is a little crisp, white wine containing sauvignon blanc which has an almost apple-like flavour to it.
If you should trip over Cassis on your travels, it is a tiny appellation and has nothing to do with the blackcurrant liqueur of the same name. Cassis, the liqueur, is widely available in all areas of France. The Cassis of Provence is usually an aromatic wine drunk locally but certainly worth tasting.
Most Cave Co-Operatives welcome you in to sample local wines and you can buy them by the bottle or the case and more often at a better price than other wine-selling retailers. You can also buy your wine en vrac and a lot of the locals do this. Simply take along a suitable container and it will be filled with wine of your choice. It generally resembles a petrol pump but a little bit smaller and definitely cleaner and cheaper! You can also buy suitable containers at the Cave.
Water Sports in Provence
At most large beaches in Provence you are able to do some form of water sports if you so desire. From jet-skiing to banana boat riding and pedalo hiring, water sports are in abundance anywhere on the coast in France.
If scuba-diving is your thing, a stop anywhere along the coast would be profitable. Sea life, rock formations, even ship and plane wrecks are plentiful in Provence.
Canoeing and kayaking is a great pastime in Provence with the beautiful rivers and breathtaking scenery. You could try kayaking under the Avignon bridge. Simply type canoeing or kayaking into a search engine for limitless websites that provide these activities.
Airports, many of them with budget airlines flying to them, are plentiful in Provence. Avignon, Cannes, Hyeres, La Mole, Le Castellet, Marignane, Nice, St Tropez, and Toulon.
From Arles, the most western point of the region, to Menton, the most eastern point of the region, it is approximately 180 miles along (mostly) the A8. There are tolls on this road, but the journey will take you only about 3 hours to complete.
To the west, the Provence region is bordered by Languedoc-Roussillon, to the north Rhone-Alps, to the east Italy, and to the south the Mediterranean sea.
As Italy is on the eastern border of the Provence region, a day trip is easily doable. Take a trip through the Alps and picturesque scenery, along the Mediterranean coast and you'll find yourself in Italy. Sample some Carbonara in Ventimiglia or drive up to the charming rock village of Dolceacqua.
If you fancy a relaxing and beautiful ferry trip, Corsica and Sardinia are not too far away from the Provence region either. From Marseille, the ferry trip to Corsica is just under 6 hours.
Things to do with your kids
There are several attractions in Provence that are a must-see if you're taking children. The first is the adventurous city of Aigues Mortes which is almost entirely walled by ramparts. There is so much history here (built circa. 102BC) and as soon as you enter the mediaeval city, you immediately feel like you've been thrown back hundreds of years. Walk the ramparts, take the guided tour, and immerse yourselves in the tourist shops and restaurants.
In Marseille there are two lovely parks - Cinq Avenue de Longchamp Park which has a playground for kids and pony rides, and Parc Borely where you can go boating on the lake.
A visit to Pastreaventure an adventure park for children from age 5 to adults will give you
Une évasion nature et aventure à 10 mn seulement du centre ville ! an escape to nature and adventure just 10 minutes from downtown Marseille!
Un cadre exceptionnel, à 2 pas des plages et des Calanques, avec vue sur mer...
In Arles there are many places to keep your kids entertained; the Roman Amphitheatre, bull games at the Course Camarguaise, the museum of Ancient Arles, and the costume festival on the first Sunday of July.
Labyrinthe Geant is a huge labyrinth set in a cornfield with a maze, bouncy castles and much more. http://www.labyrinthe-geant.fr/
La Ferme aux Crocodiles has over 350 crocodiles and scientific safari visits.
This is great for kids, and grown up kids, with lots of slides, pools and lazy rivers to enjoy.
Aqualand is a water park chain with 7 sites in the South of France. The parks are open from mid June to the beginning of September, from 10am to 6pm.
Aqualand Ticket Prices:
Adult -24 euros
Children from 3 to 12 - 17.50 euros
Children less than 1 meter in height - Free
Adult over 65 with a payable child - Free
2 Day Passes:
Adult - 30 euros
Child - 20.50 euros
Click here to go to Aqualand website