A Guide to: Provence

Provence is one of the most picturesque regions in France

Provence is located in the south and boasts some of the most desirable, traditional, unspoilt towns in France. This is why it is a haven to so many who have re-located to the region from elsewhere and why so many pick this as their number one destination to go on holiday in France. A region which has attracted the rich and famous, the artistic and reclusive and ever growing throngs of summer visitors. There is a great deal to see and do in this vast area has a real feel of luxury. It is a region famed for its sunshine, food and wine and the heady perfumes of Mediterranean vegetation.

The region extends from the left bank of the lower Rhône River on the west to the Italian border on the east and is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea on the south. As a region and area it ranges from the snow-capped mountains of the Southern Alps to the delta plains of the Camargue and boasts Europe’s greatest canyon, the Gorges du Verdon. Fortified towns guard its ancient borders, countless villages perch defensively on hilltops surrounded by vineyards, plains and forests. The great cities like Arles, Aix and Avignon are full of cultural glories and rich in history.

The area is iconic in so many ways, from its incredible history, to its Provençal villages, landscapes and the food and wine. The architectural heritage in Provence has been left by several civilisations over a long and rich past. The strong Roman presence, the Middle Ages and the Papal court, the Renaissance and the classical periods have all added to the rich architectural heritage in the Vaucluse and the Bouches du Rhône. Man has built and fashioned the landscape in Provence for many different reasons whether it be for farming activity and rural development, there is a harmonious co-existence of man and nature. Today, these past riches provide visitors with countless delights and discoveries, during their hikes, outings and visits.

The villages in Provence were often built nestled into or on top of the hillsides.

Houses were built around the château and crops and vineyards were planted alongside or in the plains. Time-worn stone, shady squares, fountains flowing with clear water and seemingly eternal sunshine come together in these lovely hilltop villages which have fashioned the landscapes in the Vaucluse and the Bouches du Rhône. There are villages which cover the entire hilltop, winding like snail shells around the castle or church. There are villages which lie along a single slope, streets built into the hillside on a parallel. And others which have grown up on the highlands, such as the village of Gordes, spread across the rocky outcrop which was clearly conducive to settlement and expansion. The cool, narrow streets, the shady squares and graceful fountains all beckon visitors to relax and drink in the beauty, discover the talents at work in these villages, and sense the history and activity that have shaped both the architecture and the people.

Within Provence, there are seven villages in the Vaucluse and the Bouches du Rhône ranked as the most beautiful in France. Ansouis, Gordes, Roussillon and Ménerbes in the Luberon, Séguret in the North Vaucluse and Venasque in the Mont-Ventoux. The village of Lourmarin, also well worth a visit, developed in the plains at the base of Luberon.

In a region where the sun shines for around 300 days of the year.

The stand out element one cannot fail to appreciate has to be the landscapes and their appearance to which the region has become known. The many towns and areas are all blessed with Ochre and Lavender colours, which in turn are the colours of Provence. This is very much a region of contrasting landscapes from hectares of crops and vineyards to cedar and oak forests.

From Avignon, a medieval town protected by its ramparts and home of the Popes, to Mont Ventoux with its lavender fields, there are great contrasts. The vineyards extend into the Rhône valley, around Isle sur la Sorgue and Fontaine-de-Vaucluse where the landscape changes to cool, shady river banks and orchards. Finally the hilltop villages of the Luberon, are bathed in red and gold at the heart of the ochre cliffs in Roussillon or in the area known as the Provençal Colorado and in beautiful green tones in the preserved in the Regions’ Natural Parkland.

The food and wine of the region is also well known by so many. Like its towns, the region is blessed with some of the best restaurants, locally grown produce, markets and vineyards that France has to offer.

Gourmandise is considered a quality in south of France. Provençal gastronomy uses local production of very high quality fruits, vegetables, wines, lamb, aromatic herbs and other ingredients, all fresh and locally sourced to be able serve up the very finest food. Bistros, local auberges and restaurants all find a profusion of fresh produce that inspire their chefs and delight diners’ taste buds. In every town you can be sure of finding somewhere to eat in which to be able to find the very finest foods served. If a starred chef may be what you are looking for, Auberge La Fenière is Cadenet comes highly recommended. Café des Poulivets in Oppède may look unassuming however this is the perfect place if you may be looking for value for money. Likewise, if you are just after a traditional bistro experience L’Imprévu restaurant in Beaumettes can offer this and the setting is most attractive also.

When it comes to local produce the region is famous for its strawberries, melons, black truffles, olives, saffron  and nougat among other produce. Strawberries are widely grown in Carpentras where there are four preferred varieties: Pajaro, Agatha, Ciflorette (perfect in pastries) and Garriguette (with the most beautiful smell). Melons are a speciality of the town of Cavaillon, where they are harvested by hand from May to September. Melon is usually eaten raw with cured ham and can be served with a glass of  Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. In the Vaucluse and the Bouches du Rhône, truffles are a genuine passion either at the foot of Mont-Ventoux, in the Luberon Mountains or in the Popes’ Enclave, everyone awaits the end of November with bated breath to have some idea of the harvest, which lasts until March. Olive trees have been grown in Provence since ancient times and today they still shape the landscapes of the Luberon, Mont Ventoux and the Rhône valley.

Nougat is a popular product of Provence. A subtle mix of honey and almonds, nougat is one of the most prized delicacies of Provence. White nougat is tender, soft and creamy. Black nougat is more crunchy and delicately caramelised. Made from almonds, whose trees fill Provence with their beautiful flowers in the spring, and honey, usually produced in the Provençal Garrigue, nougat is the result of perfectly combining these two delicacies. There are two confectioners who invite you to come and taste their nougat and visit their workshops and this can alone offer a unique means to fully understand this wonderful delicacy, including Maison Boyer in Sault and Les Nougatiers Silvain, in Saint-Didier.

Some produce is  so widely celebrated in these regions that there are even festivals for certain food types from the great array of food which is produced in the region. For example, there is the truffle market in Carpentras. There is the Strawberry Festival in Carpentras in April where there are cooking demonstrations and entertainments through the streets of the town. This allows you tomeet with and taste strawberries from all of the difference producers – and of course buy to take back to your holiday home and enjoy!  strawberries. There is also the Melon Festival, in Cavaillon in July. The festival is based around everything melon-related which you imagine, melon tasting, markets, menus and you get to experience a firework display and a petanque tournament. Both festivals are highly recommended and really get local producers together to share their produce with the locals, and they are also great fun as days out. There are also olive mills which you can visit to go and see and speak with the olive growers – or even help with the harvesting of the olives from November to January.

With food being such a passion in the region, there are no end of markets large and small, all with their own offering of distinct produce from town to town. The markets are all unique in their own sense. Fruit, vegetables, herbs, flowers, cheeses, olive oil, honey, chutneys and jams can all be bought from the local markets. Baskets of strawberries, bunches of asparagus, clusters of sweet grapes, baguettes, even home made wine can all be bought from market to market. The markets come at all different times and you can be sure there will be a market within a town somewhere every day of the week.

Gordes market takes place every Tuesday morning. With stalls set around the foot of the castle, this is a colourful market, the main emphasis being on fabrics and linens though you can also pick up bread, olive oil, honey, saucisson, cheese, wine and more.Ménerbes is another highly recommended market which is every Thursday morning, in the centre of the village, an attractive setting. It is small, and the food stalls are quite specialised – for instance one selling cheese from the Alps, another selling prunes from Agen. There are summer clothes, fabrics and bedspreads, an organic fruit and vegetable stand, olive wood products, amongst other items. Lourmarin has a market every Friday morning and this is a large-sized market, selling more than just foods. Here you can buy objects for the home spanning cookware, crockery, baskets, soaps, carved olive wood, ginger, jewellery, scarves, handbags and linens. These are just three of the noted markets which have their own personality and charm. You can be sure to find a market able to suit your tastes and convenience if you are visiting theProvence.

The wine producers in the region are famous the world over, producing some of the best wines.

The wines produced in Provence are a prestigious calling card for the area including Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Beaumes de Venise among others. The region really does take its wine production and consumption seriously and there is a whole lot more to consider than simply buying the wine to drink. The producers like to entice the consumers to experience the wines and the different floral tastes, grape varieties and notes from bottle to bottle. To find out more about the wines, the winemakers ofProvence will welcome you on to their estates. You can discover the secrets of wine making by visiting the wine cellars and you can take part in tasting workshops to learn how to recognise and taste the best vintages, make your own wine by choosing different grape varieties or match wine with chocolate. For wine tasting you must visit the Wine and chocolate-ganache tasting workshops in Châteauneuf-du-Pape or visit Chêne Bleu and take part in their “matching dishes and wines” which takes place from April to October.

The region is a favourite for its cycling and cycling holidays.

If you are planning to come to Provence the region is a favourite for its cycling and cycling holidays. You can go about this in a whole number of ways, including guided tours or you can go on the Gourmet Tour in the Rhone Valley in Dentelles de Montmirail. These weekends pamper you from start to finish and in turn enable you to see Provence in a whole new way. What could be more enjoyable than a cycling break on paths lined with vineyards or lavender fields? On the routes that cross the landscape around Mont Ventoux, through the AOC Côtes du Rhône vineyards, along the rivers surrounding Isle sur la Sorgue or through the heart of the Luberon, the magic of Provence takes effect immediately. Being a big leisurely pursuit in the region, there are a whole network of professional hoteliers, bike rental companies, restauranteurs and taxis, organised around the “Provence by bike” charter and ready to help with your travel arrangements and your stay. All of this can be done whilst enjoying the fantastic food and drink.

With so much offered in the region, there are likewise no end of fantastic areas to stay. There of the main areas of the moment include Gordes,Ménerbes and further south towards the Mediterranean Fayence and Montauroux. They are all traditionally French and offer the real French experience and offer you a wonderful destination whether you are looking for a holiday or to move here.

One of the prettiest villages in Provence is Gordes. It is perched on top of a hillside around its historic castle and there are no end of things to see and do in the town. The village is steeped in history and still complete with a lot if its original architecture. In ages past, the castle has protected its residents from foreign attacks, plagues, and World War II bombings. The views over the Luberon countryside are stunning, and the village itself is a warren of cobbled streets and ancient houses. During your stay in the area, you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to dining out in Gordes. There are a good number of restaurants to choose from, along with a range of cuisines all native to the area. Also worth noting is the town hosts art exhibitions, wine and almond festivals, and its market is held on Tuesdays. Also close by to Gordes is the wonderful Cistercian Abbey Senanque which is well worth a visit.

Like Gordes, Ménerbes is noted for being one of the ‘most beautiful villages in France’. It has a wonderfully authentic feel to it and is full of historical charm which is all too obvious as you arrive in the village. Come in from the north during May or June and you will enjoy the colourful cherry orchards as well as the acres of vineyards.  With medieval churches and houses, and a number of Renaissance homes there is certainly enough here to warrant a visit. Humans have settled on the site of Ménerbes since prehistoric times, its elevated position allowed for easy defence against invading tribes. The Romans also enjoyed the surroundings, and some remains from their villas have been identified. Whatever you do or wherever you go in Ménerbes you can be sure you’ll be blessed by stunning views. Famous artists including Picasso have lived in Ménerbes, and this arty tradition continues today as you will see through the number of art galleries strewn through the village, all well worth a visit.

Fayence Area

Further south, towards the Mediterranean coast is the area of Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur. Fayence is perched on the side of a hill between the sea and the mountains, and set in picturesque Provençal countryside.  Fayence is a popular holiday destination.  It has a southerly climate, charming old streets, warm and welcoming bistros and restaurants emitting the aromas of Provence and still today carries with itself a lot of the history of the past. Nowadays, it is well known for its gliding centre (the best in Europe), where competitions are held, including The International Open Air Plane Gliding competition.

There are plenty of rivers, streams and gorges which all feed into the magnificent Lac de St Cassien.

For somewhere a little smaller than Fayence, yet equally as picturesque, go to Montauroux, a small Var village just north of the Lac de St Cassien. It’s a perched village, with its own unique look and feel. Formerly common agricultural land for the culture of olives, vines and local produce, Montauroux embraces its tourism and a very accessible area to visit. The village itself is not very big, so it doesn’t take long to explore the narrow streets of the old town. The village centre has a small grocery store, several bakeries, a butcher and other amenities as well as terrace cafés in the main square (Place du Clos) is a great place to relax, enjoy the magnificent views and you will be able to feel at home right away with the locals.

For something a little different and somewhere more in the heart of the French Riviera, look no further than Grasse, the world centre of perfume. The town lies in the hills above Cannes and is noted for its clean air climate. It is a large bustling town with some wonderful grand mansions in the centre and around the outskirts. Blessed with a mild winter climate and a perfect setting on the southern slopes of Montagne de Doublier, Grasse has attracted visitors for centuries. In the early 19th century Pauline Borghese, Napoleon’s favorite sister, spent a winter there. Queen Victoria was so taken by Grasse, its climate and surroundings, that she returned several times to winter at the Rothschild’s villa. It is 15 km from Cannes, 40 km from Nice and you will quickly be attracted by the scent of the flowers. Beyond its perfume connection, Grasse presents a charming old town with winding streets and surprisingly quiet in squares and alleys. You’ll find plenty of cafes and restaurants (Place aux Aires), gift shops, and of course, perfume shops.

Overall, if you want a region close to the sea, rich in original charm and overall romantic in terms of its ambience, Provence is the place to go in France. Fields of lavender, sunflowers and olive trees are just one of the aspects which typify this region and give it it’s degree of uniqueness though there is still more to this area of France. This is a vast region of contrasts and connections, of snow-topped mountains and delightful sea resorts, of shepherds and yacht captains, of cork oak and palm trees, of a simple beef stew and an elaborate bouillabaisse. The area has been inhabited since prehistoric times and its towns are beautifully preserved for everyone to appreciate and enjoy.

Whether you are looking to totally relax and wind down or perhaps add some gentle exercise, Provence can offer a little bit of everything amongst its ever evident charm.