Provence is a region in southeastern France between Italy and the Mediterranean Sea. It is known for its magnificent landscapes that range from the Southern Alps and pine forests to Camargue plains, rich vineyards, ancient olive groves and fragrant lavender fields.
Immortalized by painters, writers and poets, Provence is probably one of the most romantic parts of the world.
Provence takes in the Vaucluse, Bouches-du-Rhone, Var, Alpes-de-Hautes-Provence, and the Alpes-Maritimes. From the snow-capped mountains of the Alps and the splendors of the Verdon gorge to lavender fields, the sparkling blue Mediterranean sea and Roman towns such as Nimes, it has everything the visitor could ask for.
The mere mention of Provence conjures up some the most idyllic images of lavender fields, sunflowers, olive groves, cicadas, vineyards and that indescribable light that inspired the post-impressionist painters like Cézanne. You only have to turn a corner to find stunning lavender fields or a village perched precariously on a hill. Or you can head to the coast and find divine beaches and magnificent palaces.
So let’s take a journey through the region of Provence. Here are some of our favorite things to see and do in Provence.
Les Calanques – Anyone for Hiking?
About half way between Marseille and Cassis is Les Calanques, one of the most breathtakingly beautiful spots on the French coast of the Mediterranean Sea. High above the sea is a series of colorful limestone cliffs that tower above incredibly charming little coves that hide small white beaches. The rocks create unique ecosystem with plants sprouting between the rocks, with no soil and constantly battered by the winds and salty air. The whole incredibly beautiful area is protected within the Parc National des Calanques.
The park is a popular destination for hiking and rock-climbing and little beaches are perfect for swimming and kayaking. The view of the brightly colored rocks from the sea is spectacular.
Orange – Location of the Original Arc de Triomphe
You’ve probably heard of the Arc de Triomphes in Paris, but did you know that the real and original Arc de Triomphe is located in Orange, Provence? Built during the Roman era to commemorate a string of battle successes, the arc is so well preserved that it has since been designated a UNESCO world heritage site. Constructed between 10 and 26/27 CE, the Triumphal Arc of Orange was incorporated into a medieval town wall during the middle ages, that has since been demolished.
St. Tropez is known as the playground of rich and famous, glamorous and trendy. The area has always been a well-known spot for celebrity vacationers, but there’s still plenty that’s slightly off the beaten track. Just northeast of the Vieux Port is La Ponche, the old St. Tropez fishing village that was thriving in the 18th century when French, Spanish, Italian and Greek fishermen competed in fishing for seasonal catch of anchovies, calamari, sea bass, tuna and lobsters. The village grew around small, 40-meter long beach, with cottages around it. The La Ponche starts at the Vieux Port harbor, with fishing boats and luxury yachts alongside each other.
Above the village is the town citadel. Part of La Ponche, with its narrow cobble-stoned streets lined by small shops, is now pedestrians so visitors can explore little alleys, cafes and boutiques at their heart content. At the center of La Ponche is the 18th-century Eglise de Notre-Dame de l’Assomption.
Cassis – The Prettiest Village in Provence
No longer a true hidden gem, Cassis still offers a pleasant respite from Provence’s more popular port cities with its dramatic seaside setting, framed by the imposing white cliffs and the series of calanques (narrow inlets) tucked among them. Winemaking is now the primary activity in the region, but Cassis has maintained its idyllic fishing village vibe, with pastel-colored buildings lining the harbor. Be sure to sample the local specialty, a very particularly prepared bouillabaisse, before you leave.
Avignon – City of the Papal Palace
Avignon is probably best known as the center of the religious conflict that took place in the 14th century, when Pope Clement V decamped to the French city and moved the seat of the Catholic Church out of Rome for nearly 70 years. Clement’s sumptuous Palais des Papes still remains in Avignon today, crowded on all sides by the city’s surprisingly bustling center. The fortress-like building is the largest Gothic structure in the world, with an imposing exterior of crenelated fortifications and massive defense towers. Extravagant interior spaces hint at the lavish lifestyles of the nine Popes who lived here between 1309 and 1403.
For a sampling of the region’s flavors, taste your way through the Les Halles market, enjoy a drink on one of the sprawling patios, and peruse Avignon’s many shops.
Gordes – Home of the Famous Senaque Abbey
Often listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France, Gordes is a charming mix of sleepy French hillside village and posh resort town. The area is a favorite among celebrities as a quiet summer retreat, but the atmosphere is still unpretentious. The idyllic setting is dominated by the fortress standing guard over the city—a Roman foundation that was significantly renovated during the Renaissance. Now, the fortress houses an art museum.
Be sure to look down every tiny alleyway as you stroll through Gordes, as some of the best views of the countryside can be glimpsed through the narrow corridors leading out from the city center. It’s a real pleasure getting lost among the cobblestone streets with a clearly medieval atmosphere, visiting the castle or simply enjoying the view of the surrounding landscape that inspired Marc Chagall and many other famous artists.
Make sure not to miss Abbaye de Sénanque just outside the city, where monks still live and produce local honey and liqueurs. It’s not surprising that Gordes is always mentioned on the lists of the most beautiful villages in Provence and in all France.
Aix-en-Provence and the Hundred Fountains
Aix-en-Provence has the elegance of Paris combined with the warmth of Southern France. This traditional Provençal town is distinguished by its shady tree-lined streets, historic squares, and ornate fountains. Birthplace of impressionist painter, Paul Cezanne, Aix is often dubbed ‘the city of a hundred fountains’ thanks to its abundance of water features.
A legacy of the ancient Roman heritage, one thousand monuments are found throughout the city. The hub of Aix-en-Provence is the Cours Mirabeau, a broad boulevard with outdoor cafés that are bustling on sunny days and balmy evenings.
Many travelers visit Aix-en-Provence to experience the traditional outdoor Provençal markets, held at the town’s spacious squares. Aix-en-Provence’s most traditional farmer’s market is held daily at the Place Richelme; this market is considered one of the best fruit, vegetable, and gourmet food markets in Provence. Aix-en-Provence is also renowned for its local cuisine, artisanal culinary products, and specialty items such as Calissons d’Aix, sweet almond candies.
For fine dining, L’Esprit de la Violette (10 Avenue de la Violette) is a Michelin-starred restaurant that prepares modern Provençal cuisine from the finest local ingredients. The legendary Brasserie Les Deux Garçons (53 Cours Mirabeau) has a sidewalk terrace where patrons can watch the world go by. Cézanne was once a regular habitué, and Picasso, Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Edith Piaf were also counted among the celebrity patrons.
Arles and the Roman Ruins
If you fancy visiting antique ruins, one of your favourite places to visit in Provence will be Arles. Van Gogh also lived some time in this city on the banks of the Rhone River. Arles is full of constructions that date back to the Roman Empire and the Old Town of Arles is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Arles has a fantastic Roman colosseum (in somewhat worse shape than that of Nimes) called the Arles Amphiteatre, a Roman theatre, underground crypts and the baths of Constantine.
Throughout the region, visitors can enjoy delicious Mediterranean cuisine based on olive oil, vegetables, and aromatic herbs. Fresh local ingredients are transformed into specialties such as pistou, a basil and garlic sauce; bouillabaisse, a flavorful fish stew; fougasse, soft braided bread; and pissaladière, a pizza-like tart of caramelized onions, anchovies, and black olives.
Marseille – The Ancient Port City
Inhabited for millennia, the port town of Marseille is one of the largest cities in France (the second largest, after Paris, to be precise). Consequently, Marseille has seen its fair share of history over the years. Highlights of the city include hiking up to the church which crowns the highest hill of the town, a chapel dedicated to Notre Dame de la Garde. Another is visiting the old port (an area used for imports for over two millennia), as well as wandering around Le Panier neighbourhood.
Saint Paul de Vence
Often cited as the ‘prettiest village in Provence,‘ Saint Paul de Vence is one of the oldest medieval towns along the French Riviera and offers picture-perfect views onto many earthy vineyards, as well as breathtaking panoramas across the Provençal region.
Since the 10th-century, a community has built itself around the Saint-Michel-du-Puy church, and a medieval castle nearby. Both historic attractions are well worth a visit, as are the oodles of cobbled lanes worth walking along and the impressive architecture worth snapping photos of in the lower part of town.
Provence is a region full of sensory romance, rewarding travelers with its breathtaking vistas, mouthwatering cuisine, and small-town tranquility. If you’re planning a European travel escape that includes France, then you should definitely consider the French region of Provence.
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