Things to see & do in Provence

Why be vaguely happy in England when you can be very happy in Provence?
– Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence
Provence is the France of fairytales. Its undulating landscapes with their distinctive tapering cypresses appear in hundreds of paintings by Cezanne and Van Gogh; its Riviera in dozens of dreamy films. No wonder this region has attracted artists for centuries; it is characterised by an unusual depth of colour: deep pink oleander and bougainvillea, silvery olive groves, carpets of lavender, turquoise sea and endless glasses of peach tinted rosé, glinting in the Mediterranean light. Day and night you’ll hear the screech of cigales – the ubiquitous cicadas that even have a local beer named after them. You’ll hear the rolling waves of the Mediterranean, and the thud of petanque balls landing on sand.
But the wonderful thing is that despite this almost Disneyish vision of France, Provence has managed to remain its authenticity. This is partly because it is not actually a département; Provence in fact includes parts of several departments in southeastern France, most notably Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Bouches-du-Rhône, Var and sections of Vaucluse and the Alpes-Maritimes. Provence is, therefore, defined by a cultural identity, rather than geography, an identity which was strengthened historically by the use of the Provençal dialect, and which today extends to the superb regional cuisine, crafts, weekly markets and the laid back character of its people.
Cycling in Provence

Cycling in Provence

One of the best ways to explore this region is on two wheels. Cycling in Provence can take you from pretty town to pretty town, through landscapes made famous by Cezanne and Van Gogh, past the wild dunes and flamingoes of the Camargue, and the rocky ridges and ancient forests of the Luberon Natural Regional Park. Self guided, point to point cycling vacations can cover 40-70km per day, although expect some sleep inclines on the way to hilltop villages and magnificent viewpoints. The descents make it all worthwhile, however, especially when they deposit you on the Côte d’Azur, where you can soothe your aching calves in the clear waters, kayak the coves or simply kick back with a glass of pastis and some local olives.
Centre based vacations often include optional bike rides, too, these are well suited to families and those less confident on a bike, as you can pootle around for as long or as little as you like, perhaps to a local market or nearby town. And of course, cycling combines particularly well with gastronomy; pedalling up those cols and corniches will mean you really do earn all your local fromage, pain et vin
Walking in Provence

Walking in Provence

Walking vacations in Provence take advantage of the fact that there are so many gorgeous places clustered so closely together. Consequently, you can sleep in the same base every night, taking transfers out each morning to explore a different part of the region on foot. Walk beside streams and old canals, pause for lunch at local markets, hike up to hilltop chapels and trek along Roman roads. Daily ascents average 300-500m, and walking in a small group of fellow hikers with a local guide ensures you won’t get lost – as well as knowing all the best places to pause for shopping, for lunch and apéros.
Historic cities & towns

Historic cities & towns

Provence’s towns tumble precipitously down its rocky hills; a patchwork of sand coloured walls and terracotta tiles punctuated with sun bleached shutters. The narrow alleyways provide relief from the sun, and around every corner is an inviting doorway into a cool café, a quaint gift shop or a local gallery. Many of the historical cities and towns have medieval roots, including Les Baux-de-Provence, with its Chateau-Fortress and vast quarry-caverns, which host immersive, projected sound and light shows highlighting artists and musicians.
Of course, you can’t miss the City of a Thousand Fountains: Aix-en-Provence. Lose yourself in its narrow streets, its markets selling everything from olive oil and tapenades to tablecloths and Marseille soap, and in its elm-shaded plazas, where you can cool off with a glass of local wine and a salad niçoise. Be sure to pick up a box of calissons – a local sweet made of ground almonds and candied fruit. And Avignon is far more than just a half collapsed bridge; its Old Town is a magical labyrinth of historic buildings, delicatessens and the Palais des Papes. Visit Tuesday to Sunday to explore the vast Les Halles covered market.
St Jeannet may not be such a household name, but that is its appeal; this peaceful village sits beneath an impressive cliff (baou) and offers glorious Mediterranean views. Its setting means it is one of 16 Provençal villages that comprise the Route des Villages Perchés – the Route of the Perched Villages.
Art lovers will be in their element. Upmarket Antibes has a Picasso Museum, while the grave of Marc Chagall can be found in the village of St-Paul-de-Vence. Vence’s Chapelle du Rosaire is known as the Chapelle Matisse, after the artist who designed it and decorated its interior. And Vincent Van Gogh found himself in the psychiatric ward at Saint-Remy-de-Provence; visitors may recognise the town from some of his most famous paintings.
Archaeology fans should head to Orange, whose Roman theatre hosts summertime performances to this day; and to Vaison-la-Romaine, whose ruined Roman town is the largest excavated archaeological site in France.

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Bien manger & bien boire

Bien manger & bien boire

There are few better ways to get beneath Provence’s skin than sitting on a terrace with your apéro of choice and watching the world pass by in the golden evening light. ‘Eating well and drinking well’ is such an intrinsic part of Provençal life, and our all vacations will introduce you to the many weekly markets and local restaurants. However, to really sink your teeth into this region, you can book a specialised gastronomy tour or cooking vacation. Visit local markets – a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach – and learn each stage of olive oil production, from picking and pressing the olives, to tasting a variety of oils.
Bouillabaisse is a Provençal classic: a hearty, herby fish stew from Marseille. The tapenade is ubiquitous, served as an aperitif on croutons. The olive, anchovy and garlic-based paste has a salty kick, as does the local chèvre goat’s cheese – it’s annoyingly moreish. The ratatouille is a revelation, nothing like the tomatoey, sloppy mess of veg that passes for ratatouille back home. Here, it is made with fresh summer veg bursting with flavour, and you’ll find it in a little pot to accompany your steak. For dessert, try fruits and coulis infused with – of course – lavender.
Being France, of course, what you wash your meals down with is just as important. The liquorice-flavoured pastis originated in Marseille; water it down over ice and sip it as an aperitif. Vineyards are omnipresent, and a wine tasting will almost certainly feature on your Provence vacation; try the delicately flavoured rosé from coastal Bandol; Clairette de Die – a sparkling white dating back to Gallic times; and the huge variety of wines produced in the famous Côtes-du-Rhône area.

Best time to go to Provence

Provence is famous for its sunshine – which may be a blessing or a curse, depending on how active you want to be. May, June, September and October offer luscious warmth without the baking heat of midsummer; ideal for walking, cycling and city sightseeing. They’ll also be cheaper and less crowded than the peak moths of July and August, when tourists descend from across France and beyond. Landscapes shift by altitude and season, as the spring almond blossoms give way to vibrant lavender in summer.
Accommodation and tailor made vacations can be booked throughout the year, though it will be pretty chilly from November to February, with average daytime temperatures averaging 10-12°C (the coast may be slightly warmer). However, days will still be sunnier and much longer than in northern Europe, so if you fancy cosying up with bouillabaisse and a hearty bottle of red after a brisk day walking around the hills, you could do worse than plan a winter break in Provence.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Andrew Lawson] [Topbox: Karol Kaczorek] [Cycling (mountains): ADT 04] [Cycling (bridge): Andrea Schaffer] [Walking: Toni Barros] [Historic cities - Les Baux-de-Provence: Shadowgate] [Aix-en-Provence: Mircea] [Vaison-la-Romaine: jean-louis Zimmermann] [Bien manger & bien boire - Olives at market: Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble] [Bouillabaisse: Christopher Liang] [Wine tasting: James Abbott] [Best time to go: decar66] [Accommodation: decar68]