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Did You Know … ?
- Medieval popes planted the Chateauneuf-du-Pape vineyards.
- Van Gogh was in Arles when he lost an ear, whether intentionally or by accident.
- The Val d’Enfer (Valley of Hell) was reputedly the inspiration for the setting of Dante’s “Inferno.”
- Artist Paul Cezanne was born in Aix-en-Provence (1839); novelist Emile Zola was a boyhood chum.
- Denim originated in Nimes where it was first called de Nimes.
Beyond the Riviera
Truffles. Cezanne. Lavender fields. Roman theaters. White horses in the Camargue. Saffron. Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines. Narrow cobblestone streets. Van Gogh. The Palace of the Popes. Fruit and vegetable markets. The Mistral.
Mention the French area Provence and many images come to mind. Most of them are motivators for a holiday visit, all except the Mistral, a sharp winter wind that blows out of the north. In other words, winter is not the season to visit. Summer can be hot and crowded with tourists; spring and fall are the best times to visit this area in southern France.
Provence is an area that mostly sits just north of the Riviera but touches the Mediterranean at a few points. Not all sources offer precisely the same perimeters, but at the western edge, Provence does encompass the Camargue, a nature preserve located where the Rhone empties into the Med. It is famed for its white horses, for one thing. Provencal cities north of that include Arles, Avignon, Nimes and Orange.
To the east, the biggest city is Aix-en-Provence, and some sources include Marseille on the Med as part of Provence. Moving farther east, the terrain is more rugged, including the Gorges du Verdon, called France’s Grand Canyon, and smaller towns.
In fact, small towns and villages are found throughout the area, some perched dramatically on hillsides, many with medieval city centers. The Romans made their mark, too, leaving behind impressive theaters, bridges and other mementoes.
Cezanne was born in Provence, but the region attracted other artists, notably but not limited to Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, because of the colors and lighting. Picasso loved Arles and gifted the city with 57 of his drawings.
Finally, and perhaps most famously, there is the food. An area that produces olive oil, saffron, truffles and all sorts of fruits and vegetables is a foodie’s paradise.
Besides, a countryside of undulating hills that bloom with lavender is simply lovely to look at. It is no wonder Provence rates highly with travelers.
Things to do for Venturers
- Explore the interior of the Camargue, a regional nature park, on horseback.
- Climb to the summit of the 6,000-foot Mont Ventoux. Or cycle to the top as do the participants in the Tour de France.
- Come to Stes.-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue in May for the annual Gypsy festival honoring St. Sarah, the Gypsies’ patron saint. Pilgrims flock to town, making for a very colorful affair.
- Hike in the Val d’Enfer, Valley of Hell, and explore the ruined citadel of Les Baux, which overlooks it.
- From Point Sublime overlooking the Gorges du Verdon, hike down 590 feet to the bottom of the gorge.
- Or, go whitewater rafting in the gorge where the water rushes, or kayak where the water becomes smoother.
Things to do for Centrics
- Stay at a ranch in the Camargue that has been converted into a hotel. Also, buy a Provencal cowboy shirt in Stes.-Maries-de-la-Mer.
- Attend the summertime music and drama festival at Avignon. Tour the medieval Palace of the Popes, too.
- Brave a drive on narrow roads for a look down into the dramatic 12-mile Gorges du Verdon, called the French version of the Grand Canyon.
- Sample local specialties including tapenade (an olive-and-herb paste), bouillabaisse (a fish and shellfish soup), marcassin (young wild boar) and panade (fruit tart). Then, drink Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines while in the region where they originated.
- Plan a themed journey built around the Roman Empire, starting with the well-preserved theater in Orange, also the theaters in Arles and Nimes. See additional Roman ruins there and in the smaller towns of Vaison la Romaine and Uzes, both noted for Roman bridges. Uzes’ Pont du Gard is considered France’s best-preserved Roman ruin.
- Bring your gear and paint where some of the greats — Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh — painted masterpieces.
Things to do for Authentics
- Attend the Lyrical Art Festival, an opera fest held in July in Aix-en-Provence. Or make that the theater festival in Avignon, also in July.
- Put Uzes on your itinerary for the beauty of its renaissance architecture and for a festival or two. The small town hosts music, dance, comic strip and short-story events.
- Spend time in picturesque hilltop villages such as Bonnieux or Gordes.
- Attend theater or hear a concert in a Roman theater in Arles or Orange.
- Get to the Saturday market in the historic center of Aix-en-Provence. Or shop at food markets in other Provencal towns when you find them, then go on a picnic. Sometime in autumn through December, buy truffles. Buy locally grown saffron and local olive oil to take home.
- Follow the footsteps of artist Paul Cezanne in Aix-en-Province and wind up at the Atelier Paul Cezanne, recreated to look as it might have when he worked there. The city also promotes a Vincent Van Gogh walking tour.
For more information, consult Atout France-France Tourism Development Agency at http://us.rendezvousenfrance.com