Arguably the most irresistible region in France, Provence 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; and great cities like Arles, Aix and Avignon are full of cultural glories. The sensual inducements of Provence include sunshine, food and wine, and the heady perfumes of Mediterranean vegetation. Small wonder it has for so long attracted the rich and famous, the artistic and reclusive, and ever-growing throngs of summer visitors.
The Mediterranean shoreline of Provence is covered separately in our Côte d’Azur chapter. Away from the coastal resorts, inland Provence remains remarkably unscathed. Evidence of its many inhabitants – Greeks, Romans, raiding Saracens, schismatic popes, and an endless succssion of competing counts and princes – remains everywhere apparent. Provence only became fully integrated into France in the nineteenth century and, though just a tiny minority speak the Provençal language, the accent is distinctive even to a foreign ear. In the east, the rhythms of speech become clearly Italian.
Unless you have months to expore, the main difficulty in visiting Provence is choosing where to go. In the west, along the Rhône valley, are the Roman cities of Orange, Vaison-la-Romaine and Arles, and the papal city of Avignon, with its fantastic summer festival. Aix-en-Provence, the mini-Paris of the region, was home to Cézanne, for whom the Mont Ste-Victoire was an enduring subject, while Van Gogh is forever linked with St-Rémy and Arles. The Gorges du Verdon, the Parc National du Mercantour along the Italian border, Mont Ventoux northeast of Carpentras, and the flamingo-filled lagoons of the Camargue offer stunning and widely disparate landscapes.Read More
Provençal food and drink
Provençal food and drink
The appetizing cuisine of Provence bursts with Mediterranean influences. Olives are a defining ingredient, whether appearing in sauces and salads, tarts and pizzas; mixed with capers in tapenade paste, and spread on bread or biscuits; or simply accompanying the traditional Provençal aperitif of pastis. Another Provençal classic, garlic, is used in pistou, a paste of olive oil, garlic and basil, and aïoli, the name for both a garlic mayonnaise and the dish in which it’s served with salt cod.
Vegetables – tomatoes, capsicum, aubergines, courgettes and onions – are often made into ratatouille, while courgette flowers (fleurs de courgettes farcies), stuffed with pistou or tomato sauce, are an exquisite local delicacy.
Sheep, taken up to the mountains in summer, provide the staple meat; you’ll find the finest, agneau de Sisteron, roasted with Provençal herbs as gigot d’agneau aux herbes. Fish is especially prominent on traditional menus, with freshwater trout, salt cod, anchovies, sea bream, monkfish, sea bass and whiting all common, along with wonderful seafood such as clams, periwinkles, sea urchins and oysters.
Sweets include almond calissons from Aix and candied fruit from Apt, while the fruit – melons, white peaches, apricots, figs, cherries and Muscat grapes – is unbeatable. Cheeses, such as Banon, wrapped in chestnut leaves and marinated in brandy, and the aromatic Picadon, from the foothills of the Alps, are invariably made from goat’s or ewe’s milk.
The best wines come from around the Dentelles, notably Gigondas, and from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. To the east are the light, drinkable, but not particularly special wines of the Côtes du Ventoux and the Côtes du Lubéron appellations. With the exception of the Côteaux des Baux around Les Baux, and the Côtes de Provence in the Var département, the best wines of southern Provence come from along the coast.