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 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 succession 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.
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-Rémyand 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.
In central Provence, it’s the landscapes rather than the towns that dominate. The gentle hills and tranquil villages of the Haut-Var make for happy exploration by car or bike, before the foothills of the Alps close in around the citadelle town of Sisteron and Dignes-les-Bains further east.
The most exceptional geographical feature is the Gorges du Verdon – Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon. So long as you have your own transport, good bases for exploring the majestic peaks, cliffs and lakes of this spectacular area include the small market town of Aups, south of the Gorges, and to the northeast, Castellane, a centre for sports and activities.
The breathtaking beauty and majesty of the Gorges du Verdon, also known as the Grand Canyon du Verdon, almost match its American counterpart, albeit on a much smaller scale. Peppered with spectacular viewpoints, plunging crevices up to 700m deep, and glorious azure-blue lakes, the area is absolutely irresistible; try not to leave Provence without spending at least a day here. The river falls from Rougon at the top of the gorge, disappearing into tunnels, decelerating for shallow, languid moments and finally exiting in full, steady flow at the Pont du Galetas,at the western end of the canyon. Alongside is the huge artificial Lac de Sainte-Croix, which is great for swimming when the water levels are high; otherwise the beach becomes a bit sludgy.
With so many hairpin bends and twisting, narrow roads, it takes a full, rather exhausting day to drive right round the Gorges. Many visitors choose instead to trace either its north or south rim. The entire circuit being 130km long, this is cycling country only for the preternaturally fit.
Local outfitters and guides offer activities including climbing, rafting, canoeing, canyoning, cycling and horseriding.
Depending on the season, the northeastern corner of Provence can be two different worlds. In winter, the sheep and shepherds find warmer pastures, leaving the snowy heights to horned mouflons, chamois and the perfectly camouflaged ermine. The villages where shepherds came to summer markets are battened down for the long, cold haul, while modern conglomerations of Swiss-style chalet houses, sports shops and nightclubs come to life around the ski lifts. The seasonal dichotomy is especially evident in towns like Colmars-les-Alpes and Barcelonnette.
The Alpes-Maritimes make up much of northeastern Provence, encompassing much of the magnificent Parc National du Mercantour, which runs south of Barcelonnette to the Italian border villages of Tende, Breil-sur-Roya and Sospel.
The first recorded visitor to stumble on the Vallée des Merveilles, a fifteenth-century traveller who had lost his way, described it as “an infernal place with figures of the devil and thousands of demons scratched on the rocks”. That’s a pretty accurate description, except that some of the carvings are of animals, tools, people working and mysterious symbols, dated to some time in the second millennium BC.
The valley is best approached from ST-DALMAS-DE-TENDE, 4km south of Tende. The easiest route is the 10km hike (6–8hr there and back) that starts at Les Mesches Refuge, 8km west on the D91. The engravings are beyond the Refuge des Merveilles. Note that certain areas are out of bounds unless accompanied by an official guide – and remember that blue skies and sun can quickly turn into violent hailstorms and lightning, so go prepared, properly shod and clothed, and take your own food and water. For details of guided walks, contact Tende’s tourist office.
The Parc National du Mercantour is a long, narrow band of mountains, near the Italian border, that runs for 75km from south of Barcelonnette to Sospel, 16km north of the Mediterreanean. A haven for wildlife, it holds colonies of chamois, mouflon, ibex and marmots, breeding pairs of golden eagles and other rare birds of prey, great spotted woodpeckers and hoopoes, blackcocks and ptarmigan. Grey wolves, which disappeared in the 1930s, have also started to venture in again from neighbouring Italy. The flora too is special, with unique species of lilies, orchids and Alpine plants, including the rare multi-flowering saxifrage.
Numerous paths cross the park, including the GR5 and GR52, with refuge huts providing basic food and bedding for hikers. The Maisons du Parc in Barcelonnette, St-Étienne-de-Tinée and St-Martin-Vésubie can provide maps and accommodation details as well as advice on footpaths and weather conditions; see also mercantour.eu. Camping, lighting fires, picking flowers, playing radios or disturbing the delicate environment is strictly outlawed.
The thickly forested Roya valley runs from Col de Tende on the French–Italian border down to Breil-sur-Roya. The roads that follow the river are narrow and steep, so driving is usually slow. In the upper valley, the highlight is the Vallée des Merveilles, a jumble of lakes and tumbled rocks on the western flank of Mont Bego. Down in the lower valley, don’t miss the sleepy Italianate town of Sospel.
The appetizing cuisine of Provence bursts with Mediterranean influences. Olives are a defining ingredient, whether in sauces and salads, tarts and pizzas; mixed with capers in tapenade; 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, stuffed with pistou or tomato sauce (fleurs de courgettes farcies), are an exquisite 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 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 Luberon appellations. With the exception of the Côteaux des Baux around Les Baux, and the Côtes de Provence in the Var, the best wines of southern Provence come from along the coast.